Is An Over-Optimization Penalty Coming For You?

March 19, 2012
By Lisa Barone in SEO

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.

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