SEO Gone Wild

If you're an online marketer with an interest in search engine optimization, you need to heed this warning: slow down.

Too often, online marketers are so busy figuring out the perfect keyword or phrase that they lose sight of the overall strategy.

If you want to achieve high rankings, keep those positions and send traffic to your website (hopefully it's full of conversion opportunities), stick to the basics and pace yourself. In other words, take little steps with reasoned decisions. Don't resort to "SEO Gone Wild."

Keep in mind that the most critical elements to a website's ranking are the page title, content, links within content, META description and the site's popularity.

Keep it simple

Years ago, the problem was that people would try to play games with the search engines (some still do). For example, they'd match their font to the color of the webpage background. Or they'd throw 500 keywords in the META keyword tag.

Unfortunately, some marketers keep discovering new ways to "get an edge" that never delivers. Mostly, they keep trying the wrong tactics while smothering a good notion. Here are five approaches that just don't work well:

  1. Keyword overload: It's tough enough to place content the right way. So why make it more difficult by juggling more keywords than you can handle? Pick your priorities based on new products, margins and other market considerations.
  2. META bonanza: Some online professionals can't resist the lure of META tags -- especially obscure ones that don't affect rankings. Don't be fooled by anything other than the META descriptions. Search engines pay no or little attention to the META keyword set. If you can't resist (and I can't either at times), stick to a few keywords and make sure they're in the content.
  3. Programmers who need a leash: Some programmers think they're doing you a favor when they get creative with content. Make sure they listen to your true aims and needs. For example, check out their cascading style sheets (CSS) -- have they hidden any keywords in the layout settings?
  4. Clogged titles: Aim for a single search term in page titles or a few at most. If you clog the title space, the characters within each word may dilute the effectiveness of the primary keywords. You may rank for one or two terms; it's tough to rank for six in a row.
  5. All the wrong spaces: Websites are full of places you can place keywords -- all legitimate. OK, having keywords in a domain, folder name or page name can affect rankings. But do you have any idea how silly the URL begins to look when you add up all of those keywords and hyphens? Again, overload doesn't always achieve the desired rankings. In addition, some marketers seem fond of link attributes and image alt tags. Why does anyone fuss with these areas? Image alt tags may disrupt your page density goals. Besides, their influence on rankings is tiny.

Stay focused

We've seen desperate website owners go to other great lengths to boost rankings. In the end, they don't gain search engine visibility. One website had more than 2,000 keywords in a no frames tag. Traditionally, the tag was used to tell website visitors that their browser didn't support frames. Some experts began using the area to summarize a website or refer to a few internal links. From here, it just gets more and more bizarre.

Again, focus on basics like page titles and content. If you have decent link popularity, any strategy in these areas may pay off. Land a top 10 position on Google and then play with your alt tags -- one phrase and one tag at a time. Maneuvering links within a page can also make a difference.

As you run ranking reports and check cache dates, keep track of the copy and coding on the pages you've touched. Make note of your ranking and try something else. Incremental changes are best. Maybe your next move will be switching the order of your phrases in the page title or editing your page header text.

Search engine optimization is a tough craft. Occasionally, websites do okay even when designed without much SEO knowledge. A critical keyword in a few choice places can really go a long way. Usually, however, it takes a great deal of observation and intuition to understand how all of the elements (keywords, content, programming, links, et cetera) can work together.

Additional resources

For a comprehensive look at SEO ethics and other traps, register here for a complementary copy of "Taming the SEO Beast: Tips, Traps and Trends." Or, request "Reality Check: A Straightforward Guide to Keywords and Search Engine Optimization (SEO)."

Michael Murray is vice president of Fathom SEO, a Cleveland, Ohio-based search engine marketing firm. Clients include Eaton Corp., FedEx Custom Critical, Bissell, Little Tikes and Sauder. A member of SEMPO and SEO Consultants, he directed SEO health care and manufacturing studies and authored a white paper, "Search Engine Marketing: Get in the Game." Recently, Murray spoke at the national Search Engine Strategies Conference in Chicago; his presentation focused on "SEO Overkill."