Sweat The Small Stuff: Search Engine Optimization Is In The Details

Over at Search Engine Land, Jill Whalen makes the argument that search engine optimization in the 21st century isn’t about the small stuff like keyword densities and Meta tags; it’s about building up site credibility and trust in your brand.

Is she right?

I’ll agree with her that branding and building credibility are key to any good organic search engine optimization campaign, especially as personalization becomes more prominent, but I think you’d be doing yourself a great injustice writing off "the small stuff" and declaring that "it doesn’t really matter". Of course it matters.

What does Jill mean 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)."

I won’t argue that optimizing your Meta tags and H1 tags will always give you a significant boost in the rankings, or that if you put one extra word in your title tags you’re doomed to Google Hell; it won’t.

I won’t argue that Meta tags and H1 tags hold the same importance as keyword research, link building and site architecture, or that they should paralyze you in fear. There has no been research to prove that self-induced paralysis has any effect on your rankings.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not important or that you should forget them. The details are important. If they play any part in the search engine’s algorithm, they should be part of your search engine optimization campaign. Why? Because if you’re ignoring them and your competition isn’t, it puts you at a disadvantage. You can’t afford that.

I’m going to say it again, mostly because I can: The details are important. The details are what give you that final push to overtake your competitors.

As Jill correctly notes, however, you don’t want to become so consumed with the details that you neglect the bigger stuff. You want to spend time doing keyword research, you want to spend time addressing usability concerns. She’s right, there’s no sense optimizing your Meta tags if your page is so buried the engines can’t find it anyway. You have to find a middle ground and balance your time effectively.

We’ve said this many times and I apologize if it sounds somewhat pretentious (I don’t mean it to be), but anything worth doing is worth doing right. It’s worth it to use nails to build a house instead of glue because in the end you have a stronger structure. One swift change in the weather won’t knock down a house made with nails. The same thing applies here. Don’t be an algorithm chaser.

Who wouldn’t love a way to streamline the optimization process? Writing Meta tags isn’t my idea of a good time, but it takes just as long to write a proper Meta tag as it does to create a crappy one. (Or to fight with yourself over whether you should include them in the first place). It takes just as much time to write a good Title as a bad one. Why not write a good one? Why wouldn’t you want your site to be the best it could be?

I’d love to cut down the amount of work that goes into a search engine optimization campaign. If we could do that, we could have more clients, we could create more great sites and maybe Susan and I could get separate offices. But there’s a reason for all those steps – they’re all important. The engines are working with 100+ different factors and you never know which one will be the tie breaker. Do you want to be kicked off the first page of the results because your competition optimized their Title and Description tags and you didn’t? That seems pretty ridiculous. Don’t put yourself in that situation.

The trouble with ‘not sweating the small stuff’ is that you end up with an okay site. Not a great site, just one that’s ‘good enough’. If all you’re willing to optimize for is ‘good enough’ then your rankings will reflect that. Top 20 is good enough. Top 10 requires more work. Top 3? That requires sweating the small stuff.

If you’re not willing to put in the work to be the best, why would any search engine consider you the best?

Lisa Barone is a writer, content marketer & VP of strategy at Overit Media. She's also a very active Twitterer, much to the dismay of the rest of the world.

See Lisa's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (12)
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12 Replies to “Sweat The Small Stuff: Search Engine Optimization Is In The Details”

I’ll agree!that branding and building credibility are key to any good organic search engine optimization campaign

@Jill — I felt like it was implied:

“Guess what? None of that stuff matters!”

Why would I waste my time doing something that “doesn’t matter”. We think the small stuff matters a great deal, especially in competitive markets.

I apologize if you feel like I took your words out of context.

I had just finished reading Jill’s post and was getting a bit depressed – are many of the things I’m doing for my SEO clients irrelevant? What am I doing in this business? Thanks, Lisa for presenting the other side of the argument.

In reality, it’s a balance of both what Jill discusses and what Lisa points out. Part of the proof is an eCommerce client who has more than quadrupled online sales since the “small stuff” was implemented. His rankings went up dramatically and so did his site traffic. META Description rewrites enticed searchers to click in to his site from the search results. Previously all of the page titles and all of the META Descriptions were the same – you can imagine where that left him. His conversion rate increased as a result of improving the copywriting on the page. His competitive position has improved greatly as well because his competitors don’t bother with the “small” stuff.

I also agree with Jill that the age of the domain is one of the “big things” you do need to sweat. But other than avoiding changing domain names, you can’t do anything to “age” your domain, so in that regard, it’s not even within your control.

I’m still of the opinion that “content is king” but I don’t think you can just chill-lax and forget the small stuff. I think the most effective SEO techniques see the bigger picture without leaving out the small details.


Lisa, just one quickie…

The trouble with ‘not sweating the small stuff’ is that you end up with an okay site. Not a great site, just one that’s ‘good enough’. If all you’re willing to optimize for is ‘good enough’ then your rankings will reflect that. Top 20 is good enough. Top 10 requires more work. Top 3? That requires sweating the small stuff.

I never said don’t DO the small stuff. I simply said don’t sweat ’em. I believe there’s a big difference, no?

Hi, I agree with Nashville SEO when he says that basic of SEO will remain the same.
Keywords are very crucial for one’s site, if no keywords are there then on what basis are we targeting our clients?
Some factors change but not the basics?
I am sure you will agree that keywords are still amongst one of the important factors of SEO.

Steve Amundsen

I agree with you, Lisa. In a very competitive market segment you MUST sweat the small stuff because it will make a difference. But only if you sweat the BIG stuff first. Like great content for example. Like a proper site architecture, or “siloing” as Bruce likes to call it. Like really good natural backlinks. The big stuff will get you there. The small stuff will separate you from your optimized competition who didn’t sweat the small stuff.

btw nashville – that’s not Bruce doing the writing. it’s Lisa. you might want to sweat the small stuff on this blog ;)

har har! ;)

It’s a very good point. I guess I’d put those in the basic category but not the “small stuff” category, for details like character count in title tags, optimizing header tags, etc. They’re all good and important – but definitely more towards the refinement side of things. Maybe once the site is well covered those finer points should be considered.

But just to contradict myself, I have a hunch that little stuff – if you sweat it and already have a great site – can influence rankings in competitive areas. That’s probably where it’s more important – saturated niches that already have actively SEO’d sites competing. That and insanely good unique content with masses of links from authority sites (double har).

Actually though I was just feeling disagreeable today. :)

@Adam — Sad to see you dissent, you’re usually such an intelligent fellow. :)

What do you consider the basics of SEO if not Meta tags and keyword densities? I think the basics of SEO will always stay the same. There will be other factors that come and go, but I think including Meta tags on a page and appropriately targeting keywords are safe and worth the effort.

I agree with Jill and I definitely agree with Bruce.

Those who need the benefit of SEO the most will probably never become THE authority site for their niche, so the small details matter greatly. Not everyone is a big spending, market dominating, mega-site. Some of us are simply trying to attract some eyes from our communities. This is where the small stuff will matter the most.

Jill’s right. I love her article, it’s a breath of fresh air and a sophisticated approach to SEO. As she writes, people are afraid of doing something to harm their site, and “Part of this fear and uncertainty comes from a misunderstanding of SEO and how it should be used as a marketing tool.” Jill’s been around the game long enough to realize SEO is a part of the marketing mix, it’s not THE marketing mix. It’s a segment of Internet marketing.
You don’t have to sweat the small details because those may change in 2 weeks or 2 months or 2 years. You just have to cover the basics *really well* and create a authoritative, trusted, high-quality resource that both humans and SEs need to know about. Easier said than done.
Okay gotta go comment on Jill’s post now…


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