Don’t Sweat the Small SEO Stuff

100% Organic - A Column From Search Engine Land Among clients, forum members, newsletter subscribers, and seminar attendees, many hours of my day are spent answering questions about organic SEO. One thing I’ve noticed is that newbies and oldies alike are paralyzed when it comes to optimizing their websites because they have an irrational fear of doing something wrong.

Part of this fear and uncertainty comes from a misunderstanding of SEO and how it should be used as a marketing tool. SEO is not some sort of paid placement or a search engine positioning tool. Due to ever-changing search engine algorithms, attempts to move up in the rankings by a few positions for one specific keyword phrase are mostly futile. This is not to say that it can’t be done, it’s just that the jump will not be permanent.

This effect is even more pronounced because today’s search engines have numerous data centers as well as personalized and geographical components to them. In other words, doing a search for a specific keyword phrase at different times or different days or even on another computer may show your site ranking differently in the search engines each time. Therefore, it’s critical to look at the big picture for your SEO campaign, as opposed to sweating the small SEO stuff.

The important things I’m talking about are stuff like the age, popularity, and authority of your site, as well as its usability and overall appeal to its target audience.

By the small stuff, I mean the picky details that paralyze people. Things like how many words or characters should be in a title tag. Or in what order those words should be placed. Or how many times a keyword phrase should be in the copy. Or how many keyword phrases any page can be optimized for. Or should commas be used in the Meta keyword tag. Or should file names have hyphens in them. Or should headlines use H1 tags (or H2 tags, or whatever).

Guess what? None of that stuff matters! Pretty crazy coming from an SEO, huh? But seriously, it really doesn’t matter. When you get caught up in those minor details, you will lose your focus on what does matter. For instance, arguably one of the most important SEO things you can do is in-depth keyword research. Yet time and again those who have no data on what people are really typing into search engines will ask in what order the keywords should appear in their titles. Half the time, they’re using words that people don’t type into the search engines!

And then there are those who stress over the number of times a keyword phrase should appear on their page, yet the page is buried so deeply in the site architecture that it won’t be given any weight by the engines anyway!

Despite what Google and their webmaster guidelines would like you to believe, there are no rules when it comes to SEO, and making honest mistakes isn’t going to get your site banned. Too many or two few words somewhere is not going to land you in Google Hell. Playing with your title tags until you are satisfied that they are helping to drive traffic to your site is a good thing, but there is no absolute right or wrong formula for them. You could create your title tag using 50 different configurations and still have the same rankings.

This doesn’t mean you should stuff keywords anywhere and everywhere. It simply means that if you’re truly making your site better for your human visitors while also keeping the search engines in mind, you can pretty much do whatever you want—it’s your site! Never be afraid to test out lots of different SEO techniques—you can’t hurt anything permanently. Just be careful of falling into the old trap of mixing up cause and effect. Remember that rankings go up and down at any given moment in time, and making your headline an H1 may not have caused the higher (or lower) ranking that you noticed a few days later. Most likely, the difference would have occurred with or without your change.

Good SEO for the 21st century is not contained in the small stuff. Like most marketing strategies, it’s about building up credibility and trust for your brand and your website, which in turn will naturally help it in the search engines as you work on (but not obsess over) the small stuff.

Jill Whalen, CEO and founder of High Rankings, a search marketing firm outside of Boston, and co-founder of SEMNE, a New England search marketing networking organization, has been performing SEO since 1995. Jill is the host of the High Rankings Advisor search engine marketing newsletter. The 100% Organic column appears Thursdays at Search Engine Land.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: All Things SEO Column | Channel: SEO


About The Author: is a pioneer in SEO, beginning in the field in the early 1990s and founding High Rankings in 1995. If you enjoy Jill's articles at Search Engine Land, be sure to subscribe to her High Rankings Advisor Search Marketing Newsletter for SEO articles, SEM advice and discounts on industry events and products.

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  • Kimber Cook

    kudos! great post, i agree 100%.

  • Natasha Robinson

    Hey Jill,

    I’m usually not one of these commenters who post the cheerleader style, “You’re great” or “Great post” comments (I lean more toward the snarky side – someone reading this is saying “No, duh?” right now – lol). But I gotta say, yes, this was a great article and one that website owners need to read.

  • feedthebot

    Jill, I agree with alot of what you say, but I totally disagree with how you referred to the Google guidelines when you said..

    “Despite what Google and their webmaster guidelines would like you to believe, there are no rules when it comes to SEO”

    The Google webmaster guidelines state implicitly to “make pages for users, not search engines” they go on to suggest that you ask yourself “Would I do this if search engines didn’t exist?”

    The Google guidelines are saying “don’t sweat the small stuff” more than anyone else out there, and they have been for years.

    In my description of the “Avoid tricks” guideline on feedthebot I highlight this. I also give some examples of how not to make such decisions on my Make pages for users page

    Do you actually think that the guidelines are suggesting that you put a certain amount of words on a page? or any of the other small stuff?

    They don’t. If the guidelines had a title, it would be “Don’t sweat the small stuff” perhaps with, here are a few things you may want to pay attention to so we know your web page exists.

    I liked your article, and I think it highlights something that is being forgotten which is highlighted in no better way than in the manner that Google compactly explained all this.

    “Make pages for users”


  • Miriam

    I appreciated this article, Jill.

    I think the reason that the paralysis you mention occurs is that business owners ‘hear’ things, and have no scale on which to measure the importance of things they hear mentioned.

    For example, most SEOs agree that the title tag is still the most powerful on-page element, but that’s because we think about this stuff all day and it’s like saying “it’s important to put a sign on your business”. It’s obvious to us. But, to a business owner who is new to the web, none of this is old news; hence the good message in your article.

    At this point in the game, folks like us know the rules to the point where we can almost forget them and just write normally. But I think this may be because, in the beginning, we studied those rules and, perhaps without realizing it, developed a style of document development that takes humans and bots into consideration at all times, rather effortlessly.

    But, first, we had to learn the rules, I’d say, and it wasn’t a step we could have skipped. Even though it all makes perfect sense to us now to format web documents a certain way, it’s because we’ve been doing it for so long, it has become ‘natural’. So while I think it is truly excellent advice that business owners shouldn’t go nuts about pleasing the bots, I do think overlooking those basic ‘rules’ would be missing the first steps you take to learn how to walk before you can run without thinking about it.

    Good article!

  • SeoExpertsToGo


    Good article.
    I understand your point, although most site owners I deal with wouldn’t know enough to sweat over the small stuff, that’s what they pay me for:-)

    I prefer to teach them good habits by showing them how they relate to their potential customers.

    I pull up some search results in Google that I know I can use to make my point.
    When they see results where the title is “Home Page”, and/or the description is nothing but navigation links, they begin to understand the importance of good titles and descriptions.

    Or I show them results all from one site where the title and description is the same for 10 pages in a row.

    Then I ask, “How is this helpful to your prospective customer?”. They get the idea.

    So, I agree with you up to a point, we don’t need to get caught up in the minor details (keyword count, etc), but there are still some good basic rules to be followed that create a better experience for the searcher, and just happen to make the SE’s happy too.


    - Frank Baxter

  • identity

    Beware the forest for the trees.

    Yes, it is all too easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, for site owners and SEOs alike. Perhaps it is because we feel that we have a remote chance at controlling the small stuff, or perhaps it feels like the fast lane to the goals at hand.

    I think you are right in regards to trying to identify any hard-and-fast rules in to the hows and whys, at least on the technical front, of the SEs. Even if such rules could be established, it seems a bit naive to assume that what applies for one industry or search phrase could possibly apply universally… perhaps they do or could, but could that be merely coincidental? Better to go with the safe bet in this case.

    It’s almost comical when you think about it, how crazy the web can make us…. can you imagine a shop owner putting the same attention and effort into deciding whether using an “Open” sign with one color of neon versus another color would be more beneficial. Ironically, the psychological influence of color in that instance is probably more important!


  • ogletree

    Trying to rank for a big term is not futile. I have put effort to get to the top for big terms and I am still there after several years. You just have to know how to do it. Once you get that big term you will then rank for the zillion other smaller terms if you do it right. It has always been about getting lots of high quality links.

  • ExtravagantMedia

    It’s all about having the perfect combination. Don’t SEO your site around Google. People will tell you, Google doesn’t read meta tags. Google doesn’t like ffa links. Google this, Google that.
    When optimizing, the age old practice of organically keywording your title, meta tags, images, domains, sub domains, index pages, inbound and outbound links, around the content in the body of your site still applies for a lot of search directories. Having decent relevancy on those pages increases your popularity which in turn increases your Google rank.

  • JohnJ

    So are you saying that SEO isn’t rocket science ;)

    But, seriously, this is a great post for SEOs and people on the client-side like myself. I’m the liaison with our SEO agency and we work hard on keeping our pages effective for our users but still easy for search engines to index.

    But, when we review our strategies with management, the focus on the small things (especially which specific ranking we are at for certain keywords) becomes the focus of discussion. I agree with your sentiment, and it’s going to be up to SEOs to take this message back to their clients and add value at a higher level than through the collection of small stuff.

  • Jill

    So are you saying that SEO isn’t rocket science ;)

    Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying and have been saying for many years!

    Thanks for all your feedback here guys, glad you liked the article!

  • geeurbie

    Yea, Yea, and Yea! Again… So well put!


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