Don’t Believe Everything You Read

One of the consistently best things about the SEM industry is the willingness of its practitioners to share experiences and provide advice within books and blogs.

I’ve long been writing within the industry, and I recently received a very nice compliment from someone in the form of an unsolicited LinkedIn recommendation. The gentleman explained to me via subsequent conversation that by following my advice, among others industry bloggers, he achieved excellent organic rankings for his targeted keyword phrases.

Of course, I’m flattered and thankful, but it got me thinking about people relying on blogs for too much strategic guidance.

Would you make a life or death decision about caring for a sick infant based solely on blog advice, or even WebMD? Would you decide on a retirement strategy by reading a few blog posts or a forum discussion? Probably not. Yet, some marketers choose to base their SEO or paid search strategies on blog posts.

A person without any SEM experience shouldn’t trust any single online authority as guidance. Misinformation and outdated tactical guidance seems to be floating up, along with the reliability of many so-called “SEO tools.”

Do Some Full-Time Bloggers Provide Actionable Advice?

The answer is certainly yes. Some people have been around the industry long enough and are networked enough that they can provide solid advice without having to “stay in the game.” Carefully screen bloggers who provide specific advice about SEO and other search marketing tactics for accuracy before following their advice.

One great thing about Search Engine Watch and a couple other top SEM blogs is that many of the writers are busy with “day jobs” that keep them current (and thus often miss deadlines to the woe of our editors). Resources such as Search Engine Land, SEOmoz, and SEO Book are updated regularly. These sites provide excellent best practices and alternative strategies. However, if the advice you read can’t be confirmed — or even worse, has strong questions against it — buyer beware.

I still come across advice that was really only valuable years ago. This is especially evident in some forums, when people join and claim to want to learn, but within weeks — or even days — are proclaiming expertise on a particular topic and advising people.

There are plenty of very smart and helpful people within top industry forums, and usually those with the most posts and/or reputation can be trusted (yet still must be verified!). The problem is that not everyone has worked with every technology out there. Advice that is very valuable for an HTML site can cause horrendous nightmares for huge e-commerce platform-driven sites, for example.

Design and development teams are usually great at sniffing out immediate problems with tactics, but also sometimes need to be reasoned with in order to test a theory or new SEO-friendly workaround. I’ve received plenty of blog post links from developers and designers in the past, claiming something can’t be done or doesn’t work. It’s crucial to reach an agreement by either finding evidence or testing that the tactic can work.

Ideally, direct testing can occur. In some cases, however, additional technical work will need to be foregone in order to remain within budget.

Perhaps the team needs to look beyond blogs for real-life examples of certain tactics being used to optimize specific technologies. They always leave some sort of footprint.

Tools for Fools?

There are many excellent sets of SEO tools, but I’d shy away from fully trusting automated SEO recommendations, especially for sites using newer applications or programming technologies. I’ve yet to see an automated report handed to me that didn’t have at least one fundamental error based on misunderstanding site content. In addition, many of these tools report on metrics that some would claim are becoming outdated (e.g., keyword density).

One can argue that a particular keyword density tactic still works for them, but I can point to pages ranking for very competitive terms without having the exact phrase in the content, let alone a “desired density.” (And yes I have examples in which the rankings aren’t as a result of inbound link anchor text.) Also, some of these tools will measure all legible text on a page when determining density, and some will measure only body content and ignore the links.

Which does the search engine do? I suspect a combination of the two and that search engines‘ (especially Google’s) semantic capabilities are far more advanced than many think.

SEO tools should be vetted by comparing the data across a number of tools. The same thing goes for blogs and other online resources, as well as printed books.

Frank Watson Fires Back

I always tell people to read, but advise them to read a lot and don’t take one particular writer’s word as gospel. We have certain established rules, but they seem to move a lot more than they used to.

And as Chris said, always check the date of whatever you’re reading. Anything more than a couple years old should be verified with more recent information before you consider it reliable. Search engines have a tendency to rank things by age. In some cases, it turns information into misinformation.

Anyone who’s starting in this industry should read as much as possible. Look out for the contradicting information and do some extra work on that topic. And once you’ve read about something, test it. Don’t take someone else’s particular experience as the final answer. What worked on one site at one time is not necessarily what will work for your site today.

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