Bad SEO. Eight ways of killing website performance, and how to avoid them

Have you ever asked yourself: What’s dragging my website performance down?

I’ve been deliberately general in saying ‘website performance’ because I’m considering a range of ways that a website can underdeliver. There are a range of ways:

  • Low visibility in search through low positions or failing to appear in featured snippets and other search features
  • Low engagement rates
  • Low conversion rates
  • Low ROI
  • Weakening your brand

They’re all the consequence of bad SEO. I have eight areas where site owners and marketing teams fall down:

1. Poor content

What makes content poor?

  1. Unoriginal writing that contributes little, and you can see all over the internet
  2. Duplicate content – if you simply cut and paste content from elsewhere (your website or another (e-commerce websites are particularly bad for this, where they lazily cut and paste product details from the manufacturer)). It’s unoriginal content that is, more often than not, rewarded with lower page rankings or being ignored entirely. You can mitigate duplicate content by using Canonical tags (a piece of code that tells the search engine which is the original page or, potentially, 301 Redirects so that searchers and spiders are sent to the original page
  3. Writing mechanically for SEO, with pages stuffed with keywords or content selected for ease of targeting rather than written for its intended audience
  4. It doesn’t solve the reader’s problems
  5. Promotional rather than informational
  6. The writer doesn’t know their subject (Google has something specific about this through EEAT (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness)). EEAT is particularly important for YMYL (Your Money or Your Life) content such as financial services and healthcare
  7. Bad spelling and grammatical errors
  8. Driven by data, not understanding – while being data-driven is almost essential for successful content marketing, don’t forget you’re writing for humans who have feelings and emotions
  9. It doesn’t cover its subject in enough detail to make it worth reading (call it short and thin)
Recycled words on outdated newspapers.

How to produce good quality content

  1. Write about what you know, or pick the brain of an expert in the field
  2. Don’t copy
  3. Write for people first and search engines second
  4. Ask ‘What’s In It For Me’ or ‘Where’s The Pain’ to better understand the motivations of your audience
  5. Write for customers, not your bosses or clients
  6. Show, through the intelligence and depth of your writing, EEAT
  7. Use a spell and grammar checker, but know when to override them
  8. Understand the people and the data
  9. Ensure it’s worth someone’s time to read your content
  10. And, above all, make sure it’s readable.

Should I publish long-form content?

While you don’t absolutely need to produce long-form content these days, with Google’s Passage Indexing and evolving understanding of what people are looking for, it still performs best in most cases.

There is some discussion as to whether Google still favours long-form content. I’m not aware of any data from 2024, so I can only share what some people are arguing. It’s now easy to produce thousands and thousands of words using AI, so they say, long-form content is no longer valid.

They’re missing the point (still), with some seriously wonky logic. Consider this: content length on its own has never been a ranking factor. Google demands good quality content, and more often than not, writing a comprehensive piece will answer that need more effectively than a half-hearted 400 words. Provided it’s not waffle!

So, if the piece deserves many words, go ahead and write them (or have them written).

How to determine if you need long-form content

Look at the pages that are ranking in the Top 1o for the key phrases you’re interested in. For me, this is the ultimate test. Are all the ranking pages long-form? If they’re not, you could be successful with the right shorter content.

But be realistic: If Google is ranking mainly long-form content, you’re almost certainly going to have to bite the bullet and invest the time and thought to produce that longer piece.

2. Poor understanding of your prospective clients or customers

In the broadest sense in your business you need to understand your clients or customers. From developing products and services to sales, to customer service and so on, through all your business functions, you need to be customer-driven.

Hook your prospects

In the context of your website, search engine results, and digital advertising, the task is, at first, to pique their curiosity. Is this something I want? Will it ease my pain (in my life or in my business)? Do they have something to say that’s worth my time?

Fail to hook people, and you’ve lost at the first hurdle. So, always put yourself in your customer’s mind and ask:

  • What’s in it for me?
  • Where’s the pain?

Answer those and you’ll be on the right path to creating the right content for your website.

Children fascinated by something or someone off to the right of the screen.

And keep them hooked

If you don’t demonstrate you understand your prospects’ needs, people won’t hang around to buy your products or services. Think of the role of each page on your website. What does it deliver to the person coming to your site? How do they help a potential buyer through their purchase?

Build personas. Talk to your customers and your competitors’. Write a profile or several. Share them with your writer.

3. Poor understanding of your competitors

Graph

How are your competitors performing? How does their website compare to yours? Be honest with yourself.

And be clear about who your competitors are. Remember, you’re in the digital space. Your competitors are those ranking for the searches you’re interested in, not just the companies or people who offer similar products or services to similar customers.

How to understand your competitors in the digital space

If you want to be more quantitative, ask your SEO to do a competitor audit. Get a key phrase gap analysis. The data will enable you to aim at least as high as your competitors, or you’ll be lost.

I find I’m often considering search from both directions. Of course, you should look at all of the top competitors for your key phrases, but a cohort of your product/service competitors is also useful for monitoring their online marketing activities.

Which leads me to my last point. You should monitor changes in your search environment continuously. Be aware of whose results are improving and whose are reversing.

4. Poor Technical SEO

I toyed with putting this first because if your Technical SEO has serious problems, your site won’t perform.

increasing performance

But because getting your content right is so important, I started with Poor content. That’s the way it is. But, and it’s a big but, the importance of content doesn’t stop me from always seeking to fix Technical SEO issues before working on content and other SEO measures.

Make sure:

  1. It’s crawlable – if the search engine crawler can’t read your content, it won’t rank
  2. It’s mobile-friendly – for some time, Google has only indexed the mobile version of a website. If the
  3. It’s fast – don’t leave your customers hanging around. You will lose revenue (Amazon could lose $1.6 billion a year from a 1-second increase in page speed)
  4. Core Web Vitals are right – closely related to page speed, CWV is Google’s way of measuring UX. It’s important, so don’t neglect to measure it and put it right if CWV is as it should be
  5. It’s secure – there’s a blog post all of its own here, but here are some of the big ones: your website should use https://, run the most up-to-date software and run on a secure server. But if you want a deep dive into the subject, there’s always the Google Security Blog
  6. It has an XML sitemap (if you have a larger website) – most Content Management Systems (CMSs) look after this for you, but if you don’t have an XML sitemap, you probably don’t need to worry if you have a small site
  7. Its title tags and meta description tags are unique and written with the reader in mind
  8. It has the right Structured Data – now that Google has often pushed the standard organic results out of sight below its SERP features, you should try to secure places in the Knowledge Panel, People Also Ask… etc
  9. It has a minimal number of broken links—a few 404s won’t upset Google (Google has said that we can ignore them completely), but as they accumulate, they affect user experience more, so I recommend you shouldn’t let too many accumulate.

5. Poor thinking (or guesswork)

Relying on the ‘facts’ that you think you know is stupid. You see your customers, their needs and your products from the inside, looking out. Those important people are looking the other way – from the outside in.

How they see things can be radically different from how you see things. A product that’s taken five years and £5 million to develop is very important to your company. If it isn’t what the customer wants, it isn’t important to them.

people guessing

Do the research

You’re just guessing unless you’ve done the thinking and the research (qualitative and quantitative). Enable your thinking by interviewing customers and doing key phrase research. Understand your readers and how they interact with your products. Then you can start implementing an effective digital marketing strategy.

But if you don’t understand what, how, and why you need to do it, you’ll be gambling with the outcome of your website marketing.

6. Poor user experience

If your website isn’t a good place to be, people will go somewhere else. Relationship shrivelled. Sale lost.

What do I mean by ‘isn’t a good place to be’? There are perhaps more characteristics of poor UX than you’d first imagine:

  1. Slow-loading pages – people will give up and go elsewhere
  2. Not mobile-friendly—surprisingly, many sites with up-to-date content aren’t mobile-friendly. If this applies to your site, get it fixed quickly!
  3. Confusing page layouts – if a customer can’t read content easily or doesn’t understand where to go next, you’ve had it
  4. Confusing navigation – if it’s hard work to get to where a customer wants to be, that’s it
  5. Old-fashioned, clunky design – this is related to confusing layouts, but an old-fashioned site often hasn’t incorporated what the industry has learned about UX in the ensuing years
  6. Poor-quality stock photos – this is a very tough one for us with smaller budgets. Be choosy or see what AI offers
  7. Boring – people will find another website that isn’t
  8. Inhuman – if your website is only designed to push people to purchase, many will go elsewhere. They want to get the feel for your company before purchase
  9. Intrusive pop-ups and overlays – one of my pet hates. Just be careful with pop-ups and overlays. If you can, do some A/B testing
  10. Shouty, demanding calls to action – many people hate being sold to overtly, and, I suspect, just as many doubt companies that feel they have to try too hard. Write for people the way you’d like to be spoken to
  11. The site is broken – from being just plain down, to links that don’t work and buggy code. Fix it!
  12. Low engagement – check with your analytics. You’ll soon see if people are not engaging with your website. Look at your page design, headline and subheads, and get someone neutral to read your copy; implement your finds and measure again
  13. High exit rates – also one for your analytics, pages with high exit rates could indicate low user satisfaction. See Low engagement for steps you should be taking
  14. Poor Core Web Vitals – Google’s measure of a good UX is the technical side of poor user experience. Try not to ignore it. CWV can be complex, so unfortunately, I can’t tell you exactly how to tackle them here.

Check these 14 points and put them right if there’s a problem. They could all be making a significant impact on your website.

7. Unethical (Black Hat) SEO Techniques

Sad looking man wearing a black hat in a loose cartoon style.

These techniques set out to game the Google algorithm, exploiting opportunities where Google falls down. There are forums full of black hat ideas.

But employing unethical techniques can often lead to problems:

  1. Penalties and Bans: Using black hat SEO techniques can lead to harsh penalties, including lowering the website’s rankings or even removing it entirely from search results
  2. Short-term Gains: Unethical SEO practices may yield quick results, but they are often unsustainable over the long term. Once the manipulative tactics are detected by search engines or the algorithm is tweaked, any initial improvements in rankings can quickly disappear
  3. Damage to Reputation: Customers value transparency and ethical behaviour, and being associated with manipulative practices can damage trust and credibility
  4. Poor User Experience: Many black hat SEO strategies, such as keyword stuffing, cloaking, or whatever the current fad for unethical manipulation is, can degrade user experience (UX). Irritating users can also lead to higher bounce rates and lower engagement
  5. Resource Wastage: Resources spent on unethical SEO practices could instead be invested in sustainable and ethical SEO strategies.

The above are why I advise against using black hat strategies and don’t use any unethical ones myself.

8. Too many ads above the fold

too many advertisements branded

In case you were wondering, ‘above the fold’ means what you see on your screen when you first arrive at a page.

While Ads might seem essential for your cashflow, they put a spike into your UX, and Google will downgrade your page’s SERP performance.

Why? Because the ads may make the content you’re looking for only partly visible or even push them totally offscreen. This is an issue that doesn’t seem to apply to Google SERP results, but that debate is for another day; we have to conform to the rules Google imposes on us.

A related issue is pop-ups. When they obscure the top of the page, are whole screen or otherwise intrusive, you’re playing a dangerous game. Google may well penalise you.

The fixes are easy:

  1. Remove or reduce the number of ads so that your content is properly visible
  2. Make your pop-ups less intrusive.

FAQs

Q. Are one-page websites bad for SEO?

A. In theory, no. But in practice, yes. Properly targeting more than a few key phrases can be difficult, so you may struggle to bring sufficient qualified traffic to your website. However, if your message is simple, you may be able to get the results you’re looking for from a one-page site.

Q. Are orphan pages bad for SEO?

A. They can affect your SEO for the worse. Orphan pages cannot be spidered, so they won’t show up on the SERPs. They can also give a poor user experience through broken links.

Q. How bad is duplicate content for SEO?

A. If Google finds duplicate content (duplicated from other pages on your website or from other sites), it will ignore it. What it ignores doesn’t rank in the SERPs. If you must have duplicate content, you should canonicalise the page you do need to rank or work on putting unique content on all of your pages.

Q. Is AI content bad for SEO?

A. Not necessarily, but it can often be worse quality than human-written content. If you want to write strategic SEO pages that will rank well, a straight-out-of-AI page is unlikely to cut the mustard. If you do want to use AI content, then give it a heavy edit, at least. And add some unique information that the AI systems can’t hoover up from the internet.

Q. Are 301 redirects bad for SEO?

A. Properly implemented, 301 Redirects (permanent redirects) are great for SEO. As long as people and search engine spiders are redirected to the right page (not the home page, but one that has similar content to the removed page) and the destination page is of good quality. Incidentally, Google’s John Mueller has stated that 302 Redirects (temporary redirects) are treated the same as 301 Redirects.

Q. Are multiple h1 tags bad for SEO?

A. From a strict technical point of view, HTML 5’s specifications allow you to and Google isn’t bothered about them, so they will not directly affect SEO. However, personally, I try to have just one h1 on a page. It’s the most important statement you make, and it shouldn’t be muddled with something else that may be more or less important. On the other hand, you can use as many h2s, h3s and so on as you like. So, from a UX point of view, you should use just one h1.

Q. Are 404 errors bad for SEO?

A. Google says no. But also increasingly stresses that we should care about UX. And the user won’t like hitting an error when they’re expecting some content. Be sensible and make a judgement on how many you have and how it might affect your customers.

Q. Are iframes bad for SEO?

A. They used to be bad, but more recently, Google has become able to read their content. Mostly able to read their content, that is. I always try to err on the side of caution, so I’d recommend you avoid using iframes where you can.

Q. Is Squarespace bad for SEO?

A. Absolutely not! I have had success ranking content on Squarespace websites. The pages are spiderable and they are served reasonably fast. And, while there isn’t the ultimate flexibility for SEO purposes of a WordPress website, say, there are more than enough options for effective SEO.

Thanks for reading. I hope I’ve given you some food for thought about how you can identify and prevent bad SEO.

Want to improve your website’s SEO? Contact me or set a time to talk. There’s no obligation.

Main photo by Ketut Subiyanto.

David Rosam has been working online for more than 25 years, after a career in direct marketing copywriting for the tech and financial services industries.

Today, he specialises in Content-Leveraged Search Engine Optimisation—from audits, through research and strategy to implementation.

He was probably the UK’s first SEO Copywriter.

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