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11 SEO myths that will waste your money

In my article about How to hire an SEO, I mention that most SEOs aren’t worth hiring. One of the reasons I feel strongly about that is that they make false promises. They also often believe practices that Google has said are against their policies are indeed legitimate SEO techniques (even good SEOs can’t keep it straight). Why is that?

Before debunking big SEO myths, it’s important to briefly discuss why the myths persist in the first place. Here are several reasons SEO myths are so persistent:

  1. Outdated information. What SEOs learned 5 years ago may no longer be relevant. Heck, some things I learned earlier in 2022 are already irrelevant by the end of 2022. Only by staying up to date (very up to date) can you combat myths related to outdated practices.
  2. Not all ranking factors are created equal, and it’s often easier to work on the minor ones. For this reason SEOs often put more emphasis on the tasks they can say they completed or that Google measures easily (like Core Web Vitals).
  3. Misinterpretation or over-interpretation of Google Algorithm Updates. Only hard data can get to the bottom of why a site succeeded or failed in any given update, and even then, you might not know. This vagueness is intentional on the part of Google and the reason why SEOs argue about what works and what doesn’t.

    As a result, many SEOs often interpret Google’s motives through their own experience, rather than through Google’s objectives.

    Example: If you ask some SEOs why there are more ads on search results pages, you might get an answer like, “because that’s how Google makes money.” But if you ask Google’s search liaisons, you’re more likely to get an answer like “because some people find ads are more relevant to their search query than the organic results and this creates an opportunity to serve more of our searchers successfully.”
  4. A lot of “black hat” or even “gray hat” techniques work for a while — until they don’t. SEOs tend to think of themselves as one of three colors: white, gray, or black (this is a reference to Mad Magazine’s spy vs spy comic). “White hats” do everything the way Google wants them to, “black hats” do whatever it takes to get rankings, even when Google disapproves, and “gray hats” are more aggressive than the white hats but won’t do the kinds of blatantly spammy things black hats will. Gray hats also run the risk of a technique working until it doesn’t. Here’s a recent side by side comparison of white hat vs black hat SEO.

When a website runs afoul of a Google policy, it can lose rankings, sometimes in a dramatic fashion. Sometimes you won’t see a rankings drop from these practices, and in general these techniques/concepts are a waste of SEO spend. Either way, steer clear of SEOs who espouse them. And if you want a second opinion, the Ranking Factors series from Search Engine Journal is chock full of Snopes-style information you can trust. 

#1 All you need are (a lot of) backlinks

There is a sizable population of SEOs who genuinely believe that all it takes to succeed is to get a ton of backlinks. Backlinks are what SEOs often call the links pointed at your website, Google calls them External Links. The problem with this approach to SEO, the “all you need are backlinks” approach, is that Google continues to decrease the value of backlinks at the same time other sites are much less likely to provide them. To me, this strategy feels like using a bucket to bail water out of a sinking boat. Backlinks are important, but they are not the only thing that matters. Here’s a better way to think about backlinks.

#2 All you need is (a lot of) great content

Great content is critical, but just having expertly-written content about your subject matter isn’t enough to rank. New sites won’t rank quickly (except maybe for their brand names, if they’re unique). Niche sites with a limited audience often don’t outrank generalist sites with broad audiences even though the niche content is arguably better or more helpful. Further, you need backlinks so Google knows someone thinks your site is worth showing their users. There are also dozens of other areas which contribute to great SEO that aren’t content or links.

#3 You can rank #1 for any term you want

There was a time when a little bit of SEO could accomplish #1 rankings. That time is long gone. Now, with most sites deep into the SEO game, there’s a lot of competition for general terms (like “women’s shoes”), slightly specific terms (like “red women’s running shoes”) and very detailed terms (like “red nike next nature womens size 7 on sale”). Most of the time your biggest potential wins come from ranking for slightly specific and very detailed terms. Ranking for general terms requires time and patience (and money). Ranking for well-chosen terms is easier.

#4 You need to disavow all questionable links

Maybe you’ve got a lot of junky websites linking to yours and you’re worried about how that impacts how Google sees you? Don’t believe the Disavowers — those who say you should disavow those domains at Google. Google doesn’t really want you to use their Disavow Tools. They’re supposed to be for cleaning up when you’ve paid for links in the past but can’t get the site owners to take them down. After the December 2022 Link Spam Update you definitely don’t need to waste your time and money disavowing anything other than links you paid for — Google is already ignoring links it doesn’t trust.

#5 Being a Google Ads customer helps your Google rankings

SEOs will swear that being a Google Ads customer improves your Google organic search rankings. They are probably trying to sell you on ad services. While there are sometimes correlated lifts between your paid campaigns and your organic performance (the nugget of truth where these conspiracy theories start), Google has emphatically stated time and again, that these two parts of the business have no relationship to each other.

#6 Google uses Analytics data in their rankings

Another example of, “they can do it, so they are doing it” thinking… Google does not consider your website’s Analytics data when determining your rankings. They already know what they need to from the search user’s behavior, they don’t need to dig through your data to see if they can learn something more.

#7 Links from your social media are a ranking factor

Very early on Google started telling us that social media links are not a direct linking factor. Aside from the fact that the social media platforms who even allow links have them set up as “nofollow” by default, Google has never trusted social media links because they’re too easily manipulated. Links from social media can still help your organic search campaigns by increasing your website’s general visibility, which might lead to people with websites linking to you.

#8 Domain and page authority are ranking factors

Nearly every SEO tool (SEMrush, Ahrefs, Majestic, you name it) claims that their Domain Authority (DA) and Page Authority (PA) scores are estimates of Google’s own ranking factors, as they pertain to backlinks. Google has repeatedly said that they have no concept of DA or PA in its ranking algorithms.

#9 It’s okay to change your URLs whenever you want to

Many SEOs want to see “modern URLs” (with dashes instead of hyphens, without URL parameters, etc.) and suggest new URL schemes for websites as part of their efforts. I have long believed — as a result of my own experiences — that you should pretty much never change the URL of a page that is already indexed and has backlinks. John Mueller recently confirmed as much, for exactly the reasons I espouse — there are too many things that can go wrong to ensure it will work perfectly. There are exceptions, but they should never be undertaken without serious consideration for what happens if you lose traffic to those pages and possibly can’t ever get it back.

#10 Duplicate content will get your site penalized

Many years ago there was, supposedly, a spate of sites getting penalized for “duplicate content.” This idea has been debunked.

The reality is that Google has to deal with enormous amounts of duplicate content — think syndicated news content from AP or Reuters — and they have their own ways of approaching it. Tip: they’re not concerned with who wrote it first, but they do observe requests to have content removed via the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

You should still be concerned with duplicate content, even if you’re not concerned with penalties. If you have multiple versions of your own content on your site, Google might try to index and rank each of the pages for the same term, but you’ve significantly diluted the value of each of those pages by not declaring a canonical version.

#11 There’s only right way to do SEO

Each site is unique, each niche is unique, and each industry has its own challenges, so there is not one “right way” to do SEO. One size does not fit all, which is why boutique SEO firms like mine exist. You need to figure out which SEO efforts will be most impactful for your business (or hire someone like me to figure it out for you), and even then, you’ll find there are many ways to achieve your goals.

All that said, there are plenty of wrong ways to do SEO.

Bonus SEO Tip: When writing this article I started with my own ideas about SEO myths and then researched other people’s articles, too. This is generally how you should write any article if its purpose is to support an SEO initiative — have original ideas, be aware of how others are talking about the subject, and use both sets of information in your own content. If you’re feeling generous, cite those other articles with “dofollow” links.

P.S. If you want to do a deep dive on the underlying means and methods of successful SEO thinking, this article is a must read. The article is older because the highly regarded author, Bill Slawski, is deceased and can no longer shower us with his wisdom.