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The God Off: How To Use Free SEO Plugins Properly

On Monday I posted about five easy ways to market your blog posts, and an interesting point came up in the comments. Today, I thought I’d address that issue instead of my planned post, which I’ll get to later in the year.

One of the methods I outlined in Monday’s post was the use of SEO to drive traffic to your content. This prompted a comment from Kevin Arrow over at SarkeMedia, the fabulous people behind the equally awesome 30 Day Blogging Challenge (if you’ve not tried this yet, you’re missing one the blogging boosts out there!):

The God Off How To Use Free SEO Plugins Properly

The Problem With Free SEO Plugins

Simply put, where SEO is concerned there’s a bit of a God Off going on. The likes of Google, Yahoo, Bing! and other search-based sites form a pantheon of Search Engine Gods.

You will often hear me talk about things which please and displease the Search Engine Gods. They all have algorithms that respond to particular things. By tailoring your content to provide them with the things they want, you are paying homage to the gods and this pleases them.

They will reward you with a higher ranking on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

But there are other gods in the SEO sphere, newer gods, lesser gods, who were born out of a rising need among bloggers to please the Search Engine Gods.

And if you have a free SEO plugin installed on your site, you’re already worshipping them.

I referenced Yoast SEO in my response to Kevin specifically for two reasons:

  1. It’s the most widely used of these plugins
  2. It has a distinctive ‘traffic light’ system to tell you when your posts are SEO friendly, and when they need work. A green light means good, a red means bad, an amber means you’re middling and there’s room for improvement.

Why It’s A Mistake To Worship The Green Light

As Kevin pointed out, these plugins have been getting a lot better in recent years, and people have come to rely on them. There is the widely held belief that all one needs to do in order to optimise a blog posts for SEO is make that damn light turn green.

It’s a bit of an obsession.

But the result of this is that all your hard work goes to making the Yoast Gods happy.

And the Yoast Gods (or the gods of whatever plugin you have) are not the Search Engine Gods.

Two completely different pantheons.

Why is this a problem?

Turning that light green makes your posts perfectly optimised in theory, but not in practice.

The plugins may have got extremely good, but they still run on a couple of fundamental principles that are, by modern SEO standards, incredibly out-dated:

Keyword Stuffing

This is the notion that repeating the same keyword as many times as humanly possible in a post will make it rank better on SERPs.

Nope, WRONG!

You will actually be PENALISED by the Search Engine Gods for Keywords Stuffing!

You see, the gods have learned to recognise keywords that are similar, phrases that are related, and judge a post based on the overall quality of the content, not the number of times a single word or phrase appears. It’s called Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) and it’s the way forward where SEO is concerned.

There are certain places it’s important to include your keyword(s), such as the metadata, the URL, and the introduction of your post (which is often used by SERPs in place of the metadata), along with the occasional heading and the file names and alt-text on images.

These are good places to include your keyword.

Here are a few bad ones:

  • Every single header you use throughout the whole post, even when it makes no sense and is repetitive and irritating.
  • Tagging it onto the beginning and end of sentences just for the sake of including it more often.
  • Not using abbreviations after the introduction of the phrase and instead using the full thing every time you mention it. Every. Damn. Time. (If you’re wondering why this would be annoying consider how tedious it would be to read ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ every time someone wrote SEO!)
  • Finding ‘ingenious’ ways to work it into sentences, not because it adds to the sentence or is necessary to convey your meaning, but simply because it’s another instance it appears in the post.
  • Using it as the entirety of your title when it’s insufficient, or including it to the detriment of the title. Writing compelling and clickable headlines that actually get people to read your posts is an art form. Sometimes, it’s better to write a great headline than it is to include the keyword you optimised the post for in the headline. If the sole reason you’re writing a post is to create a piece of content that will attract people searching for that keyword, then go for it, but if your objective goes beyond SEO alone (i.e. creating high-value content, list building, demonstrating your expertise, etc.) you write the best title you possible can, regardless of the keyword.
  • The opening sentence of your post. Not because it fits, makes sense, or is in any way relevant to what you’re saying there, but because the Yoast Gods demand it!

Simplistic Language

A lot of what determines a post’s ‘readability’ (at least as far as the Yoast Gods are concerned) is based on how clear and simple the language you use is. Short sentences (leaving no room for complex evaluation or deep thoughts), short words (severely limiting you vocabulary), no complex phrases (giving the impression you’re speaking to a child), no strings of sentences starting with the same word of phrase (frequently ruining any cadence you’re trying to build).

While some of this is genuinely useful stuff (keeping paragraphs short and using regular subheadings, for example, are both genuinely good pieces of advice), the majority of it is just dumbing down your content to the lowest common denominator.

You aren’t making your posts a better read by conforming to all this crap. You are sacrificing the genuine readability of your post, and a lot of its value to the Yoast Gods, and neither the Search Engine Gods nor your audience will appreciate it.

There are certain contexts in which simple language is beneficial. Product descriptions and website copy, for example, frequently benefit from keeping things short and simple.

But this is more for the sake of clarity and scannability than it is a reflection of your audience’s desire to read simple language, or anything relating to SEO algorithms.

Those algorithms get smarter and smarter every single year, they know quality writing when they see it. Dumb it down too much and they will actually value it less, just as your audience will value it less.

Here’s What Free SEO Plugins Are Good For…

Despite my criticism, there are some great benefits to using an SEO plugin, provided you understand their limitations and don’t sacrifice the quality of your posts for the sake of making that damn light go green.

I actually have Yoast SEO installed on my own sites. It’s a helpful plugin. But I am not, and never will be, a slave to the green light. Here’s how they are actually helpful:

  • They remind you to include your keyword in the URL (which usually needs simplifying and setting, and is easily forgotten).
  • They’re also great at reminding you that you should have alt-text set on any images you’ve used, which is something else it’s easy to forget.
  • They remind you to set a meta description, also easily overlooked.
  • They’re helpful at flagging sections that are too long and need to be broken up with more subheadings.

In short, they’re great at putting the finishing touches on your SEO, but you should not be sitting re-writing your post, after you have painstakingly crafted, edited, and proofread it, just so the light goes green.

The only thing you’re achieving by doing that is making the Yoast Gods happy. And in the great God Off, the Search Engine Gods still rule supreme.

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