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18 SEO Killers You Must Clean Up and Avoid for 2013 and Beyond

November 14, 2012
By Image Credit: markhillary

There's a lot of talk lately of Google having finally killed SEO through their Panda and Penguin algorithms, which continue to ensnare more and more websites with every new update.

So is SEO really (finally) dead?

When you look at some of the Google organic traffic losses that companies have faced since the very first Panda algo (aka Google Farmer) hit in February 2011, you might certainly think so.

Analytics data showing losses of over 50% of Google organic traffic is not uncommon for afflicted websites:
Huge Google Traffic Loss

And traffic that used to increase over time, suddenly took a huge dip:

These patterns certainly make it look as if SEO could be dead.

But is it really?

In order to answer that question I went back through the multitude of lost traffic site audit reports I've been doing since early 2011. I looked for website problems that were consistent through many of the sites I reviewed.

Image Credit: stevendepoloIt didn't take long for me to conclude that, while SEO was certainly not dead, SEO tricks and shortcuts were definitely on life support – if not already completely dead.

So if you relied on tricks and shortcuts, then yes, for you SEO is dead.

In fact, it's likely that the very things that helped you before are the ones that are hurting you now. But even for those of us who have always used best SEO practices, some things have changed.

Today, and for the foreseeable future, SEO is much less about optimizing for specific keywords, and much more about technical issues, social signals, and the overall trustworthiness of a company and its website.

When I went through my lost traffic website audits, I found no less than 18 specific problems that had likely contributed to the huge losses of organic Google traffic and the subsequent loss in conversions and sales that so many companies have been facing.

Here they are, in no particular order:
  1. Duplicate content
  2. Keyword stuffing
  3. Doorways
  4. Footer links
  5. Auto anchor text
  6. Spammy comments
  7. Low-quality pages
  8. Poor presentation
  9. Content below fold (see the "Footer Links" article linked to above)
  10. Technical problems
  11. Poor writing
  12. No content
  13. Splitting link pop
  14. Merry-go-rounds
  15. Unnatural links
  16. Semi-hidden text
  17. Rich snippet abuse
  18. Trustworthiness

While some of the above were deliberately done to or for the websites in order to increase organic website traffic (back in the day), others were more inadvertent – with some issues overlapping others.

For instance, duplicate content can be caused by technical issues, but it can also be done deliberately as an easy way to add more content to a website. And keyword stuffing is often done in conjunction with having content below the fold, but not always.

For the most part, the issues can be broken down into a few overall categories:
Over the next few months, I'll go into more detail about all of the above SEO problems and issues, and show you some specific examples in future articles. For now, however, here are the main takeaways you need to know to do good SEO in 2013 and beyond:

Fix technical issues first and foremost

Technical issues affecting SEO have always existed and smart SEO consultants have always made fixing them a high priority. But after Panda and Penguin, fixing them is more important than ever. Technical issues that are a problem for SEO run the gamut from bad content management system (CMS) setups that create duplicate content to having a sitewide navigation that's basically invisible to search engines. Whatever your specific technical issues may be, now is the time to fix them. If they're not already hurting your site's SEO performance, they likely will be after a new Panda or Penguin update.

Think less about optimizing for specific keywords

I know this seems counterintuitive to everything I've been preaching to you for years, but it's a very important point. When you do SEO with the goal of optimizing for specific keywords that you want to rank for (as we've always done), it can end up hurting you now. What happens is that you focus too much on those specific words and end up putting them in too many places on your pages and within the website as a whole. But now this is not as helpful to search engines as it used to be. In most cases this will actually lower your rankings and traffic for those specific keyword phrases. Instead, reread what Karon Thackston recently recommended (and which Matt Cutts from Google confirmed) and use much more of a variety of words within your content. Be sure to keep my new SEO mantra in your head: "Less is more."

Have a real content / social media marketing strategy

Forget about old-fashioned link building. Google now really does consider it to be web spam. (Yay!) If you can add a link to your own site just by submitting it somewhere, you can assume that it won't count for much (or anything) by Google. In other words, forget about useless directory submissions, article directories, link wheels, forum signatures and comment spam. That's all done, kaput, a useless waste of time.

Instead, hire real writers and put them to work writing blog posts and other informational content on a regular basis. Be sure that what they're writing is truly of interest to the people who might buy your products or services (aka your target market).

Learn where your target market is hanging out online, be it Twitter, Facebook, Google+, industry forums and blogs, and hang out with them. Make friends with them and be sure you make them aware of all the helpful, informational content on your website, as appropriate. Be especially sure to let them know when any new content comes out that they might be interested in. Remember to share their content as well, and don't be afraid to ask them to share yours.

Most of all, earn Google's trust

If your site is poorly written or keyword stuffed, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If all the links pointing to your site are using one specific keyword phrase rather than just being the name of your company, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If people can't easily find what they came to your site to find, or if they keep going around in circles on your site, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google. If you have a number of sites all selling the same products when one would suffice, it's not going to look very trustworthy to Google.

If you truly want to earn Google's trust, you (and your site) must be trustworthy. Stop trying to trick them into thinking your site is something it's not, and start making it be that something. Having a business and a website was never supposed to be easy. While Google had let most of the above slide for a long time, they really are putting their money where their mouth is now. So forget about trying to find the latest shortcuts and get to work!


Jill Whalen has been an SEO Consultant and the CEO of Jill Whalen High Rankings, a Boston area SEO Company since 1995. Follow her on Twitter @JillWhalen

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Post Comment

 Erik Holladay said:
Another excellent and SEO informative article. Seeing you present your key concepts at several web marketing forums in 2004 and 2005 helped me follow a path of effective content-driven white hat SEO success. You and Matt Bailey are some of the brightest, most effective, and most common-sense people I've run across in the SEO and SEM marketing field. I trust in your web marketing advise and wisdom implicitly. Thanks Jill!

From my personal experience with SEO and web-marketing since 2003, these various Google updates (Penguin, Panda, etc) have been beneficial to my SERP results, not harmful. Spammy sites have been filtered out of top results, while the rankings for my own pages has remained high or top ranked, either unaffected or benefiting from these Google updates. Granted, since I'm in B-to-B industrial product and services marketing, our market niches can be narrow and full of long-tail search content opportunities. B-to-C can be a much tougher game for SEO.
 Dave Lerner said:
When I am logged in to Google, Google knows where I am, my search history, and so on, so if I type in the word "pizza" for example, I will get different results than my friend who lives in another state. With Google and Bing working hard to improve the personalization of results, how does this affect search engine optimization? In other words, if different people see different results depending on their location, search history, etc. when they use the same terms, how do you optimize?
 Lynn McLeod said:
Thanks for this info, I'm looking forward to the future articles about this topic.

The #1 problem you list is duplicate content. I had a client with a multi-country site - US English and UK English. They plan to add Canada (Canadian English/French).

Right now there are two versions of all the pages under one domain. The site guesses the geo using IP address, but the visitor can change their view. The content is very similar with minor differences such as US/UK spelling, images, local events, downloads. The page names are similar, for example:

When you talk about duplicate content, please include multi-country sites and whether Google will penalize this type of structure. It is super-efficient for the marketing team to make updates to the site as it is built now, but will it harm their organic results?

Thanks again
 Jill Whalen said:
@Erik thanks! I'm in the same boat as you, my own traffic and those of any clients I've worked with has gone up. I'm in a unique position, however, to see and analyze lots of sites who either had no SEO work done or "bad" SEO work done. It's been a fun ride trying to diagnose the various issues that can occur.

@Dave, I'm not really sure what personalized results have to do with how you should optimize. It's more of a question of how you measure your success. Now, as it's been for many years, it's completely not about rankings, but about traffic, conversions and sales. That's in a big part due to the personalization of search results. There's no such thing as a ranking.

But that doesn't effect keyword research at all. And therefore should effect optimization. That said, as I mentioned in this article, worrying about specific keyword phrases in today's SEO world may not be the best thing to do either. Look at all the phrases that relate to what you offer and just be sure that you are naturally using them where they make sense to be used.

@Lynn I'll actually be addressing the duplicate content issue in my next article as that's one of the biggest problems I've seen. What you're talking about with the /uk/ directory would, in my opinion, be considered duplicate content if it was exactly the same as what is in the root directory.
 Miriam said:
Thank you for an informative article! I was so happy to read this. Google should be rating sites on REAL stuff, not whoever paid the most to get on link farms or built multiple bogus pages into their site. I sometimes find it so awkward to write on my site, because I'm trying to get the perfect keywords in. I'm happy to hear that I could write what I think the client wants to know and it will count in a good way.

I'm wondering if I'm selling products that are basically the same, just a different color, can I use the same description for all, just changing the color and item number, or should I write completely different descriptions so I can be sure not get penalized for duplicate content?
 PRB PATEL said:
Great list! This covers everything that goes into recovering chances to rank. Genuine links have always been very important but qualitative presentation of the content will be of high value post panda and penguin updates.
 David said:
A great honest zero hype how to do guide. What i like about Jills SEO insights is she never sounds like a wide eyed SEO evangalist like so many other SEO soothsayers. Dood stuff Jill :-)
 Anna Slyter said:
Thanks for this article Jill. Confirming exactly the things I'm seeing - those taking the shortcuts to get their sites to rank, rather than doing the work to be a solid business are suffering right now. Because those shortcuts worked so well for while, though, it's a difficult shift in perspective for those impacted. If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times - SEO is NOT a substitute for doing good business.
 Jill Whalen said:
@ PRB PATEL @David @Miriam @Anna glad you liked the article and found it helpful!

Miriam, in the case of selling products that are basically the same but just another color, it seems to me that they should all be on the same page with a choice of color, rather than having their own page. If that's possible, that's how I would do it. Because you're right, they're going to have the same description (as they should).

Anna you are so right about it being difficult for the business owners to shift their perspective. They just don't understand why their keyword stuffing could once have brought them tons of traffic and now it doesn't. And many don't like hearing the new recommendations. Although, I have to say, I've been surprised (in a good way) at the reaction of some of the people whose sites I've reviewed. I was anticipating them to be mad because I was saying some not so nice things about their websites, but most of them were glad for my honesty with them. Whether or not they actually do what needs to be done is still to be seen.
 David Leonhardt said:
We have to move beyond the concept of stuffing our pages with exact match keywords, and move to keyword concepts. Best practice is to try to get exact match in the title tag, and at least once (perhaps twice) on the page - then keep the text on theme using other words and other permutations (which good, solid, natural writing should give you in most cases without additions "SEO" effort).
 Robert Tyson said:
Thanks for this great summary Jill. So does this mean you will need to rebrand as something else now? :)
 Jill Whalen said:
@Robert, as I haven't looked at rankings in about 10 years it's something (the rebranding of my company name) is something I should have done a long time ago. But it's too much trouble, so it's probably not going to happen any time soon.
 Dwight Zahringer said:
Love your writings and dedication to our industry. It's amazing how many seo-related issues come from a poor-software platform that causes technical crap. Also amazed on the in-house people that are managing multi-million dollar ecommerce sites that cannot identify such problems or why relevancy on-page cannot happen.
 Jill Whalen said:
So true @Dwight! Unfortunately, a lot of time it's not necessarily the software platform that is the problem, but the people who set it up not understanding all the issues.

You wouldn't believe how many WordPress sites I see that have sooooo many issues that can negatively affect SEO. While WP *can* be set up to be very crawler friendly it rarely is.
 Aidan Rogers said:
Very much what we are seeing as well - another being low ratio of deeplinks. Just didn't get your reference to merry-go-rounds... redirect loops?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Aidan Merry-go-rounds referenced here:

It's a phrase I coined after the first Panda.
 Brad Dalton said:
How do you identify if your site has duplicate content? Is there a tool?
 Jill Whalen said:
Take a snippet of content and put it in quotes into the google search box.
 Rob Willox said:
Been a long-term believer that 'content is king' and still continues to be. But, it is only when it is informative, interesting and, most importantly, relevant to both the subject and the search phrases used.

And, the best content, as highlighted by a number of contributors, is not keyword specific, stuffed or otherwise, but themed around the idea, concept, use or benefit of the product or service. It's not a new approach having been advocated for a number of years by Dr Andy Williams on his blog, and has proven itself to be effective over the years.

If the top first page serps are analysed for any particular keyword phrase it is clear that there is a wde range of related terms being used tending to support that view. Karon Thackston's recent Q&A with Matt Cutts confirmed what has been known and hinted at for a number of years.
 John Orange said:
SEO will never be dead but will always be evolving as Google makes 98% of their profits on Adwords, why would they want organic sites to constantly win out in the market for free?
 Allen Watts said:
The big thing that's changed is backlinks. Google disqualified many of the especially if you were using the same anchor text. Also backlinks need to be spread out, linking to subpages not just the homepage.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Allen, yep, see #15 above! But I wouldn't say that it's the only big thing. It's one of many big things!
 Jody Nimetz said:
Very great post Jill! Totally agree with your commentary about old-school link building. We've seen this have too much of an impact on sites that artificially inflate their link inventories and in essence pollute the Web with their low quality content.

Keywords will always be important but "related terms" (synonymns) become even more important now. Keyword stuffing and overuse has been targeted by Google for years. Unique, informative content that is not keyword spammed will always rule especially if it speaks to your target audience.

Great stuff Jill!
 JoAnn said:
Great article, but please indulge my ignorance when I ask, what are:
Splitting link pop
Unnatural links

Thanks, Jill.
 Jill Whalen said:
@JoAnn, I'll be delving deeper into what they all mean in future articles. But here's some quick info:

Splitting link popularity is typically the end result of duplicate content. If you have more than one URL for any piece of content, it could get linked to on all of those URLs, thus not giving that page of content all the link popularity (and PageRank) it deserves.

I referenced Merry-go-rounds in an above comment, please see that.

And I've already done an entire article on "Unnatural links"
 Margus Turundus said:
Why do you think footer links are bad? Because last year when i was in school our teacher told it is one great thing to have links there, navigation both on top and bottom. Could you explain little futher?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Marcus, footer links in and of themselves aren't bad, it's when the only way to navigate a site is via the footer, and/or if there are pages created just for search engines that are linked thru them. Also, if they have keyword stuffed anchor text.
 David said:
As an SEO I'm not opposed to all these updates and "killers". It just bothers me when I still see spam and poor practices or "black hat" tactics still ranking high for competitive keywords. But I'm sure they'll get theirs
 Ibukun said:
Thanks for a very insightful article. It's all about ensuring SEO efforts are for making a site customer oriented and friendly for humans other than just for search engines. Doing this in a natural way ensures longer term success. It's very interesting to be in a fast paced constantly changing industry such as search. Keep the great posts coming..
 Rahul Tilloo said:
Hi Jill,

Great Article. I am happy that I have not followed any of the bad seo practices but I had one question I mostly do my link building by commenting and social bookmarking, will this affect the website or do I need to diversify more? Need Your advice!
 Jill Whalen said:
@Rahul, it's doubtful that spamming blogs and/or forums in order to get links, or bookmarking links on Delicious, etc. will help your website to do well in Google these days.
 Suzanne Delzio said:
I like what @David Leonhardt says about shifting our focus from Keyword phrases to Keyword concepts. More important than ever to include the whole phrase's ecosphere, which basically is what quality content does anyway. Still, as a word person, I like the renaming to "keyword concepts." It feels fraught with potential!
 Suzanne Delzio said:
p.s. Hang that Penguin! Hang 'em high! ;)
 Courtney said:
Jill, I could not agree more with your paragraph of SEO then vs. SEO now. We get clients in all the time focusing on what SEO used to be. Our primary focus is building a website that users enjoy and trust. We start getting all the technical issues optimized and then look into opportunities that would benefit their users! Garnering trust through social signals/social proof is so important (and it doesn't just mean social media).

Great post :)
 Reagen said:
We're very fortunate to have survived both panda and penguin as we have tons of issue concerning #1 and #10. Even after implementing canonical, noindex and blocking contents though robots.txt GWMT continue to detect duplicate content caused by our own system. It was really a struggle. While dev team figures out how to fix the system, we immediately hired a writer and developed a solid social media marketing strategy focused on engagement. Tons of emails were sent out to local bloggers. We contacted small players in our market and offered them our services for free. Once we established our network, we begun using them, they became our evangelist feeding their audience with content we developed. I remembered Rand mentioned about the birth of Link earning and i think that's where we're heading this 2013.
 Trevor McCann said:
Meh, I feel like 90% of links are considered unnatural. If you are going to use some heavy black hat stuff, just use it in moderation and make sure you have plenty of quality links. But if you plan on doing 100% quality guest posts etc for your ranking, you may be waiting a long time to see results if ever. Or spending a ton of money on such posts.
 Donovan said:
Excellent post Jill, thank you.
 Dianna Huff said:
Jill -- One question about footer links. Do you mean links added to the footer of sites (as with many WordPress sites) that link to internal pages? Why would a site be penalized for this?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Dianna, if the footer links aren't linked to within some other form of navigation (like at the top of the site) they are often links to "doorway pages" that are more for search engines than people.

If the footer links are just a repeat of what's in your main nav, then it's likely not a problem.
 Finn Skovgaard said:
"Content below the fold". How should we interpret that? If it means anything that can't be seen without scrolling, your own articles should also be penalized by Google, so I suppose it's another meaning, but which? Maybe I'm just missing out on a bit of SEO jargon, but I've Googled it without finding a clear definition.
 Jill Whalen said:
No Finn, it just means content that's meant only for search engines that's below the fold. As mentioned in the article, I'll be writing more about most of the various issues, I just haven't gotten around to that one yet.
 The Secret said:
I disagree with you on posting content on article directories websites, directory submission, and forum signatures is a waste of time. Maybe Google don't care much for them much, but they do they do count for something, the people on those site looking for good content to satisfy his or her needs. Google doesn't own the world.
 Sharon Teitelbaum said:
Would it be wise to replace keyword links with more generic language like "click here for more" ?
 Jill Whalen said:
@Sharon, not really. Only if you had tons of links using the same anchor text and you wanted to change them.
 Jay Torrence said:
Directory marketing is an effective way to bring more visibility to a small business and those sites rank very highly in the search results. I agree with "The Secret." Google doesn't own the world.
 Carl Ingham said:
I thought that adding generic keywords could help especially for keyword dilution therefore if the keyword phrase were eg "hair cuts" we could have something like hair cuts,hair cutting,cutting hair,click here for more info,visit our site,hair cuts,hair cutting etc you get the idea.Not tried this but been informed it works.
 Michael Iwasaki said:

Excellent article.

The one part that caught my attention was the part you mentioned about article directories ("In other words, forget about useless directory submissions, article directories, link wheels, forum signatures and comment spam. That's all done, kaput, a useless waste of time."). As a managing partner of a press release service, we have seen a number of people making requests to have their press release either pulled, or requests to remove the links they had placed in their press release.

There have been a few of us (same industry), putting our heads together to try and sort this out as to whether or not a press release is actually doing damage or not for the publisher, and what we concluded was this:

"The purpose of a press release is to wet the appetite of a journalist, blogger or consumer in order to contact them to further a particular story. One should only be writing a press release if there is valuable information to be disseminated, or that will be of interest to the intended audience. It should not be used as a tool to distribute worthless or useless information with the intention of obtaining back links.".

We, amongst a few others in the industry are trying to educate our users that using a press release, for its intended purpose, is still a great marketing tool that any business should be incorporating into their marketing plan, but not their only tool or abused. As far as links within a press release, we try to encourage "less is better" that should NOT point to the same page. Preferably no more than 2 or 3, and make sure that those links are placed for HUMAN BENEFIT, and spread around (i.e., maybe a link to their main page, a blog and or facebook page). So far, our feedback has been positive.

We do not know Google's algorithm, we do not know Penguin and will not pretend to. Our focus is on trying to get people to use a press release for what it is intended for.

Our concern is being categorized as "an article site" that accepts any submission, with any content, with unlimited links.

Do you or anyone else have any thoughts on this?

 Jill Whalen said:
Easy answer. Just make the links not pass PageRank and you'll satisfy everyone other than those who just want to buy links.
 Johnny said:
I agree that gaining Google's trust with an SEO campaign is now about branding more than ever. I usually start a new site with only white hat brand links (URL, my name etc) and nothing else, it's then amazing what happens when you just pop in a primary keyword or two how rankings can do very well. Google is an ever changing beast, and those of us still around should give ourselves a pat on the back :)
 Susan Krichek said:
I remember in my early days when i tried to take shortcuts. Google doesn't play around. I realized one thing. Hard Work pays off far more than anything else. It is so simple yet people take it for granted. HELP PEOPLE,...AND JUST GIVE THEM EXACTLY WHAT THEY WANT. Whats your passion, create a website based on that and the work will be fun. I respect Google fully. I hear so much negative info about them, but why? Its because the ones speaking negative are lazy couch potatoes waiting for money to pour in the bank. SORRY NOT IN GOOGLE WORLD. GET TO WORK!
 Paul said:
This is great stuff Jill. As you know before google's farm animals ran amok the old SEO worked. From the big corporate SEO site to the smaller mom and pop SEO's were successful.

Take article marketing for example - it worked great. But was soon abused by article marketing software that could submit to thousands of article directories with one click. My point is - once something works well it gets abused by spammers, hackers, and the get rich scheme artists. This is why Google is constantly looking for "those who abuse their system".

The new SEO as you mentioned is really good stuff...but just like the old SEO it may someday get hammered with another round of farm animals. Suffice to say are we at the mercy of the Google algorithm? I do my best to keep the Google monster happy.
 Matt said:

I am reading most of this in other places too. I hadn't read that posting comments in forums for your signature link was of no use though. Would you say that posting comments and leaving links in the comment box itself is of some value, or is there no way to gain backlink value through posting comments or posting in blogs anymore? Thanks.
 Jill Whalen said:
@Matt, see my post on Why links you add yourself anywhere are of no use to Google.

 Chris Everett said:
Great stuff, Jill

I thoroughly believe that while the technical side of SEO is critically important (clean, well structured markup, etc.), the perspective that SEOs need to be pushing to our clients is that SEO is all about real marketing these days. Building value, trust, and authority for your website and your company's brand through content marketing and social media is having a tremendous impact for building higher visibility.

It absolutely takes time and there are no short cuts to get there.

Thanks again.