Breaking up with best practice
I’m the one who corrects your grammar when you speak. I park my car so it’s in the centre of the bay. I get in early for work to make up for the time I spend making coffee. I’m a law-keeper.
That’s why SEO appealed to me. There are complex criteria and rules that provide a framework for us SEOs to work within. Lower your site load speed, target the correct keywords, structure your site well and your organic traffic will grow. There’s a right way to do things. “Whitehat” SEO looks at optimising websites to meet the needs of the users and therefore satisfy the search engine bots, and “blackhat” SEO looks to scam and manipulate rankings through cloaking and payment. Work in the light of whitehat SEO and you’re destined for a long and fruitful life in the SERPs. Fall into the dark-side of blackhat SEO and you’ll quickly get penalised. It’s simple.
My SEO childhood was in an environment of templates and tick-lists. One keyword per page, no 404s on the site and all URLs ending in a trailing slash. I feel comfortable within the 156-character limit and sub-one second load speeds. Widely-held SEO “best practice” is around for a reason. It gives guidance for burgeoning SEOs, those new to the industry who still expect Google to play by their own rules. It provides a neat checklist to work through when auditing, optimising and promoting a website. It’s a handy excuse for agencies to use when they don’t want to explain their work to a client.
The problem is, best practice isn’t always best.
Take the humble meta title. I considered it an artform, wording a keyword optimised, branded, click-worthy meta title within the 65 character limit. I would spend hours changing “and” to “&”, removing unnecessary words, and scrapping commas, all to squeeze as much into the pithy limit as possible. You see, best practice guidance tells you that users won’t click on a meta title that is truncated in the SERPS. Best practice also tells you that Google doesn’t give as much weight to words which are culled in the truncation. Best practice says, stick to the 65 characters. You’re safe there.
The issue with sticking to the safe zone of best practice is it stifles creativity. If all meta titles must contain one keyword, a brand name, and be within 65 characters then little imagination needs to go into creating them. This robotic approach doesn’t just drive an SEO practitioner to a state of insanity, it stops experimentation and in many cases – just won’t work. You see, all SEOs who have been around a while will have one. That site that ranks for no discernible reason. It’s got thin content, keyword-stuffed page titles and spammy backlinks… but it’s ranking. Above yours. It’s a painful thing to admit, from my black and white point of view, but sometimes sites aren’t rewarded for staying within the lines. It’s not enough just to follow what you’ve heard touted by the blogs and beginners’ guides. Ranking highly in the search engines isn’t as simple as following a checklist. It’s messy, it’s controversial and sometimes, it’s just plain illogical.
I’m fortunate to work for an agency that takes calculated risks with SEO. Always looking to push forward they will test best practice theories to see which hold water in the real world of the SERPs. One such test led to my decision to stop championing “best practice” once and for all. After a heated debate with a colleague over the necessity of keeping meta titles within 65 characters. I was shown a recent experiment Reflect had conducted with a client. A simple change to the meta titles; increasing their length to allow for better keyword targeting, caused these keywords to rank substantially higher. Most importantly, months later, they are still ranking.
I realised that best practice rules will always remain until something is proven to be better. To reach that conclusion we, as SEOs, have to be willing to break out of conformity and try something new. The constantly evolving nature of the search engine algorithms means complacency will lead to obscurity. If you aren’t prepared to try something different with your website you will almost certainly lose out in the rankings to your more forward-thinking competitors. It’s not enough to just follow the pack, you need to be leading it.
Creativity is often left out of SEO because it’s difficult to justify to a client if it doesn’t result in higher traffic levels or conversion rates. To avoid this risk and to bring about greater profit margins some agencies have adopted a mass-produced approach to SEO. Task lists and templates are ushered in and creativity quickly stifled. The problem is, SEO is never “one-size-fits-all”. Even websites within the same industry will not have identical situations. Varying locations, competitors and budgets will necessitate unique strategies. Best practice might work perfectly well for one, but be insufficient for another.
In the advent of RankBrain - Google’s artificial intelligence software used to better understand search queries and now one of the most important ranking factors – we can’t even assume that every industry is measured equally. Google is getting better at understanding that social and search history signals are important to users when they are searching for a new car, whereas content quality and website authority are more of a concern for searchers wanting information on a medical condition. As such, best practice brainwashing might mean you are spending your time and energy optimising your site for the wrong factors.
An approach to SEO must always be adaptable. A business might change its focus, a new player might come on the market, a Google update might cause ripples. A good SEO will be able to analyse the data at their disposal and adapt their plan to suit. They must be willing to stray outside of best practice if it isn’t working. The key is not to assume what has worked for other websites will work in this situation.
All this means we have to be prepared to take risks, break the rules and occasionally get it wrong. That’s my commitment.
I’ll still correct your grammar though. You’re welcome.