Is An Over-Optimization Penalty Coming For You?


One of the big news pieces to come out of SXSW was from the Dear Google & Bing: Help Me Rank Better! panel, which featured search favorites Matt Cutts, Duane Forrester and Danny Sullivan sitting down for a chatty Q&A session. Everything was running nicely until a gentleman asked a pretty pointed question. He wanted to know who wins when everyone is optimizing their content. With so many SEOs and marketers saturating the market with optimized content, are you out of luck if you’re not? How do SMBs compete with that when the entire first page of the SERPs is optimized, but not always relevant?

Yeah. He went there.

If you want to listen to both Duane’s and Matt’s responses, Barry Schwartz posted the audio and was even kind enough to give a quick transcription of Matt’s response to save me from having to quasi-liveblog it from home. Here’s what Matt had to say, because that’s people went a little crazy over:

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.

Yep. It was the hinting at that forthcoming update designed to “level the playing field” that caused a few in the industry to raise an eyebrow and speculate. But should you be worried about it? Is “over-optimization” now something you have to look out for?

If you’re doing SEO for the year 2012, no, you have nothing to fear.

Here’s why.

To understand why you shouldn’t worry, you have to understand what SEO really is. Unfortunately, that’s something not everyone agrees on, especially if you don’t do SEO for a living.

[Working in-house and want to see this in action? Ask your CEO, your IT person, your marketer and your reception what your SEO consulting dollars are getting you – what are you paying for? I guarantee you that you’ll get very different and potentially hilarious answers. Had Danny polled that SXSW room, the same would have been true. Those weren’t SEO people either. Those were SXSW people. It’s worth remembering that.]

At its core, SEO is a foundational element and working mindset for your Web site. Without that basic infrastructure, everything else you try to do is going to be exponentially harder than it would be otherwise.

  • It’s going to be harder to get your content seen
  • It’s going to take more energy for the search engines to crawl your Web site
  • It’s going to more difficult for a user to see your relevance

Not to steal Matt’s phrase-of-the-day, but proper SEO actually levels the playing field between you and everyone else because now you can stand by the quality of your site, not by the search engine’s ability to figure it out. Because, sure, the search engines are getting better at understanding new technologies and “seeing” what is on your Web site – but would you really leave the success of your site and your BUSINESS in their hands (claws?). No, you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure it’s as crawlable and easy to navigate as you can. That’s SEO. It’s also good business. Neither of these will go away.

What else is SEO in 2012? It’s connecting search personas to conversions. It’s about understanding your audience, their problems, and their current need-state when they land on your Web site. You have to know the language they’re going to use, what their looking to solve, and how you can sell that to them to increase the conversions on your site. It’s good for Google (and Bing) that your site meets a user’s need and makes them happy. It’s also good for you. That’s also not going away.


Yep, that’s SEO and also not going away. In fact, it’s coming at us harder and stronger. That’s what Panda was supposed to be about. It was about lifting up the sites that were developing content that was relevant and that users wanted to read. It was supposed to be about not serving up content that was thin, useless, or that didn’t actually answer a user’s question.

Or at least it was in theory.

What Panda really taught us was how not good Google is determining what is or is not a useful page. As smart as those Google minds are and as smart as its technology is getting, they’re not perfect. Google doesn’t have it all figured out yet. They can’t really spot true quality. They can look for signals and patterns and algorithmic clues. They can find brands. But they can’t find the better page from all those “eh” pages.

SEO isn’t about taking a crap page and making it rank. It’s about making a killer page more findable.

And that’s never going away and it’s never going to be penalized. We all need that for the Web to work.

So if none of that is what Matt meant by “over-optimization” what did he mean? What are those “overt SEO” tactics that you want to watch out for and stop doing? It’s everything he directly said.

  • It’s the keyword-stuffing
  • It’s the sloppy linking
  • It’s the attempt to woo the bot instead of the user

That’s what Google is going to “level the playing field” against. But in 2012, that’s not really SEO. That’s just dumb. And horribly ineffective. If that’s what your SEO looks like, I’d recommend you find a new batch of SEO consultants. ;)

Any over-optimization penalty that’s in the works is going to hit sites doing scummy things in an effort to get attention they don’t deserve. Make your site one with a strong foundation and that serves users and you have nothing to worry about.

Your Comments

  • Anthony Pensabene

    Good insight, Lisa. “…stand by the quality of your site, not by the search engine’s ability to figure it out.” – awesome. I think (mass) Web commerce is catching up with SEO practices; now more than evs, search engines have to do as (originally) promised to end users. For brands, it’s not a way to abuse users; it’s a means to a business end (making all brands susceptible to traditional business dynamics.. quality service/product = revenue.. rather than.. select-few-insight/smoke/mirrors/money hunger =confusion /misinformed public’s dollar). Online optimization helps promote quality; hopefully, new changes will elucidate poor quality/bad intentions.

    • Lisa Barone

      I think we’re all moving in the same direction, to be honest. We’re all figuring out that the way to do better/be better/make more money is to product things customers actually want and that are useful to them. Seems like a novel idea, but it just may stick this time. :)

  • David Curtis

    Lisa, I’ve been dealing with clients wanting nothing to do with creating content or building links – they want it fast, they want it cheap, they want it as a one shot deal. Sometimes I feel like a dentist who has clients walking in all day without money who simply demand that the tooth be pulled – it’s fast, it’s cheap, and it’s over in a day. But you know what? I won’t pull punches: If I give you professional SEO advice and you don’t take it, I’m not going to beg. If you could afford SEO 10 times as expensive you *would* be listening – and if your budget is small and thus you take what I tell you less seriously and ignore it, then either way you will pay – only this time it will be with a sudden drop in search position and business.

    This change will make or break businesses. Those that both
    1) had/have good SEOs and have
    2) performed the work or paid someone else for the work to put more of the right kind of good, focused content on their sites will do fine.

    Those who didn’t listen and just said “I want to show up for X, Y and Z” but weren’t willing to put in the hours writing content or pay for the hours to have someone else do it – …well, they’re screwed. I hope they’ve saved up their money because I’m not showing anybody any sympathy.

    • Lisa Barone

      What’s that saying? SEO works if you work it? Something like that? ;)

      You’re right, if you’re trying to get in cheap and have your SEO pull miracles out of content you haven’t given them, this may give you a slap, just like Panda and some of the other updates have recently. It’s about being better than that. If your client isn’t willing to make that investment, they should be finding a new SEO. I know we wouldn’t stand for it around here.

  • Martypants

    Don’t know if he cited his source, but that Tweet was originally quoted by Jonah Stein in his Aaron Wall interview (which is a great one): And what did Matt say this time that is so new from what they have said for years? Other than saying a colorful nothing-much with this: “go well beyond what you normally expect.” What kind of guideline/measure is this?

    • Lisa Barone

      Thanks for that link! I wasn’t sure where it had come from, just saw the tweet come through…and get RTd like crazy. :)

      In truth, Matt really said something out of the ordinary. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t going to jump on it. They always will and did here.

  • Tammy

    Thanks, Lisa, for putting so succinctly what this is all about: “SEO isn’t about taking a crap page and making it rank. It’s about making a killer page more findable.”

    Search engines want to produce quality results on the SERPs so people continue to use them and not their competitor. If you create material that people want and that answers their questions, you should be rewarded.

    Hopefully the changes will get us a step closer to that.

  • Leo Dimilo

    The big question is when Google says it is leveling the playing field, will they do it all the way across the board and include big brands with big SEO budgets or will they make exceptions, as they have in the past?

  • Joe Hall

    But the thing is, all of this is subjective. Your SEO may not be Google’s SEO. My SEO may not be Rhea’s.

    I might live on an island, and you might not. ;)

    But in the end it doesn’t really matter seeing how its Google’s definition that we have understand to make sense of statements like these. And that’s the tough part because they tend to get pretty wishy washy about defining words.

    Its also understandable when SEO’s “over react” on statements like this, after Google has made it clear in the past, that they aren’t really helping us.

  • James

    For good SEOs, this would be a very good update. If it’s done right, it will clear out a lot of junk and elevate a lot of content that is of a high quality and is relevant – you know, the stuff that has been properly SEO’d.

    Of course ‘if it’s done right’ is a bit of a Hail Mary where Google is involved.

  • Jill Whalen

    So can we finally make my 10 year old definition of SEO (making your website the best it can be for your users AND the search engines) the definitive one, please?

  • Todd Shelton

    Woo the bot..I love that! Is that an SEO reality TV show? Wayne’s World with Matt Cutts as Cassandra?

    OK, I’m calm(er) now. Over the weekend I was thinking about microdata and reading some posts from RDFa/HTML5 people who weren’t happy that Bing, Google, and Yahoo have decided on for structured data.

    Just searched on “search engine help”–hits=Google (924,000,000), Bing (491,000,000–better algo, right?). At 10 results per page that’s 92 million Google pages or 49 million Bing pages. I asked my 15 year old son how many pages deep he goes. He said “Two, then I tighten my search.” “How many times do you search?” “Maybe three.”

    Above, you said: “…how not good Google is [at] determining what is or is not a useful page.” [note: not an apologist here, but] I think that content-wise the web all-up has to be a train wreck for the engines. How can they really pull the top 50 results out of a half billion without some signaling help?

    Findable. Maybe not such a great word, but certainly a powerful idea–could findability make common cause with users, engines, and businesses?

  • Richard Razo

    I’m hopeful but like the last couple of comments I am kind of tired of being let down when Google’s New Improved Algo’s have noticeable flaws. Moreover, is it even possible to attain a fair playing field? Or can they just do patch jobs trying play catch up scrubbing out the bad/”evil” optimized sites that figured out the patterns to cut in line/pagerank? Real life isn’t fair off and online when you have so many dirty players. I’m glad they keep trying nonetheless.

  • Rob

    I’d like to know where all this “over” optimised serps are.

    I think I first read the phrase OOP back in 2000 at WMW. The debates back then were fast and furious as people got frenzied over the use of words and markup. Eventually people kinda settled and got on with making good sites that people liked and came back to.

    It’s a shabby situation really. MC comes out with such statements and sends a shudder through the SEO world. It’s fine to say oh it’s only kw stuffing or aggressive links etc but the reality is that come any update, they’ll be a raft of false positives and quality resources will get hit.

    It’s an easy thing to hide behind a black box mentality and say its all about quality and that if site x fell, then it’s because they overstepped the mark and now need to reevaluate their on and off site SEO. It’s yet another lever for them to pull and send out that underlying message of SEO might actually be that little bit risky, so you’d better make sure you’re doing it right and fair else we’ll come and bash you and that actually, maybe you should reconsider some of that marketing budget and spend it on Adwords.

    Unless you’re on page 2 or 3 there’s nothing wrong with the SERPS today. You just have to work harder at some of the things you allude to. If the existing system isn’t already picking up on kw stuffing (ffs really!!) then either I’m simply searching for obscure stuff that looks normal or it simply isn’t an issue. As for the link stuff, will sites or more to the point can Google really afford to ding sites with too aggressive a link pattern, and is it really so difficult to just quietly dial down link power?

    In isolation it’s anti SEO sabre rattling delivered in that timeless style of the baby faced assassin, in reality it’s probably not very much too concerned with and we’d best spend some time untwisting our knickers.

  • rumblepup

    Here’s the thing, I’m finding it harder and harder to actually consider anything a Googler says to be consistent with what will actually happen, Matt Cutts included. For instance, the “brand” preference. I thought it would make a lot of sense since I’ve been “branding’ my sites for years. What they meant was “big brands” and that included giving serps to pages with little to no content onpage that matched a search query.
    I’ve seen Sears, Amazon, HomeDepot, etc, rank in the top five for “blue widgets” (obligatory non-search term) when they have only one product or term, and it’s only an accessory for said blue widget. No content, no product, no authority links that even come close to descriptive text point to the page. For instance, Lowe’s ranks for products that they don’t even have. User comments, tweets, facebook likes, are also nowhere near said page.
    So this update, seeming so responsive, still smells to me of a vomit of unintelligible rankings proclaiming to be an example of “Make sites for users not for bots” yet only another giveaway to industries who didn’t invest in the internet (Amazon excluded) when the rest of us where, giving Google the content they needed for users.
    Sorry Lisa, seems I threw up on your post. I want it to be true. I’m sure you’ll let us know if it comes to pass.

  • Ian Harper

    This is not going to get sorted until web 3.0 comes along. The semantic web will be more intelligent and meaning. anyway that the view of a carpet cleaner.

    machines dont understand anything at the moment. the big problem in my view is the chicken and egg will we store our data in the right way first or will the search engines educate us what they need?


    Ian Harper