Once again, we’ve updated the content for the Worst SEO Mistakes. Now the 25 Worst SEO Mistakes to Avoid in 2021, the blog was originally published in 2017 as just 10 mistakes, and has been updated several times.  

Check out these 25 major SEO fails, and learn why your site may not be ranking. 

1. Being Intentionally Deceptive

“Black hat” practices or anything that tries to “cheat the system” are probably the worst SEO “mistake” someone can make.

We often see clients who unwittingly write copy with extensive lists including dozens of related keywords stuffed onto the page. Unknowing, unintentional errors like these will cause websites to rank lower in the search engines. These types of  SEO mistakes can be corrected.

By contrast, intentional deception will get your entire site banned from Google.

Cloaking, placing white text on a white background, sneaky redirects, and scraping content are all examples of these “mistakes.”

In reality, they’re more than SEO errors. They are errors in judgment.

Scraping is pulling content from other people’s sites. This is plagiarism. At our online marketing agency, we have had people steal our content rather than linking to it. That’s “black hat.”




Cloaking is even worse. Cloaking is the practice of sending one type of data to  Googlebot and another to users. An example of cloaking that Google provides: sending cartoons to Googlebot and pornography to users. Fortunately, we have not run into any cloakers at our digital agency. 

In sum, don’t act like scum.

Keep your website and SEO practices “white hat.”

2. Blocking Googlebot From Searching Your Site

Why would your public site be blocked from search engines? When developing a site, you want to block the search engines from crawling it. In this way, a half-baked site won’t get found by a prospect or customer. Many web developers will not host the site in a live environment. Others simply block Google (and other search engines) from finding the site.

We’ve seen this Googlebot blocking mistake firsthand. While reviewing a site’s analytics (apparently no one else ever had), we  found that 0% of the search traffic was organic in a year’s time. Turned out, the “allow search engines to crawl this site” toggle was still in the “off” position on WordPress. When individuals typed in the URL, the site was there. But for a year, Google hadn’t been crawling it. Yikes.

In sum, be sure search engines can crawl your site.

Better yet, and a Google best practice, submit your sitemap to the major search engines.


3. Posting Low Quality Content

Is your content unique or original? Are you providing commentary or new insights? If so, Google will rank your site higher.

Quality content is one of the three most important factors in the 200+ factors in the ever-changing Google algorithm. 

If you’re going for simplicity and few words on the page, you’re not likely to rank very well. We see this a lot. Web designers want a clean, simple look. Clients say, “My prospects/customers/visitors won’t read.” It’s an SEO mistake.

Users do read, and they don’t. Research shows that people scan content on the web, typically in an F-pattern. Furthermore, they do slow down and read paragraphs that interests them. Bullets, numbers, brief sentences short paragraphs, bolding, and images all help to break up text-heavy pages. They engage the reader.

What’s more, research indicates that longer content is more likely to rank on that coveted page 1.

In sum, write well; don’t be afraid of word count.

4. Disregarding User Intent

User intent is what RankBrain is all about. Since 2015, Google’s RankBrain uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to help determine what content Google serves up.

What does this mean? It means Google wants to match what a person is querying in the search box to what they really want. If the Google-er doesn’t click on any of the search returns and then rewords the query in a different way, the machine “learns” about the user’s intent.

In reality, 15% of all queries have never been queried before. RankBrain helps Google match the queried words with a complicated mathematical formula. If unsure, RankBrain will return a few varied responses. Again, it learns from what Google-ers click.

Important, RankBrain is also one of the top 3 factors in the Google algorithm.

How can you know user intent?

We look first at keywords. Which keywords are being queried and how frequently?

Second, we search those keywords in Google. We observe what the search engine returns are. Then, we scroll down to the bottom of the page and read the phrases “Searches related to…”  Right there, on the SERP (search engine return page), Google is telling us what RankBrain believes the user intent is.

To illustrate, we have a client that sells prepared food. They will need to distinguish the user intent for their branded prepared food vs. the user intent of searching for a recipe.

Just for sake of example, let’s say they sell pulled pork. Googling “pulled pork,” we get 10 pulled pork recipes followed by three eateries near me.


At the bottom of the SERP, “Searches related to pulled pork” include 7 more recipe-related returns (eg, best, easy, slow cooker, etc) and “pulled pork smoker.” The “pulled pork smoker” returns smoker directions, 3 how-to videos, and 7 more recipes.

This data tells us that the “eateries” location-based data is very important for this purveyor of prepared food: “pulled pork near me.” Similarly, “Buy pulled pork.” A location-based strategy is key for them. Simply, using the keyword “pulled pork” would be an SEO mistake, because users who Google that term are usually looking for recipes.

In sum, give users what they want, when they want it, and how they ask for it.

5. Ignoring Links

Links to your site are critical. In fact, along with quality content and RankBrain, links are also one of the top three factors in the Google algorithm.

In our experience, links are elusive. Link building schemes are an SEO mistake that will destroy your rankings. Additionally, many sites that may link to you may have “no follow” links to your site.

Instead, you want to get sites to link to you naturally. Supposedly, good content will automatically get links. But in our experience that is not necessarily the case. This seems to only hold true for the “big boys.” People link to articles in Forbes, Business Insider, or other major publications or industry blogs.

We work with small- and medium-size businesses. When we run initial audits on prospects or clients, the link building score is almost always in the red zone or “poor.”

To illustrate, we have a client with nearly 12,000 linking domains. Sounds pretty good, right? Unfortunately, the data indicate that its average competitor has almost three times the number of links. Relative to its competition, the company has few links

The best that we can tell, linking requires either a niche industry or publishing beyond your website or blog. Public relations activities, publicity campaigns, and local SEO campaigns may be useful.

In sum, links matter a lot.

But getting them isn’t so easy for the little guy.  Stay tuned while we continue to crack the code for the little guys.



6. Not Being Mobile Friendly

It’s 2020, people! Nearly 60% of web searches are conducted on mobile devices. People use devices and screens of all different sizes. If you don’t have a mobile responsive site, you are WAY behind.

You can check out whether your site is mobile friendly.

Google warned for years that mobility would be important. In 2018, it began using mobile-first indexing. In other words, it shows your mobile site (rather than the desktop site) in the search returns.

Having a mobile responsive site is not an SEO ranking advantage. However, not having a mobile friendly version of your site is an SEO problem. It may determine whether your content will appear in the search return at all.

Most important, if you haven’t gone mobile, you’re giving your users a terrible experience.

In sum, ensure that your site is mobile friendly—preferably with a mobile responsive site.


7. Not Having a Secure Sockets Layer (an SSL)

Again, Google warned for years that it was important to have a secure website. In the summer of 2018, it began calling out sites that were not.

Wondering if your site has an SSL? The simplest way to find out is to go to your site in the Chrome browser and look at your browser window. If you’re site has a lock icon and starts with https (secure hypertext transfer protocol), you have an SSL. Your site has the necessary certificate to make it more secure.

On the other hand, if your site has an exclamation mark and reads “Not secure” in a clear, san serif font followed by http (hypertext transfer protocol), you have a problem.

Not only is your site less secure without an SSL, it also makes you look outdated. Furthermore, HTTPS has been a mild ranking signal since 2014. Google will downgrade your rank without it.

In sum, get your SSL.

When you do, be sure to properly transfer your URLs from HTTP to HTTPS by following Google’s detailed guidelines.

8. Overlooking Schema Markup

Schema markup is a code that helps bots to understand what kind of content they are crawling. Content such as names, addresses, and phone numbers (NAPs), books, blogs, recipes, products, and more all have similar types of identifiers.

For example, blogs have publication dates, authors, and titles. Recipes have names, ingredients, reviews, and directions.

Schema is not an algorithm factor. However, users often will click on search returns with rich snippets from structured data schema markup. As a result, your site may enhance the user experience, RankBrain is likely to favor you.

Neil Patel provides a thorough overview of how to apply schema markup. Schema markup improves search ranking, and it’s a tool in the SEO arsenal that many are not yet using. Read as “SEO advantage.”

Google provides an opportunity to test your markup in Google Search Console.

In sum, apply schema markup.

9. Snubbing Google’s Guidelines

Want to know just about anything? Google it!

Web and SEO guidelines are no different. Google moved from a multiple page pdf of web/SEO guidelines to extensive online web guidance. Most likely the answers to your web development and SEO questions exist on Google. Follow Google’s best practices, and your site will fare well.

Furthermore, keep in mind that Google controls almost 93% of all search. (This includes Google images, Google Maps, and YouTube—all owned by Google.) Why wouldn’t you follow the behemoth search engine’s advice?

In sum, be aware of and follow Google’s guidance.

10. Falling Behind With SEO

By most reports, Google tweaks its algorithm several times a day. Other times, it launches major shifts in its algorithm. Subscribe to SEO newsletters or hire a consultant who does.

In 2019, Google had 12 major algorithm updates. Keep track of all Google algorithm updates. Others companies will keep up with the changes. If you do not, you will quickly fall behind.

In sum, keep up with SEO changes or hire someone who does.

11. Thinking SEO Isn’t Important

One of the absurd SEO lies that people (including some marketers) tell themselves is that SEO is not important for their business. This is an SEO mistake.

SEO is really about the user experience. Can your prospects and customers find you easily? Not just by your brand name, but by your products or services? Can they find you on their mobile device? Do the words on your web page (and under the hood of your website) tell the Googlebot, and therefore the user, what your page is about?

If you want a good user experience for your prospects and customers, you need to follow SEO best practices.

Hint: This “internet thing” is not likely to go away soon.

In sum, if you have a website, SEO matters.

If you don’t, you are about 25 years behind.


12. Giving Users a Slow Start

One of the user experience factors that Google takes into consideration is the speed of your website. Slow sites are downgraded in the algorithm. Not only is it an SEO mistake, it’s a poor user experience.

You can check the speed of your mobile and desktop website. The results tell you if your site load time is fast, average, or slow. Furthermore, it spells out how your web developer can fix it.

Your visitors do not want to wait while your website loads. Google does not want to serve up a slow experience to their Google-ers.

In sum, ensure your website loads quickly on all devices.

13. Thinking Change Happens Quickly

You’ve optimized for SEO and the user experience. Your site loads quickly, it’s a responsive design, you have others linking to your site, and you’ve followed all of Google’s best practice.


How long will it take to rank? A 2017 study by Ahrefs delved into the data. They found that only a lucky 5.7% of newly published pages ranked in the top 10 (first page) in a year’s time. Furthermore, it took 2 to 6 months for those sites to achieve that status. That means almost 93% did not.

What we have seen with clients is gradual improvement in keyword optimization. In other words, the keyword ranking goes from being over page 10 (100+ ranking), then drops into the page 5 to 9 range and slowly makes the descent into improved rankings.

I’ve seen these changes ensue as quickly as within the first month. General guidance is that websites will see SEO results in 4 to 6 months.

It’s important to monitor your analytics, and adjust your SEO for success.

Don’t just set it an forget it. Links can break. SEO friendliness can be altered when new content is added.

In sum, be patient. SEO is a long-term investment.

14. Ignoring Voice Search

Voice search is already here.

Be sure your content is not overly complicated. Write as people speak (without the ums, you knows, and so’s). Keep your copy simple. Below the 8th grade level.  Google’s December 2019 BERT algorithm update continues to place an emphasis on natural language.

Often voice search is on-the-go. Therefore, a mobile friendly site (No. 6 in this article) is paramount as well as site speed (No. 12).

Voice search tends to be in the form of questions. Write blogs and other content that can answer the question but do not focus exclusively on a Q&A format.

Research indicates that having a secure site is important in voice search (No. 7).

Schematic markup (No. 8) may be helpful in matching answers to questions for voice search. But not all of the experts agree on this.

In sum, keep content simple, speedy, and secure for voice search.

15. Neglecting Your Google My Business Page (GMB)

Your Google My Business page can be front and center on the local search returns—even if your website is not. This is an important opportunity for local businesses.

First, verify and claim your site. Then optimize it for SEO. Moz offers a complete guide to optimizing your GMB profile. Another helpful resource is The Ultimate Guide to Google My Business for 2021.

Be sure to post at least weekly. Additionally, get and respond politely to reviews—even negative ones.

In sum, take advantage of GMB.



16. Configuring Messy Site Content

A site that is poorly organized or requires deep linking and clicking to find content will not rank well in search engine returns. Likewise, navigation that is totally reliant on images, drop-down menus or animations will stifle your ranking. Be sure to include an html site map that is organized by subject.

We’ve all seen disorganized websites. They’re like houses with too many remodels. They do not make sense. They are more like mazes than user-friendly systems.

When you send people to your site, what do you want them to do? When you know the answer to that question, every page can funnel your prospect or customer in that direction.

In sum, launch your site with organized, logical content, and maintain it.

17. Carelessly Naming URLs

An overly long URL name, generic URL naming conventions, and keyword stuffing will squelch your ranking. Google also recommends lower case URLs. Shorter URLs also get more clicks, so try to keep your URL length below 100 characters and no longer than three to five words.

Believe it or not, we still see some of these outliers that have not optimized their URLs. If they do so now, they would need to set up 301 redirects for every page. This, too, is not ideal.

In sum, follow best practices for URL naming at launch.

18. Not Naming Page Titles Optimally

According to Google, you can devalue your site by using an irrelevant page title or duplicating the title name across pages. “Page1” is not a page-naming strategy. Similarly, an unwieldy title tag or one stuffed with key words will also drop you deeper in the search engine returns. What’s unwieldy? Adjust your title tag length for each page to fewer than 60 characters.

Additionally, briefly include your brand. Don’t leave your title tags blank or redundant.

Google offers extensive guidance about your page titles.


In sum, give users clues in the page title to help them understand its content.


19.  Making Typos and Errors


Typos, misspellings and grammatical errors will devalue your site. Content that is not broken up into organized, user-friendly components may also find itself deeper in the search engine results.

Not a great speller? Confused by grammar? Many use Grammarly to help them.

In sum, follow the guidance of your high school English teacher.

If you failed English 101, rely on someone who did not, or download an app that can help you.

20. Writing Lousy Meta Descriptions

Overusing keywords in your meta description may ding your site in the search rankings. An excessively long meta description or immaterial content also may harm site’s search rankings.

Missing and duplicate meta descriptions are flagged in Google’s meta description guidance.

Moz recommends keeping meta description length under 160 characters, but long enough to be descriptive.  However, in November 2017, Google updated its algorithm, allowing for meta descriptions to nearly double in length. Then in 2018, it decreased the length again. Maintain meta description lengths at about 150 to 160 characters or so.

Why the range? A capital W takes up more real estate than a lowercase L or capital I.

Google’s current guidance is to write meta descriptions for humans. Help Google-ers know what your site is about. Use a keyword phrase. Be informative and eloquent. This is a great place for savvy marketers to showcase their skills.

In our opinion, every meta description should scream, “Pick me! Pick me!”

In sum, be descriptive and follow best practices for meta descriptions.

21. Using Headers as Design Elements

Erratic use of heads and subheads will also cause your site to fall deeper into a search engine abyss. Use heads and subheads to outline your content. Help Googlebot to follow along. Google provides guidance for the use of headers.

Most SEO still recommend one H1 per page.

Do not use your heads and subheads as design elements. We see this frequently. Instead, use H2s and H3s to guide the readers and the bots that are crawling your pages.

Keep your heads and subheads short.

In sum, use heads and subheads to outline your content.

22. Not Monitoring Broken Links

Your site will take a tumble in the rankings it there are broken links—particularly in your html site map. Overly complex linking or random links will also cause you to drop in the rankings.

In sum, monitor Google Search Console for broken links and fix them.


23.  Having Pages Lost in Cyberspace

Use a 404 page that is harmonious with your other site pages. When moving or relaunching your site be sure each of your old pages redirects to a new page.

Gently guide your reader back to a working page on your site. Help them understand what just happened.

In sum, follow Google’s best practices for 404 error pages and 301 redirects.

anchor-text-mistake-don't-use-click-here24.  Writing Vague Anchor Text

Still using “click here” as your anchor text? Or referencing an earlier “blog” or “page?” Do you place your actual URL in the text itself when unnecessary? These missteps will cost you in the rankings.

Exact word anchor text may help in your search rankings.

In sum, use anchor text to help Googlebot and users understand the content of the linked page.

25.  Uploading Images Carelessly

If you don’t name your image files with relevant names or that picture of your CEO has a file name that reads IMG128690.jpg and an alt tag that reads “face,” “headshot” or “pic,” you haven’t optimized your site. Overly long names or keyword stuffed names will also ding your SEO.

Google wants its image search to be accurate. Therefore, use keywords only when they are relevant to the image.

In sum, apply Google best practices to your images.

Want More? Read  Google Trends: 15 Tips for SEO in 2019



Nancy Burgess

Nancy Burgess is the owner of Nancy Burgess Strategic Marketing, a marketing consulting firm and online agency. In that role, she integrates her corporate success as a digital marketer along with her marketing agency experience in marketing communications and branding to help businesses prosper. Nancy's specialties are search engine optimization (SEO) and content creation. She graduated from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, holds a master's degree, and also multiple marketing certificates from DePaul University's graduate school. She is a frequent presenter on SEO strategies and has worked in digital marketing since the late 1990s. As someone who can strategize AND execute, Nancy offers digital and traditional marketing services to SMBs. Agency value without agency fees. Along with SEO and content strategies, Nancy's agency offers website design, marketing automation, integrated marketing strategies, and branding to her clients.
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