It’s been just over a month since Google’s Matt Cutts announced the impending rollout of an SEO “over-optimization” penalty at South by Southwest (SXSW) panel hosted by Search Engine Land’s Editor-in-Chief, Danny Sullivan.
At the panel, titled “Dear Google & Bing: Help me Rank Better,” Cutts broke tradition with his pre-announcement and said, “The idea is to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all the people who have been over-doing SEO, compared to people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to address that.”
Okay – but what exactly does that mean?
Cutts went on to address the increasing adaptability of the Google Bot, and mentioning that there is a place in relevant search results for those who don’t do SEO, and that there should similarly be a way to address those who abuse SEO. Although he didn’t use the word “penalty,” it’s clear that was what he was talking about.
This announcement ruffled the feathers of the SEO community, most of whom not only remember, but held sacrosanct, a 2009 YouTube video by Cutts win which he outright said there was no such thing as an over optimization penalty. It seems that in the last few years, either the need for such a penalty has grown, or Cutts and the Google team have changed their minds.
Neither is surprising, nor is the “why” of this rollout the point. Instead, we will address 4 “whats” today.
- What are the penalties for over-optimization?
- What qualifies as over-optimization or over-SEO?
- What can I do if I’ve been penalized?
- What does this mean for the future of search marketing?
What Are the Penalties for Over-Optimization?
As we all know, Google rarely does anything at half-measure. Traditionally, sites that violated filter algorithms like Panda took a hit in rankings, but the penalty for over-optimization is de-indexing.
That’s right – if you’re penalized, you are removed from the Google index and the bots stop crawling your site, which means that you are invisible to the search engine.
What Qualifies as Over-Optimization?
Over-optimized websites, contrary to a mildly popular belief, are rarely the result of a professional SEO consultant or firm’s doing. Typically, webmasters who understand only a shadow of the basic principles of SEO are responsible for the black-hat tactics that provoke the ire of searchers, honest sites – and now, Google.
There are over 200 signals that comprise the database of potential abuses, and the Google Bot assesses confluences of these factors to identify sites that are over-optimizing. Be on the safe side: don’t do any of them. Here are some of the strongest signals:
- Excessive keyword density – typically, anything more than 2-3% is too much. If your site crunches 3 to 4 keywords into its title, heading, meta description, and body content with 7% density, don’t be surprised when Google slaps you with a penalty.
- Inorganic or paid inbound links – you know you shouldn’t be doing this anyway.
- Strictly keyword-rich internal links – are you only linking to your internal sites with keywords? That’s another no-no.
- Listing keywords on the site – it makes me physically ill when I see a list of conspicuous keywords, usually all tagged with internal links, at the bottom of a page. This is sometimes done when a site is attempting to appeal to a broad base and stuffs internally-linked keywords anywhere in the body of the site to artificially boost rankings.
- Ugly site design – sites that rely on SEO manipulation rarely put in the effort or resources to create an aesthetically appealing, user-friendly site design.
- Weak content – if your site is re-hashing material from other websites and offers uninspiring content with a low value, you’re exposing yourself to a penalty.
- Few or zero value propositions – a value proposition is something that provides value to the searcher. Not only are these important to conversion, but the lack of one will make your site suspect. What are you offering your reader? An e-book? A white paper? A free consultation? Make it count. You brought them to your site for a reason, didn’t you?
- Domain name is keyword – did you buy kidsafegardensupplies.com for its SEO benefit? You might have wasted your cash. While this won’t trigger an automatic penalty, it is on the over-optimization checklist.
- All “home” link anchors in the site navigation use the keyword – this was long thought to be clever, but now it’s written off as a cheap trick.
- Excessive back-linking – if all of your back-links have the same anchor text and all point to your main URL, you’re in the danger zone. Please note, however, that organic back-links with unique anchor texts that lead to specific landing pages, articles, or blog posts are very healthy for your ranking.
- Back-linking to untrustworthy sites – if you’re linking to a low quality site, you may be exposing yourself to a penalty.
- Duplicate content – content duplication is when you use the same text over and over again on your website, changing only the keywords and links.
- Automatic page re-directs – anything other than a permanent 301 redirect won’t be supported by Google, and could signal that you’re trying to dupe searchers.
- Doorway pages – doorway pages are those that offer no navigation options to the browser, and instead only display affiliate links or advertisements so that the browser either “bounces” (exits) or clicks on an ad to leave the page.
- Excessive H1 tags – all together now: H1 is for the top heading; H2 and H3 for the rest. You should only have one H1 heading per article or page.
To find out if your site has been penalized by Google, you should compare the number of previously indexed URL’s from your site with the most current figures.
To do so, use the command site:yourdomain.com in Google’s search bar. If you don’t see any results, try link:yourdoman.com. If you still get nothing, then there’s a high probability that Google has targeted your site for over-optimization and has assessed a penalty.
What Can I Do if I’ve Been Penalized?
If your site has been penalized by Google for over-optimization, go through the above checklist and make the required changes to your site. Once finished, you can request that Google reconsider your site for inclusion in its index, and by then, you’ll hopefully have learned your lesson: write naturally, using SEO as an augmentation or as a guide, rather than dogmatically keyword stuffing. This isn’t 1999. The rules have changed.
Without addressing all of the strikes against you and making a formal request, there’s nothing you can do – other than hope that all of your intended customers use either Bing or Blekko.
What Does This Mean for the Future of Search Marketing?
As previously mentioned, the vast majority of these no-no’s are perpetrated by black hat SEO’s or amateurs, so above all else, do not panic.
SEO isn’t going anywhere, nor is its close cousin, content marketing. At this point, based on the infrastructure of how information is catalogued and shared on the internet, that would be impossible. Until Google switches entirely to natural language search interfacing, which it has all but sworn to never do, or until search engines learn to read people’s minds, we are dealing with a keyword-based information hierarchy.
What this does mean, however, is that it’s now more important than ever to hire an SEO and content marketing firm that not only understands the intricacies of SEO content and how it interacts with the rest of a marketing campaign, but can also fix potential violations you or others have made on your site in the past.
While SEO used to exist as an island in the sea of internet marketing, the tides have changed and we now find that SEO, like so many other aspects of digital advertising, is a peninsula of a Pangaea-like continent.
Or, to use a different metaphor, SEO is only one of many different working parts that keep the machine working. To do it properly is to reap the rewards – of two sites with comparable quality and content, the one that has been properly and legitimately optimized will receive a significantly better ranking.
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