High-Impact Entrepreneurship

100 lessons learned from 10 years of SEO

Reprinted from Quick Sprout. Original article here.

By Sujan Patel

This June marks my tenth year in SEO, which means that I’ve gone through dozens of different algorithm changes and implemented SEO techniques on hundreds of websites across various market verticals.

I’ve worked both in-house and at agencies, but all this experience doesn’t mean that I’ve got the final answer on what works and what doesn’t work when it comes to SEO.  In fact, I’ve made tons of mistakes along the way – and today, I wanted to share with you some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my career.

The following lessons are all based on my own experiences and screw-ups.  They aren’t just related to SEO, but to my life, business and entrepreneurial pursuits in general as well.  I hope you find them useful when it comes to avoiding the same mistakes I’ve made in the past!

1. Don’t link-build too fast – When I first started in SEO, I built a site and started going gung-ho, not realizing that I should pace myself.  I’d built all the links I could, and then be totally inconsistent about my efforts in the following months.  As you might expect, my rankings shot up but, tumbled down just as fast – a situation I could have avoided by taking a steady, more sustainable approach.

2. Meta descriptions matter – Even if they don’t have any SEO value now, they’re still useful from a CTR standpoint.

3. Don’t obsess over rankings and traffic – Things move monthly; not daily or weekly.

4. There’s a fine line between being analytical and being obsessed – When I first started, I would watch my site’s rankings every day, every hour, thinking something would change.  As a result, I was wasting time obsessing over something I couldn’t change, when my time would have been better spent building extra links or writing extra blog posts.

5. There’s no replacement for a good product – I’ve done SEO for hundreds of sites, and I found the best SEO tactic is a great product – and that will never change.

6. There is a huge difference between optimizing ecommerce, lead generation sites, small sites and user generated sites – You need to understand not just the current situation of a website, but the type of website it is, as your whole strategy should revolve around the type of site you’re working with.

7. Tactics come and go, but creativity never dies – I hate seeing people blindly following the advice of other SEO experts, without even thinking about whether or not the techniques they’re using work well for their sites.  You can’t go wrong by putting the emphasis on providing value for your customers and finding creative ways to do it.

8. Age is just a number – The age of a domain and site definitely help a site rank, but don’t let your young site intimidate you.  There are plenty of other factors weighted in the ranking algorithms, which gives you plenty of other opportunities to beat your competition.

9. Big brands aren’t that hard to beat – In general, I’ve found that the bigger the brand, the bigger their budget – but the slower they are to move.  Just think about how much effort it takes to move a speed boat versus a cargo ship.

10. Diversify everything you do – Google devalues entire link types on a regular basis, so don’t get caught with your pants down!

11. SEO is evolving with marketing – Search engine optimization becomes more complex every day, which is why it’s incredibly important to stay up-to-date on industry news.

12. Write content to reach your audience – Yes, SEO is important, but if you don’t have something good waiting on your site for the visitors who find your company through the SERPs, there’s no reason to go to all the trouble of getting your site ranked well.

13. Every SEO needs to know programming languages – Your site’s code plays a big role in its optimization, so take the time to get familiar with what’s going on behind the scenes.

14. There’s no alternative to experience – With SEO, you can read all the books and blog posts in the world.  But there are so many moving parts that, unless you actually do it, you won’t know if that strategy or tactic is working.  I’ve been lucky enough to work on hundreds of different sites and have learned the hard way what works and what doesn’t.  Until you get penalized and fix that penalty, you’re never going to be 100% sure.

15. Cute animals are the worst – Whenever Google releases an animal-themed update (like the recent “Panda” and “Penguin”), you know it’s time to get worried!

16. It’s all relative (think “rel=canonical,” “rel=alternative” and “rel=author”) – There are several different rel tags out there, so it’s SEO 101 to keep track of them properly, as each option can help ensure the proper flow of PageRank and SEO value throughout your site.

17. Internet marketing never dies (whether that’s SEO, ASO, PPC, CRO, mobile, email or display marketing) – Every month or two, I read an article about how some different aspect of SEO is dying.  Here’s the thing…  SEO will never die.  It will evolve and the platform you optimize will change, but the theories and concepts will still there as long as people continue to run websites.

18. Keyword research is the only thing that matters – Do your keyword research wrong.  You have to nail this down right off the bat because, if you’re wrong, everything executed afterwards will be a wasted effort.

19. There’s no replacement for unique content – Stop trying to fool yourself that your spun articles represent any kind of value for your audience.

20. It’s always better to be natural than over-optimized – In my opinion, Penguin was only the first step in what’s going to be a long line of future over-optimization penalties.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you when your optimized-to-a-fault website gets dinged!

21. PageRank is just another number – There are plenty of other, more important numbers that you should be tracking – including outbound links on a page, external outbound links and inbound links – rather than focusing exclusively on toolbar PageRank.

22. You can measure authority and trust – If you aren’t paying attention to either metric, chances are you’re already being beat out by your competitors.

23. Bounce rate is very important – It’s a small factor in SEO, but a huge factor in ROI.  You should be working constantly to improve your bounce rate, as this gives your users better value and provides you with a better ROI.  If you can decrease your bounce rate by 25%, that’s 25% more visitors that can take action on your site.

24. Your SEO and product teams need to work together – Having good products is one of the best things you can do for your SEO.  For this reason, you need to work closely with your product team to make sure your sites are properly optimized.  Out-of-sync teams can waste time burning their tires just to catch up on optimizing the latest product releases.

25. Developers like to use big words – Don’t let this intimidate you!  Treat them with respect and try to speak to them on their level.  Working with technical minds doesn’t have to be as complicated as you think.

26. Long live the <title> tag!

27. Both 301 redirects and 404 pages matter – If you haven’t optimized these two site components, you’re missing out on a major opportunity to capture web visitors.

28. SEO is magic – After working on SEO for hundreds of sites, I find that there’s always a little unknown involved.  Often times it’s due to not fully understanding the situation, because of a lack of tools or information on a site’s history.  But there’s always a little bit of unknown evolved, so you should always be prepared for that.

29. There’s no replacement for relevancy – Whether in terms of content creation, on-page optimization or link building, relevancy matters and should be a top priority for your website.

30. Speed has been an issue since 1999 – The faster your website, the better (even though plenty of people seem to forget about this one).

31. “(not provided)” is not a problem – Even if you don’t have all the information you need, you can still move forward as long as you understand your product and customers.

32. Never try to screw over your competitors – It’s just good karma to avoid shady stuff.  Instead, use that energy to build an extra link or do more SEO for your site.  You don’t need to play defense until you’re at the top of the SERPs (and even then, the best defense is a strong offense).

33. Always try to learn from your competition – Don’t get frustrated about being outranked.  Instead, try to identify the strategies your Top 5 competitors are using to beat you, and then turn around employ them on your own site.

34. The only thing I miss about Yahoo is the Open Site Explorer – Seriously, talk about a company that’s behind the times…

35. Don’t pay for fancy SEO tools, build them – There are hundreds of great tools out there, but I find that my favorite tools are usually the ones we built internally that help us speed up the simplest task

36. Money doesn’t buy rankings – It helps, but what you really need is a good strategy.

37. It’s better to be safe than sorry – This goes for all SEO tactics. Google is getting stricter and stricter, so avoid anything that might be construed as over-optimization at all costs.

38. Don’t build links, build customers – Google updates can’t destroy your business if it’s built on people, not SEO metrics.

39. Too much of anything is bad – Don’t focus on any one technique too much.  One year from now, your link building tactic could get you penalized, so if it feels wrong morally, don’t do it.

40. SEO can be applied to many aspects of your life

41. Always do amazing work – This is the only rule in my life that I’ve stuck to.  Because of it, I’ve had some amazing opportunities.  Doing good work will always help you – just try it and see!

42. Build an army – Our first hire at Single Grain was Ross Hudgens, and now, he’s one of our biggest evangelists.

43. Get some fresh air – There’s so much going on in the SEO industry that sometimes you just need a break.  Take a vacation, drink a beer and don’t forget that there’s a world beyond your computer.

44. Learn how to improve your CTR from billboards – Billboards have very little time to capture attention, so they’re masters of the quick sell.  When a billboard catches your eye, figure out what they’re doing and how they caught your attention.

45. Happy hour is the best place for ideas – Often, you’ll have your best ideas when you’re not directly thinking about work.  If you ever feel stuck, grab a beer and sleep on it.

46. Networking is the only thing that matters in the first five years of working – Start as a peon.  To get anywhere in life, you have to meet the right people so get out, get a good position and focus on listening to the knowledge of experts.  Success will come with time and, in fact, I can pinpoint key achievements in my career from the people I met in my first five years of working in SEO.

47. Give everything you know away – SEO is hard, which means that there are always opportunities to help others.  You don’t have to be secretive about what you do (heck, most of the time, when I give everything away, people don’t ever react on it).  It’s still good karma though, so give it away and good things will come.

48. Teach as many people as possible – You never know when the people you help out will return the favor with future business referrals.

49. There’s a difference between marketing, advertising and branding – If you don’t know the difference and have a strategy in place for each aspect of your business, you’re missing out.

50. There will always be ups and downs – Don’t take your “up” times for granted, and don’t let your “down” times cause you to give up.

51. Always go for sustainability – This is true whether you’re talking rankings, income, happiness or anything else in life.

52. Location matters – Living in an industry-concentrated city like San Francisco leaves me feeling motivated and inspired at the end of each day.

53. Take risks – Make them smart risks, but don’t allow yourself to get stuck in a rut.

54. Talking shit works – It isn’t necessary to burn bridges to do so, but don’t be afraid of rocking the boat every now and then.

55. You will always have to suck up – Whether you’re dealing with investors or clients, keep in mind that your livelihood and happiness often rest in other peoples’ hands.  Deal with the fact that this means you’ll have to suck up to them every so often.

56. Think scalability – Always have this idea at the top of your mind, as it’s the ultimate key to earning higher profits and making more money.

57. Always have a strategy – There are enough resources in the world that you shouldn’t ever feel like you’re approaching things aimlessly.

58. There’s an app for that – In this day and age, there’s an app available for just about every problem you have.  Whether it relates to SEO or life, it’s just a Google search away.

59. Lawyers suck – Whether they’re on your side (in the form of legal fees) or not (if you’re getting sued) they cost a lot and are best avoided at all costs.

60. Fire fast – Bad employees hurt the people around them much more than it’ll hurt to let them go.

61. Don’t optimize for social media, be social – You don’t have to try to “look natural” if you simply are natural in the first place.

62. Just f***ing do it!

63. Don’t rely on other people’s money – If you’re starting a business, don’t build it just to raise money.  Even if you’re running an SEO campaign, you can still do it with little to no money.

64. Read books – Fiction, non-fiction, whatever.  Reading helps improve your writing skills and exposes you to tons of new ideas.

65. Figure out the difference between fad and trend, both in SEO and life – Don’t jump on every bandwagon you come across if it doesn’t make sense in terms of your overall plan.

66. Avoid the SEO hangover – Just like having too much alcohol will leave you feeling poorly the next day, taking in too much SEO information can leave you feeling overwhelmed.  Avoid information overload by researching only the subject you need at any given time.

67. More isn’t always better – Practice tasteful SEO that’s in line with your overall goals and vision.

68. Don’t forget about your family and friends – If you let your relationships with your family and friends fall apart because you’re too busy with work, they won’t be there for you when you need them most.

69. Capitalize carefully – Don’t rush into accepting financing without a careful consideration of the impact on your business.  Trust yourself, and use this faith to stick to the business growth plan you’ve identified.

70. Fail fast – If something isn’t working, drop it to pursue other opportunities.

71. Focus on habits – Having goals is important, but it’s the habits you adopt that allow you to achieve these overall visions.

72. Validate your learning – Take time to assess what’s working in both your SEO campaigns and in your life.

73. Be prepared for the pressures of a public life – It’s not all bad, but there is a certain amount of pressure on public personalities to perform.  Don’t get into the world of web management if you aren’t comfortable being found online by strangers.

74. Don’t feed the trolls – Some people just suck, but don’t let them drag you down too.

75. You can’t have everything – Or, at least, you can’t everything all at once.

76. Avoid income inflation – If you’re successful in business, your income should go up, but be careful not to let your spending get out of hand.  Bad things happen to even the best of people, so don’t over-extend yourself.

77. Be grateful – Try finding at least one person every day to say “thank you” to.

78. Eat well and exercise regularly – I like good beer and rich foods as much as the next guy, but I also know that I’m more productive when I’m healthy.  Everything in moderation!

79. If you don’t need it, don’t buy it – Don’t chase after the newest, shiniest SEO tool or ebook.  Work with what you have and only invest in your business when you can afford to do so.

80. Give back to your community – Take time every year to help the less fortunate, out of recognition of everything you’ve been blessed with.

81. Pursue ideas thoughtfully – Even if you have dozens of great ideas, don’t rush into them all at once.  Wait for the right moment.

82. Learn to say “no” – Not every request you get will be a good fit for your business.  If an opportunity doesn’t fit with your long-range vision, take it off the table.

83. Don’t overextend yourself – Taking on more clients or projects than you can handle leads to stress and burnout (not to mention missed deadlines!).  Avoid it whenever possible.

84. Eliminate clutter – Clean desk = clean mind.

85. There aren’t any shortcuts, in SEO or in life – Anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

86. Quit bitching and do the work – Don’t complain about how hard it is to find good links or to get to the top of the SERPs.  Reinvest that energy in actually doing the work and you’ll see much more success.

87. Conversion rates should be your top goal – SEO only matters if you’re seeing an improvement in your bottom line as the result of your efforts.

88. Pay attention to your ROI – Quantify your actions and be ruthless about eliminating any SEO techniques that don’t contribute a positive ROI to your website.

89. Baby steps make a difference – SEO can seem overwhelming, but doing as little as building one new link a day will make a difference over time.

90. Listen to Matt Cutts

91. Be wary of overselling – If you can’t do something, don’t tell your clients that you can.  Overselling is a quick way to ruin your reputation.

92. SEO is a race, not a sprint – Don’t get frustrated if you don’t see results right away.  SEO is something you’ve got to be in for the long haul.

93. SEO isn’t the “end all, be all” – There are tons of different ways to get traffic online.  If SEO isn’t the right fit for your company, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t dozens of other techniques you can use to build your web presence.

94. It’s easiest to secure backlinks by publishing great content– Building good content and getting people to share it is one of the easiest formulas out there for generating backlinks.

95. SEO is never “done”

96. Coffee is no substitute for good sleep – You can’t do good work if you’ve been up for three days in a row, so cut the crap and get a good night’s sleep.

97. There’s always something you can be doing better – Even SEO experts make continuing education part of their businesses, so make it a priority to always be looking for ways to improve.

98. Make monitoring industry updates a regular part of your routine – Every day, try to scan through SEO news site headlines (I use seo.alltop.com for this) so that you don’t miss out on major announcements.

99. Take regular digital sabbaticals – If it works for Bill Gates, it’ll probably work for you, so try to find at least a few days a year to regroup and tune out popular media.

100. You can’t outsmart Google – Google hires some of the top scientists, engineers and PhDs in the world every year.  The odds of some “sneaky trick” you’ve found on an SEO blog outsmarting this brain trust aren’t very good.

Conclusion

If there’s any one thing I’ve learned from my decade in the business, it’s that there’s no substitution for failure.  You’re going to make mistakes – and it’s going to suck – but if you can draw lessons from your experiences like I’ve done above, you’ll ultimately wind up more successful than if you blow off your mistakes.

With that in mind, what are some of your biggest mistakes and what lessons have you taken from these failures?

Sujan Patel is the co-founder of Single Grain, an SEO Agency based in San Francisco, CA. Single Grain specializes in helping start ups and Fortune 500 companies with their digital marketing strategy. Follow Sujan on Twitter.

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