Letting Go of Old SEO Habits

About 25 years ago, Digital Equipment Corporation started working on what we now know as the world’s first massively successful, comprehensive, automated search engine. Until that point, web publishers managed their own directories of links and content. Users could search for text within those directories, but each one had its own quirks.

What made AltaVista so groundbreaking was its approach to crawling, sorting, and de-cluttering the web. Yahoo even started using it to power its own search results. Yet, by the year 2000, Google showed up to dominate the booming search engine marketplace and AltaVista started its slow fade.

Search engines still haven’t been around long enough for us to truly define what works and what doesn’t.

I’m not just nostalgic for the late 1990s today. I’ve been working with a few clients on their copy, and knocking through some of the choices they made at the recommendation of a few SEO experts.

Our clients have heard phrases like “this is the way it’s always been done,” and “this is what the search engines expect you to do.”

I disagree.

Google changes its algorithm at least every 18 months, probably sooner. Bing is on its own cycle—and if you disregard Bing, you’re writing off a third of your audience.

Carl Benz finished building his first two-seat automotive in 1885. It took 24 years to get to the first paved “highway.” That’s the same length of time from AltaVista to today.

If you’re getting SEO advice from anyone, remember that the best experts in the field know that what they’re selling you works right now, but isn’t guaranteed to work as well next year, and may not even work at all in 18 months. Remember, we’re just hitting the “let’s pave the highways” phase of digital media.

Let’s give up on some old search engine optimization tactics that won’t work as well, or at all, after 2019.

With help from our research team, I’ve pulled together a short list of SEO tactics I’ve been telling clients to stop worrying about this year.

SEO Shift #1: Dive deeper to engage real humans.

Stop cramming your site with hundreds of short pages on the same topic. Unless you’ve organically built a blog or a reference library over the course of a few years, search engines won’t reward you for volume.

Instead, invest time in well-researched, thoughful stories designed to engage your audience. Even a single-serving site packed with a dense amount of information will perform better than a site that’s got thousands of small snippets.

Thanks to personalization and analytics, search engines know what links humans are clicking and how much time they’re spending on those pages. They’re rewarding the “best” instead of the “most.”

SEO Shift #2: Stop obsessing over your contextual, internal links.

You can usually tell a car’s model year from the nuances of its design. (For instance, the Original Beetle, the New Beetle, and the New New Beetle.)

Websites are the same as cars this way, too. If I see I page with a massive number of links on key search terms, I’m guessing it was either produced between 2007-2009—or that’s when the folks running it got trained. If I was writing this story back then, every paragraph on this page would have a link from the phrase “search engine optimization” to the landing page on my site where I try to sell you SEO services.

Search engines figured that trick out a long time ago. At best, the algorithms ignore those links now. At worst, you can get penalized for acting spammy. And when you’re writing for humans, you really want them to follow you all the way to the end of the story, not dive out in the middle of the first paragraph.

SEO Shift #3: Start optimizing for your customer journey instead of for the next click.

You get what you measure. If you’re focusing so much on click-through rates on your site, you can easily lose sight of the real action you want visitors to take when they get there. I’ve been encouraging our clients to embrace longer time-on-site metrics, especially when site content leads to a clear call to action.

Short-form content worked well when your plan was to build up a cadence of visits from search engines over time. Long-form content works well in today’s environment, where your site visitors are far more likely to recommend and share links to longer pieces full of personality and substance.

SEO Shift #4: Embrace your mobile users.

Every second your site takes to load can cost you about 7 percent of your audience. If you’re loading up your site with widgets and autoplay videos and layers of animation, just stop.

Assess why your audience shows up at your site in the first place. Leverage responsive, accessible design to ensure that every visitor to your site gets right to your message as fast as possible. If you really love data-intensive images and videos, use a trick called “lazy-loading” to let your message cascade onto the screen.

SEO Shift #5: Assume everything I just told you will go stale in 18 months.

With a few exceptions for publicly traded companies, you’re under no obligation to keep every page of your website intact forever. Perform a content inventory every few months, and a full content audit at least once every two years. Every piece of content on your site should do its job. If it’s old, or irrelevant, let it go.

That goes for this article, too. I’m hoping that these human-centered trends in search optimization keep growing. But I’m also ready to write another article like this in two years, telling you what our team got right and what else you can start to ignore.

We just started paving the roads, and nobody’s invented the electric stoplight yet. In this analogy, that doesn’t happen for at least three more years.


Joe Taylor Jr. has produced stories about media, technology, entertainment, and personal finance for over 25 years. His work has been featured on NPR, CNBC, Financial Times Television, and ABC News. After launching one of public radio's first successful digital platforms, Joe helped dozens of client companies launch or migrate their online content libraries. Today, Joe serves as a user experience consultant for a variety of Fortune 500 and Inc. 5000 businesses. Twitter | Facebook | Instagram