There’s a lot of advice going around about SEO.
Some of it is very helpful, some of it will lead you astray if acted on.
The difficulty is knowing which is which.
It can be hard to identify what advice is accurate and based on fact, and what is just regurgitated from misquoted articles, or poorly understood Google statements.
SEO myths abound.
You’ll hear them in the strangest places.
A client will tell you with confidence how they are suffering from a duplicate content penalty.
Your boss will chastise you for not keeping your page titles to 60 characters.
Sometimes the myths are obviously fake. Other times they can be harder to detect.
The Dangers of SEO Myths
The issue is, we simply don’t know exactly how the search engines work.
Due to this, a lot of what we do as SEOs ends up being trial and error, and educated guesswork.
When you are learning about SEO it can be difficult to test out all of the claims you are hearing.
That’s when the SEO myths begin to take hold.
Before you know it you’re proudly telling your line manager that you’re planning to “BERT optimize” your website copy.
SEO myths can be busted a lot of the time with a pause and some consideration.
- How exactly would Google be able to measure that?
- Would that actually benefit the end user in any way?
There is a danger in SEO to consider the search engines to be omnipotent, and because of this, wild myths about how they understand and measure our websites start to grow.
What Is an SEO myth?
Before we debunk some common SEO myths we should first understand what forms they take.
Myths in SEO tend to take the form of handed-down wisdom that isn’t tested.
As a result, something that might well have no impact on driving qualified organic traffic to a site gets treated like it matters.
Minor Factors Blown out of Proportion
SEO myths might also be something that has a small impact on organic rankings or conversion but is given too much importance.
This might be a “tick box” exercise that is hailed as being a critical factor in SEO success, or simply an activity that might only cause your site to eke ahead if everything else with your competition was truly equal.
Out of Date Advice
Myths can arise simply because what used to be effective in helping sites to rank and convert well no longer does but is still being advised.
It might be that something used to work really well.
Over time the algorithms have grown smarter.
The public is more adverse to being marketed to.
Simply, what was once good advice is now defunct.
Google Being Misunderstood
Many times the start of a myth is Google itself.
Unfortunately, a slightly obscure, or just not straightforward piece of advice from a Google representative gets misunderstood and run away with.
Before we know it a new optimization service is being sold off the back of a flippant comment a Googler made in jest.
SEO myths can be based in fact, or perhaps these are more accurately SEO legends?
In the case of Google-born myths, it tends to be that the fact has been so distorted by the SEO industry’s interpretation of the statement that it no longer resembles useful information.
When Can Something Appear to Be a Myth
Sometimes an SEO technique can be written off as myth by others purely because they have not experienced success from carrying out this activity for their own site.
It is important to remember that every website has its own industry, set of competitors, the technology powering it, and other factors that make it unique.
Blanket application of techniques to every website and expecting them to have the same outcome is naive.
Someone may not have had success with a technique when they have tried it in their highly competitive vertical.
It doesn’t mean it won’t help someone in a less competitive industry have success.
Causation & Correlation Being Confused
Sometimes SEO myths arise because of an inappropriate connection between an activity that was carried out and a rise in organic search performance.
If an SEO has seen a benefit from something they did then it is natural that they would advise others to try the same.
Unfortunately, we’re not always great at separating causation and correlation.
Just because rankings or click-through rate increased around-about the same time as you implemented a new tactic doesn’t mean it caused the increase.
There could be other factors at play.
Soon an SEO myth arises from an overeager SEO wanting to share what they incorrectly believe to be a golden ticket.
Steering Clear of SEO Myths
It can save you from experiencing headaches, lost revenue, and a whole lot of time if you learn to spot SEO myths and act accordingly.
The key to not falling for SEO myths is making sure you can test advice whenever possible.
If you have been given the advice that structuring your page titles a certain way will help your pages rank better for their chosen keywords, then try it with one or two pages first.
This can help you to measure whether making a change across many pages will be worth the time before you commit to doing so.
Is Google Just Testing?
Sometimes there will be a big uproar in the SEO community because of change in the way Google displays or orders search results.
These changes are often tested in the wild before they are rolled out to more search results.
Once a big change has been spotted by one or two SEOs, advice on how to optimize for it begins to spread.
Remember the favicons in the desktop search results?
The upset that caused the SEO industry (and Google users in general) was vast.
Suddenly articles sprang up about the importance of favicons in attracting users to your search result.
Whether favicons would impact click-through rate that much barely had time to be studied.
Because just like that, Google changed it back.
Before you jump for the latest SEO advice that is being spread around Twitter as a result of a change by Google, wait to see if it is going to hold.
It could be that the advice that appears sound now will quickly become a myth if Google rolls back changes.
7 Common SEO Myths
So now we know what causes and perpetuates SEO myths, let’s find out the truth behind some of the more common ones.
1. The Google Sandbox
It is a belief held by some SEOs that Google will automatically suppress new websites in the organic search results for a period of time before they are able to rank more freely.
It’s something that many SEOs will argue simply is not the case.
So who is right?
SEOs who have been around for many years will give you anecdotal evidence that would both support and detract from the idea of a sandbox.
The only guidance that has been given by Google from this appears to be in the form of tweets.
As already discussed, Google’s social media responses can often be misinterpreted.
Verdict: Officially? It’s a myth.
Unofficially – there does seem to be a period of time whilst Google tries to understand and rank the pages belonging to a new site.
This might mimic a sandbox.
2. Duplicate Content Penalty
This is a myth that I hear a lot. The idea being that if you have content on your website that is duplicated elsewhere on the web, Google will penalize you for it.
The key to understanding what is really going on here is knowing the difference between an algorithmic suppression and a manual action.
A manual action, the situation that can result in webpages being removed from Google’s index, will be actioned by a human at Google.
The website owner will be notified through Google Search Console.
An algorithmic suppression occurs when your page cannot rank well due to it being caught by a filter from an algorithm.
Chuck Price does a great job of explaining the difference between the two in this article that lays out all of the different manual actions available from Google.
Essentially, having copy that is taken from another webpage might mean you can’t outrank that other page.
The search engines may determine the original host of the copy is more relevant to the search query than yours.
As there is no benefit to having both in the search results yours gets suppressed. This is not a penalty, this is the algorithm doing its job.
There are some content related manual actions, as covered in Price’s article, but essentially copying one or two pages of someone else’s content is not going to trigger them.
It is, however, potentially going to land you in other trouble if you have no legal right to use that content. It also can detract from the value your website brings to the user.
Verdict: SEO myth
3. PPC Advertising Helps Rankings
This is a common myth. It’s also quite quick to debunk.
The idea is that Google will favor websites in the organic search results which spend money with it through pay-per-click advertising.
This is simply false.
Google’s algorithm for ranking organic search results is completely separate from the one used to determine PPC ad placements.
Running a paid search advertising campaign through Google at the same time as carrying out SEO might benefit your site for other reasons, but it won’t directly benefit your ranking.
Verdict: SEO myth
4. Domain Age Is a Ranking Factor
This claim finds itself seated firmly in the “confusing causation and correlation” camp.
Because a website has been around for a long time and is ranking well, age must be a ranking factor.
Google has debunked this myth itself many times.
In fact, as recently as July 2019, Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller replied to a tweet suggesting that domain age was one of “200 signals of ranking” saying “No, domain age helps nothing”
The truth behind this myth is that an older website has had more time to do things well.
For instance, a website that has been live and active for 10 years may well have acquired a high volume of relevant backlinks to its key pages.
A website that has been running for less than 6 months will be unlikely to compete with that.
The older website appears to be ranking better and the conclusion is that age must be the determining factor.
Verdict: SEO myth
5. Tabbed Content Affects Rankings
This idea is one that has roots going back a long way.
The premise is that Google will not assign as much value to the content that is sitting behind a tab or accordion.
For example, text that is not viewable on the first load of a page.
Google has again debunked this myth as recent as March 31, 2020, but it has been a contentious idea amongst many SEOs years.
In September 2018, Gary Illyes, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, answered a tweet thread about using tabs to display content.
“AFAIK, nothing’s changed here, Bill: we index the content, its weight is fully considered for ranking, but it might not get bolded in the snippets. It’s another, more technical question how that content is surfaced by the site. Indexing does have limitations.”
If the content is visible in the HTML there is no reason to assume that it is being devalued just because it is not apparent to the user on the first load of the page.
This is not an example of cloaking and Google can easily fetch the content.
As long as there is nothing else that is stopping the text from being viewed by Google it should be weighted the same as copy which isn’t in tabs.
Want more clarification on this?
Then check out Roger Montti’s post that puts this myth to bed.
6. Google Uses Google Analytics Data in Rankings
This is a common fear amongst business owners.
They study their Google Analytics reports.
They feel their average sitewide bounce rate is too high, or their time on page is too low.
So they worry that Google will perceive their site to be low quality because of that.
They fear they won’t rank well because of it.
The myth is that Google uses the data in your Google Analytics account as part of its ranking algorithm.
It’s a myth that has been around for a long time.
Google’s Gary Illyes has again debunked this idea simply with, “We don’t use *anything* from Google analytics [sic] in the “algo”.”
If we think about this logically, using Google Analytics data as a ranking factor would be really hard to police.
For instance, using filters could manipulate data to make it seem like the site was performing in a way that it isn’t really.
What is good performance anyway?
High “time on page” might be good for some long-form content.
Low “time on page” could be understandable for shorter content.
Is either right or wrong?
Google would also need to understand the intricate ways in which each Google Analytics account had been configured.
Some might be excluding all known bots and others might not.
Some might use custom dimensions and channel groupings and others haven’t configured anything.
Using this data reliably would be extremely complicated to do.
Consider the hundreds of thousands of websites that use other analytics programs.
How would Google treat them?
Verdict: SEO myth
This myth is another case of “causation, not correlation.”
A high sitewide bounce rate might be indicative of a quality problem, or it might not be.
Low time on page could mean your site isn’t engaging, or it could mean your content is quickly digestible.
These metrics give you clues as to why you might not be ranking well, they aren’t the cause of it.
7. Google Cares About Domain Authority
PageRank is a link analysis algorithm used by Google to measure the importance of a webpage.
Google used to display a page’s PageRank score, a number up to 10, on its toolbar.
Google stopped updating the PageRank displayed in toolbars in 2013. In 2016 Google confirmed that the PageRank toolbar metric was not going to be used going forward.
In the absence of PageRank, many other third-party authority scores have been developed.
Commonly known ones are:
- Moz’s Domain Authority and Page Authority scores.
- Majestic’s Trust Flow and Citation Flow.
- Ahrefs’ Domain Rating and URL Rating.
These scores are used by some SEOs to determine the “value” of a page.
That calculation can never be an entirely accurate reflection of how a search engine values a page, however.
Commonly, SEOs will refer to the ranking power of a website often in conjunction with its backlink profile.
This too is known as the domain’s authority.
You can see where the confusion lies.
Google representatives have dispelled the notion of a domain authority metric used by them.
Gary Illyes once again debunking myths with “we don’t really have “overall domain authority””
Verdict: SEO myth
Some myths have their roots in logic and others have no sense to them.
Now you know what to do when you hear an idea that you can’t say for certain is truth or myth.