Sometimes running a strong SEO program is as much about knowing what not to do as it is about knowing what to do. But look out — in some cases, the very things that can help you are also things that can hurt you if misused.
1. Optimizing for New Keywords
While optimizing and re-optimizing content is central to improving your organic search rankings, changing the content on the page influences what you already rank for. If the changes made to the page in the name of optimization actually decrease the relevance that the content had previously, it’s possible to see rankings get worse rather than improve.
In going after new and better keywords, you can actually damage performance for existing keywords and see performance drop off as a result. Any time you optimize a page for a new set of keywords, you need to carefully transition from the old keyword set to the new keyword set. It’s also a good idea to plan the transition for a slower period in your site’s seasonal performance trend.
2. Hosting Duplicate Content
Duplicate content occurs when the exact same page of content appears on two or more URLs. Your visitors don’t perceive this problem because they don’t care what the URL is as long as they’re making progress toward their goals. Search engines, on the other hand, can crawl and index multiple versions of the same page, creating three problems:
- Bloating the search engine’s index;
- Slowing the time to identify and crawl new content;
- Splitting link authority between multiple versions of the same page.
You can resolve duplicate content by using either a canonical tag or a 301 redirect to tell search engines that the pages really are the same page of content and to designate one of the pages as the master page.
3. Hosting Thin Content
Pages that have content with very little value to the visitor — or no content at all — can be considered thin content pages. Many low-quality affiliate pages and pages created simply to host ads fall into this category, but pages with pointless copy written purely for the sake of SEO can as well.
There’s no way to diagnose whether search engines find your pages to be thin, unfortunately. The antidote is to create strong, valuable content that visitors will want to consume. This takes effort, but it’s better than having a bunch of thin content pages dragging your site’s performance down.
4. Misusing Noindex Tags and Robots.txt
The robots.txt file and the meta robots noindex tag are frequently used well to control crawling and indexation, respectively. However, when misused, these two elements of the robots exclusion protocol can effectively shut down search engine access to your site. When that happens, the affected pages can drop out of the search results overnight.
For example, developers often correctly use a robots.txt disallow or meta robots noindex command to keep search engines from ranking a site in development. When the site goes live, occasionally, the developers forget to remove the robots.txt disallow or meta robots noindex command, which prevents search engines from ranking the site. When this happens, the best you can do is to remove these elements from the site and request indexation in Google Search Console.
5. Changing URLs without 301 Redirects
Redesigns and migrations often involve changes to URLs. Unfortunately, search engines store everything they know about a page — the content relevance, the link authority, the history for the page — by the page’s URL. When that URL changes, only a 301 redirect can tell the search engines to transfer all of that data about the page to the new URL for that page. 301 redirects do three important things:
- Move the visitor and the search engine to the new page;
- Tell the search engine to transfer the link authority & history to the new URL;
- Tell the search engine to de-index the old URL.
Relaunching a site with new URLs without taking the time to do an iron-clad 301 redirect map is like committing SEO suicide.
6. Changing Navigation and Internal Linking
Navigation is a powerful tool for SEO. Every link to a page is like a little vote of popularity, a vote that that page is valuable and should rank. When your navigation and internal link networks link to a page, each link acts as an amplifier of the page’s value. The header and footer navigation are the most valuable tools in this regard because every page on the site uses them. That means that every page on the site is linking to and amplifying the value of the pages being linked to.
As powerful as navigation is, it can work against you as well. If you remove well-performing pages from the navigation, chances are they won’t perform as well anymore. Take care to balance SEO and user experience so that the header navigation serves both and, most importantly, serves your users.
7. Your Competitor Is Doing More SEO Than You and Better
It’s a frustrating reality: Even though you’re optimizing your site, your competition is probably optimizing theirs as well. When your performance falls, sometimes it’s because someone else is doing more, better, and faster. Rather than trying to keep up with a ranking war against the Joneses on every front, though, look for the areas where you can compete most strongly and focus there.
There are, of course, a whole raft of other things that can hurt your SEO performance. Listing them all is as impossible as writing a comprehensive list of everything that can help your SEO program. These are, however, some common things to look out for as you optimize your site for organic search.