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I am interested in learning about SEO, as many of you may already know. I am by far not a pro, but would love to learn. I currently own a number of domains etc that I am playing around with content and learning from various methods and techniques I hear online.

My problem is that when I read some of the many SEO blogs floating around out there, I get majorly conflicting views. I come here and ask questions about these conflicting things and get conflicting answers. How do I separate fact from fiction?

For example, I had always believed that no-follow links did nothing for SEO and had heard somewhere that they, in fact, DO help with SEO. I was very confused about this and came here and even got conflicting advice: Ratio of No-follow & Do-follow Backlinks

Are there any super authoritative websites/blogs that are notable for fact-based information and not speculation?

I used to read CourtneyTuttle and way back in the day JohnCow, but it seems like they and everyone else have these "pay to learn stuff classes" which turned off the appeal to these blogs... it's like if they've got uber secrets that they're not sharing in their blog, then why read the blog anymore?

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6 Answers

up vote 30 down vote accepted

(I had to stop writing at some point. I'll probably continually revise this. Keep in mind, this isn't meant to be a comprehensive lesson in SEO. It's meant to help demonstrate how simple SEO is and how to spot the people who have strayed from that reality.)

I actually don't like any of the websites recommended by the above users for the following reasons:

  • They're in it for the money. They don't do this because of their altruistic nature. They're out to make a buck. They don't care about you or your website and will do whatever they can to get you to part with your money. (This ties into the next item).

  • They make you think SEO is changing constantly. Guess what? It isn't. But they have to constantly churn out theories and tools and nonsense in order to make you think that SEO is this big complicated thing that requires "experts" like them and expensive books and tools and constant work and gathering of information in order to succeed. It's simply untrue. (Every time you visit their site looking for the latest hot tip or trick (barf) you're making them money).

  • They're wrong or behind the curve a lot. Because they're job is to constantly spew out "information" they tend to offer advice that is misguided or flat out wrong. (I don't have any examples handy but if you look around it isn't hard to find). But they don't care if they're wrong because it isn't their bottom line they're hurting and they can always claim "SEO is a changing game" and it's not their fault they were wrong.

If you check these forums, or anywhere I lurk for that matter, you'll see that the only SEO guru that I recommend (or even call guru) is Chris Beasley. Not only does he have a long history of getting it right (and before anyone else does, check out his site and the SitePoint SEO forums) but he doesn't pretend that SEO is this big complex constantly changing game. It's zero BS SEO advice. Take it or leave it. He doesn't really care what you do because he's not trying to get rich off of people's ignorance. He's glad to share his knowledge and if you take advantage of that, cool. If you don't, oh well.

As for how you can tell what's good SEO advice and what's not? Here's two litmus tests you can use. One for the source of the information, one for the information itself.

SEO Source Litmus Test

  • Are they trying to profit from the information? If "yes" it's less credible.

  • Do they have any kind of testing or other empirical evidence that backs up their claim? If "no" it's less credible.

  • Does the person offer logic and reason to back up their conclusion that doesn't violate any of the SEO Information Litmus Test items below? If "yes" then the information is less credible.

  • If the advice is in a forum or some other community, what kind of response does the user get? Lots of agreement? Or disagreement? Who is agreeing/disagreeing? If it's a newbie who is only supported by other newbies (the "me too" people) then it's less credible.

  • Was an experiment performed? If so was it done well? (Did they have a control group? Did they rule out other external factors? Can they repeat it)? If not they are less credible. (This is a good example of good testing).

SEO Information Litmus Test

SEO is really just making sure a website is built properly. Yes, it's that simple. And it can be broken down into four categories. They are:

  1. Usability - People are stupid. We all know that. A good website will assume every user is stupid and needs to have their hand held as they use the website. This means everything is clearly labeled and flows in a logical manner. How does this affect SEO? If everything is clearly labeled and flows in a logical manner then search engines will also be able to follow it and understand what it is doing and where it is. Needless to say that's very important when determining what a page is about and how everything relates to each other.

    (What falls under usability? cross-linking internal pages, sitemaps, proper page and heading text)

  2. Accessibility - A well-built website can be used by anyone. This includes visually and physically impaired users. So, you need to make sure your website can be used by someone with no JavaScript, images, CSS capabilities, mouse, etc. How does this affect SEO? Search engine bots are not much different then a blind user. In fact if you use a screen reader you can get a pretty good idea of what Googlebot is experiencing. So if your site is accessible to impaired humans, it will be available to search engines.

    (What falls under accessibility? alt attributes, not relying on JavaScript for content)

  3. Semantic markup - Any experienced web developer will tell you that separating your JavaScript and CSS and using the proper tags for markup makes the site much easier to maintain and offers external tools (directory crawlers, etc) the information they want quite easily. Plus if you use proper markup your site is "futureproof" as you can be sure standards compliant user-agents will render your site properly. How does this affect SEO? HTML markup is a big indicator to search engines as to the meaning and value of content. Using the proper markup allows any user-agent to comprehend data format and structure. It tells them what's important and what kind of information it is (knowledge, address, table of contents, etc).

    (What falls under semantic markup? tags like <address> and <abbr>, using heading tags (<h1>), microformats)

  4. Content quality - People aren't surfing the Internet looking for garbage. They're looking for information that solves a need they have (to know something, to be amused, etc). The better the content the more likely they are to come back and, even better, tell their friends. How does this affect SEO? This is how you get quality links to your website!! Search engines have difficulty telling quality from crap. So they rely on other webmasters to do it for them. That's why links from external sites carry so much weight. (We'll save the quality issue for another day).

    (What falls under content quality? original content, links from authoritative external sites)

If a piece of advice does not fall into one of these categories then it's probably just plain old wrong.

(Seeking links from other website is marketing. It can be debated if it should be listed here. I chose not to as quality content can do that for you).

Other helpful information

  • SE algorithms consist of two basic parts: page ranking and spam control. 99% of the people who talk about SEO do not know this and confuse the two which causes lots of problems. (FYI, Matts Cutts is the head of the Google Spam Control team). So when people say "SEO is constantly changing" they're wrong. How pages are ranked has barely changed in years. What is constantly changing is the search engines' ability to fight and remove spam. If spam fighting techniques is affecting your site then it isn't affecting your SEO, it's affecting the fact that you have a crappy website in some way or market your website improperly and need to address those issues. But the basic factors for ranking pages was figured out a long time ago and hasn't needed to change. It's how the spam is handled that needs to change (and is).

  • If you have to go back and "SEO your website" then you built it wrong to begin with. Those four basic principles aren't SEO factors, they're how a website is supposed to be built. All users want is a website that they can easily use and has good content. It's no coincidence that search engines want the exact same thing.

  • Ask yourself this question: Am I doing this because it will make my website better or am I doing this to manipulate my search rankings? If you answer the former you'll be alright. If you answer the latter then the odds are it's going to bite you in the butt somewhere down the road.

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+1 - I think one important factor that's missing, however, is keyword research. It takes 5 minutes to do for any article, but if you don't do it, you could miss out on a key high-traffic search phrase by just a word. Great content is important, but those key phrases actually have to be in the text or you won't get the search traffic. –  Virtuosi Media Apr 27 '11 at 21:45
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Fully agree John (apart from the SitePoint forums - which we were both members of but have now devolved into a quagmire of spam), my recommendations were based on the fact that there are only a real few who want, or have the time, to invest in what we both know is 95% common sense good practice, but people still get stuck/obsessed on that remaining 5%. –  Mike Hudson Apr 27 '11 at 21:52
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@virtuosi media, You are correct. I didn't want to delve into specifics but if I did that would have fallen under great content. Knowing what people are looking for obviously is a factor in creating good content. –  John Conde Apr 27 '11 at 22:03
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@Mike, I bailed out on SitePoint before it became a mess. Ironically it was because I had enough of the SEO discussion going on there. BTW, your list is fantastic. I thought about making my own lost for my own reference but now I see I don't have to. –  John Conde Apr 27 '11 at 22:05
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John, I'm not one who likes it when people self-promote, but I can't believe you put this as an answer to be buried in weeks time instead of making it a blog post. Your answer was extremely in-depth and thoughtful. Thank you. I agree with you about people not surfing the net looking for garbage, which is why I ultimately stopped reading CTuttle -- he wrote a post apologizing for believing that you could put any content up, backlink it and voila... even after he wrote a "I'm wrong" apology post, I still had a bad taste in my mouth. Now he sells a program touting his pre-i'm sorry beliefs. –  Melanie Apr 29 '11 at 2:50
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I wouldn't say there's a single authoritative one. SEO Book and SEOMoz get close, along with Search Engine Land - but there's still a lot of conjecture. Over the years I have compiled this list which might help (I am considering publishing it as a wiki item if there's interest).

Beyond that - its when people publish their tests and results, have them critiqued by their peers and general consensus is reached in a repeated fashion that I use as a litmus test for a quality source.

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There's interest! :P At least from me. Thanks for the amazing link, totally bookmarking that one. –  Melanie Apr 27 '11 at 3:52
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Its worth dating any info too because it is a constantly changing situation as SEOers work to game the system and Google,etc. change things to deal with that. A 'fact' one week might be fiction the next. –  JamesRyan Apr 27 '11 at 14:21
    
@JamesRyan awesome idea! –  Mike Hudson Apr 27 '11 at 21:48
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There is one that is way above all the rest. The best people in the world belong to that website system. Its SEOBook. No others compare. Its $300 per month. They have complete training systems. They have tools. They have a closed forum. There is no conflicting advice like here.

The people on SEObook are making big money. Because they have the resource of SEObook. The best in America are there.

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I think seobook sucks. I think your logic is awful. Your answer demonstrates the question perfectly. –  John Conde Apr 27 '11 at 13:54
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A great deal of the confusion and misdirection online comes from the fact that Google and Microsoft intentionally withhold SEO ranking factors and that they both update their algorithms all the time. That means the freshness of what you are reading is just as important as the source. Sometimes a big SEO factor can become marginalized in a very short period of time so you have to really keep up.

I agree with Mike Hudson's answer that SEO Book, SEOMox, and Search Engine Land all can give you the best value. If you read the free articles from all 3 and compare I think you can a good picture of where SEO is today. I would also suggest spending the money to sign up for the pay content on any of those sites as they give extra benefits and help.

Anyone claiming to know 100% what all of the best things to do for SEO are is either a liar, a black hat seo, or works for Google/Bing. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying that there aren't experts or people who are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest but like I said before Google and Bing don't release their algorithms. Even if someone guessed the 200-1000 signals correctly they would also need to know the exact weight each item has in order to know how to attack SEO the best.

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The official Google Webmaster blog at http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.com/ and the blog of Matt Cutts http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/ won't tell you how to cheat the system but they do offer lot's of information that dispels some of the myths and also makes it clearer where Google stands on issues relating to SPAM.

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These are the only two SEO-related blogs I subscribe to. –  John Conde May 30 '13 at 1:27
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What to Avoid:

If you're already running a profitable business, avoid optimization techniques that go against the search engine's publicly stated goals, but seem to be working for people.

Here's a good example: http://backlinksforum.com/main-backlinks-linkbuilding-discussion/357-proof-number-outbound-links-page-does-not-dilute-link-juice-passed.html

In that post, the OP talks about how the number of outbound links does not dilute link juice in his testing. Well that's great to know, but it really doesn't make sense in the long run, and doesn't seem to mesh with the search engine stated goals. If you built your site around that concept as true, and google fixed a bug causing that issue, then your site might tank overnight.

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That's a really good point. There are sites that fall through the cracks and appear to be an exception to Google's "rules" howveer just because they have a method that is tried and true for them, doesn't mean that there is a correlation between their method and their ranking. Furthermore, as, as you stated, when there is a bug, Google will find and fix it and a site that takes advantage of the bug would likely tank. +1 –  Melanie Apr 29 '11 at 2:12
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