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The Biggest Misconception in SEO

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

What’s the biggest misconception in SEO?

Perhaps, it’s the belief that creating great content is the beginning and end of SEO.

Before you pull out the torches and pitchforks, let me say that without great content, you have no chance of ranking well over the long-term.

Content strategy works, and well-thought-out content can make a big difference in a site’s rankings.

Nevertheless, many SEO consultants will tell you to primarily focus on content, adjusting your title tags and meta descriptions, and possibly the design of your site.

Here’s where that philosophy falls short.

The Three Legs of the SEO Table

It takes three legs to make a table stand. And the three legs of your SEO platform are content, back links, and user experience. In the user experience bucket, I group everything like page speed, mobile-friendliness, site design, and site architecture. Design makes a difference in SEO, no doubt, but content and your back link profile make a bigger difference.

So where does the extreme emphasis on content come from?

My educated guess is it comes from two places: web consultants that are overly-cautious about link building, and smaller businesses that have been doing their own SEO for several years.

Let’s take a look at each of these.

Why Do People De-emphasize Link Building?

Back in the early 2000s, tactics like keyword stuffing, or creating multiple neighborhood pages (doorway pages) worked. Back in the golden age of the Web, if you repeated words on the page often enough, you would rank.

Since then, search engines have evolved and become more complex. Repetition or creating “thin content” pages doesn’t result in instantaneous traffic. Even creating blog posts once a week don’t mean you’ll get more traffic.

The problem is that everyone is creating content, and few people are creating useful information.

Hiring someone to create content is relatively easy, and it’s a tactic that has been exploited for several years. Getting inside the mind of your customer, and answering their questions through content takes actual insight. Here’s the problem, finding time to get your thoughts written down is a daunting task for many businesses.

Still, the SEO consultants keep telling you to “create content, and they will come“, so you end up either, 1) creating no content, or 2) hiring someone to create content, which may or may not be good, but at least you did it, right?

Why Do SEO Experts Push Content Creation So Hard?

There are many presumed truths that get repeated so often in digital marketing that they become “virtual facts”. Some of these “presumed truths” include:

  • Content creation is the only thing you need to do to rank. (It’s the most important factor, but not the only one.)
  • Aggressive link building will hurt your rankings. (It all depends on how you are building links.)
  • “Ugly” websites can’t rank (Sometimes they still do.)

Here’s what I can tell you from my own experiences:

  • You must create content, but not all of it will rank.
  • Just because you publish something, doesn’t mean people will come.
  • You must have a plan for promoting your content to get initial traffic.
  • Link building is necessary for ranking well, but you have to know which links to go after.
  • Generally, about 10% to 20% of the pages on your website will account for about 80% of your back links.

And, this last one is very important:

When you have a site with good content, that is easy to use, and you start building links in places where your customers are likely to click them, your search rankings usually start to go up.

Content is The Most Important Factor…of Many

Content is pushed as the “one SEO factor to rule them all”, because everyone in online marketing knows how to write content. It’s something they understand, and to marketers, it feels like the “right” way to do SEO.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore all the other pieces of the SEO puzzle, and still succeed.

Creating great content, without building back links, or making sure your site has great user experience, or building a brand, won’t get you what you want, all by by itself.

The truth is: many solo SEO consultants don’t want to get into link building, because it is something they know how to do for themselves, but are hesitant to do for their clients.

A Lot of Link Building Advice Is Impractical

Here is something I have a real gripe with. When I hear SEO consultants give advice like, “build relationships within your industry, and go on podcasts, and write guest posts to get back links”.

Are you serious?

That’s a strategy that works for someone well-versed in online marketing, but that advice doesn’t work as easily for the President of a manufacturing plant.

Most of the CEOs and company Presidents I talk to don’t have time to go on podcasts, or write posts for their own website. Even if they did, wouldn’t even know where to start with doing outreach. Most of you are too busy running your manufacturing shops to do this sort of activity.

The reality is, you need to hand off SEO to someone else, or it will never get done. Part of that is link building.

Link Building is Necessary, but Not Everyone Can Do It Right

So how do you get relevant links to your website?

Earlier, we said that many SEO consultants push the idea that aggressive link building is “black hat“, or against Google’s rules.

This is untrue, provided you are building links in a way that is part of your natural marketing plan, and not strictly done as a way to manipulate search rankings.

Google and Bing fully expect companies to be building their brand up: primarily through content and links.

Let me explain why building links to your website is so important to SEO.

When you get links from another site to your site, that is a like a “vote” for your site. If the site that is linking to you is closely related to your site, then that “vote” is weighted more heavily. (Example: a home improvement blog that links to a tool manufacturer.)

Building links is an entirely different skill set than creating designs or writing code, which is why many people shy away from doing it.

Like anything related to sales or marketing, a lot of link building comes down to establishing relationships, talking to people, and finding places where working together makes sense.

The links that will hurt your SEO are almost always the result of shortcuts to that philosophy.

Not All Links Are Created Equal

To be honest, a lot of lower-end SEO companies build links in a way that can hurt your SEO. Oftentimes these low-end SEO firms will have a quota of links that they need to build for you each month, as part of their “SEO package”. So, they will look for the easiest path possible to meeting their link quota.

Often, this means using tactics like blog comments, forum profiles, private blog networks (PBNs), fake free blogging profiles, and buying links on random articles.

Google sees these as low-quality links — which they are. The “voting power” of these links is usually disregarded, meaning they have no positive effect whatsoever on your rankings.

If you build links in an extremely manipulative fashion (trying to game the system), Google may assign your site a manual penalty. This means humans at Google, not a machine or the algorithm, noticed over-the-top spammy link patterns and penalized your site.

This is the only link building philosophy you should live by:

Would I build this link if search engines did not exist? Would I use this as a marketing or brand awareness strategy if Google disappeared forever?

If the answer is yes, then that is generally a “white hat” link. (This means it “plays by the rules” and is good to have).

The Confusion About White Hat Link Building

Another huge SEO misconception, that many digital marketers mistakenly believe, is that “all paid links are evil, and will hurt your rankings”.

My friends, Google built their entire company on selling paid links. What else would you call AdWords?

Paid links are not evil, but they need to make sense.

All Brands Are Built On Content

Look at the first page of search results for any search phrase, you’ll notice three things:

  • The top search results give people what they are looking for in a noticeable pattern: an answer to a question, the ability to buy a product, or something to educate or entertain them.
  • In commerce results, almost everything on Page One belongs to a recognizable brand.
  • Results on page one usually have the best content, most back links, or a combination of the two.

Google expects you to be building your brand, in a variety of ways. These methods include:

  • Content on your site
  • Social media content
  • PR and other positive press
  • Sponsoring events, conferences, and causes
  • Buying commercials on radio and TV
  • Advertising in magazines and publications
  • Billboards

You’ll notice that many of these activities are paid advertising. Do those activities build up a brand? Yes. Can Google measure the effect of each of these? Not always.

But when the number of people searching for your brand name goes up, then perhaps you’ve earned the right to be seen as a “brand”.

Types of Links You Should Be Looking For

Google can make assumptions about the links on a given page, based on the context and location, deciding whether the link is either a:

  • Natural (“editorial”) mention
  • Paid advertisement or sponsorship
  • Sponsored (paid) post or article

The best type of link to get is a link inside the main content of a page, that is completely natural.

However, search engines also know that you are trying to build up your business. It is logical that your company may use certain types of links as a means to generate leads and revenue.

What you want to avoid are obvious “link schemes”, which exist not to build up your brand, but to manipulate the search engine rankings in your favor.

What Google Means by Link Schemes

Google calls out specific behavior as examples of link schemes: tactics meant to pass link equity (aka ‘link juice’) from one site to another in exchange for money.

These are:

  • Buying and/or selling links that pass link equity in exchange for money, goods, or services.
  • Excessive link exchanges between two sites, exclusively to build up search rank.
  • Links with overly optimized anchor text (the words that are in the link, which can have an effect on SEO).
  • Large scale article marketing or guest posting with keyword-rich anchor text. (Anchor text is the words in the link).
  • Links to your site created by automated software or services.
  • Paid advertorials with links that page link equity.
  • Other low-quality, keyword rich sitewide links.
  • Hidden links (Example: black text on black background, or links hidden off-screen)

I’d like to focus on just the first bullet point, because I think it’s the one most people find confusing.

Here’s the word-for-word Google quote:

The following are examples of link schemes which can negatively impact a site’s ranking in search results:

“Buying or selling links that pass PageRank. This includes exchanging money for links, or posts that contain links; exchanging goods or services for links; or sending someone a “free” product in exchange for them writing about it and including a link.”

That sounds like it is telling people to never pay for links at all: not for advertising or anything else.

However, that’s not what this is saying.

What Google is saying is that paid advertising should not pass link equity. Therefore, nofollow links are what Google wants to see on paid ads.

Here’s more from their page on nofollow links:

Here are some cases in which you might want to consider using nofollow:

Paid links: A site’s ranking in Google search results is partly based on analysis of those sites that link to it. In order to prevent paid links from influencing search results and negatively impacting users, we urge webmasters use nofollow on such links. Search engine guidelines require machine-readable disclosure of paid links in the same way that consumers online and offline appreciate disclosure of paid relationships (for example, a full-page newspaper ad may be headed by the word “Advertisement”).

Google expects a mix of links: those that pass link equity, and nofollow links. Both of these should be part of your marketing mix.

Consider why this rule may exist. Without this rule, there is to keep larger brands from simply buying paid ads on every site on the web, and diverting the link equity back to their website. That would almost certainly keep smaller brands from ever ranking on the first page.

However, the amount of times a brand is mentioned on the Web, and the amount of brand awareness a company has can certainly play a part in how Google treats search results from that website.

What I take out of this, and what my experiences tell me is: you should be investing in brand awareness, through content, and links both follow and nofollow.

That brings me to the final point I’d like to make.

You Need Great Content to Build Links

90% of businesses miss the real reason why content is so important.

The less great content you have, the less likely you are to get great links.

Now you may find this shocking, but a lot of people simply copy-paste articles from large sites like Harvard Business Review and Entrepreneur and put them on their site like they wrote it themselves.

If content is the be-all, end-all of SEO, why doesn’t that ‘scraped’ content rank right up there with the original articles?

For one, Google usually knows where the original content first appeared.

But another reason is BRAND.

A site that is well-established as a trusted publisher on given subject, usually has a multitude of links coming into their website. This is part of how they rose to the top of the search results in the first place.

In other words, it is unlikely that you can take original content from an established source, republish it on your website, and rank as well as they did. Not without original material, not without links, not without a track record of being a brand around a given subject.

However, if you dedicate your marketing efforts towards creating original, useful, entertaining content for your customers, then links become easier to get.

The higher you rise in the search results, the more people are likely to find your page and link to it as resource. It becomes a snowball effect.

Content and links go hand in hand. They are two sides of the same equation.

Summarizing Thoughts

Boosting your SEO is a multi-faceted job. You must have everything in place: content, user experience, and a robust back link profile.

It’s unlikely that search engines will ever fully do away with back links as part of their search algorithms. Though un-linked brand mentions are often talked about as part of the ranking formula, hyperlinks that pass page equity remain a powerful and necessary part of SEO.

As always, seek to do the things that are difficult when it comes to SEO, not only the things that are easy.

Avatar for John Locke

John Locke is a SEO consultant from Sacramento, CA. He helps manufacturing businesses rank higher through his web agency, Lockedown SEO.

3 comments on “The Biggest Misconception in SEO

  1. Another great article John! All good stuff as usual. Thanks for your insight.

    Off topic question for you, what are your thoughts on “lsi keywords” ?

    I look forward to your next post.

    1. Hi Jeff:

      Great question. For those in the audience that might be reading this, that don’t understand what you mean by LSI keywords, that stands for latent semantic indexing.

      In the context that many people use this term, it means words that are closely associated with the main keyword phrase.

      Here’s my thoughts.

      If you are trying to rank for Keyword Phrase 1, and you look at the top page of search results, and notice these patterns:

      • 10 of the 10 pages contain Phrase 2
      • 8 of the 10 pages contain the word Keyword 3
      • 7 of the 10 pages mention Idea 4
      • 5 of the 10 pages have the words Keyword Phrase 5

      …then you can be sure I will try and fit those four phrases/ideas into my page as well.

      Some people believe that Wikipedia articles (specifically the words that are linked to other Wikipedia articles) may be a good place to start looking when you are trying to figure out what LSI keywords you should put in a page for a given keyword.

      The way that most people believe RankBrain works is it measure the distance and frequency between words. So if you have the word dog, other words that may be mentioned in close proximity would be collar, bone, food, training, walker, obedience, etc.

      By seeing what words are present on a page, it gives context to the rest of the page.

      Ultimately, you are looking for commonalities and patterns, because the ranking algorithm is also looking for commonalities to give it clues.

      – John

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