The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) - Intro and Myth #1

This is the first in a short series of posts exploring what I believe are some of the top myths in Search Engine Optimization. I was going to throw all five myths into a single post, but then I realised that would make for an even more than usually lengthy piece, so I've split the whole thing up into (slightly) shorter chunks.

I've been doing a great deal of reading about Search Engine Optimization (SEO) in the last few months, partly out of general professional interest, and partly in order to better understand certain aspects for some of our client work.

There's a necessary and logical connection between Public Relations and SEO. Search engines like news - frequently updated, fresh content. This is the rationale behind Google News and the Yahoo! home page looking a lot like an online newspaper. As a flack, I'm kind of in the business of news and, more particularly, in the business of helping clients to get their news in front of as many of the right people as possible.

This is a deliberate over-simplification, but one of the primary tools we use in PR to convey a client's story is, of course, the news release. It's been said before that in the old days 80 to 90 per cent of the expected audience for a news release was members of the media. With the disintermediating effect of the Internet, the thinning out of media, and the growth of online audiences, as much as 50 per cent of the audience for any news release comes directly to the release through search. It's direct-to-consumer PR, in other words.

The main news wire services have seen this in the growth of direct traffic to their websites. News feeds that once ran directly into the specialised editorial systems in traditional news rooms, available only to journalists, stock traders and a select few others, are now widely available online for anyone to see just by visiting CNW Group, Marketwire, Businesswire or one of the newer, online-only distribution services. [Disclosure: I should probably mention, just in case, that CNW Group continues to be a valued and valuable client].

With news going direct to consumers, and directly into the indexes of the main search engines, it makes sense that the issuing organizations should pay attention to the way those search engines handle their news. If you think of yourself as one of the leading sources on a particular subject, you want to make sure your sage pronouncements and carefully-crafted messages are showing up high and bright in Google searches to do with that subject.

Our opinions today are formed and shaped by what we learn online. The vast majority of product purchase decisions are supported by online research, as are investment decisions and service choices. In this research-driven market, it's increasingly important to rank at or near the top of search results. I've seen comments suggesting that if you are on the second or third page of results you might only get one per cent of the search traffic that the top ranked site gets - and I can well believe that.

Hence, there is a natural relationship between the practice of Search Engine Optimization and the business of PR. Really good PR is, I think, a form of story-telling. Good SEO, it seems, is the practice of ensuring those stories reach the right ears (or eyes).

After months of online and offline research, soaking up as much information as I've been able to handle in spare hours, I still feel I've only just scratched the surface of this weird and nebulous topic. It's a moving target, that much is clear. As the major search engines continue to refine their algorithms to produce ever better results, the paid optimization consultants flex and respond in efforts to keep their client content as close to the top of the search results as possible.

I'm looking forward to the upcoming Search Engine Strategies conference, coming to Toronto in early June - hoping to learn a lot more from some of the most active participants in the field, including the luminously intelligent Andrew Goodman of Page Zero Media and a host of other interesting speakers and search technology experts.

One thing I'm keen to test is a personal theory I've arrived at through research and analysis over the past couple of months. I'm hoping to engage some of the speakers and attendees at the conference to see if what I've come to understand about the current state of SEO is true. In particular, I've synthesized a set of what I believe are giant myths about the way SEO works - ill-founded claims that still keep popping up all over the place but, from what I've learned, can't possibly be valid - even if they once were.

Obvious, up-front caveat: just in case it's not clear enough already, I'm really not an expert in this stuff. It's entirely possible I could be talking out of my ningnong here, but this stuff seems to make sense with what I've been able to learn and test in the last couple of months.

MYTH #1: The importance of keyword meta tags

I'm going to start with something that should be really basic, 101 level stuff to many of you - but it's startling how many people who seem interested in SEO don't know about this.

If you look at the source code of just about any web page, you'll see a whole bunch of special code elements called the "meta tags". I'm not going to go into detail about them here; you can learn a ton of information about meta tags on some much better sites than this one, if you're interested.

Suffice to say, the meta tags are, as the name suggests, a kind of special metadata, that can be used to describe the content and structure of the page. The "Title" meta tag, for example, determines what text appears in your browser's title bar as you're viewing the page. There are other meta tags for Description, Language, and so on.

One of these meta elements, the "Keywords" tag, is a relic of the early architecture of the World Wide Web, from way back in the pre-Google days. The first search engines (WebCrawler, Magellan, Alta Vista, Lycos, and others) looked for this hidden tag as a key set of clues to the topic of your website. Webmasters were supposed to use the Keywords meta tag to list some of the main subject keywords describing the content of the page - like a library index card describing what the page was about.

Of course, many people quickly caught on to the idea that this could be gamed. Stuffing a competitor's product names into your keywords was a quick and dirty way to try to steal some of their attention. Listing multiple synonyms for topics of interest to your target customers was another common form of "keyword stuffing" - trying to artificially increase the rank of your page by making it appear more relevant to a broad array of topics.

This kind of abuse became so rampant that it quickly led to the Keywords meta tag becoming completely ignored by modern search engines. Although many people still use it, and a lot of self-proclaimed SEO experts still seem to recommend it, the Keywords meta tag seems to be as vestigial as your appendix.

From what I've been able to glean, Yahoo! is alone among the major search engines in still giving this meta tag some (minor) weight. Google, it seems, has never put any value on the information in this tag. In discussing this with others, I had a couple of people question whether there was any evidence to this effect, so I went hunting.

It's hard to find any concrete word from Google on this subject, but here's something useful. In the comments of this post on the Official Google Webmaster Central blog, you'll find the blog author, Google employee John Mueller, says:
...we generally ignore the contents of the "keywords" meta tag. As with other possible meta tags, feel free to place it on your pages if you can use it for other purposes - it won't count against you.
Also, the Wikipedia page about meta tags states:
With respect to Google, thirty-seven leaders in search engine optimization concluded in April 2007 that the relevance of having your keywords in the meta-attribute keywords is little to none
This is a reference, btw, to an excellent study published at SEOmoz, one of the definitive pieces on search engine ranking factors.

So you think by now the word would be out and people would have stopped going on about the Keywords meta tag. And yet I have direct experience of "experts" who are actively charging clients for stuffing words into this part of their web page source code, claiming that it will help improve their ranking in the search engines.

It won't. Try this yourself: run a Google search for "keywords meta tag" - without the quotation marks. I don't want to link this, I want you to run the search for yourself. Now read what the first three or four articles that come up have to say about the subject.

Better? Good - now stop paying your SEO consultant for something that's just plain useless.

In short: using the Keywords meta tag in your web pages won’t necessarily hurt your rank in search engine results, but it absolutely won’t help either.

Next Myth: The Magic Keyword Density Percentage