In an industry that abounds in folklore and celebrity influencers, is SEO “best practice” the key to mastering the SERPs or a shallow goal that leads to missed opportunities?
What is “best practice,” who defines it, and why is it so widely adopted?
“Best practice” tends to refer to a method of working that has been generally accepted as better than others at achieving a result.
When we speak about SEO “best practice” it conjures images of page title lengths, word-counts, and Domain Authority thresholds.
It suggests that there is an accepted method of optimizing websites to make them more appealing to the search engines.
There are positives to be found from having a widely agreed set of practices. There is a reassurance that can be felt by both practitioners and their clients.
SEO is an industry that still has so many unknowns.
When you first start out in this industry ranking a webpage can feel like a mix of science and magic.
Best practice gives us the security that we are working in a way that may generate results. It gives comfort and a clear path to follow to those who have no experience.
Best practice also gives clients and stakeholders a feeling of security.
If they are familiar with some aspects of SEO, knowing that their appointed experts appear to be following those guidelines assures them of their legitimacy and potential success.
There are, however, downsides to accepting a set of practices that you have not tested yourself.
“Best practice” is a noble goal, it suggests there is a right and wrong way of acting and that can clearly be defined.
One problem with it within the SEO industry is that even the more common tenants are disputed amongst professionals.
Without confirmation from the search engines, arguments abound.
As seen in recent Twitter conversations following Moz’s Britney Muller’s discovery of a contentious statement in a Google document, we can’t even agree on whether click-through rate is a Google ranking factor.
If seasoned professionals are unsure of what constitutes a ranking factor, the widely believed “best practice” for this industry could be leading us all astray.
“Best practice” also suggests there is only one route to success. In SEO however, there are many facets to growing traffic.
Back in 2017 Google’s Gary Illyes stated in relation to a question about top ranking factors that “it very much depends on the query and the results which signals count more.”
How then can we suggest that there is a “best” way to optimize a page if the signals that determine its ranking are weighted differently for each search query?
The touting of best practice is often the opening gambit of SEO agencies trying to get a foot in the door with a new business.
Often the lack of an H1 on a terms and conditions page, or a missing robots.txt is listed as a fundamental flaw in the optimization of a site bringing doubt over clients’ minds of the efficacy of their incumbent provider.
In reality, however, such a small detail is unlikely to bring the website to its knees as the try-hard agency might allude.
The other concern with best practice is that ticking all of those boxes can be costly.
If the only purpose of including a robots.txt file is to have one then this might not be a good use of an SEO or a developer’s time.
The resource and financial implications of following best practice can result in more important tasks that have the propensity to move the needle being relegated due to time and resource restraints.
Determining if SEO best practice is a help or a hindrance really hinges on how it has formed and is followed.
It could be argued that best practice within the industry doesn’t really exist.
With so many methods shared and taught, however, there is definitely a set of traditions that individuals either trust or have actively rejected.
There are many detailed and valuable guides to SEO for beginners.
They help to signpost the way forward for those who have never optimized for search engines before.
They shine a light on the way search engines work, what they favor, and how websites can capitalize on that.
The real issue with these mediums is not the resources themselves, but how SEO professionals approach them.
They should be treated like a car manual, telling you all you need to know about how the vehicle works, what the warning lights look like, and how to fix the engine if it goes wrong.
Armed with this knowledge we can feel confident to drive off into unchartered territory and explore.
Instead, some have fallen into the trap of approaching these guides like a sat-nav, fully expecting them to guide us to our desired destination of Position 1.
Many of us don’t take the time to wonder though, how is it that webpages with thin content, non-existent backlink profiles or poor meta-tag usage are ranking higher than our own, finely optimized sites?
Unfortunately, the answer would appear to be that sometimes the search engines do not behave in the way we expect them to.
When we try to follow best practice, we are in fact trying to abide by a set of rules that the likes of Google have not backed.
It is like only ever filling your car up with a certain brand of fuel because your local car owners’ forum tells you it’s the best one.
It might actually be the most expensive and unless you experiment with other types of fuel, or the manufacturer confirms the engine was built to perform best with it, why would you take that suggestion as gospel?
Unless there is evidence to back up this claim it would be foolish to assume it is correct.
Search engines are complicated, and the truth is, the algorithms are not known outside of the organization that developed them.
Any attempt to categorically state that they work in a particular way, unless confirmed by the company themselves, is naïve.
Instead, we should use the guides and checklists as our jumping-off point. They should form the start of our testing, holding our hands as we enter the murky world of SEO.
The word “influencer” may conjure up images of make-up mavens, heavily filtered images and exotic backdrops, all hoping to persuade you to buy a product so they get a cut of the sale.
Apart from the odd entrepreneur who is trying to flog their latest online course, the SEO community taking part in social media and forums is largely trying to disseminate information and help others in their quest to improve.
These may be for purely altruistic reasons. It might be to increase their own profile. The result is the same; there are a lot of “experts” in this space touting their view on how SEO works.
There is nothing wrong with professionals who have gained experience and wish to share it with others, it truly is a selfless act.
The problem again is how we approach the insights given by these experts.
The barrier to becoming an SEO influencer is low. How do you decide who is a credible person to pay attention to?
There is the additional problem of differing opinions. There are many well-respected SEO professionals who take the time to really engage with their following.
These people give advice based on their years of experience. There are others with as large a following and impressive a career history who totally disagree with the advice they give.
So who is right?
Whenever I hear SEO best practice discussed, a tweet is often used as the evidence to substantiate it; “I saw [SEO influencer] say on Twitter that click-through rates are a ranking factor”.
Before we know it, this becomes lore.
Agencies hold meetings to update their teams, blog posts are written and strategies are altered to accommodate this new insight.
The issue with the blind following of others’ advice is that it might not be right.
It could be correct for what that SEO has seen on their own site, or within that particular vertical, but how can it be guaranteed that it will be the case for our own?
Best practice seems to pass down the lineage of SEOs through word of mouth. Juniors trust that what their seniors say is correct.
If those seniors are trusting what they see on Twitter without testing and questioning then the industry becomes rife with information that is inaccurate.
At best, the information being spread forms another checklist.
There are many best practice rules that can be questioned. Below are a few persistent ones that are often championed without question.
Sixty characters maximum or your rankings will suffer. That’s a myth that seems to raise its head ever so often and particularly amongst newer SEO practitioners.
Although truncation does occur on both mobile and desktop SERPs, this differs between devices and search engines.
This image is an example of a page’s title truncated in the desktop search results.
This image shows the same page’s title truncated in the mobile SERPs
Google’s own guidelines on writing page titles suggest we “avoid unnecessarily long or verbose titles, which are likely to get truncated when they show up in the search results.”
There is no maximum character limit stated, however.
In fact, as discussed by Moz, “there’s no exact character limit, because characters can vary in width and Google’s display titles max out (currently) at 600 pixels.”
Imagine an “I” compared to a “W”, these take up a differing number of pixels. Sixty wide characters might take up more than 600 pixels, whereas 60 thinner characters may leave space for more letters.
My agency, Avenue Digital, recently ran an experiment to see if Google reads and indexes keywords past the truncation point.
We found that Google did pick up the keywords in the title, despite them being truncated.
This suggests that the arbitrary character limit is unnecessary for ranking purposes and therefore only needs to be considered for click-through optimization.
The issue with keeping your page titles to 60 characters or fewer means your goal of avoiding truncation in the SERPs might not be achieved and you could well be missing out on valuable keyword real-estate.
As Google is picking up words after the point of truncation and ranking the page based on those keywords (although to what degree these keywords are factored into rankings remains undetermined), then it would be foolish to miss out on this opportunity to include keywords that could help your rankings.
Often one on the checklist when auditing a website is the robots.txt. It doesn’t seem to go further than that.
Now, what does the file contain?
Is it necessary considering the set-up of the site?
More often, simply, is there one present?
The presence of a robots.txt is not going to impact the crawling, indexation, or ranking of your website.
Therefore, when this point is raised in audits or adding a robots.txt is escalated as an urgent task, it is another example of best practice being followed blindly without consideration for the benefits.
When a task is executed without any clear understanding of what it is hoped to achieve then the cost of implementation should be ruled prohibitive.
The Google Search Console disavow tool is dangerous. It allows people with little knowledge of what they are doing to easily decimate years of constructive outreach efforts.
One common assertion in the SEO industry is that “bad” backlinks should be disavowed.
However, with recent iterations of the Google algorithm, even Google spokespeople have stated that for the majority of sites the disavow tool is not needed.
Google’s own John Mueller has declared that we shouldn’t “fret the cruft” when using the disavow tool.
That it is really designed for use with links that you intentionally built that go against Google’s guidelines, not the ones that have organically grown in your backlink profile over the years.
Following the “best practice” advice of disavowing any “spammy” link can damage your success. It takes time and resources away from work that could actually benefit your SEO rankings and traffic.
It can also lead to genuinely helpful backlinks being disavowed because their origin is unknown or they are misunderstood to be harmful links.
Another myth of the best practice lore is that copy needs to be long in order to rank.
When asked by copywriters or clients how long a piece of copy should be “for SEO” we’ll often reply “the longer the better.”
Some may even give a word count minimum, such as 800 words or even longer.
However, this is not necessarily accurate. It is more correct to say that copy should be as long as is needed to convey an adequate answer to a searcher’s query.
For example, when searching “what is the weather like in Portugal”, the first organic listing in my SERPs is https://www.theweathernetwork.com/pt/14-day-weather-trend/faro/albufeira.
The total word count for copy on this page, discounting anchor text for other pages on the site, is less than 20.
Second place is https://www.accuweather.com/en/pt/albufeira/273200/weather-forecast/273200, which has even fewer non-anchor text words.
These two pages are ranking with barely any copy on them at all because the answer to the searcher’s query can be summarized in a simple graphic showing the temperature over the upcoming week.
Giving copywriters a minimum number of words they have to write for acceptable content is a distracting and unnecessary stipulation that can lead to poor copy being churned out.
For pages where conversion is key having reams of text that does not add value to the reader can be detrimental in achieving a sale or contact.
Best practice should be treated like training wheels.
But like any training wheels, at some point, they need to be removed so you can ride over more rocky terrain and accelerate.
Following “best practice” can distract from activities that will actually benefit your SEO efforts and in some cases can be harmful.
Use it as a guide in your early days but if you have called yourself an SEO for more than a year it would be worth re-evaluating what you “know” about SEO and seek to prove your knowledge with results.
All screenshots taken by author, June 2019