People read a lot of bad information about SEO – but they don’t know it’s bad information.
As a result, people believe in things that make no sense at all.
That’s why, in our industry, there’s no shortage of posts about SEO myths.
However, these lists of myths often fail to mention some of the biggest myths that real SEO professionals refuse to let go of – but should.
Here are four beliefs that truly are very popular in the SEO community – and are also provably and undeniably wrong.
Also, “number four will shock you.”
This should be fun!
SEO Belief 1: Correlation Studies Tell Us How the Algorithm Works
A lot of major SEO blogs publish lists of “ranking factors”:
There’s just one problem.
These aren’t lists of ranking factors.
We don’t know every Google ranking factor.
The only ranking signals we know for sure that Google uses are the ones Google has told us.
Google does not, for the most part, tell us what information they use in order to rank sites.
Most of the things that we suspect as ranking factors are based on inference and speculation, as well as personal experience.
These lists of “ranking factors” are actually lists of how much certain things we can measure based on publicly available data are correlated with rankings.
Correlation is the mathematical way of saying “these two things happen together more often than we would expect based on pure chance.”
Correlation does not mean that the thing we are measuring is a thing that the search engine is using to rank websites at all. It has never and will never mean that.
Google does not rank websites based on “Domain Authority,” even if “Domain Authority” is a metric Moz uses.
Correlation studies are valuable because they tell us some properties of URLs that Google is ranking well. This can be a useful jumping off point for your own experiments.
A correlation study should never act as a substitute for your own experimentation and personal experience.
The best way to identify what improves rankings is to identify specific strategies, put them to use, and measure the results. If that strategy consistently causes your rankings to increase, it is a strategy you should continue using.
It’s that simple, and that complicated.
For more on this topic, read Jenny Halasz’s post: How Ranking Factors Studies Damage the SEO Industry.
SEO Belief 2: Guest Blogging Is Against Google’s Terms of Service
This belief is also false.
In 2014, Matt Cutts (then Google’s Distinguished Engineer) said “if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop.”
In 2014, Matt Cutts also said:
“There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there. I changed the title of this post to make it more clear that I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.”
And then, in 2014, Matt Cutts said “Sorry for all the drama I caused with the guest blogging apocalypse. Guest blogging is okay again. My Bad. #SEOchat”
But then, in 2017, John Mueller said this:
So, why all the back and forth? Well, because there is no back and forth.
Guest blogging is not against Google’s terms of service.
This is what is against Google’s terms of service:
“Any links intended to manipulate PageRank or a site’s ranking in Google search results may be considered part of a link scheme.”
That has been the case since pretty much the dawn of time.
In other words, guest blogging for links has always been against Google’s terms of service.
If you’re confused, that’s because you’ve been getting your ideas about what Google wants from everybody except Google.
This is how Google wants you to think about SEO, again, since pretty much the dawn of time:
“Avoid tricks intended to improve search engine rankings. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d feel comfortable explaining what you’ve done to a website that competes with you, or to a Google employee. Another useful test is to ask, ‘Does this help my users? Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?’”
So, would you guest blog if Google didn’t exist?
You just wouldn’t do it in a way that’s designed to manipulate search engine results.
That’s precisely how you should be (and always should have been) guest blogging.
SEO Belief 3: Social Signals Are a Ranking Factor
This is Cutts saying:
“Facebook and Twitter pages are treated like any other pages in our web index, and so if something occurs on Twitter or occurs on Facebook and we’re able to crawl it, then we can return that in our search results. But as far as doing special specific work to sort of say ‘Oh you have this many followers on Twitter or this many likes on Facebook,’ to the best of my knowledge we don’t currently have any signals like that.”
He goes on to discuss how they were once blocked from crawling social media data for over a month, so developing special algorithms to extract data from social networks would be placing too much dependence on extracting that data.
This is John Mueller saying:
“Do social media signals have an impact on organic rankings in Google? Not directly. No. So it’s not that there’s any kind of a ranking effect there. To a large part social networks also have a nofollow on the links that they provide when they post this content, so it’s not the case that would give you any kind of a ranking boost there. What you do sometimes see however is that the social posts show up in the search results.”
When RankBrain was released, there was some speculation that all of this had changed and social signals were finally being incorporated as a ranking factor.
Google’s Gary Illyes gave an emphatic “no” when asked whether social signals impacted RankBrain.
Why is this myth so popular?
Speculations that “likes” would replace links are as old as Facebook, and Moz found that apart from “Page Authority,” Google +1s were more highly correlated with search rankings than any other factor in their 2013 study.
But, as said above, correlation studies don’t tell us things like this at all.
Cutts responded with this:
“Just trying to decide the politest way to debunk the idea that more Google +1s lead to higher Google web rankings. Let’s start with correlation != causation: http://xkcd.com/552/ …
If you make compelling content, people will link to it, like it, share it on Facebook, +1 it, etc. But that doesn’t mean that Google is using those signals in our ranking.
Rather than chasing +1s of content, your time is much better spent making great content.”
A more likely, but still speculative, explanation is that Google at one point trained machine learning algorithms on +1s, and perhaps even on other social media metrics. This would allow Google to predict the kind of content that is likely to get shared on social networks, without needing to use the metrics themselves.
In any case, none of this is to say that you shouldn’t invest in social media marketing, merely that any SEO benefits it has to offer are indirect.
By far the greatest value, in my opinion, is the ability to build relationships with influencers who can directly and indirectly improve your SEO authority in other ways.
SEO Belief 4: Links Are the ‘Most Important’ Ranking Factor
There is no “most important ranking factor.”
Here is Mueller saying as much:
“We use so many factors for ranking, it really depends on a lot of things. IMO there’s no “top 3” list. We use links, but also lots more.”
“I didn’t give a top 3. I actually said that it very much depends on the query and the results which signals count more.”
Mueller further elaborated:
“The algorithms try to show relevant & awesome results to users’ queries. Everything else varies. [Optimizing] for factors is short-term thinking.”
In fact, Illyes says that for some results, links aren’t a factor at all:
These revelations really shouldn’t be surprising at all.
Consider, for example, the case where your page has no inbound links from external domains, but it has a title tag with the exact phrase a person is looking for, and it’s the only page on the web that uses the phrase.
It’s pretty clear in that case that the title tag is the “most important ranking factor.”
Or how about the case of all those sites that lost their rankings when Panda was first released? It’s pretty evident that for them, “content” was the “most important ranking factor.”
The phrase “links are the most important ranking factor” is also very ambiguous and essentially meaningless on its own.
What about the:
- Anchor text?
- Number of links?
- Quality of the links?
In what sense are links a ranking factor?
The belief that links are the most important ranking factor has:
- Gotten a lot of people penalized.
- Encouraged them to do only the bare minimum of keyword research.
- Caused them to completely miss out on the value of long tail.
- Downplayed the importance of content.
- Missed the mark on title tags and search snippets.
- Created a great deal of SEO spam that I and others like me have repeatedly outranked with very few links, no “optimized” anchor text, and no real “link building.”
Yes, link building and link earning are valuable, provided you do so with both SEO and marketing principles in mind, but it’s not helpful to think about SEO in terms of a “most important ranking factor.”
Let’s Do Better
I’m proud of this industry, but like any community, we’ve developed our own beliefs about the nature of reality, and those beliefs aren’t always rooted in reality.
Let’s hold ourselves accountable and keep ourselves honest, and make sure this industry continues to learn.
More SEO Resources:
- A Complete Guide to SEO
- How SEO Works, Exactly
- SEO Fundamentals: Your Guide to SEO Success Factors in 2018
All screenshots taken by author, July 2018