When it comes to optimizing your website for search engines, when is enough... enough? And why is overoptimization a problem?
A special report from the Search Engine Strategies conference, February 27 - March 2, 2006, New York, NY.
Overdoing on SEO tactics to enhance performance on search engine results pages can backfire, said panelists Heather Lloyd Martin,president and CEO of Successworks, Matt Bailey, an SEO Consultant, and Michael Murray, Vice President of Fathom SEO in the "SEO Overkill" session.
At a minimum, your site will look clumsy and risk red flagging as spam by search engines; at worst, your conversion and usability will suffer, as your visitors become confused or frustrated and leave. "That "back" button is so close," warned Lloyd-Martin.
Search engine performance matters, but conversion matters more. "We're in business to make money, and the search engines are not paying our bills," said Lloyd-Martin. "Whenever you put the computer first, you're leaving customers out," said Bailey.
SEO Overkill Kills Rankings
Excessively lengthy strings of keywords stuffed into domain names, page and file names, title and over-the-top keyword tags, meta tag bonanzas and overdone visible text look ludicrous to both search engines and website visitors, said Murray. Similarly, getting too many links pointing to your web site too quickly may get you in trouble with the ranking algorithm.
Using hidden text and micro sites is just really naive. "And watch out for stuffing "no-frames" tags," he added as he displayed an egregious example containing 2000 words.
SEO overkill kills conversion, warned Lloyd-Martin. If you walk the spam line and live on the edge, it will come back to bite you, if not from the search engines, then in your marketing, she warned. Cookie-cutter copy in order to get clicks looks stupid. Linkorama losers drain link popularity away, but more importantly, having too many choices scares people; they don't know what to do.
Pointing to concern for visually impaired website visitors, Bailey said, "Accessibility is optimization." Screen text readers expose over-optimization by presenting only the text, and all of it, scanning just like search engine bots, "Remember, you're only hiding text from people searching with browsers." Similarly, Web-enabled handhelds and cell phones strip out all graphics but display all text including supposedly "hidden" batches of keyword-stuffed copy, as well as longwinded title tags, meta data and alt tags. Plus, scrolling lengthy text on such tiny screens can make visitors quickly lose patience before they do business with your site.
Keyword stuffing doesn't work when it's impossible to understand, said Lloyd-Martin. Misspellings trash your brand. "If you can't get your site right, how will you get my order right?" It's better to build out customer-centered, relevant content than to focus on misspellings of your brand name. Google's "did you mean" function takes care of most misspellings anyway.
If you're spamming, you're on borrowed time, Lloyd Martin warned. "Imagine what would happen to your business if you were to lose all the revenue from your Google referrals."
Further, there's no excuse for an SEO firm putting a website at risk. That's grounds for dismissal. "If your SEO makes you feel funny, and you don't get a good answer, cut 'em loose!" she said.
Overcoming SEO Overkill
Murray recommended adding and measuring one link at a time and being very deliberate about what you're doing. "Yes you need traffic," he said, "But pace yourself. Even sound practices may fail if they're rushed." Proceed at an appropriate pace. Conduct good research. Evaluate your progress. Make major headway with basic SEO practices. Optimize your homepage with four or five keywords that are really important to your website.
"Write impactful headlines. Use inverted pyramid style to put the most important words first," said Bailey, adding "Everything I know about websites I learned in journalism school." Short domains, title tags and concise text get them quickly to what they want—good business for your site. Writing for search engines algorithms is vastly different from writing for visitors.
Lloyd-Martin recommended avoiding conversion confusion by putting calls to action in the content. "Think about the car salesman who slides the contract over and hands you a pen with 'Let's get you a ride home in that baby today.'" Use the "Marketing Rule of Three" to funnel people in.
Do an SEO audit, and then fix your main pages first. Gradually figure out a way to clean up excessive key word use and links. Once you do you'll be doing better with better ROI.
Anne F. Kennedy is managing partner of Beyond Ink, a search marketing agency based in Portland, Maine, with operations in Seattle.
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