Give someone a fish, and they will eat for a lifetime. Teaching someone how to fish will make them eat for the rest of their lives. That’s an SEO pun. It is also the purpose of this article.
You’re bound to encounter common SEO myths if you visit either the amazing SEO communities on Twitter and LinkedIn.
- “Longer dwell times are a sign of a great user experience. It must therefore be a ranking factor
- “A high bounce rate is a sign of poor user experience. It must be bad SEO.”
These social media posts get tons of attention. They reinforce the myths that we are trying to squash by repetition, false evidence and faulty logic. This problem isn’t just limited to social media. Many websites are well-known for selling hypotheses as facts to their readers.
These myths can be a problem as they are red herrings. These myths cause marketers to prioritise projects that don’t improve content, user experience, and Google search performance.
How can SEO communities rally around the truth? Two things can be done to get started:
- SEOs have to admit that our professions and personalities make it difficult for us believe myths. We are driven to control, predictability, and answers. However, we also distrust Google.
- It is important to understand the psychological and environmental influences that can affect our ability to discern fact from fiction.
Instead of focusing on individual myths, let us ask “Why?” Let’s also learn how to fish.
We believe in SEO myths because of internal reasons
Let’s look at some internal factors such as our thoughts, feelings, and how they influence our beliefs.
1. Structure and control are essential for SEOs
SEO is an interesting branch of marketing, as our performance is driven constantly by an algorithm that isn’t under our control. There were over 5,000 Google algorithm updates just in 2021.
SEOs are in a state of constant dependency. Even top-ranking signals we are aware of can change based on industry, query or the content available within Google’s index. E-A-T is crucial if you manage websites that are in the financial or health sector. Retrospective is important if you are publishing news content.
We look for ways to control outcomes and structure in order to feel more controlled. There are two problems with this approach.
- We underestimate the impact of individual ranking factors
- Falsely believing that something is a Google ranking factor is false
Psychology supports our need to increase our control. Psychology has shown that people are more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories because they need structure.
The human tendency to see patterns in the world even though they don’t exist has been shown to have an impact on consumer behavior. Research shows that false patterns emerge when one’s need for structure (PNS), which is a preference for predictability and disfavoring uncertainties, increases.
Do not let your need for control over facts and fiction get in the way of your final decision.
2. Pattern recognition is a fundamental human need
The human brain is great at recognising patterns. This ability has been crucial to our survival throughout history. We are so skilled at spotting patterns, that we can also create them.
False pattern recognition can have several drawbacks.
- It could influence SEO decisions, which could have an impact on the entire site.
- Publicly exaggerating the connection could lead to others misinterpret it.
Twitter recently shared an excellent example. John Mueller, Google’s director of search engine optimization, was asked by the questioner if too many links in your main navigation could affect Google Discover traffic. Mueller stated that the correlation was only an interesting one.
I would still choose “unrelated”. As mentioned in our docs at https://t.co/kkA2QTzIJs “Given the serendipitous nature of Discover, traffic from Discover is less predictable or dependable when compared to Search, and is considered supplemental to your Search traffic.”
— johnmu.xml (personal) (@JohnMu) April 14, 2022
“I would still choose ‘unrelated’. Our docs mention that Discover traffic is not as predictable or reliable as Search traffic and should be considered an auxiliary to Search traffic.
This individual chose to go straight to the source instead of publishing a case that could have serious implications for website navigation decisions.
3. Confirmation bias
It is well known that people will accept information that supports their beliefs, and reject information that does not. This is a fundamental trait that was present when social groups were formed. To ensure their survival, early humans were surrounded by others who believed and behaved the same.
Stanford is the home of one of the most well-known confirmation bias studies. The study involved the division of students into two groups based upon their beliefs regarding capital punishment.
One group believed capital punishment would reduce crime and supported capital punishment. One group opposed capital punishment and believed it did not have an impact on crime.
The groups were asked to respond to two studies: one that supported and one that contradicted their beliefs. Each group found the study that was more in line with their beliefs more convincing, and they each became more rooted in their original beliefs.
Because we fear being wrong, SEO professionals are more susceptible to confirmation bias. Hypothesize, test and build, then optimize, then iterate. We can risk our reputations and our jobs if we make mistakes too often.
We must be right, so much that we will accept myths that support our beliefs and not admit to being wrong.
4. Google lacks trust
Most SEOs don’t trust Google. This has resulted in some of the most persistent SEO myths that I could find. Many SEO experts believe that engagement is still a ranking signal, even though Google has repeatedly rejected them for seven years.
John Mueller discredits the myth of engagement in 2015.
“I don’t believe we can see what people do on your website. It doesn’t matter if they fill out forms, or if they convert and buy something. From my perspective, this is not something I would consider a ranking factor.
Seven years later, in March 2022 John was again asked the same question and his answer was almost the same:
“So, I don’t believe we would use engagement to be a factor.”
Yet, there were many SEOs who piled on the comments. If you are interested in the level of mistrust, I recommend you read them. The SEOs essentially overanalyzed Mueller’s words and questioned his honesty. They also claimed that he was misinformed due to contradictory insider knowledge.
5. Impostor syndrome
Even SEO experts with years of experience admit to feeling the impostor syndrome. Reddit, Twitter and LinkedIn are full of discussions about how we doubt our knowledge. This is especially true when we are surrounded by peers.
Azeem Ahmad, Izzie Smith and Izzie talked about the impostor syndrome not long ago. Here’s what Izzie had to say:
It’s hard to share your experiences and put yourself out there. We are all afraid. Most of us are suffering from the impostor syndrome, which tells us that we’re not enough.
In many ways, this contributes to SEO myths. It reduces self-confidence which leads to people believing myths more often. It also prevents people who may want to challenge incorrect information from speaking up publicly, because they fear being attacked.
This allows myths to spread across the wider community, it is obvious.
SEO communities should be supportive and safe for new members. This is the best way to fight impostor syndrome. Respectful, open-minded and accepting. We can control some myths by having more people speak up when they don’t feel right.
SEO myths based on external reasons
Let’s now look at the external forces like publishers and peers that lead us to believe SEO myths.
1. Peer pressure
Peer pressure is closely linked to impostor syndrome. However, it comes from the outside. Peer pressure is a feeling of coercion, whether it’s from a large group or close mentors or colleagues.
Humans are social creatures and our need to fit in can often overwhelm our desire to be right. For fear of being rejected, we will accept what doesn’t feel right. Social proof is more persuasive than evidence-based proof.
I reached out to the Twitter SEO community and asked if anyone felt pressured to accept a ranking factor for SEO as fact. Many people replied and it was clear that there was a common theme to website code.
“Back in 2014, I was told by a web developer that he believed the text-to-code ratio was an important ranking factor. He made convincing arguments, and I believed him for a while. He was also the first developer to have an opinion on SEO.
“Years ago, I wanted code quality as a ranking factor. It was because it was logical to reward code that is well-written. It was never that. Because most sites were poorly built, browsers had to be extremely patient.
— Simon Cox
Similar to fighting impostor syndrome, if there’s a better way to make SEO communities that are willing to debate and respectfully discuss issues, then we all will benefit from more reliable information.
2. Information that is out of date
SEO myths will be spread if you post content on SEO. Google updates its algorithm thousands of times a year. This means that once-good advice is outdated and assumptions are disproven.
Trusted publishers are required to correct or remove incorrect content in order to stop SEO misinformation from spreading.
Google, for example, changed the way it handles outbound linking in 2019. Google introduced UGC and sponsored link attributes to the nofollow family. It began to treat all three as hints and not ignore nofollow links.
If you have written about link attributes before September 2019, your advice may be out-of-date.
Most SEOs don’t update content because it isn’t performing well, but because it is wrong. To strengthen our community, publishers might consider putting integrity before performance.
3. Jumping on the latest trends
Sometimes, SEO myths explode when the facts don’t match the virality of their myth. The LSI keyword trend is one of my favorites. This trend is a frequent one that pops up on Twitter, but Bill Slawski is quick and thorough to discredit it.
Trend-based myths are popular because they tap into fear of missing out (FOMO), which is why SEOs don’t want to lose out on the chance to gain a competitive edge. These myths are also popular with SEOs as they offer a glimpse into Google’s dark box.
Even though trends will eventually fade, they will still be a problem as long as their original sources are unchanged.
4. Correlation vs causation
Data-backed myths are the most difficult to discredit. Google will debunk them all, but they won’t die if people are armed with case studies.
Exact match domains (EMD) are an example. This article explains why EMDs are great for SEO. We use Hotels.com as an example. It’s not a chicken and egg argument. Is the EMD a reason why the site ranks number one in “hotels”? Is it because the site owner understood SEO strategy and prioritized keyword search, link building and page speed over the past 27 years?
The domain boasts 42 million backlinks.
John Mueller, Google’s SEO specialist, says EMDs do not provide any SEO bonus. Reddit’s John Mueller shared his thoughts:
There is no SEO secret to having keywords in your domain name. For those who say “but there are keyword-rich domains ranking well”, you will be able to rank well with domains that have keywords. However, you can rank well with domain names that don’t have keywords. A domain won’t rank well just for having keywords.
This is clearly correlation and not causation.
To be clear, I support the running of SEO tests to gain more information about Google’s algorithm. It’s difficult to create a signal vacuum which prevents external influences from skewing your results. Even if you can isolate one ranking factor, there is no way to know how strong it is relative to other signals. One signal could win in a vacuum. It may not win in a vacuum like Google’s.
The signal might not apply to all content. Signal fluctuations have been seen before in product reviews and EA-T in YMYL areas. Even if the data suggests that something might improve organic rankings how reliable and important is it?
This is all to say, we need to be careful about claiming new ranking factors, particularly if they contradict Google statements or go too far from universally measuring user experiences.
5. It is possible, but it cannot be measured.
These myths are rooted in logic which makes them especially dangerous and sticky. They follow a simple formula: A = B and B = C, then C = A.
Here’s an example.
- Google will rank content that offers a positive user experience
- A high bounce rate means that a website must have a poor user experience
- A high bounce rate is therefore bad for SEO
This makes sense. Google claims that they cannot see the actions of users on websites and that they don’t consider bounce rates.
The same argument has been used to justify dwell time, page time, SERP click through rates (CTR), etc. Google states that CTR doesn’t drive organic search engine rankings. This is because it would lead to results being overloaded with low-quality, spammy content.
These myths are often based on competing views about how to measure a good user experience. A good search query experience might not be the best for everyone. It is nearly impossible to find metrics that can be universally across all websites because of this lack of consistency.
Google won’t be able to use potential user experience signals if they depend on too many variables. Google launched the page update in 2021 to quantify user experience using specific, universal metrics.
Here’s your fishing rod
Many SEO myths fall under more than one category, making them more difficult to dispel. We keep seeing social media posts that falsely identify ranking factors such as keyword density, domain authority and conversions.
Understanding the basics of ranking factors will help you to distinguish fact from fiction, and prioritise SEO projects that generate more organic traffic.
These are the five questions to ask yourself when you feel the mythic stench:
- Are they quantifiable?
- Is it scaleable?
- Does it apply to all users or is it generalized?
- Is it in line with Google’s goal to provide a better user experience
- Is Google confirming or denying it publicly?
You may be able to check all of these boxes and get a valid ranking factor. Don’t believe me? Ask friends and run some tests to confirm your theory. If all else fails, you can always ask John Mueller.
Jonas Sickler, a digital marketer and author, is well-known. He is a writer on SEO, brand reputation and customer attention. His advice has been published in numerous publications including Forbes, CNBC and Search Engine Watch. You can find him on Twitter @JonasSickler
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The post Why SEO myths are so common (and how you can spot them) Search Engine Watch was the first to publish this article.