How SEO can screw up your…

Some Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics can give you a marginal boost in rankings, but hurt you on a net basis.

The main culprit is usually an overweening preoccupation with on-page keyword optimization, but link-building can hurt too.

This article is not about black-hat SEO practices, which are covered in plenty of detail elsewhere. Instead, we’ll look at “good” SEO practices when they’re overdone.

Let’s see what gets hurt.

Muddied Product Positioning
Pretend you sell software to corporate accountants. Corporate accounting software is obviously your #1 target phrase, but you naturally care about capturing related searches. So your SEO advisor says, “hey, let’s target some other key phrases too.” Next thing you know, they’ve added pages on your site titled Corporate Controller Software and Shareholder Accounting Softwareand Corporate Asset Management Software, in part since those are phrases that the keyword suggestion tools returned. And then the SEO advisor includes links to those pages within your left-hand navigation, because that helps the new pages rank higher. Your problem reveals itself when a prospect visits your site, and sees all those links. Prospect then thinks, “well, this company’s product does a whole lot of different things!” And that may not be the market positioning you want.

Underperforming Website Copy
There is an allegedly optimal level of “keyword density” that makes a given page rank well. For example, if you have “organic tea” occurring six times on the page, that’s better than two occurrences. Visitors read differently than search engine spiders, however, and they still respond to effective copy. Stuffing pages with key phrases, then, may reduce the conversion power of a page. So your tradeoff is higher traffic versus page effectiveness. Would you rather have a page that gets 100 natural search referrals and one conversion, or 30 referrals and two conversions? It’s possible to have both, but how are you going to get there? It’s much easier to test and change copy (and design) for improved conversion than to test keyword optimization. We think there is more upside with conversion-building efforts, and other SEO tactics. Landing pages for pay-per-click ads are a great place to test copy and design.

Cluttered Website Navigation
The left nav, footer, and site map page get heavy weight with search algorithms, since they are treated as pointers to a site’s most important pages. SEO advisors often will load the navigation with links to search-engine-friendly pages. This distracts people from your intended sales funnel. Excessive intrasite linking means people go in circles, and get frustrated. Repetition of keywords and phrases in links will lead to guesswork by the prospect: “Is the thing I want behind this link or that one?” Every site visitor has a finite number of clicks they’re willing to spend at your site – don’t make them click more than they have to.

Noise in Measurement
Your SEO scorecard should be visually simple, and focussing on the biggest business drivers. Don’t let it get cluttered with ranks of long-tail search terms in second-tier engines. Doing so obscures the high-value Google terms, which – like it or not – is where the money is. Track infrequent terms on a second worksheet if you must, and present an aggregate performance metric for the lot of them on the scorecard. Also, don’t track search terms which bring unqualified traffic.

Confusing Site Maintenance
This is a minor factor that can be avoided, but we’ll mention it anyway. Regular content changes to web pages is a healthy thing for SEO. For sites not built with a content management system, one byproduct of changing content is an accumulation of defunct and unlinked files on your webserver; the “retired” versions of live pages. You might even have new and old style sheets. Over time this can clutter up your webspace, to the point where it costs your webmaster time. You should have a system for saving old files (in case you need to revert back to them, or audit for troubleshooting purposes) that is clean and organized. Moving them to a hidden directory is one way. Giving them a unique extension like .defunct is another, since sorting by type gives the webmaster a method of visually ignoring the retired files.

Repetitive Blog Entry Titles
If you’ve got a business blog, resist the temptation to consistently pack your entry titles with keywords. Include keywords in the basenames instead, and save the keyphrases for your marquee blog content.

Meta Descriptions
Inside the top of your web page, there is usually a field for a description of the page. It looks like this:
<meta name=”description” content=”The leading purveyor of premium tea”>
Google often uses the copy after content= as the blurb under your listing in a search engine results page. This is a marketing opportunity, a chance to help position your product effectively before the click. Enthusiastic SEO advisors may instead see the META description field as a chance to further pack your page with more keywords. Yet doing so may mean a less-well-performing blurb, which means poorer conversion from the search results page.

Blackened Wikipedia Reputation
Even though a link from Wikipedia to your site hasn’t counted in the search algorithms since 2005, it’s still a potential source of inbound traffic. Don’t go adding links to your site within Wikipedia content, however, unless your content has the right patina of independence. Wikipedia editors are quite mindful of commercially motivated edits, and squash them with a Puritan zeal.