Digital Marketing

SEO Theory vs. Reality: Examining Popular SEO Axioms

Search engine optimization (SEO) started as a discipline of testing and iteration. Most of what was learned came from continuous cycles of trial and error. As the industry grew and matured, the recommendations and advice shared on message boards, forums and later blogs and conferences, congealed with public statements from Google and Bing’s webmaster ambassadors to form a broadly accepted set of “best practices.”
The process of trial and error and iteration too often gives way to blind acceptance of theories and theoretical statements as almost universal truths. Unfortunately, many of these axioms that sound more like bumper stickers than advanced marketing advice fail to consider the incredible nuance and complexity of today’s advanced search engine optimization campaigns.

HTTPS Migrations

In theory, migrating your site from HTTP to HTTPS should be a simple and straightforward process. Once the SSL is installed, you simply redirect users and search engines to the new secure URL and wait.
In reality, though, the process is much more complex and introduces a considerable amount of risk to your site’s current search engine visibility and traffic. At Perficient Digital, we’ve been involved with hundreds of HTTPS migrations in recent years and have seen reality jump up and bite this theory in some pretty creative ways.

Redirect Chains

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In theory, adding a site-wide redirect from your HTTP URLs to your new HTTPS URLs should be a safe and simple process. But if you already have a plethora of redirects in place, adding an extra layer may be the straw that breaks the camel’s (or search engine’s) back.
We recently encountered a situation where multiple site-wide redirects combined to create a multi-step process that some browsers refused to render. Rather than try to explain the intricate chain, I’ve diagramed it below with the previous redirects in red, and the new site-wide redirects in blue.
Diagram of a 301 Redirect Chain
Theoretically, each of those redirects is a recommended best practice. In reality, a mistake in execution led to a convoluted mess, confusing users, breaking browsers, and befuddling the search engines.

30X Level Redirects

Google has gone on record multiple times claiming that, in theory, 300 level redirects (301, 302, 307) are eventually all treated the same and it doesn’t matter which you use. When asked which type of redirect is best for SEO, Google’s Gary Illyes once answered “Don’t worry about it. Just use whatever you want, use whatever makes sense for you.”
While that might be true in theory or over an extended period of time, the reality is that it often matters quite a lot.
A month after a client’s platform migration, we noticed old URLs suddenly showing back up in the index causing significant ranking fluctuations. After investigating, we discovered a recent code deployment had changed all the 301 redirects put in place during the migration into 302 redirects. When the 301 redirects were restored, the old pages quickly dropped back out of the index.
Impact of 301 vs. 302 Redirects
While 30X level redirects may be treated the same over the long haul or in theory, the reality is 301 redirects remain the best option for timely search engine adoption of redirects.

“Build for Users”

Another popular axiom in the digital marketing space is to just “build for users.” This is a bit of a mantra for Google, showing up in their 10 Things We Know to be True and their SEO Starter Guide. In a 2016 chat, Google’s John Mueller responded to a question by saying “do what works best for the user, and search engines will generally figure it out from there too.”
Unfortunately, the world of digital marketing is rarely that simple.
Search engines do best with simple and straightforward site hierarchies and URL structures. Users, however, crave choices and control.
Shoppers browsing an eCommerce site, for example, need to filter, combine or customize the products they’re viewing. Faceted navigation or URL parameters can be a dream come true for users, but when applied to tens of thousands of products across hundreds of categories, it quickly becomes a tangled nightmare of conflicting signals for search engines to sort through and interpret.

SEO Requires Ingenuity

Phrases like “compromise” or “best available solution” and answers like “it depends” don’t make great bumper stickers, but SEO is rarely as simple or as clear-cut as theoretical answers or best practices make it seem. Successful SEO strategies require flexibility and ingenuity to find the ideal solutions for each site’s unique set of challenges, technical debt, and circumstances.
If you’d like to learn about a few more instances where SEO theories don’t live up to reality, check out my recent Pubcon Austin presentation on the topic below.

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