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Eliminate these SEO mistakes before your strategy gets you in trouble.

A lot of people are frustrated with SEO, which is why Matt blogged yesterday about SEO tools to help cut through some of the confusion. I regularly see various online marketers try to allay this fear by assuring their audiences that it’s not so bad: SEO is easy! Stop worrying! Just follow these billion rules, learn this code, and by all means don’t do that one thing or else Google will block your site permanently and your rankings will plummet and you’ll go out of business. But other than all that, SEO is easy!

Heck, I might have even said so myself, once upon a time. Right before learning some new piece of information that blew half my strategy out of the water. The truth is, SEO is slippery. Not easy, or hard, just a bit tricky to grasp. Every time Google updates its algorithm, things change a bit, and what you thought you knew proves to be out of date. This is why it’s so critical to keep your skills sharp, to keep learning, and never sit back on your laurels thinking you’ve mastered it for good.

If you’re new to the subject, or if you’re simply behind on SEO best practices, check to see if you’re making these common SEO mistakes.

1. Misunderstanding meta descriptions.

Meta descriptions are important, but they do not have a direct influence on your SEO. Google doesn’t include your meta descriptions as a ranking factor. However, you should still take care to set a meta description that accurately describes your page content. This is because your meta description is what Google displays underneath its search results. People use this text to help evaluate whether to click on a result. This means you can use the text to sell your potential visitors on your page. Google will highlight (or bold) any text in your meta description that matches the search phrase, so do include your keyword, as well as a quick call to action.

2. Neglecting keywords.

One of the core values of keyword research is to ensure you’re optimizing for terms people actually search. So, for instance, in my profession, I am known as a “copywriter,” not a “word smith.” True, we often talk about “word smithing” to describe ourselves in a poetic sort of way, but no one gets online and searches for “professional word smithing services.” (I know, because I checked.) This is an area where being creative with your descriptions could actually damage your rankings. Don’t obscure what you do by giving it a fancy title that no one knows to look for.

3. Using irrelevant keywords.

Similarly, don’t optimizing for irrelevant keywords. There’s really no point in wasting a lot of time and effort trying to draw people to your site if you’re not offering the thing they came to you for. An example: maybe you and your competitor offer similar services, but they offer one or two that you don’t. You decide to try to out-rank your competitor for those keywords to draw traffic away from their site. Maybe you offer something that’s very close to what your competitor does, and you’re hoping that once people come and see it they’ll be convinced that your product is the one they want. Or maybe you’re just super focused on the amount of traffic you bring in, and you’re not paying any attention to your bounce rate or your conversion rate.

No matter what way you cut it, this is going to do damage to your SEO sooner or later. Visitors will click on your site expecting to find one thing, and leave disappointed. Google will notice, and they’ll push you down in the rankings. And at the end of the day, you’ll have wasted a lot of time trying to rank for keywords that have nothing to do with your business. Get your keywords right, and make sure they’re relevant to your content and your business strategy.

4. Keyword stuffing.

This has been out of date for years, yet there are still some people who haven’t gotten the memo. In the very early days of online search, keywords used to be one of the key ranking factors for many search engines. It seems almost naïve to think about now, but the idea was that if a particular page mentioned a specific word or phrase a lot, then that must be what that page was about.

Well, yes, maybe. But as soon as people realized this was how the algorithm worked, they began stuffing their page full of keywords to such an extent that the pages themselves became unreadable junk. It destroyed the user experience, and was all-around a bad thing.

Obviously, keywords are important, and you want to use them on your site. But you should only use them when and where they feel natural in the copy. If someone is paying attention, they will probably be able to read your page and know what keyword you’re using—and that’s a good thing, because it lets them know they’ve come to the right place. But it shouldn’t be jarringly obvious. Use your keyword a few times, and also try a few variations to catch a broader audience. But don’t cram it in where it doesn’t belong.

5. Bad links.

Bad links come in a number of flavors: broken links, paid links, spam links, links from unreliable sources, etc. All of them are bad to varying degrees, and you should do your best to limit the damage they can do to your site.

Broken links happen naturally, but you should still keep an eye out for them and fix them as soon as you spot them. It could be you linked to a website that later took down that particular page. Or maybe you linked to one of your own pages, but later noticed a typo in the URL, updated it, and forgot to check for places where you’d linked to that page under its old URL elsewhere on your site. However they happened, take the time to update them when you see them. This will help keep your user experience intact.

The other kinds of links I mentioned are forms of black hat SEO, and can get you in tons of trouble if Google catches you. You shouldn’t pay people to put your link on their site, but this can happen if you’re doing something like running an advertisement there. In this instance, protect yourself by making it a no-follow link.

As for spam links, this was an old tactic that unfortunately is still used by disreputable SEO companies today. These are when a particular site goes around and leaves spam comments on blog posts or forums to try to build the backlink profile. When Google caught on to this tactic, it responded by applying severe penalties to sites that employed such link building strategies. If you use this tactic, stop immediately and go clean up as many of those links as possible.

6. Poor anchor text.

Anchor text is the text that appears in a hyperlink. It’s common to see people using phrases such as “click here” as their anchor text, but unfortunately, this is a missed SEO opportunity. Google pays closer attention to the word and phrases used in the anchor text, so try to use ones that are relevant to the link itself. Or, if you must use a call to action, include a few other phrases as well. For example, if you were linking to this article, you could use the phrase “avoid these SEO mistakes” or “read this article to learn about SEO mistakes to avoid.” Both of these are better than the nondescript “read more here.”

7. Bad content.

While this is more tangible than some of the others, it still has an impact on your SEO. If your content is short and fluffy, incomplete, poorly-written, or full of typos, it’s likely to provide your users with a poor experience. And as always happens when sites have a bad UX, visitors respond by walking away. They won’t link back to you, they won’t share your posts on social media, and none of that content will build your organic search results. So keep your visitors happy with high-quality content, optimize it to ensure it reaches the right audience, and check in with your analytics to see how it performs.

Protect your reputation.

Your rankings on Google have a lot to do with your online reputation. Google wants to keep you honest, and they do so by looking at how you create your content, and how visitors react to your site once they’ve landed on it. Many of the common SEO mistakes we discussed have to do with poor optimization or a misunderstanding of the tools at your disposal. Others are about ways in which you could be misleading your visitors or providing a poor user experience. All of these will damage your online reputation, which will lead to bad search engine results. When you do your due diligence and avoid these SEO mistakes, your users will respond and Google will reward you.

Published 03/21/17 by Laura Lynch