There seems to be a lot of confusion about the editorial component of Google search rankings.  Content usually isn’t as hot of a topic as PPCweb design or guerrilla marketing, and as a result, writing often gets dismissed as the ‘red-headed stepchild’ of the digital marketing world.  We’re here to set the record straight.  If your content is unoriginal, poorly formatted, or ripped from other sources, you’re never going to do as well as you could.  Simple as that.  It’s often easier to learn from bad examples than good ones, so we’ve compiled some horrible advice to help show you exactly what not to do when you’re writing for the web.

Bolding Words Instead of Using Headings

This is a myth our editorial department sees cropping up again… and again… and again.  We aren’t sure exactly how or why this old wives’ tale of an SEO rule cropped up, but you only have to spend a few minutes browsing online to find evidence strewn across the Internet. Many content teams seem to have latched on to the idea that bolding random words is attractive to Google, as if simply clicking that “B” in your WordPress editor could magically elevate your page to that coveted number one position.

If only it were that easy.

The truth is, indiscriminate bolding is never going to help you rank.  We actually tested it this a couple of years ago.  Google’s algorithm does not care whether text is bolded, underlined, italicized, or all three.  Not only can this be an unattractive web design gaffe, it’s not a ranking factor.

“But what about people?” you may be asking yourself.  “Doesn’t it help draw their eye to important information, like phone numbers?”

It might.  But if you pull the reader’s eye straight to a bolded line of text, that means they’ll be skipping over the entire mass of content you presented on the topic they came for in the first place.  Trust your audience: they don’t need to be spoon-fed.  They came to your page to be engaged, not to be bombarded with obnoxious and distracting formatting.

The better method of highlighting your pertinent information is to ensure that your contact page is easy to find in your site navigation.  It’s helpful to place an unobtrusive contact form in the margin of the page, with an emphasis on the unobtrusive.  Pop-up ads are annoying, right?  Well, so are those “helpful” pop-up contact forms that block out your text.  Readers swat them away like flies.  Time and time again, we’ve found these pop-up forms just don’t convert.

You Didn’t Use H2s

The large heading immediately above these words is called an H2.  The “H” stands for header.  The “2” means that this type of header carries less weight than your H1 (i.e. your page title), but more weight than your H3s (which should be used sparingly).  H2s have a few purposes: they break the page up visually, they tell Google that the words contained inside are important, and they quickly direct readers to specific subtopics they might have questions about.

So here’s what happens when you don’t use H2s.

First, you force your readers to scale a boring, endless wall of text.  It’s a tiresome journey, and your weary visitors are all but guaranteed to start losing focus.  From there, it’s only a matter of time before they leave your page in pursuit of content which is more engaging and digestible — perhaps written content featuring some nice pictures and bullet points.  To this effect, user engagement is becoming more of a factor in how visible Google makes the content on your site.  Several experiments have been conducted using improvements in visitor behavior and its correlation to search rank.  It’s been speculated for years and is now becoming more of a reality that Google looks at visitor behavior as one of the components of rank.  The link for the recent experiment that proved this escapes me but I will come back and edit this post later when I dig it up. Breaking up content with H2s or CSS that formats H2s to your website’s style is very good for increasing visitor engagement.

At the same time you’re forcing your readers to wade through a swamp of identical paragraphs, you’re also telling Google, “Don’t worry, there’s no particular phrase or word on this page that’s important to rank for.”  Remember, all body content carries similar weight.  Without H2s, Google has no way of knowing which terms you want to emphasize.

sad worried man covered face

Repeat, Repeat, and Repeat Some More

Since H2s are so important, maybe it’s best to just hammer your keywords home with constant repetition.  Perhaps if the term “Hypothetical Example Phrase” appears in all four of your H2s, it’ll have four times the weight.

That’s logical — but it’s wrong.  There’s a fine line between nudging keywords to the top of your content hierarchy in a natural way, and banging Google over the head with obvious and spammy repetition.  Far from being helpful to your rankings, constantly reiterating a certain term — particularly a lengthy or obscure niche term — is a giant red flag.  Less is more where H2 phrasing is concerned.  Instead of putting all your eggs into one big basket of spam, spread the H2 love and cover all of your desired bases lightly.

Thinking it’s Okay to Plagiarize Some Content

Needless to say, some Internet sources have more credibility than others.  Let’s say, for example, that you’re curious about the gun laws in your state.  Are you going to turn to websites and actual legal statutes, or Dark_xx_Fire’s opinionated,.gif-replete forum (last updated in 2004)? For most people, that’s not exactly Sophie’s Choice.

But while the preference for certain information sources is logical and justified, it’s also led to an unfortunate byproduct: rampant plagiarism of content. Plagarism also doesn’t always take the form that you think it would.  One of the most common forms of duplicate content triggers that we see are bulleted lists of laws and statutes. These are great things to have on your site, however, 250 other sites in the same state probably have the same or similar wording on their sites.

It’s completely understandable that you want to present your readers with the most accurate and legitimate information possible.  However, that is not an invitation to copy and paste huge chunks of text from legislation,.gov websites, academic studies, or any other reliable source.  Not unlike a tech-savy high school English teacher, Google’s algorithm is good at detecting plagiarism — and at penalizing the offending “writer.”  We know copy-pasting is a tempting time-saver, but the penalties just aren’t worth it.

Not only that, plagiarism doesn’t even make sense from the reader’s point of view.  If the reader wanted to read the study or statute, that’s what they would Google — but they didn’t.  They’re on your page for a reason.  Think about your target audience, and write in a way that gives them helpful, human insight into the original content.  Don’t write for your peers — write for your clients.

sad woman on the beach

Thinking Meta Titles are Not Important

Why don’t you go ahead and leave your meta titles blank?  It’s not like they’re a big deal.  They’ll auto-fill anyway, and you get to save some time!  Or thinking that it is more important to write meta titles and descriptions based on how they appear for social sharing sites rather than the Google search results.  That’s more important, right?

Please don’t listen to that advice.  Meta titles written for visibility and clicks within the search results are extremely important.  In fact, you can think of the meta title as the page’s “real” title which will appear in Google searches, while the supporting H1 title is more for the benefit of the on-page reader.

Provided they’re both popular enough to warrant a significant number of searches (which we’ll cover in greater depth below), it’s best to mix up roughly interchangeable terms for maximum coverage.  If your meta title mentions “how to file,” for example, your H1 could say “how to apply for.”  But how do you know which terms to use where?  Four magic words: Google Adwords Keyword Tool.

Let’s say you want to rank for the topic of bankruptcy in Imaginary Town, USA. In the Keyword Planner tool, you’ll want to follow these steps:

  1. Click on the option that says “Get search volume for a list of keywords or group them into ad groups.”
  2. Type in the keywords you want to compare, separating terms with line breaks.  For this example, let’s check how “how to file bankruptcy” stacks up against “how to declare bankruptcy.”
  3. Under the word “Targeting,” click on the first field and enter your desired location.  (Google will automatically suggest locations as you type.)  You can also type in more than one geography if you’re chasing multiple areas.
  4. Click on the “Get search volume” button.

And that’s it!  Google will generate a sorted list of how many searches are associated with the terms you specified.

Let’s pretend that our imaginary example yielded the following results:

  • How to File Bankruptcy — 100 average monthly searches.
  • How to Declare Bankruptcy — 80 average monthly searches.

This is critical information.  It tells you that “How to File Bankruptcy” should be your meta title, because it’s the dominant phrase.  “How to Declare Bankruptcy” should be relegated to your H1 title, because while it’s not quite as popular as “How to File Bankruptcy,” it still gets enough traffic to merit a mention.

This leads us to an important point.  Imagine the results came out like this:

  • How to File Bankruptcy — 100 average monthly searches.
  • How to Declare Bankruptcy — 10 average monthly searches (or, even worse, “–” monthly searches, i.e. a negligible amount of traffic).

In this situation, you’d still want to use “How to File Bankruptcy” as your meta title.  But since there’s virtually no traffic for “How to Declare Bankruptcy,” it’s not going to help you rank.  There’s simply not sufficient human interest to make it worthwhile.  In this sort of dramatically lopsided scenario, you’re better off using “How to File Bankruptcy” as your meta title and your H1.

Thinking Images Don’t Matter

You might have noticed the cheesy stock images we used throughout this post.  That was all foreshadowing.  Images are important on-page elements within how Google grades content.  Further, proper formatting of images can increase your relevance for a topic, your visibility in image search, and increase traffic to that page.  Whether that image search traffic converts is another issue, however using images should increase visitor engagement and how much Google likes your content.

So, what’s the ultimate lesson to be learned from all this?  Quality content is mandatory — not optional.  You can’t take shortcuts, can’t neglect proper formatting, and most of all, can’t waste your time writing around irrelevant topics.