Over-Optimization: Oops! Have You SEO'ed Your Site to Death?

April 3, 2015


Las Vegas

Is your SEO over the top, Vegas-style?

At South By Southwest (SXSW) last week, Matt Cutts was quoted as saying that Google is rolling out a new algorithm change that will penalize sites for “over-optimization.” Here’s the transcript of his statement, via Barry Schwartz:

What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.

This has made some in the SEO industry understandably nervous – are we about to be punished for all the hard work we’ve been doing over the past few years, trying to make Google happy?

Let’s look at some of the reactions.

What Qualifies as Over-Optimization?

As Jill Kocher at Practical Ecommerce notes, “No one but Google knows.” She goes on:

Cutts did mention that Google is looking at sites by “people who sort of abuse it whether they throw too many keywords on the page, or whether they exchange way too many links, or whatever they're doing to sort of go beyond what a normal person would expect in a particular area.” It’s widely believed that keyword stuffing and link exchanges are already spam signals in Google’s algorithm, so either Google intends to ratchet up the amount of penalty or dampening that those spam signals merit algorithmically or they have new over-optimization signals in mind as well.

She then lists five tactics that she thinks should count as too much SEO – most of them revolving around anchor text, e.g., “Linking repeatedly from body copy to a handful of key pages with optimized anchor text.” (What do you think? Do SEO’s abuse anchor text?)

Google to SEOs: Dance, Monkeys, Dance!

Ben Cook at Direct Match Media (who has dubbed this the “OOPS” update) posts a video in which Google’s Maile Ohye lists five “common SEO mistakes” that could get you dropped from Google’s index. One of the “mistakes” is “using rel=canonical tags on subsequent pages that point to their ‘page one’” and “Ohye discusses this tactic as if it's some sort of sneaky or devious tactic used by SEOs.” But, he points out, Matt Cutts himself advocated using this tactic in an earlier video!

Another way to get penalized is by having too many ads above the fold – but “Google has been asking site owners for years to place AdSense ads above the fold and where they'll be the focus of attention.”

As one person said in a thread on Warrior Forum, “They create rules so that they can reverse the game on SEO's, then watch as everyone runs around in confusion.”


Are We Getting Our Collective Panties in a Bunch Over Nothing?

The more level-headed (or ostrich-headed) among us are saying “Calm down, son” – this is just another update meant to weed out spammers and black hats.

Joost de Valk is one of the optimistic ones:

Google wants to do something about over-optimization. That's not saying they want to do something about SEO. As Matt said on that same panel one more time, they have nothing against SEO, they have something against spamming … Now, stop over-analyzing everything Matt says and get back to work, building good websites for users.

David Harry, writing for Search Engine Watch, also thinks we’re being needlessly paranoid:

Now, this one seems to be one of the largest heads on the many headed hydra of SEO paranoia. Time and time again we see those that truly are out-thinking themselves … Then of course there is the whole problem of the SEO inferiority complex; the need to be special. Maybe it's because we have been marketing whipping posts. Could have been an accident when it was a child. I'm unsure. I do know that each time Google shuffles to scratch its backside my brethren far and wide start to pronounce how it was somehow just to combat, mislead or piss them off.

Bill Slawski, speculating on what might qualify as over-optimization, also thinks that people practicing reasonable SEO are safe:

A penalty like this might do things like ignore the value of anchor text in blog comments or forum signatures pointing to pages, lessen the value of links between sites that are related in some manner, lessen the value of keywords or related terms that appear on the same page at a very high rate, or apply some other similar approaches.

That doesn’t mean that the value of thoughtfully created, high quality pages, following best SEO practices will be harmed. The goals of that type of SEO align with the goals of search engines in helping people find pages that help meet their needs.

I’m on the fence myself. Realistically I don’t think Google would roll out an update that could hurt big brands – and big brands are the companies that can afford to hire in-house SEO to optimize the crap out of everything. On the other hand, as a user, I find that the Google results are getting less and less relevant, and it’s harder to find what I want without having to use extra search operators. So, as a marketer, I don’t trust that just creating helpful, user-friendly content is enough – Google is still the middle man and they’re not really doing their job of connecting end users with the best content right now. (Maybe because, as one ex-Googler says, they've become hyperfocused on one all-consuming goal: ad revenue. Or, as Mat Honan at Gizmodo puts it, "Search is no longer Google's core product.")

More Web Marketing Highlights

I’ll keep this section very brief this week, but I did want to mention that Firefox is switching to HTTPS by default, meaning webmasters and marketers are going to be losing even more search query information to the “not provided” black hole. Some of the none-too-pleased reactions:

analytics is dead

death of analytics

analytics apocalypse

Top image by Larry Kim

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

Sign up to get our top tips and tricks weekly!