The Google Over Optimization Penalty & Thoughts on Recovery

The latest major algorithmic change made public by Google has sent webmasters and SEOs alike scrambling to figure out why their “carefully” optimized sites are sinking further and further down in Google’s search rankings. I know we have been inundated in the past week or so with requests for help by frustrated business owners who are now finding themselves on pages 5-10 and beyond after being on page one for years. This sudden influx tells me something pretty serious is going down…

People are desperately trying to figure out why, suddenly, in the past month their traffic has dropped off. The answer from what I can surmise is that many have been hit by Google’s over optimization penalty. After a few minutes of looking through the backlinks of sites that have recently lost rankings, it’s easy to see that almost all of them have purchased many site-wide links from other sites and have other classic signs of a “link building” effort (ie: purchasing links with very specific keywords linking to their website) in addition to other semi-spammy (borderline rule breaking) on-page SEO tactics.

In a SMX session over a month ago, Google’s web spam engineer Matt Cutts was quoted as saying the following, when discussing what was then an impending penalty for “over optimization” (emphasis mine):

“We try to make the Google Bot smarter, we try to make our relevance more adaptive so that people don’t do SEO—we handle that—and then we also start to look at the people who sort of abuse it, whether they throw too many keywords on the page, or whatever they exchange way too many links, or whatever they are doing to sort of go beyond what a normal person would expect in a particular area. So that is something where we continue to pay attention and we continue to work on it, and it is an active area where we’ve got several engineers on my team working on that right now…”

Today, we are seeing this penalty take effect and from what we’ve seen so far, its consequences are far reaching and affect many small business websites that may have hired an “SEO” to get them to “rank on page one” by using poor link building practices along with questionable on-site tactics.

Small businesses are especially vulnerable to this update if they’ve bought links or had their sites “optimized” for specific keywords due to the ratio of trust / links that small business websites usually have. Larger brands have a huge variety of links coming in and may have a better ability to mitigate this penalty.

It’s important as a business owner or marketing professional that you know what you’re getting into before diving into the latest and greatest SEO tactic, because a nasty search engine penalty could lie on the other side. Google’s always said that of all things, it’s most important to focus on your visitor and giving them what they want. As I mentioned a few months back, amidst the Google Panda update, it’s increasingly important to keep your focus squarely on the quality of your content and not the latest SEO gimmick.

I hope you aren’t amongst those hit by the latest penalty, but if you are there are things you should be focusing on in hopes of recovery.

  1. Content: Does each page offer unique and thorough content? And does your content fully answer your visitors questions or completely address a specific need?
  2. Links: Incoming links to your website should be acquired naturally. In most cases, buying links isn’t worth the risk. If you’ve clearly bought links, you will want to devise a new plan to obtain links naturally and ensure that the linked keywords are natural in appearance.
  3. Social Sharing – Do you have share links or buttons on your pages that allow others to share your content? This can help Google see that humans appreciate your content.
  4. Site structure & accessibility: Are all of your pages accessible to robots? Do you have a sitemap? Both HTML and XML sitemaps are recommended. (You can find this out in the next step)
  5. Google Webmaster Tools: Have you setup a Webmaster Tools account to see if there are any issues noted there? In some cases Google might have even left you a note regarding your penalty in this account, so it’s important to have this.
  6. Humans vs. Search Engines: Is your site created for humans first? Is it easy to read and understand or are there keywords stuffed in places you wouldn’t normally place them in hopes of making a search engine happy?

There are more things to add to that list, but I see those as the main points to focus on first. The only way to begin to recover from this penalty is to increase the website’s trust. Get rid of purchased site-wide links (blogroll, footer, etc.), low quality backlinks from questionable domains,  make sure anchor text is varied and begin building high quality natural backlinks.

Update: Since posting this, this update which was first referred to as the over optimization update is now referred to as “Google Penguin” – not to be confused with “Google Panda”.

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  • Submit Era

    “I hope you aren’t amongst those hit by the latest penalty, but if you are..”why else anybody will land on this particular post..lol

    anyways, amazing article.

  • Great thoughts shared Samara, It is essential for us to work according to the guidelines given by Google. I am sure unique content and better SEO is the key for the success and no Google updates can put you down, whether panda or penguin. So it vital for us to work accordingly and make it very simple. 

    Samara I really loved your 6th point which says whether the website is designed for Google bots or users. It really rocks and have got in depth meaning.

  • saira

    Great blog, above guidelines are really useful to make your site top ranked on serach engine.

  • Thank you so much for this informative, helpful and insightful article!
    Really helped and saved me!

  • Thanks, this is frightening stuff but we have to face it. What is the future for seo companies?

    • I really believe the future is less focused on links and “traditional tactics”. The future is more about well built websites and pages that are actually made to engage audiences.

  • Bloomtools

    yes, it is really important to have relevant content and quality links to the website. natural link building and quality backlinks also help in the case. after the recent updates of google, it is more important to have natural links and quality backlinks for the website. thanks for these really useful and important points given.

  • I’m glad to see Google taking action against all of the spam, although a lot of innocent people got hit. Luckily, all they have to do is continue to build their business as they were and things will get better. 

    I never understood why people try to create content spam for links, though. It’s so much easier to get quality links from quality content, but most of all – quality traffic, which should be the ultimate purpose.

    • By the way, the font you use on this site is really cool!

      • Thanks for the compliment – we just redesigned the site. Love @fontface!

  • andre Ibuspro

    Great recovery tips! Anyhow, if we just follow what Google wants, I guess we’ll be okay with that. Some things change for the better and Google is in it for the long run.

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