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3 Misunderstood SEO Best Practices

Written by Terry Van Horne   
Wednesday, 11 August 2010 12:59

After a great Friday Dojo chat led by Gabriella Sannino someone in the ensuing convo asked about the meta keywords tag. Specifically why should they include it since the Search Engines don't use it.  I wanted to provide an opposite view to their belief that pages should be coded and built for Search Engines. I decided that I should share another point of view.

Fixing 3 common SEO best practices

 

Build Pages for Search Engines not Users

I have many reasons for why I believe this is not a good "best Practice" for SEO's, especially, those who are at the beginning of their journey to being an SEO warrior. But here are 3 good reasons why building pages with Search Engines as first concern is not a good idea:

  1. The obvious: People buy the products or are taking the action that meets the site's goal. Search Engines are only your audience if you make all your money from advertising.
  2. Algorithms change: Ranking factors change constantly and you have hitched your wagon to the horse called "Algo Chaser"
  3. What you do now specifically for Search Engines may remove options you may need in the future eg: many on site search programs use meta tags

Number 3 is always a big concern when you believe "Future Proofing" your SEO is essential to long term success! Since most of the sites I work on are dynamic data driven sites the meta keyword and description elements are always very difficult to implement. I have left the keyword tag and description tag out of sites at different times. Currently I'm of the opinion that the removal or an empty value in these elements may be a "red flag" for Search Engines and invoke some sort of SEO filter.

My take on this is simple. I build sites with people as my primary concern and Search Engines second. In the 15 years I've been dong this "thing of ours" the one thing I've learned is that many SEO decisions come down to the lesser of two evils. We are constantly accessing the impact on SEO and user experience from our web development decisions.

So, when you put Search Engines first you've essentially made this too simple a
decision that results in painting yourself into a corner.

For instance, "why have meta tags Search Engines don't use them". Consider including because an onsite search might use them or another search engine could come along that uses them. So long as you add a just a few slang, misspellings and such and definitely don't bother with the target keywords terms there is no harm done and more importantly no added risk to rankings. Lastly for SEO I think... SEOs sometimes don't include those elements (having done that myself) so it could be a red flag for professional optimization. Sort of in the vain of PageRank sculpting being an SEO flag that too is unproven... but...

Google Indexes 70 chars in Titles

In this example the entire blame does not rest with the site that first floated this idea as best practice. What is more interesting is that according to a poll David Harry took in the Dojo the Warriors, for the most part, were using the 60-65 number for truncation. SEO misunderstandings about the Title displayed in SERPs and indexing of title is concerning for someone who believes training is the key to the future of the trade.

Write for people not search engines

I looked at lots of pages on the site that floated 70 chars trying to figure out why I keep seeing "Google only indexes 70 chars". Since, the 70 chars is synonymous with a certain blog as they are the only place I've seen this number used as a "best practice". Looking through the site I could not see anything beyond that in the "tutorial" 70chars is talked as display, but, indexation was not addressed from what I could see.

First off, lets clear up exactly what we're talking about. Google displays up to 70 chars in the SERP. Google indexes much more than that. I searched that site and concluded that they seem to discuss weighting vaguely and nothing about how much of the title is indexed. So seemingly some SEO's have

What I think is happening is that some SEOs mistake the displayed title in the SERP as being all that is indexed. Quite simply that is not correct.

The real facts are that Google likely indexes all the title! What Google weights from the title for ranking is a different matter. This is based on a test that a SEO buddy did a few years back. I know ya' skeptics are thinking it has changed. It has AFAIK but it is a very small refinement that wouldn't affect the original consensus! Title best practices haven't changed as long as I have been optimizing pages for Google. I went to the old test and wouldn't ya' know it "grasshopper" is still testing. It is showing 70 chars to be too simplistic to base "best practices" on.

There are IMO, many misconceptions about titles starting with indexing and ending with how length of title displayed in the SERP and words weighted as title (words given more importance) ie: full optimization are arrived at. The consensus among some SEOs currently seems to be that 70 chars is the length for best practices. That is cookie cutting the most important optimization target in the arsenal. Absolutely you'd be hard pressed to find a Title in a Google SERP that exceeds 70 chars but that is basing all title decisions on what Google displays as Title.

The real deal is that:

  1. It's not likely a char measurement deciding where the position of truncation/ellipse occurs
  2. The function to truncate likely has at least two steps (indicated by always being a word)
  3. Seemingly truncates before stop words if they are the last word (indicated by my inability to find a stopword as last word in a SERP and the test)
  4. All title is indexed (indicated by being returned in site search)
  5. All words beyond the tenth word receive no weight as Title, unless, within the 70 chars displayed
  6. All words beyond the tenth word or the length function are indexed as part of document

Above are basis for my Title "best practices" based on a discussion in SearchReturn and writing what was likely the first SEO Title tutorial... ever.  ;-)

It has been my method for a very long time! I get extremely annoyed whenever I hear this 70 char misleader. I came to adopt these as "best practices" by observing the SERPs, by thinking like a programmer/engineer to realize it was two step function and lastly a good friend has been running a test for many years in which I use to track title weighting and indexation.

I shared the post from SearchReturn in the Dojo. Most ignored it. The smart ones saw it for what it was, though old, still very much true. The test is not exhaustive but, to that end even if it were you wouldn't come out with a different outcome. The intitle search operator is the closest we'll ever come to knowing what is weighted as title.

First lets look at how Google may return the display portion of the Title. That's the part displayed in the SERP. Its obvious that 70 chars is indeed the maximum but if it was just grabbing 70 chars there would be fragmented words in the SERPs so we know that there must be another eval of the 70 chars to ellipse within that limit as a whole word. I also found that if the last word was a stop word the eval looked backward not forward. This is an indication that there is indeed some sort of word eval involved.

"Below is based upon using the Google intitle search syntax as the test for what is indexed and what is weighted as title. So the accuracy of this is only as accurate as the intitle search returning what is indexed and weighted as title."

So, while we're at it let's discuss the Head, Body and Tail of the Weighted Title and possible weighting of the Title signal along them. IMO, it's not consistent and is inconsistent in a manner that favors front end loading primary keyword terms. Just so you know... I believe front end loading is not just for titles, but any HTML element or Object in a document. One of the best practices I took from the SearchReturn discussion was the use of 60 chars for what I refer to as the head or as referred to in the post  "place important terms within". The sixty char length may not be as true now for truncation.

IMO, the Head of the Title contains the words between the 1st char and 60ish char or last word containing the 60th char OR the entire tenth word or last word preceding the 70th char if greater than 10 words.  The Body of the title is between the end of the Head (60-70 char ) up to and including tenth word or all words in the first 70 chars minus stop words. The Tail is not weighted as part of title or returned in an intitle search but is returned in a normal search using no search syntax. Indicating it isn't weighted as title but is indexed.

All of the title is indexed it may not be weighted as title and keyword matches may not be counted as matches!

This indicates 70 chars or up to 10 words may well be the cutoff for what is weighted and indexed as title. The fact that words beyond the tenth or all words contained within 70 chars are returned in InTitle is pretty telling. Words outside of that are returned for a normal search (so are indexed) but are not returned using the intitle search indicating they may not be weighted as title.

There is one more technique that I will add to my best practices, though, I think a lot of people will disagree but I only put Brands anywhere in the title if they have an offline retail storefront, offline signage or traditional Media campaigns. Basically I think only about 1 in likely 1000's can build an online brand worth taking 30% of the displayed and weighted title. There I said it.

Simply, I don't think if you Have a real brand that someone is searching for you have to optimize your title to get your brand in the #1 position, Google and any search engine worth it's salt will find a business/brand name with very little optimization. It's why there is seemingly favoritism shown to brands in the rankings. Besides, you can build a better Brand message/presence in the description.

 

Headings Have No or Little SEO Value

Sorry there is no way to know this definitively. I don't care how many sites etc. you test this across. It's just too complicated to measure that to a point where all factors are considered. Again as a "Best Practice" it is not cut and dried. Headings are known to stand out on the page for users scanning a page so the gains again in usability should be a chief concern because the user takes the actions that fulfill site goals.

Also even if that weren't true I'd argue there are reasons to believe it may affect other ranking signals around it. For instance a link in close proximity.

Heading tags are of NO value?

 

Conclusions for These 3 SEO "Best Practices"

The Title is a pretty important part of the SEO puzzle. I have put forth a few of my personal observations. The other two are basically trying to provide another point of view and how I came to those conclusions. The thought process is as important as the info. The point I'm making is don't set things in stone or don't be a cookie cutter SEO. With every decision you make you will learn something... even if it is a mistake... you will learn.

What say you on these SEO best practices? Sound off in the comments Below!

 

About the author; Terry is an old school SEO geek that works out of International Website Builders and the founder of SEOPros.org - You can also hook up with him on Twitter.

 

Want more where this came from?

the SEO Training Dojo

 

Comments  

 
0 # David 2010-08-12 13:17
Thanks very much for posting, I've been telling clients lately that meta keywords don't do anything - based on testing with Google, Yahoo and Bing. So are you saying we should add them anyway, just in case search engines don't like it when you leave them blank?
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0 # Alan Bleiweiss 2010-08-13 08:26
Terry,

Thanks for writing this up. I tell clients - the few seconds it takes to populate a Meta keyword tag is worth it just to be sure, because it's not all about Google. And for mega-sites, even to just automate populating this field only takes a short while for me to come up with the data fields that should be used, followed by some programming. Still worth it.

70 characters? Yeah - I make sure to keep my page titles however long short or beyond that point makes the most sense for a given page. So for example, if I've got a Title that runs 60 characters, then I want to include the brand name, I throw that in at the end, even if the brand name itself runs beyond the 70th character.

That's both because it's going to be a factor in the relevance process of any brand related search, and second because it will show up in the browser's Title bar, reinforcing the brand name to the site visitor.

I do believe that under normal circumstances there's no valid point in loading other keywords beyond the 70 point, but that's because of page focus dilution. The more you try to integrate into a Title, the more, in my opinion, you're confusing search engines in what the page focus is about.

As for on-page headers, well heck. It's all about the user. Headers give visual cues. And h1,h2,h3 nesting is a powerful example of that. Readability, digestion of primary topic and sub-topics...

And given that, I have to believe that they're still important in the algo, because they help reinforce that almighty page focus. Both on-page and cross-page (like having a sub-topic with an h2, that describes an individual subject and where you then link to that subject page from the paragraph just below that h2. Sure, it's just my opinion, no hard and fast testing here.

But it makes total sense.

And since it's more important to consider the usability factors, who cares? Anyone who says you can ignore on-page header usage is thus way off base.
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0 # Mike Haydon 2010-08-13 08:37
Good article Terry. I've always said SEO should be about tweaking your site AFTER you've set it up to be as helpful to your visitors as possible. It should be the overlay, rather than the foundation imo.

I've never heard the 70 characters mentioned before (I'd only heard 65). It's strange what some ppl will believe.

As for headings, I believe Google said somewhere in one of their guidelines that one of the factors in determining the relevance of the page to a search phrase is whether the phrase appears in a h1 tag. But it would be devilishly difficult to test.
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0 # Srbija 2010-08-13 09:09
"SEOs sometimes don't include those elements (having done that myself) so it could be a red flag for professional optimization."
Exactly as I was thinking. It's not taking much time and it would not hurt if you add few keywords in keyword meta tag. I don't make some big analyze but 30 secs I can spare on that.
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0 # Terry Van Horne 2010-08-13 12:28
@David yes for other Search Engiones but also because you never know when you may be able to use them for a purpose other than SEO.

@Alan Thanks for the feedback and nice to see we agree!

@Mike Yeah the 70 chars deal was another blog trying to change about 15 yrs. of combined Industry wisdomm. It was a membermaking this mistake that was the motivation for the article.

@Srbija totally agree!
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0 # Jim Rudnick 2010-08-13 13:46
Pulled from a blog piece I did back in mid May this year --

"Using an outside of ivy tower usage in our mind, means that Google will disregard your header tags completely and discount same page after page…which is a total waste of time and effort. Instead, try to add your tags like your old college sociology professor would add them to his dissertation….always always relevant and always always explanatory!"

Full blog piece found at this URL -- http://www.canuckseo.com/index.php/2010/05/diy-canadian-seo-chapter-4/

:-)

Jim
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0 # j. albert bowden II 2010-08-15 04:44
build for users then optimize seo?
negative ghost rider, the two go hand-in-hand. a fundamental value of being a standardista is using POSH markup. said markup should certainly get added microformats/microdata/poshformats goodness backed in, using (X)HTML.
i always hear "content is king"; nope. well-marked up content is king.
yo, title tag stuffing has been irrelevant longer than netscape; the same with keyword stuffing. i guess knowing the char cut off limit is helpful, but you really should never even be getting close to the max.
Headings are crucial for SEO, off the top of my head, Matt Cutts has a nice .pdf that's about a year or two old, and he specifically covers that topic. as well as the plethora of other resources around that do as well.
Read up on Headers in HTML5...they have a new format, which I actually prefer and find much easier too implement.
c'mon, don't take this as an attack and get all namby pamby; thoughts? i've been wrong before.





once.
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0 # Terry Van Horne 2010-08-15 16:35
@Jim Rudnik the h1 tag is actually not tied to a block of text it should be an overview title like overview of the whole doc... if ya look back in HTML specs to about version 2 there is actually a complete description of the function of this element. h1 and h2 are different then what you describe... you actually described the function of an in your article. Was around and teaching HTML that long ago ;-)

@Albert... you have your opinion I have mine and HTML 5 isn't even a true version it is still an RFC AFAIK... BTW Matt Cutts has said on more than one occasion there is no ranking or other gain from "clean code". None... nada zilch...
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0 # Ignacio Davalos 2010-11-21 05:23
110 % agree with the 70 chars affaire :lol: I check it on some SEO test and its true that Google only index 70 characters , the rest is history (doc :-* )
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