By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Paloma Gomez.
In the film The Internet’s Own Boy, the prodigal, ill-fated Aaron Swartz remarks to an interviewer that the invention of the internet gave everyone a voice. The question now, he said, is whose voice will be heard.
If you are one of the people trying to assert your opinions in the great cyber wilderness, be they editorial, business, brand, or otherwise, you know the term Search Engine Optimization (SEO). And if you don’t, you should.
Good SEO practices lead to a high page ranking, which means that out of all the content that could be pulled up when a user searches a specific subject, yours is featured in the top results. Search engines determine your rank via algorithms that measure the number and quality of other websites that link to your page. The idea is that, naturally, the most relevant sites will have the most amount of links to them, and will thus receive a high page rank.
If you attempt to artificially boost your ranking, you will incur the wrath of the search engine gods (for the purposes of this article, we are talking about Google’s search engine, but others work similarly).
That wrath is called Google penalties. They are bad. They can wipe out the visibility of your website entirely. For example, in 2006 Google dropped the page rank of BMW’s German website to 0 by resetting their system so that even when a user searched for words directly related to BMW’s content they would pull up no direct links to the company’s page. Google issued a statement saying the move was a response to BMW trying to black-hat boost their ratings.
Types of black-hat tactics you want to avoid so your website doesn’t suffer the same fate include, but are not limited to: buying links (because they will be associated with a software rather than a person and are therefore poor quality), broken internal links, duplicate content, low-value content, and, of course, keyword stuffing.
Keyword stuffing is one of the most common SEO errors, perhaps because it is the most logical one people will instinctually commit if they don’t know about search engine rules. They think the more times a keyword appears on their page the more relevant their page will seem–but too many keywords is a death sentence.
You stuff keywords when you overuse one (or more) of them in your page’s text, URL, tags, or meta-tags. For example, if your keyword is “London,” a sentence on your blog might read “London-based journalist talks all things London in London, England.” When people search “London,” your hope is that the computer algorithms recognize that word appears frequently in your content and displays a link to your page. Except that the algorithms are smarter than that. They know (THEY KNOW!) the content is redundant and they are going to come after you for it.
To determine if you’re guilty of keyword stuffing before Google does, you can use this handy checker.
Don’t worry, there are ways to get your content seen without being penalized. Try using some (or all, you overachiever) of the following tactics:
Don’t use a ton of keywords, use one long-tail keyword instead. Long-tail means a set of keywords that get specific about your content. Though using a long-tail keyword might seem like it will narrow your audience, people who are searching for exactly what you’re offering will pull up exactly you. And any marketer knows that an engaged small audience is worth much more than a disengaged big one.
Google’s algorithms are damn good at determining context, which is quite the feat considering they are computers. The way they do it is by examining synonyms in keywords, therefore being able to distinguish when a website is referring to the body part “hand” rather than “a round of applause.” If you use synonyms in your keywords, you make the algorithm’s job easier, your content more relevant to searchers, and, by extension, Google happier. Just be sure your content doesn’t sound spammy.
The 2-5 Percent Rule
This is the golden standard for keyword appearance in your content. However many words are on your website, no more than 5 percent should be keywords–any more than that and Google will get mad. However, it’s important to note that this is a suggestion, not a requirement, and most experts agree that pertinent, well-thought out keywords are far more beneficial than an appropriate keyword-to-non ratio.
View your SEO as a living organism, one that constantly changes. Research how people are searching for content like yours by checking keyword suggestion tools, like this free one, and adapt. Check trending topics on social media with programs like HootSuite or Google’s Wildfire and tailor your keywords to match (assuming your content is relevant to the subject).
One of the best ways to boost your visibility using virtually no keywords at all is social media. You can hashtag a piece of content literally a thousand times and you won’t be penalized for it–but don’t do that, it’s annoying to your audience, and studies say more than two hashtags on Twitter will actually drop engagement. The key to successful social media is taking part in the community by commenting, re-tweeting, re-posting, and participating in group discussions. Remember, the more people know about your content, the more likely you are to get links, and that will increase your SEO. Plus, if you create a piece of content that gets a lot of attention, Google notices the spike.
If you do get a penalty there are steps you can follow to eradicate it, but they are difficult and time-consuming. Our best advice is not to get yourself in trouble with Google in the first place. Play hard, but play fair.