With regular algorithm updates and new factors influencing search all the time, search engine optimization is a bit of a moving target these days. Add in the level of nuance that tends to surround search rank and you've created a perfect storm for misunderstanding and misattribution.
Does factor X directly affect rank or merely influence it? What are the differences among Google+, Google's +1s, and Google Authorship when it comes to search? How important are keywords and where do I put them now? I'll stop there before my head starts to hurt. These are some of the biggest areas of confusion I've come across (and experienced myself) in learning about SEO.
Below, you'll find some clarification regarding these sometimes confusing aspects of SEO that could help make it easier for you to optimize your marketing efforts for search moving forward.
Misconception #1: SEO is all about keywords and links.
Keywords and links certainly play a role in SEO, but they aren't the only factors. Everything from the mobile optimization of your site to the social virality of your content also influences your search rank.
With the release of Hummingbird, Google is getting much better at understanding full queries in addition to just single keywords, which means placing your keywords at the very front of your title may not be as important.
Reflecting the way that people have begun to search, Google is starting to recognize search queries in the context of the sentences around them -- even factoring location into some search queries.
In a video released this summer, Google's Matt Cutts noted that he thinks marketers spend too much energy on link building. Inbound links certainly help pages rank well, but it is better to focus on creating the sort of content that gets shared than finding places to plant links. More and more people are finding content through social media, so optimizing your content for social shares is also important.
Bottom Line: Search is becoming more complex with more factors influencing rankings. The good news is this complexity adds nuance and an understanding of the context of the person searching. Write for people first, search engines second.
Misconception #2: Bing doesn't really matter.
According to comScore’s October search engine rankings, Bing received 18.1% of searches in the U.S. in April 2013. It's a figure that has doubled since 2009. While Bing may not be ready to overtake Google as the most widely used search engine, there's plenty this data should make you think about.
Bing's Relationship With Facebook
In early 2013, Facebook introduced Graph Search and its partnership with Bing. Graph search enables people to search for places and things within their social reach -- for example, "Restaurants in Key West liked by my friends." But it can't handle every search. For those it can't, it defaults to a Bing search.
Bing's Relationship With Yahoo
In 2012, Bing became the engine which powers all Yahoo searches. Since the same comScore report puts Yahoo search traffic at 11.1% of the market, combining Yahoo and Bing, you're now talking nearly 30% of searches.
New Opportunities With Bing
Bing's algorithm is a little less complex than Google's and prioritizes slightly different things, so if you're in a competitive space and have had trouble with Google, Bing might present some new opportunities to you.
Keyword Data From Bing
As noted above, this year, Google began encrypting all keyword data from its users' searches, cutting marketers short when it comes to keyword insights. Bing, on the other hand, still provides marketers with keyword data. While that doesn't change your prospective customers' search behavior, there is more opportunity for you to learn from the keywords that have brought in Bing searchers.
Bottom Line: Optimizing for Google should probably still be your main approach, but Bing is on the move. Strategic partnerships with Facebook and Yahoo, make the search engine an interesting force for some marketers.
Misconception #3: 'Keyword (not provided)' means the end of SEO.
Google's move to encrypt all keywords would be the worst thing ever if SEO were entirely about keywords. Thankfully, it's not.
Instead of focusing on the keywords that brought visitors to your site, focus on the content. For instance, it's best to go to your analytics and see which pages on your site had the highest portion of visitors from organic search (regardless of the keywords). What is the focus of those pages?
You can even go to Google and type in a few of the phrases you want to be found for. How do you currently rank for them? Focus your next quarter on creating useful relevant content fort those phrases, then compare your ranking to the original benchmark. Were you able to move the needle?
Also, talk and listen to customers about what they were seeking when they found you, and focus on getting your content spread across social channels.
Search Engine Watch has even more options in this informative post: Google '(Not Provided)' Keywords: 10 Ways to Get Organic Search Data.
Bottom Line: It's an inconvenience that Google encrypted its keyword data, but it's not the end of days. SEO is about creating relevant and spreadable content, so focus on that.
Misconception #4: I can get a good inbound link by linking to my site from the comments.
This one has mostly been put to rest, but I thought I'd include it for good measure.
Inbound links to your website are like votes of confidence for your content and have a positive impact on your page's ranking, but inbound links should be earned. Leaving links behind in the comments section of a blog isn't going to help you in that area. Most blogs have "no follow" instructions built into their comments section to avoid spam. Just as it sounds, "no follow" instructs the search engine crawlers to ignore any links within the comments.
It's certainly not bad to occasionally link to relevant content in the comments you leave. In fact, if it's an insightful comment, it may get you some good traffic -- it's just not likely to increase your search rank directly. And be careful not to overdo it. "Having a large portion of those backlinks coming from blog comments, it can raise red flags with Google," explains Search Engine Watch.
Bottom Line: Leave links in comments when they make sense or allow readers to learn more about your comment. Don't expect them to help with SEO.
Misconception #5: Subheaders are important for on-page SEO.
I found a number of differing opinions on this, so it might be one to keep an eye on, but by and large, SEO consensus seems to be that for ranking on Google, subheaders H2 through H6 don't actually carry much weight. They do have value in terms of accessibility, user experience, and reinforcing semantics, or meaning, of the content on the page, but they don't add much for SEO. The main header tag, or H1, does have some SEO value, but even that seems limited, according to the experts. Pitstop Media has a really in-depth post on H1 headings, if you want to dive in.
Bottom Line: Use subheaders to improve your site's accessibility and HTML semantics. Put keywords in your subheaders if they help convey the message of the content underneath, but avoid keyword stuffing.
Misconception #6: Google +1s directly affect search.
Every two years, the search pros at Moz run a scientific correlation study to examine what webpage qualities are associated with high ranks on Google. In its most recent study, the company highlighted an interesting conclusion. What it found, Moz's Cyrus Shepard explains, was this:
"After Page Authority, a URL's number of Google +1s is more highly correlated with search rankings than any other factor. In fact, the correlation of Google +1s beat out other well known metrics including linking root domains, Facebook shares, and even keyword usage."
Once released, the interpretation of these findings got a little warped into a belief that +1s on Google were directly leading to higher search ranks -- a classic correlation-causation debate, but it caused a bit of a kerfuffle.
With one-click retweets and the common act of paraphrasing online, some began to interpret this discovery as a sign that that Google was actively giving more search credit to pages that had earned Google +1s. Google's Matt Cutts even joined in to state clearly that Google +1s do not directly lead to a higher search rankings, saying:
"If you make compelling content, people will link to it, like it, share it on Facebook, +1 it, etc. But that doesn't mean that Google is using those signals in our ranking. Rather than chasing +1s of content, your time is much better spent making great content."
So why does matter? After working through some of the debate, Shepard added some thoughts to his original posts which focused more on Google+ as a platform rather than the act of voting on a post through +1s. He explained:
"It's clear that Google doesn't use the raw number of +1s directly in its search algorithm, but Google+ posts have SEO benefits unlike other social platforms."
For example, Shepard noted, content on Google+ gets crawled almost immediately and, unlike Facebook or LinkedIn, Google+ posts are treated as blog posts with unique URLs and title tags.
Bottom Line: Posting to Google+ as a platform has search value, while clicking the +1 button on posts just correlates to good content.
Misconception #7: Google Authorship drives higher rankings.
The answer to this one is no -- at least not yet. Establishing Google Authorship involves adding Rel=Author tags to your content and linking your Google+ page back to your blog.
Authorship helps Google attribute a collection of content to its author, which doesn't add to that content's rank, but DOES make your content stand out on the search engine result page by adding an image to your search result.
In the example below, you can see I'm not the first result for the search, but because of authorship, my result includes the picture.
In a really well-written post over on our Insiders blog, Gray MacKenzie summarizes the value of this well:
"Your goal isn’t high rankings for the purpose of high rankings -- you want to rank well so that you drive more quality traffic to your site. One important metric for growing your search traffic is your clickthrough rate (CTR). How many people who see your page in Google results actually click through to your site? Google Authorship puts a face and a name to the search engine results, helping to build trust, communicate relevance, establish credibility, and improve CTR -- in some cases by upwards of 150%."
Bottom Line: Authorship doesn't increase rank (for now), but it does grab searchers' attention and increase clickthrough rate, so you should absolutely still do it.
To attach an image to your search results, use this helpful tutorial from MacKenzie. (Note: If you're a HubSpot customer using the COS blog, the Rel=Author tag is already built into your author profiles, so you only need to do the first part and add your author profile in HubSpot.)
I hope that cleared a few things up. Since SEO is an evolving space, we may very well revisit this topic again (and soon).
If you know of any other confusing areas you'd like us to address or can think of a better way to explain what I've laid out here, let us know in the comments!