Google’s New Over Optimisation Game Changer

April 5, 2012 | By Paul Mackenzie Ross | Filed in: Internet, marketing, philosophy, SEO.

So, it’s been a few weeks since Matt Cutts let it slip that Google will be penalising sites for “over optimisation” when he spoke at a Q&A session at SXSW 2012.

In a panel, hosted by Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand, and including Duane Forrester, Senior Product Manager at Bing’s webmaster program, Cutts said big G would be “levelling the playing field”. Rather than just regurgitate Matt’s quote, you can read and listen to what he said here.

I’m not going to add to the speculation as to what the details of this new cull may be but as a bread-and-butter SEO and webmaster I’m in two minds about this change. Here’s why:

The Cesspool

Ever since I launched my first website, back in 1998, I’ve naturally been interested in getting high rankings for myself and my clients. High rankings classically equals high traffic equals high income.

That sort of “black and white” logic was disemminated across the ‘net some years ago and we saw MFA sites, link farms and cheap blogs pop up all over the shop. Oh, and the content farms too.

After a while Google’s then CEO Eric Schmidt called the internet a “cesspool” and, to a large extent, I agreed, wishing that all the low-quality sites stuffed with cut-and-paste and scraped content would just flush away.

In all I think they did a fairly good job of “clearing the pipes” – flagging spam content, all the Panda updates, regular news on new algo updates… I think Google have been heading in the right direction. And, despite my initial concerns over the changes to Google Webmaster Tools, specifically the unexplained and unlabelled changes to the sitemaps features, it does appear that Google have made GWTs a better place (Even though I’m spending more time there than ever before!)

As for Being Over SEO’d…

The emphasis on people “overdoing” their SEO is a strange concept…

For years Google has been cracking down on web spam – Everything from doorway pages to keyword stuffing has been targeted. The Panda updates looked at low-quality content farms, the likes of Ehow and getting hammered for their multiple “how to peel a boiled egg” articles written by underpaid, underqualified non-editorial types.

That’s the sort of stuff Google has been culling but what exactly is “over-SEO’d”?

By it’s very nature, the world wide web is predominantly markup language. HTML is Hyper Text Markup Language. Most punters see a webpage, text, some links, images, ads, and that’s it. To the rest of us web professionals it goes deeper than that. (Take the  red pill, Neo)

Images have alt attributes. (Commonly misattributed, pardon the pun, as alt “tags”)

Images also have title attributes. Oh, and file names too. These may have been and may still be tiny constituents of search engines’ ranking factors.

Text links are, erm, text. Text can be bold (<strong>), bolder, have a specific font-weight, be italicised (<em>), or be capitalised or even have a different colour, they can include the link text itself and even have the title attribute.

All these things are markup – they help semantics and understanding of the nature of things beyond the superficial that most users see on the outside.

If Google is to devalue some of this markup because it is seen as “Over SEO’d” then doesn’t that mean we shouldn’t be marking up our markup? That we should refrain from making the web a better place by microtagging as much as we can lest we be penalised from gaining an advantage from explaining fully to the net’s robots what things are really about?

That seems like a retrograde step from the world’s biggest search engine that is encouraging and promoting a semantic future…


I’m not exactly sure what the near future holds. Is Google just firing another warning shot across the bows of those who keep pushing the boundaries of SEO? Because, as Craig Killick said to me on twitter once, “there are no more SEO secrets”. (Almost) Every “trick” is out there in the public domain and it’s all a question of whether you can find it, understand it and/or implement it.

Google may still be saying “content is king” or “just write great content” both of which I totally understand and appreciate but I can also see are cop-outs too. (Ross Braun, just build the fastest F1 car)

The instruction is one thing, the expectation another, and the result may be something entirely different.

If “over-SEO” means that people are still ranking for things that Google should be spotting then it makes me wonder if Big G are really that clever – Two days ago I saw a well-respected SEO guy complain about the keyphrase in a TLD ranking highly when Google said it would counter this form of webspam – Today I saw a site ranking extremely highly and it used keyword stuffing, cross-linking, failed to use Class-C IP differentiators and had a number of doorway pages.

So, whatever you think being “over SEO’d” is, you can bet that it’s not consensual opinion :-/

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