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Can you ever have too much of a good thing? According to Google, the answer is 'yes' when it comes to SEO.

In the past couple of years, the search giant has made a concerted effort to improve the quality of its index.

The measures taken are wide-ranging, from updates targeting content farms to the more recently announced penalty for pages with too many ads.

Now Google is apparently set to take its efforts one step further by targeting pages and sites it deems have been over-optimised.

As detailed by Search Engine Land, Google's Matt Cutts has revealed that Google is hoping to "level the playing field" for sites with great content by penalising sites with lower quality but better SEO.

On a panel moderated by Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan at SXSW, Cutts stated:

All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimisation 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."

According to Cutts, "several engineers" are working on this update, and it could be rolled out in as early as a few weeks.

Unfortunately for SEOs, outside of what Cutts mentioned (keyword stuffing and excessive links), no additional information on what constitutes "over-optimisation" has been revealed, leaving everybody to wait and see just how many sites get caught in the crosshairs of Google's update.

Ironically, you could argue that Google's efforts to clean up its index increasingly seem to be over-complicating its algorithm, a hint that the company is trying to fix something that it increasingly recognises has major flaws.

As one astute commenter on Search Engine Land observed:

There is no such thing as “over-optimisation.” Rather, Google’s algorithm relies too much on signals that do not correlate to the quality and relevance of a given webpage. For example, just because something is in an H1 tag, does NOT mean that the surrounding text is more likely to be high quality content about that keyword.

Penalising people for tricking something that is easily tricked isn’t the solution. Revamping the system to improve its fidelity is."

Patricio Robles

Published 19 March, 2012 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2391 more posts from this author

Comments (27)

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Dave Wieneke

Dave Wieneke, Director of Digital Strategy - ISITE Design at www.UsefulArts.us

Competitive SEO is to Marketing as Day Trading is to Finance.

<I managed $12M on 'mesothelioma', so I've made my business on one of the most competed for terms worldwide.>

Once, long ago, SEO was a long horizon game, and PPC was for short term expensive results.

However, SEO has become so competitive (and dependent on tricks that don't help users) that in competitive spaces it is now a short term game.

SEO "tricks" are arbitrage - and they give an advantage until all competitors use them, or until Google defends agaist the trick.

Isn't this just how the search game is played?

http://usefularts.us/2011/03/02/seo-is-day-trading/

over 4 years ago

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Nick Stamoulis

I'd like to know what the line in the sand is for "over optimization." How can you qualify SEO? Obviously 10,000 links from spam blogs is going to get flagged, but how else can you measure it? Will sites that push out a lot of content, even if it's mostly good stuff, get flagged?

over 4 years ago

Dave Wieneke

Dave Wieneke, Director of Digital Strategy - ISITE Design at www.UsefulArts.us

Hi Nick - good to see you again!

Wouldn't we all like to know explicitly where the new lines are drawn?

Of course, everyone would build right up to it, which would reduce its usefulness as a signal. So its a secret rather than standard.

And so Google "Truth or Dare" begins again.

Happy Monday, indeed.

over 4 years ago

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Tony

Recently I've found Google returning pages without the search term I wanted. I can put a word in quote marks, or put a plus symbol before it, yet they still give results without that word.

They need to focus on the fundamentals first, before tinkering with yet more vague updates.

over 4 years ago

Steve Morgan

Steve Morgan, Freelance SEO Consultant at Morgan Online Marketing

I was going to write a really long comment about how people are over-reacting and/or people think this is the death of SEO (again, for the nth time), but I just came across Yoast's post and he sums it up perfectly:

http://yoast.com/over-optimization-vs-optimization/

"So, Google wants to do something about over-optimization. That's not saying they want to do something about SEO."

I was on a forum just now where non-SEO people were effectively saying "oh good, this will stop SEOs from spamming and give my (unoptimised) content a chance." Couldn't be further from the truth. Google still needs a nudge in the right direction that certain content is about a particular subject, but if you give it too much of a nudge (a punch?) then alarm bells will probably start ringing.

I think the two main affected areas will be keyword use in copy and in the anchor text of in-bound links. After all, if a site had "blue widgets" one or twice in every sentence on-site, and every link pointing to the site has "blue widgets" as the anchor text, then it's not going to look natural. And that's the point: it doesn't have to BE natural (i.e. completely unoptimised), but LOOK natural. It's about getting the balance right between content search engines want to show and content people actually want to read.

This doesn't kill SEO more than it changes it (again). As I said on Twitter just now: ironically, if content is over-optimised then it's no longer optimised at all, as it won't rank at all...

over 4 years ago

Paul Walsh

Paul Walsh, Founder & CEO at Infinity Call Tracking

I agree Nick, I think Google need to make it known where the line in the sand will be as don't want clients to start panicking from a misunderstanding and start reducing their SEO budgets.

Interested to see how this will pan out.

over 4 years ago

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~ben

Hope this doesn't dent SEO to greatly :/

over 4 years ago

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Jamie

Great post, I'd have to agree that this announcement isn't claiming that SEO is "dead" however it is a frustrating experience for both the users as well as the site owners.

For e-commerce folks specifically it's especially challenging. More customers are shopping online and drawn to marketplaces like Amazon to purchase and this Google announcement seems to prove one of the causes customers are behaving this way. Marketplaces provide a unified wallet, security reasons (customers don't have to input their credit card onto a site they don't know), product selection, etc. The list goes on.

It seems as though Google admits the SERPS are skewed, shouldn't e-tailer's adjust their business strategies based on the trend?

Although SEO may not be dead, Google admits there's some cleaning up to be done.

http://www.marketplaceoptimization.com/

over 4 years ago

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Nondas

On the contrary "~ben" this will enhance SEO and more importantly the user experience. This change should be embraced as a required step to weed out poor quality websites, which have up to scratch SEO.

I don't agree that Google should be more transparent with this sort of thing; ongoing research is the best practice anyway, if they were more transparent, everyone becomes the expert.

People employing a third party will not decrease their SEO spend due to lack of understanding, they are spending on SEO because of that very reason. This will if anything, encourage companies to pay more respect to what the website is offering ‘completely’ and its quality as opposed to just how well it's been optimised...Kudos Google, keep us on our toes!

Nondas A
www.iamdigital.com.au

over 4 years ago

Daniel Phillips

Daniel Phillips, E-Commerce Manager at HJ Hall

All this would be fine if Google was actually improving the quality of the SERPs, but as an actual user the results are plainly a lot worse than they were pre-Panda.

Instead of giving users the best pages for a search, the user now seems to be given results that are an approximation of their search and shown sites that 'might' have something vaguely in the area you're searching.

Of course Google needs to aim to reduce SEO spam, but that's merely a means to an end, the end being better quality results. If its endeavours actually reduce the relevancy of its results then they've added to the top line (in terms of quality), but have taken their eyes off the bottom line.

Of course, whilst Bing or anyone else fails to provide a useful alternative, Google is under no pressure to get the quality of search back to where it was previously. Which is a shame.

over 4 years ago

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Pete Gronland

So "here we go again" with a bit of a Google dance, the areas that are being targeted according to Google are pretty much the same areas that were apparently targeted previously with the Panda updates.

As much as there were some sites that suffered from the Panda updates there were so many more that were completely unaffected.

If Google do start devaluing sites with thousands of exact anchor text links, then there will be some major household name sites that will get hammered.

So are Google going to get rid of or devalue paid online PR (unlikely) - Even though you are buying links and writing your own content to appear elsewhere, giving your site an SEO boost. But hey that's fine as Online PR as an industry assists Google so it will stay.

As ever there is no such thing as ethical SEO, there is just what Google (& others) allow and what they devalue/penalise.

I'm all for an improved web with better content but as for the next update being a game changer I doubt it very much. I expect that we will see multiple updates this year all nudging towards the goals of a "better web".

Maybe I'm wrong, maybe Google will make a major overhaul to how they value links in the algorithm and base their rankings more on the quality of content than they are currently.

In the words of corporal Pike...."Don't panic"... well not just yet anyway.

over 4 years ago

Neale Gilhooley

Neale Gilhooley, MD at Evolution Design

More SEO Evolution; perhaps only those that need to worry, need to worry.

over 4 years ago

Tina Webb

Tina Webb, Managing Director at Tri-Synergy LtdSmall Business

'Relevance' is still the king of SEO and I don't believe this will change. 'Natural' is also key. More and more sustainable SEO is about how relevant content across the various social and internet platforms integrates and works towards supporting the optimisation of a website/brand/blog etc.Listings, maxing out on keywords in copy - pretty much old hat now;relevancy and engagement online will be important components of seo going forward. Within the last 12 months the way we approach SEO for clients has changed considerably.I wonder if the proposed alterations are less about change and more about evolution of SEO and digital media?

over 4 years ago

dan barker

dan barker, E-Business Consultant at Dan Barker

Google has built in elements around 'over-optimization' for many years. eg:

http://www.seroundtable.com/archives/013473.html

This is obviously just an update to that. It will be interesting to see what changes, but impossible to take any useful action until then.

All of the 'SEO is dead', 'cracking down' type comments are at odds with Google themselves, who are now putting out SEO 'tips' directly:

http://googlewebmastercentral.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/five-common-seo-mistakes-and-six-good.html

dan

over 4 years ago

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Clare Brace

Over Optimisation, like having lots of content? Or lots of internal links from one page of content to another like Wikipedia? Sorry, of course not. Maybe it means lots of outbound links which people pay for like links from yell.com or yahoo directory? No, not those site’s either?

So basically, we need quality relevant content that people love? What a shocker! I am not sure how SEOers will cope with this revelation.
SEOers just need to do one thing, Stop worrying about SEO and start focusing on what the end user wants (hence the birth of social).

Or, pay for an expensive TV campaign and build your brand up – Simples ;-)

over 4 years ago

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Voneron

"There is no such thing as ethical SEO"
"Perhaps only those that need to worry, need to worry"

I agree. Surely ethical or white hat "SEO" is just the process of properly, truthfully and effectively padding your site out with honest signposts and labels about what your content is actually about.

It seems to me that anybody who has done this need not worry - whatever new update Google bring out. There's no system to cheat here - just make good websites.

over 4 years ago

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hopeful cynic

If this keeps up I think the average user would be forgiven for believing that the reason between the poor quality search results was to encourage people to click on the ads...

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Neale,

"...perhaps only those that need to worry, need to worry."

I think it's quite likely that an overt "over-optimization" penalty will ensnare innocents.

Google's ability to detect the most obvious webspam hasn't been that impressive (I have written numerous times on high-ranking sites that are paying for links on useless sites), so I think there's good reason to doubt Google's ability to define and detect "over-optimization."

But putting Google's track record with webspam aside, let's take the issue of keyword density. Does anyone really believe that Google can determine appropriate keyword densities for all subject matter that is conclusively determinative of whether that content has been "stuffed" to trick Googlebot? Put another way: is it possible that quality content, not written with SEO in mind, might be flagged by Google due to arbitrary keyword density criteria? You bet.

over 4 years ago

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Iain Calvert

If this latest "mention" of a new update has got you worried, then you have to ask yourself, "Am I doing quality SEO?"

SEO is about making a site the best it can be, not gaming Google.

over 4 years ago

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Andriya Dsouza

Yes its time to worried who are doing useless work, spamming seo. When this update will be? Do anyone have idea about it..waiting for it.

over 4 years ago

Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles, Tech Reporter at Econsultancy

Iain,

The purpose of SEO is to optimize your site's rankings in the search engines. While SEO principles can often help make a site better, there are plenty of "under-optimized" sites that are excellent, and plenty of "optimized" sites that are, for lack of a better word, horrid.

Again, the problem with Google's approach is often that it establishes arbitrary criteria which cannot be applied globally in any useful way. In other words, Google, because of arbitrary criteria, might determine your site is "over-optimized" when you haven't even engaged in SEO.

over 4 years ago

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Tim

Ultimately it's about the end user getting the best service. If you're not building sites with this in mind then Google will attempt to penalise you. However I don't fully understand how they can implement a global system which now punishes over optimisation in favour of 'under optimisation' while still delivering results based on a keyword selection of the end user?

over 4 years ago

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reconstructive framingham

Relevance' is still the monarch of SEO and I don't believe this evidence change. 'Natural' is also key. More and more sustainable SEO is closely how relevant component across the various social and internet platforms integrates and whipping towards fostering the optimisation of a website/brand/blog etc.Listings, maxing out on keywords in copy - pretty scads old hat now;relevancy and battle online evidence be important segment of seo departing forward. Within the vitality 12 months the means we approach SEO for buyer has changed considerably.I wonder if the proposed change are less closely innovations and more about evolution of SEO and digital media?

over 4 years ago

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Robert K.

Well actually this was not so bad as it started. Not for me at least. Great article anyway, just returned to say thanks for informing me in time about this.

over 4 years ago

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Gall

The most significant up-coming ranking element for 2013
ıs going to be the substantially more need of social signal and also
the necessity of keeping up a strong social comunity. I
do believe every one of these will end up being of greater importance than any other time in the past.

about 4 years ago

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Sneha

As we are aware, inbound links are one of the hottest aspects of optimisation. Not providing your pages with quality links is going to result in pages not getting indexed anyway. By using a XML sitemap it helps pages get indexed and also gives good information on any websites indexing status.

almost 4 years ago

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JohnH

Surely there must be a limit in terms of processing CPU cycles, storage and memory as to how many rules Google can apply to all the trillions of web pages on the internet let alone compare them all for multiple search terms billions of times per day?

I don't know if Google are improving their search algorithm engineering or just their social engineering.

Methinks it is a lot more efficient to tell half-truths to the SEO community than actually build a system that incorporates all of the Google patents.

Take nofollow for example. I have seen web sites rank number 1 for competitive terms with only nofollow links from non-related content.

over 3 years ago

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