Monthly Archives: August 2016

Dead Pages and 301 Redirects

Sometimes you have to take pages off your site. Perhaps a product or service is being discontinued, perhaps it’s outdated information that no longer belongs, or perhaps the page was just a bad idea in the first place.

Discontinuing pages is perfectly normal and happens with every site.

Where we run into trouble is when there were links from other sites pointing at those pages. Now when Googlebot crawls those links it encounters a 404 error rather than the page it was expecting to find. When that happens you do not get credit for that link — after all, the page the site was recommending isn’t there anymore, so the recommendation goes away.

Over time, discontinuing pages can having a cumulatively negative impact on SEO. You are in effect throwing out links, which are by far the most valuable and hard to gain ranking factor. Over time you’re trying to build your SEO on a pile of bones.

Happily, there’s a solution: the 301 redirect.

301 Redirects

A 301 redirect is a permanent redirect that happens at the server level (not on the HTML code of your site). When someone tries to go to the dead page, instead of getting a 404 Not Found error, then instead automatically switch to a different page (on a different URL) and load that instead.

PageRank flows through a 301 redirect, moving from the dead page to the new one.

Any way of redirecting a page that is not a 301 redirect will not pass full SEO benefit. This includes 302 (temporary) redirects and meta refresh code in the head of a page. (Some Googlers have made statements suggesting that 302s are as good as 301s: tests have proven that this is not true).

For the most part, you will need to talk to your webmaster about setting up 301 redirects. If you are using WordPress there are plugins that will let you implement them pretty easily, and odds are your hosting service probably has some kind of tool to make redirects easy to manage.

If you are using an apache server (super common for small sites) you can manually create 301 redirects by editing the .htaccess file in your root directory (this is often hidden, so you will have to set your FTP program to display hidden files — note the period in front of the filename).

Here is the code you need to program a 301 redirect directly into .htaccess:

First enable the Apache ReWriteEngine in the mod_rewirte module and enable symantic link matching by pasting this code into your .htaccess:

Options +FollowSymLinks
RewriteEngine on<

This only has to be done once, and you can then enter all the redirects you want thereafter. To actually redirect your pages use this format:

Redirect 301 /oldpage.html

There are a lot of sophisticated ways to enable 301 redirects based on regular expression (RegEx) matching, but that’s a bit beyond the scope of learning SEO. This will enable you to redirect pages as needed, and if you are moving entire sites or need specific type of page matching you should talk to your software engineer.

When to Use 301 Redirects & Where to Redirect

As a general SEO best practice, any time you take down a page, you should 301 redirect that page’s URL to another page on the site. There are certainly times when it’s appropriate to deliver a 404 error; however, if there are any links to the page you’re taking down, you really want to 301 redirect it instead and preserve that authority for your site.

As for where to redirect a page: if you’re taking a page down and there is another page on the site that provides the same (or nearly the same) info, you should redirect there. This is the easy case where a product is discontinued when the newer version of the product becomes available.

When there isn’t a nice one-for-one replacement, you generally want to redirect to the page that is one level higher in the site hierarchy. For ecommerce that means redirecting product pages to the associated sub-category or category page. Sometimes it will even mean redirecting up to the home page — but if there are links pointing to that dead page you do not want to lose them.

How to Optimize PageRank / Link Juice

Just like PageRank flow through external links, from one site to another, so too does it flow through internal links within your site. I have seen truly astonishing ranking gains simply by optimizing this internal PageRank flow — though of course you have to have good external links first!

The key factor to optimizing your internal PageRank flow is to reduce the number of links on your page as much as possible, while at the same time making sure you link to your most important pages from your global navigation. By having those links in your global navigation, you’re ensuring that you’re flowing PageRank from every single page of your site to the pages that you want to rank.

This is one of the reasons that you want to have a hierarchical site structure: your most important pages (the ones you want to rank for the most important keywords) are in the top tier in your global navigation; the next most important go a tier down and are linked to from those top tier pages, etc.

There is no golden number of links that you should have on any given page. You want only as many as you need, and no more. Most sites struggle to have fewer than 100 links and something near that 200 links is about right for a lot of sites; most sites with 500 or more links per page definitely have far too many.

Sources of Link Bloat

One of the most common culprits for link bloat is the footer. This is the least visited section of your site, and it tends to accumulate all kinds of junk links that don’t really need to be there. Sure, your site might need to have an About Us and a section about your awards, and your founders, and job openings — but those do not all need to be separate links on every single page of your site. Consider instead having the same list of text but making it all a single link that leads to an About Us page that then links out to each individual section.

Global navigation, usually the navigation up at the top of the site with dropdowns, is another common culprit. Your global navigation should link to most important keyword pages (which should usually be the pages most people are looking for anyway). In a broader sense, however, your global navigation should be used for navigation. I know that sounds obvious, but this is actually a common problem area.

Navigation vs Discovery

A typical mistake that even experienced site merchandisers do is try to boost flagging pages or products by linking to them in the global nav. The hope is that more people will see the link, and then go visit the page. What they are doing is using the global navigation for discovery instead of navigation. They aren’t trying to help someone get where they want to go: instead they’re trying to interrupt someone’s trip and convince them to go somewhere else.

I once worked on one of the largest ecommerce sites on the internet that had this issue. Over time various category managers tried to boost their categories by inserting more and more links into the global navigation drop-down menus. Many of these links appeared several different places in the global navigation.

When the Taxonomist at the company finally did a comprehensive review, he found that many of these links were generating only 50 clicks per month — this in a site with millions of visits a day. And one of those 50 clicks per month links was in the global navigation five different times, while links attracting hundreds of thousands or millions of clicks were there only once.

Navigation is not the place for discovery. If left unchecked, it makes your site increasingly difficult to navigate, harming your user experience… and of course also hurting your SEO, because now your PageRank is divided by all those useless links.

At Wayfair we once removed over 150 links from the dop-down navigation as part of an authority flow optimization. We not only saw big improvements in SEO traffic, but an A/B test showed that the new navigation improved conversion rate, and reduced usage of the internal search. Showing fewer navigation options actually made it easier to navigate the site!

There’s nothing wrong with incorporating discovery into your site, but it’s usually better done through ad blocks (where you put your own attractive ads) and it should almost never be done as a global navigation item. This can also help you to really think about whether the ad needs to be on every page of the entire site, or if it’s more appropriate to only certain sections.

SEO vs Usability

Some of the hardest decisions in site navigation is the balance between SEO and usability. Ultimately you are going to have to link to pages with zero SEO benefit: you need a link to your Contact page; you need to link to your shopping cart or RFQ form, etc. But try to be disciplined about restricting links to pages without SEO value to pages that you really do need.

In the end, usability should usually win over SEO. After all, one of the key tenants is Do You Deserve to Rank? You need a great site, and that means a site designed for people, not only for Google. But good usability is like a good break-up: you got to be brutally honest about which links you really need in there.

Which Links to Obsess About

As a general rule of thumb, you should not worry about links in the actual content of your pages. Put links there when they’re useful to users and don’t worry too much about authority flow. Unless you have a truly insane number of links regularly appearing in your content — for example if you have inane rules like “link to at least five pages from the content” — focus your attention elsewhere.

You should be obsessive about two areas of links:

  • Global Navigation Links: anything in your header, footer, and left/right nav. WordPress sites will find common culprits in tag clouds, archives, theme links, credit links (also a good way for hackers to identify your site) etc.
  • Template Level Links: If you have page types that have their own sub-navigation (like facets on product listing pages, or sub-menus)

Not only should you obsess about every single link appearing in these areas (keeping in mind: user first), but you should revisit them at least every six months. I’ve found that optimizing authority flow is like a game of whack-a-mole: you knock ’em down, but pretty soon a whole bunch more links are popping up.

A Link Calculator Tool

How many links do you have on your pages? Probably a lot more than you really think. You can use the handy Link Calculator tool to quickly get a count, and list, of every link on any page. This tool was built by my cunning engineering team at Wayfair and given to the public to use.

Understanding PageRank

Central to understanding how to flow authority through your site is an understanding of PageRank. Named for Google founder Larry Page, PageRank was the central premise that Google was designed around. In the years since Google launched it has grown in sophistication and now PageRank is just one small piece of the ranking puzzle. In terms of on-site authority work the PageRank model remains one of the most important pieces — it appears that other link-related benefits flow through a site similarly to PageRank.

PageRank is a measure of the raw link juice that flows through links into any given page on the internet.

In Google’s model, every link a page receives is like a vote of confidence saying that the page has good and useful content. The more links a page has, the more confident Google is in ranking that page.

PageRank is a measure on a scale of 1-10 of how much raw link authority a page has. But PageRank isn’t just a measure of the number of incoming links: a link from a high authority page is worth much more than a link from a low authority page. So PageRank calculates link authority based on all the incoming links to a page, and the incoming links to the pages that link to that page, and of course the incoming links to the page that links to the page that links to that page all the way back forever — it’s turtles all the way down.

The very clever thing about PageRank was the math that was able to calculate the PageRank value of every site based on an infinite chain of linking sites. But for our purposes, the important thing is that more authoritative sites are worth more.

How Do I Find Out My PageRank Is?

Put simply, you can’t.

Google used to share a version of PageRank publicly, called Toolbar PageRank. It was never a very precise measure, but it let SEOs at least track major growth in authority. Google no longer provides this, however.

Happily, you don’t need to know what your PageRank is to optimize your site.

How PageRank Flows

The PageRank of a page flows through the links on that page — or at least most of it does. Due to the way the PageRank model works, only 85% of a page’s PageRank flows out through links.

That PageRank is then divided by the number of links on a page, and a proportional amount flows through each link.

Thus if we had a page with a PageRank 10, and we had a total of 10 links on the page: 8.5 total PageRank would flow through the links (because only 85% of it flows out) and each page we’re linking to would get .85 PageRank from us. If instead we had 100 links on the page then each link would get .085 PageRank from us.

It’s worth clarifying that none of this reduces the PageRank of our page at all. The number of links you have on a page does not affect that page’s PageRank at all, and certainly doesn’t lower it. PageRank is often pictured as a bucket with water flowing out of each hole: this is the one area where that comparison breaks down. While PageRank flows through every link, it never actually takes away from the existing page. PageRank is calculated solely on incoming links from other pages.

It’s also worth noting that nofollow links (which we’ll discuss later in this section) don’t flow PageRank, but they still count as part of the link total that that PageRank gets divided by.

Thus if we had our PageRank 10 site with 5 nofollow links and 5 normal links: 8.5 total PageRank would be available to flow through the links (because only 85% of it flows out); the nofollow links would get no PageRank and the normal links would get .85 PageRank each — because we’re still dividing the available 8.5 by 10 links, even though half the links aren’t getting anything.

Almost as soon as the nofollow tag was created by Google in 2005, SEOs started “PageRank sculpting” by putting nofollow on nearly all of their internal links to control exactly how the PageRank flowed through their sites (and suffice to say they nofollowed every external link). Google very quickly (also in 2005) changed the PageRank calculation so that nofollow links still counted when calculating the PageRank that flowed through links (as I describe above).

The only way you can increase your PageRank is by getting more links pointing to the page — and preferably links from higher PageRank sites. The only way you can control how much PageRank flow out through your links is by changing the number of total links on the page.

PageRank vs Link Juice

Technically PageRank is one part of the authority that passes through links that Google measures. SEOs often use the term Link Juice to more broadly describe all benefits that pass through link; however, in the SEO world PageRank and Link Juice are used interchangeably.

When Google talks, however, and they talk about PageRank, they usually mean just PageRank, and not necessarily all authority factors that pass through links.


On-Site Authority Intro

An important part of building authority is managing your site structure to make optimal use of the authority that your site earns through incoming links. In the SEO world this is often referred to as technical SEO, since it involves some of the more technical code work done in SEO.

A colleague of mine often referred to this as “SEO Black Magic” because it’s the part where you do things invisible to users that can, in certain situations, give magical-seeming improvements to rankings (this is rare).

Ultimately your authority is going to come from other sites linking to yours, and the way you do that looks a lot more like traditional marketing. The point of on-site authority work is to ensure that you get the most benefit out of every incoming link. A poorly optimized site bleeds authority, essentially throwing it out the window rather than taking advantage of it to boost rankings.

A well optimized site makes the very most out of every drop of link juice coming in.

Video Optimization SEO

Video has a couple of different purposes in SEO. Including a video in your page can help your page rank slightly. But the larger use of video is to try to optimize the video so that the video itself ranks in the search results, and ranks in YouTube video search.

The importance of YouTube in the world of video cannot be overstated. YouTube (owned by Google) is actually the world’s second largest search engine. More people search on YouTube than they do on Yahoo or Bing.

Of course they don’t search for the same things — far fewer people will search YouTube for “pizza delivery” than they will for the latest pop song, but there are many people who have built their entire business by acquiring customers via YouTube.

Suffice to say, if you’re going to use video as part of your marketing or traffic acquisition plans, you probably want that video to be on YouTube.

Where Videos Rank

YouTube videos give you two different high-traffic places to rank: on YouTube itself and in Google’s standard universal search results. For some search queries Google like to show a video or two, even if the ranking signals for those videos are much lower than the ranking signals needed by anything else to get on the page.

This can be a shortcut onto the first page of search results. Often a site that doesn’t yet have the authority to rank can get to page one via a YouTube videos. Similarly a site that is ranking on the first page still benefits from video because Google will rank your site and the video result (which will point to the video on YouTube). It’s a fairly easy way to eat up a second slot on page one, which means there’s one less spot on page one for your competitors to rank.

Ranking a page and a video in the SERPs

I’m not saying that video is for everyone. For many queries Google just isn’t going to show any video results, and no one is searching for the keywords on YouTube. Ecommerce sites in particular have difficulty ranking videos in the competitive product landscape. But a surprising number of sites can boost their traffic through well-optimized videos.

YouTube Video Optimization

YouTube video optimization is very similar to standard video optimization, but stripped down and with a couple additional metrics thrown into the mix. Your on-page video optimization factors include:

  • Video title
  • Video description
  • Category
  • Tags

As with standard on-page optimization, don’t go crazy with this. You absolutely want to include your keywords in all these fields, but don’t go stuffing it with keywords and make it look spammy. In addition to these standard on-page optimizations YouTube has some other factors, including:

  • Resolution: Google gives bonus points to high res videos, so make them at least 720p
  • Number of views
  • Number of views to completion (if a lot of people watch the first 15 seconds and leave, that’s a sign that the video probably isn’t very good)
  • Likes and comments
  • There are indications that including an in-video transcription via YouTube’s tools (not done in your own video editor) also improves topical relevance

And of course in addition to these we have the standard authority signals, except in the case of YouTube videos, embeds count as an authority signal. Thus if lots of people take your YouTube video and embed it in their blogs, that’s a signal that your video is probably pretty good and should rank higher.

Similarly, the surrounding content of sites that embed videos also help let Google understand what the video is about. If a video is embedded in a bunch of posts about the World Cup, then Google is more confident that the video is about the World Cup, and that people find it to be a good video that people interested in the World Cup will probably like.

Finally, you can create a video XML sitemap for YouTube videos (or any videos) that are embedded on your site. Unlike a regular sitemap, a video sitemap can actually improve the ability of your video to rank, because it can give Google more information about the video that Google cannot get just by crawling the page hosting the video.

You can find instructions on how to create a video XML sitemap here. Once created just post it to your site and submit the link to Google via Google Search Console.

Video Promotion & Competition

Competition on YouTube is much smaller than it is on the internet as a whole, and as such there are some small niches where the competition is so small you can rank your video well purely on topicality signals (and even have it rank in standard Google universal search when the video block appears). I once worked with a metal stamping manufacturer and got their cellphone-quality video to rank for YouTube and on the first page of Google, just because so few other metal stamping companies had any videos at all. The competition was incredibly low.

But for areas where there is competition, you will have to promote your videos. Just like you’re not going to get your site to rank in Google with on-page work alone, in most cases you won’t get your video to rank without promotion.

The best way to promote videos is to already have a blog with many subscribers, or a strong social media following. When I was running my World of Warcraft site, the site was popular enough that I didn’t need to work hard to rank videos: I just posted them, and the most popular ones got shared all over the place. Eventually I had many videos with hundreds of thousands of views.

But if you don’t already have a following in place, many of the approaches to authority building in Authority: Off-Site will apply to spreading the word about your video. Note that because video plays to completion will help your ranking, even social shares of your video will directly improve your video ranking ability within YouTube search. Leveraging the social networks of friends and peers can be a great way to spread word of your video and boost the views and rankings.

Image Optimization SEO

Image optimization is similar to the SEO we do for normal web page optimization, but slightly different. The idea behind image optimization is that you’re trying to get your image to rank in Google’s image search. And remember that image search blocks are sometimes pulled into Google’s regular (universal) search results:

Google SERPs image block with kittens

At one point image search was a significant part of the SEO strategy for certain kinds of sites. They collected (or stole) great images on topics that people were interested in, and worked to get those images to rank well for related searches in Google’s image search. The user would see the thumbnail and click through to the site to get access to the full-sized image.

These sites typically monetized their sites with ads, so every time someone clicked through to get to the full-sized image, they landed on a page that had some ads as well as the image they were looking for. Some ecommerce sites even got a decent amount of traffic from image search: image traffic converted worse than regular search traffic, but it still converted, so they tried to get their product images to rank.

Google Takes Your Images, and Your Traffic Too

Unfortunately, Google has since changed image search as part of its efforts to keep people from leaving Google. Now in Google’s image search you can click on any image to see a larger version right in the image search results, and Google gives you the option to click through to the site, or the option to just view (or download) the full-sized image directly from Google.

When they launched this feature, traffic from Google image search dropped dramatically. Image search was never a primary focus of SEO, but its value is vastly lower than ever now that Google just takes your images and serves them to users themselves.

That said, you can still get some traffic through image search. Let’s talk about what you can do to optimize your images for that small percentage of image traffic that still remains to us. It’s not hard to do, so you may as well optimize for it all. Just don’t sink a huge amount of time into it.

Image SEO Ranking Factors:

  • The filename of your image should include the keyword you want to rank for. Don’t name your image “DCM8873.jpg” — name it “cute-cat-slays-dragon.jpg” This is a substantial ranking factor in image search.
  • The image alt text helps Google understand what your image is about. This text appears within the image html tag like this: <img src=”blah.jpg” alt=”Cute kitten slays real life dragon!”> Obviously your alt text should also accurately describe your image, and be pretty short.
  • Surrounding text: a meaningful image ranking factor is the text on the page that the image lives on, especially the text immediately before and after the image. Google assumes that your image will be relevant to the part of the page where you insert it.
  • Links: images can have authority just like web pages do. The more people that link to a picture, and to the page that the picture is on, or who embed your picture in their sites, the better that picture will rank.
  • Size: Google seems to prefer delivering larger images over smaller ones, though other ranking signals can certainly push the smaller images to the top.

It’s pretty easy to be in the habit of saving your image file name with logical keywords, and likewise it’s easy to toss in some decent alt text when you’re embedding the image in your content. You should be optimizing the text on the page itself anyway, so all in all tending to some basic image optimization isn’t really much additional work.

If image search is an important part of your strategy, it may be worth your while to create an image XML sitemap. Similar to a regular XML sitemap, the idea behind the image sitemap is to help Google find all the images on your site so that it can include them in its image search. Of course just like a regular sitemap, the presence of an image sitemap does not in any way guarantee that Google will choose to include your image.

However, unlike regular sitemaps the image sitemap can actually help your rankings: because Google doesn’t understand images very well, the information about the image that you include in the sitemap can help Google understand the topical relevance of the image, which can help it rank better.

You can learn how to create an image sitemap here.

Story Time: How Content Can Win it All

So now that we’ve discussed the truth and lie of Content is King, there are situations where content can do most of the heavy lifting for you. In low competition niches, sometimes you can build a successful site with just content coupled with good on-page and technical SEO — but it is a slow process and only works when competition is very low.

This is the story of a site that won a small niche without authority building / marketing efforts.

Warcraft Hunters Union

In 2007 I started a blog about playing the hunter class in the online video game World of Warcraft. I started the site because I wanted a platform to experiment with various SEO things, and chose the topic because I loved the game.

Grandpappy Frostheim

Grandpappy Frostheim, the name I wrote under for years

I retired from blogging there years ago, but the site is still up at

I never did any authority building for the site. Never once did I ask anyone for a link, or reach out to anyone to promote my content.

Instead I built a strong SEO site structure and wrote well-optimized individual pages. I wrote a new post every weekday without fail, for years, and the average word count was over 500 words. I did keyword research to find out what kind of topics my audience was searching for, wrote in-depth articles explaining those topics, and made sure that my site was interlinking to those articles well.

I spent hours upon hours reverse-engineering the mathematical formulas that control the game, so I could understand and explain how to optimize them (we called it theorycrafting, and it’s really not a whole lot different from SEO testing & research).

World of Warcraft Hunter math

I told my friends about the site, and for a while they were my only readers. I did not create a sitemap or submit the site to Google. Google discovered it on its own within a couple weeks.

Eventually Warcraft Hunters Union began to rank for some long tail searches. With that I began to get some traffic. Because I had great content that answered players’ questions combined with other entertaining content, some of those searchers started linking to my site from other sites and forums. In particular those guides that I wrote based on keyword research attracted links.

As the site started accumulating links, the ranking started increasing faster and faster. There wasn’t much competition in the space, and the competition I did have was largely ignorant of SEO and did a very poor job of optimizing their own sites, making it even easier to rank.

Over the next few years the site grew until it was widely considered the preeminent source for World of Warcraft hunter info. I was offered a paying gig writing a monthly column for the AOL site devoted to World of Warcraft news. I made guest appearances on podcasts, attended conventions where I signed autographs, was invited to consult with the game developers and I even had an item in World of Warcraft named after me. At its peak the site was attracting around 30,000 visits and 80,000 pageviews a day.

A song/video I made for the site — over 1 million views.

This is how great content is supposed to work, and this is what success looks like to the people who say Content is King. The idea is that you rank on the very long tail and get a wee trickle of traffic, but your stuff is so amazingly good compared to everything else out there that people start sharing it and linking to you on their own, and that is how you build authority to your site. Over the course of years.

Unfortunately, most sites can’t do this. The level of competition on the internet is so high now that for most niches you won’t even rank in the long tail without decent links pointing to your site. For sites that aren’t informational like Warcraft Hunters Union was, it’s even harder. After all, if your site sells iPhone covers, it’s going to be pretty much impossible to have something incredibly unique to say that a hundred other sites don’t also share.

There are two lessons to this story. The first is that even for sites where you can eventually rank on content alone, you still need links, just the idea is that the content is so great that people start linking to it because they want to point other people in your direction (and it takes years).

The second lesson is that with the vast majority of sites, content alone still isn’t an option. You have to have a way to get links to that content before it’s going to rank, which means you have to have a way of promoting the content, which is where authority-building tactics come into play.

Boss Down motivational poster

Content Is King: The Great Truth and Lie of SEO

You can’t read SEO forums or new sites for long before you’ll hear someone declaring that Content is King! This is both one of the great truths of SEO, and one of the most deceptive lies.

The Truth

Content is absolutely very important for SEO. I’ve spent a lot of the Topicality section stressing the need for quality, useful, and longer content. Good content makes ranking much easier, and it’s vital for attracting the long tail searches, which is the bulk of your potential traffic.

For most sites, most of the time, you simply cannot rank without good and well optimized content.

We’ll also learn later in the Authority: Off Site section that content is also key to many authority-building tactics. And when we get into the world of authority building, the bar for content is much higher: good content isn’t good enough. It has to be great, and have some kind of unique twist.

So yes, content is super important. Does this make it King? Well… I’m not authorized to grant sovereignty within the SEO industry, but even if I were I’d still be reluctant to give content the crown. Because when you say content is king, you start to spread misunderstandings that begin to echo across the SEO interwebs.

The Lie

When inexperienced SEOs read Content is King and Content Marketing proclaimed again and again, it creates the impression that all you have to do is create great content, and the Google rankings will follow. And that is demonstrably not true. It is so incredibly far from the truth that it looks a lot like a lie.

In fact, it is a lie.

Content alone is rarely enough. Great content on a site that doesn’t rank will simply never be seen. The site needs authority in addition to topicality to rank, and no one is going to link to that great content if they don’t know it exists.

Great content that’s marketed will without proper optimization and internal site structure will also struggle or fail to rank.

Content must be combined with on-page optimization, with promotion or outreach for that content, and that must be combined with a good site structure and internal site authority flow.

For the vast, vast majority of sites on the internet, no one piece of the SEO puzzle is king. It takes all of them working together to win the SEO race against the competition.

Content can be considered the foundation of your SEO house. Without a good foundation you probably don’t want to live there. But you also don’t want to live there without walls, or a roof, or high-speed internet. If great content is your only strategy, you’re sleeping on a bare concrete slab while rain soaks your britches and raccoons nibble your toes; and you don’t feel a lot like a king.

Optimization Saturation and the Limit of Topicality

Some correlation studies have found interesting and contradictory things about topicality, which led me to do some experiments with surprising results. It appears that there is a cap to topicality: at some point your page is considered optimal for a given keyword, and further topicality improvements won’t help.

And that topicality cap isn’t as high as most SEOs think.

This point of optimization saturation has a big impact on how much effort we need to put into our topicality optimization, and means that there is no reward for perfect. It turns out just getting pretty close is actually just as good as perfect.

Correlation Studies & SEO Testing

I read a correlation study in 2012 that found no correlation between the title tag and rankings. This surprised me since it’s generally considered one of the more important topicality signals. More importantly, I have personally seen substantial increases in ranking just by improving title tags. Not just once, but many, many times. All SEOs have.

So I set out to prove this study wrong.

I approached it in two ways: I took pages that were ranking highly for a keyword, and completely removed the keyword from the title tag; then I built new pages with no keyword in the title tag, waited for them to rank, then optimized the title. I did this for a over dozen sites in all industries, with all traffic levels. I did this both on in incredibly competitive keywords and fairly noncompetitive ones (one of the advantages of working in an agency is the ability to test on a lot of different sites — with their permission, of course).

What I learned surprised me. Indeed, for page after page the title appeared to have no impact on rankings! This was shocking. It ran in the face of common belief and personal experience. But then I started encountering some pages where, as I expected, the title was hugely important. I removed the keyword from the title and when the page was reindexed the rankings fell precipitously.

Optimization Saturation

I eventually realized what was happening: the pages that were well-optimized (which was most of them I was working on, of course) had no ranking change when the title was changed. But pages that were not well optimized — ones with only a short paragraph using the keyword once or twice — were hugely influenced by the title tag.

With this hypothesis in mind, I then expanded the test and was able to verify that this was in fact the case. Not just with the title tag, but also with the URL. As long as the content of the page itself was of a decent length, on topic, and had good keyword (and synonym/variant) usage, the other topicality elements didn’t matter at all.

And while this was a departure from common SEO thought, it also makes perfect sense.

Topicality is essentially just telling Google whether or not the topic of the pages matches the search query. Some pages might just mention it once, others might be pretty relevant while the best Google is confident are entirely about the query.

But at some point, when your page is entirely about the keyword, it can’t be more about it. And there are enough pages out there with poor URL structure or flavorful titles that aren’t keyword rich that these can’t be required signals if Google is to do its job well.

Implications of Optimization Saturation

This is why I take a somewhat more laid back approach to on-page optimization than you’ll see in a lot of other SEO guides and books: they stress the importance of optimizing every factor to the smallest degree. But we now know that while every factor can matter, if we’re doing our jobs well not every factor will matter.

If you have genuinely good content with good keyword usage, that is very likely enough right there. Including the keyword in the title and URL is still absolutely something you should do, but it’s more of a safety net than something that’s going to make a big difference. Definitely don’t waste your time going back and changing the URL of every page to squeeze the last ounce of SEO juice out — because you probably have all the topicality juice you can get.

If you’re very confident in the quality of your content optimization and length, you can even use the title tag to target a related keyword, rather than your primary keyword (as long as it still makes a good title for CTR purposes, of course).

Confirmation on

Years after doing this research, I encountered some big confirmation of this while leading the SEO team at

An accidental code change altered the title tags of every page on every site. For one site (Wayfair) this made no difference to rankings and traffic. For another site (AllModern) rankings feel hugely.

In the case of AllModern, we used the title tag to optimize the word “Modern” for our topicality: because the pages themselves often never even used the word modern (generally for good reasons), or used it seldom. So with poor “modern” optimization, the title tag was vital. But on Wayfair a page selling Beds was well optimized for “beds” by default, so the title tag was irrelevant.

I wrote up this “accidental SEO test” along with a summary of other findings over at

Oh, and here’s one final fascinating tidbit on the topic: the only on-page factor that does not appear to have a cap is word count. More words is always better.

Keyword Density: Not a Real Thing

Back in the wee early days of SEO when SEOs were far more obsessed with topicality than they are now (because less was known about it, and because it was possible to rank on topicality alone) there was a lot of speculation about what exactly the ideal keyword density was.

The idea here is that if you used your keyword in the content more often, you would be more topically relevant. But, if you used it too much it would look like spam. SEOs guessed that Google detected that spam by setting a threshold for keyword density: perhaps it was 5%, meaning 5% of your words should be your keyword.

It probably goes without saying, but this led to some truly awful content that read like it was written by a used car salesman in the late stages of syphilitic dementia.

Keyword Density: It’s Not a Thing

Pretty quickly, however, we learned that in fact Google had no keyword density formula. It turns out Google’s algorithm had much more sophisticated ways of determining if you were spamming, and in fact a lot of those people trying to follow keyword density formulas did poorly because their content still read like spam.

Don’t worry about exactly how many times you should use the keyword in your text. Write naturally and make sure you mention the keyword or variants several times, and at least once every couple of paragraphs, and you should be fine.

Keyword density is good for one thing though: along with the meta keywords tag, it’s a sure-fire way to identify people who don’t actually know SEO, but claim they do.