There’s been a lot of talk around here (and everywhere) lately about over-optimization. There’s a feeling in the air that a lot of SEO tactics that worked in the past  are becoming less effective, if not grounds for a straight-up penalty. Some ranking signals are falling out of favor and others are coming into the fore.
Earlier this week, in a post about viral content marketing techniques that can help any kind of content , I posted this jokey meme with a recent quote from Larry:
A couple of people took issue with this remark in the comments; Chris Mayhew said “I wouldn't say that SEO's time has come and gone.” Neither would I! “Unoptimized is the new optimized” is an exaggeration (Overstatement! Used for effect! Yay, rhetoric!). We’re not actually going to de-optimize our whole website. The fact is, you don’t want your site to be over-optimized or under-optimized! Like Goldilocks, you want your site to be just right.
So in the interest of not undoing all the value you’ve added to your site by doing SEO over the years, here are a few tips for staying in the Goldilocks zone – not too much SEO, and not too little.
Don’t Make Your Site Less User-Friendly
The whole problem with a lot of SEO – and the reason that Google is on the lookout for sites that overdo it to the point of spam – is that it focuses on search engines to the exclusion of users. But with all this FOG in the air there’s a danger of changing all your strategies while making the exact same mistake – taking actions that are all about Google and not at all about the user.
For example, let’s take a look at a few different ways that you could code a hyperlink (not real links, BTW):
- Dr. Andrew Weil recommends 200 mg daily of Phosphatidyl serine.
- Dr. Andrew Weil recommends 200 mg daily of Phosphatidyl serine.
- Dr. Andrew Weil recommends 200 mg daily of Phosphatidyl serine. (Click here.)
- Dr. Andrew Weil recommends 200 mg daily of Phosphatidyl serine: health.com/867921
Each choice of anchor text (or lack thereof) leads me, as a reader, to make assumptions about what the link is. In #1, I assume the link is to Dr. Weil’s website or the source article where he makes this recommendation. In #2, I assume that the link goes to some kind of page with information on the drug or vitamin. In options #3 and #4, generic anchor text and a naked link respectively, I really have no idea. The “Click here” anchor text tells me nothing about the nature of the destination page, and the naked link is also minimally helpful, because it’s one of those pesky, under-optimized URLs with no keywords.
So here’s the thing: It may be natural to have some generic anchor text and naked links in your link profile. But don’t force them into your profile by making choices that don’t serve your readers. Anchor text is a beautiful way to subtly tell readers where your links will take them, so use it the way it is meant to be used. Just don’t mechanically use the exact same anchor text every single time you link to a given page. (And certainly don’t bulk-buy links, with the same anchor text or otherwise.)
Along the same lines, before you do anything out of Fear of Google, ask yourself if it will make your site less useable for readers.
Don’t Use a Link Removal Service
Remember the great unnatural link warning scare of 2012 ? Google sent out a bunch of warning emails through Webmaster Tools, telling site owners that it had detected potentially harmful unnatural links in their link profiles, which could require action. The warnings were vague, scary and confusing – and nearly everyone in the SEO industry got one, as far as we could tell.
The Penguin update – one of many Google algorithm changes created to fight web spam – specifically targets sites whose link profiles are suspect. And where there is panic, there is opportunity, so naturally a bunch of “link removal services” popped up, with businesses offering to remove the nasty links for you so you could get back in Google’s good graces.
Are your links overoptimized??? Should you use one of these services?!???!?
In short, no.
The long version: These “services” are preying on your panic. You shouldn’t need to pay a shady service to fix the problem. You should know if you have unnatural links pointing to your site, due to one of the following scenarios:
- You bought the links yourself (own up, do what you need to do)
- Your hired SEO did it (corner him and get the story)
- It’s a mistake of some kind (it’s possible, though unlikely – this happened to us in fact)
- You’ve been hit by a negative SEO attack  (highly unlikely, but possible as a last-ditch explanation)
Again, to stay in the Goldilocks zone, you’ll need to figure out exactly which links are problematic and attempt to remove only those links. You don’t want to go on a rampage and kill all the high-quality, relevant, natural links that are certainly still a ranking factor.
Don’t Preemptively De-Optimize
January is prediction time, so everyone’s talking about what the coming year will bring in the search industry. There has also been a lot of fluctuation in the SERPs .
If you’re seen a few pages on your site take a traffic hit, or if you manage a profile of sites and a couple of them have sustained damage, you might think you need to go in and “fix” all your other pages and sites, taking actions to prevent future dips in rankings or traffic.
I would advise against this, to a point*. Unless you have strong evidence that a particular tactic is hurting your site, don’t go around making drastic changes to pages or sites that are currently sailing along and doing fine. Or, as Ste Kerwer recently put it, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. "
Google is unpredictable. Some changes may be due to testing or opaque randomness. If you run around making changes to pages that aren’t experiencing problems, you could very well undo one or more of the actions that were helping them rank in the first place. It’s safer to wait until you know those sites or pages have a problem, then address the problem. (And if and when you do make changes, try to have a rollback plan in place, in case the actions you take make things worse instead of better.)
*The exception, of course, is blatant black-hattery and techniques that are in clear violation of Google’s webmaster guidelines.
In Sum …
Eric Enge recently shared his predictions  for which signals are dying and which are going to become more important this year. Like us, he thinks “steering anchor text in links is bad.” He also thinks Author Rank  and landing page quality (time on site, bounce rate) will become more important. Overall, the direction is clear. Whether or not they’re succeeding, Google is trying to favor higher-quality pages in the results. It’s tempting to try to trick Google into thinking you’re not trying to trick them, but the better path is reducing your reliance on trickery.
Has Fear of Google got you down? How are you adapting your SEO strategies to the new year?