With Google rolling out yet another algorithm update last month — Penguin 2.1 — the message to site owners is clear:
Play by the rules or you will get penalized.
What’s not so clear, however, is exactly what these rules are (or how to abide by them). Sure, Google has a list of thorough Webmaster Guidelines that are worth a read. Unfortunately, Google is purposely vague about the nuts and bolts of the rules to keep spammers at bay. These murky guidelines can make it difficult to optimize your site without going too far.
Fortunately, Google tends to penalize sites that push the boundaries of SEO. As long as you avoid these 5 common SEO mistakes, you’ll be able to boost your search engine visibility without having to lose sleep over Google’s next update.
#1: Over-Optimized SEO
The original Google Penguin update targeted so-called “Over-optimized” sites. And today’s generation of Google updates target the same type of overly-aggressive SEO.
How do you know if your site is over-optimized?
Keep an eye out for these common SEO issues that Google uses to identify sites that have crossed the line:
- Stuffing keywords in title tags: Despite this tactic becoming less and less effective — and potentially dangerous — many small business owners doing DIY SEO still tend to include 5-10 keywords in their title tags. You’ll get more search engine traffic and reduce the chance of a penalty by optimizing each page on your site around 1-2 keywords.
- High keyword density: Older, less sophisticated search engine algorithms used to weigh keyword density — the percentage of text on a page made up of a single keyword — as a large part of their algorithm. No more. You only need to include your keyword a 2-3 times on your page for Google to understand what your page is all about.
- Over-optimized anchor text: Anchor text — the words that are used inside of a link — helps Google figure out what the page receiving that link is all about. But it’s a ranking signal that many have abused. Today, Google uses anchor text as a way of identifying sites that are gaming the algorithm. That’s why it’s smart to use mostly brand name anchor text when linking to your site. For example, if you run a pool cleaning service, you’d link to your homepage with anchor text, “Joe’s Pool Center”, not “Pool Cleaning Orlando Florida”.
#2: Irrelevant Backlinks
In the old days of SEO, building thousands of backlinks to your site would rocket you to the top of Google’s first page.
Today’s algorithm scrutinizes each and every link pointing to your site under a virtual microscope. If you have a link profile that looks fishy, you’re at risk of a penalty.
One of the primary ways that Google distinguishes between natural and unnatural links is by analyzing the relevancy of the sites that link to you. For example, if you own a site that sells digital cameras, you’d expect for most of your backlinks to come from other sites about cameras, electronics and photography. That’s typically not the case with sites that perform black hat link building.
Make sure that you’re getting most of your backlinks from high-quality, relevant sites whenever possible. While it’s perfectly normal to have a few oddball links pointing to your site, a large chunk of irrelevant links is a recipe for disaster.
#3: Overuse of Press Releases and Guest Posting
Google recently updated their definition of “link schemes” — link building strategies that manipulate the algorithm — to include “guest posting campaigns with keyword-rich anchor text links” and “Links with optimized anchor text in articles or press releases distributed on other sites.”
Bottom line: use press release and guest post link building with extreme caution. Although these two strategies can land you some targeted traffic, they should be used sparingly for SEO.
To stay on the safe side, use branded or “raw URL” anchor text in you press releases. Instead of starting your press release off with: “Jane’s Cupcake Shop announces that customers can now order cupcakes online“, include the more natural “Jane’s Cupcake Shop announces that customers can now order cupcakes online”.
It’s the same story with guest posts. Publish your guest posts on relevant, authoritative sites in your industry. When you link back to your site from the guest post, use brand name anchor text.
More importantly, look beyond these two overused strategies. There are dozens of effective link building techniques out there that are less risky than guest posts or press releases.
#4: Thin or Duplicate Content
Google’s Panda update targets sites with significant amounts of thin or duplicate content. Although the update first rolled out in 2011, it’s an update that continues to affect thousands of site owners every year.
How can you prevent Panda from hitting your site?
Your first step is a top-to-bottom site audit. Look for pages on your site with similar or duplicate content (archive, category and tag pages are good places to start looking). Also, keep an eye out for content that might be thin or add little value to the web, like 100-word blog posts or short product descriptions.
Finally, search for any title tags on your site that overlap. For example, you don’t want two separate pages on your site with the title tag “Jane’s Chocolate Cupcakes for Sale”.
When you find pages on your site that fit the bill, either bulk them up with high-quality content, write unique title tags, or — if they don’t serve a purpose for your visitors — simply delete them.
#5: Targeting the Wrong Keywords
Keywords are the foundation of any SEO campaign. You can have all the content and backlinks in the world — but if you aren’t targeting keywords that potential customers are searching for — you’re not going to get the search engine traffic you deserve.
For example, let’s say you run a site that sells organic dog food. You might reflexively optimize your homepage around a keyword like “organic dog food”. However, that may not be how potential customers search for what you sell. They may type things like “healthy dog food” or “pesticide fee dog food” into Google’s search box.
You can easily find out what potential customers actually search for by using the Google Keyword Planner tool that’s integrated into Google Adwords.
Simply plug in some of the keywords that you’re currently going after. The tool will show you synonyms and variations of those keywords, along with their monthly search volume. If you find keywords that get significantly more searches — and are a good fit for your business — you may want to consider swapping them with some of the keywords that you’re currently targeting.
If you’re looking to give your search engine visibility a shot in the arm, start by correcting these 5 mistakes. It may take some time and energy to implement these approaches into your SEO campaigns, but the long-term ROI you get from a well-executed SEO like this is tough to beat.
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