Dummies Guide to Common SEO Mistakes

February 7, 2014

SEO has many common hiccups. Whether you make these SEO mistakes from miss-information or lack of education, this is a complete guide to educate you on what you should be doing. I’ve kept it updated with new frequent mistakes that crop up.

Go through the following list of common SEO mistakes like a checklist to see how you can get more organic traffic to your website:

1) Using rankings as the measure of SEO success

Rankings do nothing other than to boost your ego. If you rank high, does that mean you get traffic? If you get traffic, does that mean you get sales?

You should instead use four metrics that are Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) of good SEO:

  • Organic traffic – Rankings are useful once they start bringing in traffic. You can rank #1 for many terms yet receive no visitors. Compare that to ranking #20 for a popular term and getting a sale from it everyday because your prospective customers frequently use the search query.
  • Organic leads – If you have a blog prospects sign up to, a free trial of a product, or another lead generator like a web contact form, track where your leads come from. Each keyword consists of a market. Track which keywords get you leads to optimize your site around those keywords.
  • Organic revenue – If you have an ecommerce store, you have no excuse to not track revenue from organic search. It’s simple to setup through Google Analytics. Other software services take a little more effort to setup using goals, but it’s relatively easy and important. See my Shopify and Google Analytics guide to get your Shopify store setup to track revenue.
  • Multi-channel revenue contribution – If someone discovers your company through organic search, signs up to your newsletter, then later buys from you, track the organic contribution to the sale rather than attributing it purely to the newsletter. Organic search in this case should be acknowledged as a contributor to the bottom line. In Google Analytics, look for “Assisted Conversions” under the “Conversions” tab.

With these four KPIs of SEO, you’re ready to do SEO well and avoid other common mistakes.

2) Bad keywords

Your customer doesn’t speak jargon you are accustomed to. When you speak with customers and read their emails, notice their words. This is an older marketing technique to understand a target market.

Though your product is a “electronic nicotine delivery system”, your customer may call them an “electronic cig”. You want to use your customer’s words to help you rank for those words (and to boost conversions through rapport).

With your knowledge of customer language, search these words in the Keyword Planner tool for further ideas and to understand search volume.

3) Unoptimized title tags

A title tag is a line of HTML in the header tag of a page:

<title>This Is A Page Title</title>

It commonly displays in the browser tab when visiting the page and as blue text in Google search results:

Examples of title tags

Title tags are the second biggest influence of on-page SEO following good content. Best practices of title tags include:

  • Relevancy. Write descriptive, keyword-rich titles readable by people
  • Have your major keywords at the front of the title tag
  • A length between 50 and 60 characters
  • Lean towards benefits and emotions in the title to entice people to visit

4) No meta description

A meta description is a summary of a webpage that displays in search results. You can define a page’s meta description with the following code in the header tag of a page:

<meta name="description" content="Here is a description of a page. The text here will show in Google." />

Examples of meta descriptions are in the screenshot below:

Examples of a meta description

If you provide no meta description, which is the common SEO mistake, Google automatically provides its own summary based on the searched keywords. This is a problem because you miss the chance to craft your own words to get a higher click-through rate.

5) Unfriendly URLs

They are hard to understand, ugly, or big. Here are examples of unfriendly URLs:

  • http://www.example.com/index.php?option=com_content=2&copy=1taskview&id+312&ltemid=43
  • http://www.example.com/a/b/c/d/e/f/article1
  • http://www.example.com/title-of-an-article-that-goes-on-forever-like-a-bad-movie-that-never-ends

Avoid those unfriendly URLs with these simple rules for friendly URLs:

  1. Keep them short
  2. Make them descriptive of the page
  3. Avoid deep URL structures. These include a lot of forward slashes
  4. Avoid query strings. These are variables that contain the ampersand symbol “&”
  5. Use hyphens (a good webmaster practice) rather than underscores
  6. Logical and structured. For example, articles are in an article folder and products are in their product category

6) 404 errors

If you went to fix the prior SEO mistake of unfriendly URLs, you likely made this mistake of 404 errors! A 404 error is webmaster language for a page that does not exist. Non-existing pages create a bad user experience.

A simple way to check for 404 errors is to signup or log into Google Webmaster Tools. Click “Crawl” then “Crawl Errors”. You’ll see a dashboard like below:

A near-perfect 404-free report on a client's website (click to enlarge).

A near-perfect 404-free report on a client’s website (click to enlarge).

I want to correct the “Not Found” errors. Go through each error then see where the link is coming from. Correct, or ask for, the link to be corrected. If the page should exist, use a 301 redirect through .htaccess to the existing page or create the page.

404 errors can produce from spammy websites linking to unexisting content. Ignore these errors as there’s nothing you can do other than redirect the URL.

7) No engaging information

You don’t need a blog. And if you do, contrary to what a lot of SEOs tell, you don’t need to be writing every week in an effort to please Google. It does help though.

A simple 10-page website common for lawyers, accountants, and plumbers can be fine if content on the site is unique to the business and solves the visitor’s problem. I know a lot of these businesses hate the thought of having to regularly write to teach their profession rather than just deliver a service.

No engaging information is a bad for your conversions and a problem when Google staff visit the site. Google do thousands of manual reviews each week where a real person runs through a checklist to see if a site should pass or be punished in rankings.

Visit your site now then read over it pretending you’re a visitor. Ask, “Am I learning something? Do I get the information I need? Have I never read information similar to this on other websites?” If you said yes, yes, and yes, well done. If you said no once, rework the website. The common ecommerce SEO mistake here is using the manufacturer’s description.

8) Unfriendly mobile website

How does your website look on a mobile phone or tablet device? Check now if you’re unsure.

Did you know if the site is hard to read or takes a long-time to load on these devices, you will rank lower in Google when someone searches Google on their mobile device? An unfriendly mobile website is a bad user experience.

I suggest you get a responsive design rather than create a mobile-specific website. The content adjusts based on screen size:

Gumtree's mobile responsive web design

Gumtree’s mobile responsive web design

Responsive pages are a web design best practice. A responsive design is easier to manage as you update only one site.

9) Excessive internal linking

The most common area this occurs is in the footer. Avoid keyword-rich mass links in the footer. I’ve seen sites recover rankings when they reduce their excessive internal links.

If you’re unsure a link should be there, ask yourself, “Does this help the user or is it for SEO?” This question is a great rule of thumb for internal linking.

10) Over-optimizing links with keyword-rich text

Over-optimization became a serious SEO problem for many in 2012 with the Penguin and Panda updates to Google. Keyword-rich text means you have a lot of links pointing to your site that are similar and disproportionately unbranded. If you sell clothes and all your links have text like “buy clothes online” or “clothing for men”, it’s doing your SEO more damage than good.

How do you know if you’re making this mistake? Search your site in OpenSiteExplorer.org then click the “Anchor Text” tab. A sample of EziBuy.com.au is below (click to enlarge):

EziBuy.com.au Open Site Explorer anchor text

Here we see four of the top five anchor text terms contain their brand. This is excellent and natural to Google. You want a minimum 40% of links to have anchor text with your personal name, your company, your website URL, or product names made by the company. These are all branded terms in SEO and fight against over-optimization.

11) Buying Links

In 2012 you could pay website owners $50 for a good link to boost your rankings. Now it is a dangerous SEO method we suggest you avoid. Google says buying links is a problem when PageRank is passed to the site linked to:

(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.https://support.google.com/webmasters/answer/66356?hl=en

What is a paid link, as you can imagine, is not easy to judge. I’ve seen mentions of “Sponsors” above links trigger a drop in rankings. It’s safest to avoid buying links. If you must buy links, ask rel=”nofollow” be used in your paid links and check other links on the page are to good websites.

12) Hiring bad SEO staff or a bad SEO company

There is a lot bad SEO out there due to the ever-changing field and lack of regulation. If you pay for links, outsource to a cheap overseas company, hire an untrained intern, or try to save a buck, you often pay for it with penalties and frustration. You can bury yourself in search results by getting the site banned from Google.

Use these 5 questions to ask your SEO provider to help figure out if they should do your SEO. Also play an active role in monitoring results by tracking SEO KPIs mentioned at the start of this guide.

13) Dependance on SEO

I never do and never advise you to depend on SEO for traffic to your website. The Internet is an enormous place where people look for products, services, and information in various ways. A good digital marketing strategy will do more than SEO to fortify your business for the future with sales through diversification.

About Joshua Uebergang

Joshua Uebergang is founder and Head of Strategy at Digital Darts. He helps Shopify stores get more of the right visitors and convert them into sales. At 6'9", yes, he plays basketball. Get extra tips and tricks from him to build your ecommerce store by entering your email below.

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