Google’s Over-Optimization Penalty, How to Avoid It, and How to Fix It

It’s been just over a month since Google’s Matt Cutts announced the impending rollout of an SEO “over-optimization” penalty at South by Southwest (SXSW) panel hosted by Search Engine Land’s Editor-in-Chief, Danny Sullivan.

At the panel, titled “Dear Google & Bing: Help me Rank Better,” Cutts broke tradition with his pre-announcement and said, “The idea is to try and level the playing ground a little bit. So all the people who have been over-doing SEO, compared to people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to address that.”

Okay – but what exactly does that mean?

Cutts went on to address the increasing adaptability of the Google Bot, and mentioning that there is a place in relevant search results for those who don’t do SEO, and that there should similarly be a way to address those who abuse SEO. Although he didn’t use the word “penalty,” it’s clear that was what he was talking about.

This announcement ruffled the feathers of the SEO community, most of whom not only remember, but held sacrosanct, a 2009 YouTube video by Cutts win which he outright said there was no such thing as an over optimization penalty. It seems that in the last few years, either the need for such a penalty has grown, or Cutts and the Google team have changed their minds.
Neither is surprising, nor is the “why” of this rollout the point. Instead, we will address 4 “whats” today.

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  • What are the penalties for over-optimization?
  • What qualifies as over-optimization or over-SEO?
  • What can I do if I’ve been penalized?
  • What does this mean for the future of search marketing?

Let’s begin.

What Are the Penalties for Over-Optimization?

As we all know, Google rarely does anything at half-measure. Traditionally, sites that violated filter algorithms like Panda took a hit in rankings, but the penalty for over-optimization is de-indexing.

That’s right – if you’re penalized, you are removed from the Google index and the bots stop crawling your site, which means that you are invisible to the search engine.

What Qualifies as Over-Optimization?

Over-optimized websites, contrary to a mildly popular belief, are rarely the result of a professional SEO consultant or firm’s doing. Typically, webmasters who understand only a shadow of the basic principles of SEO are responsible for the black-hat tactics that provoke the ire of searchers, honest sites – and now, Google.

There are over 200 signals that comprise the database of potential abuses, and the Google Bot assesses confluences of these factors to identify sites that are over-optimizing. Be on the safe side: don’t do any of them. Here are some of the strongest signals:

  • Excessive keyword density – typically, anything more than 2-3% is too much. If your site crunches 3 to 4 keywords into its title, heading, meta description, and body content with 7% density, don’t be surprised when Google slaps you with a penalty.
  • Inorganic or paid inbound links – you know you shouldn’t be doing this anyway.
  • Strictly keyword-rich internal links – are you only linking to your internal sites with keywords? That’s another no-no.
  • Listing keywords on the site – it makes me physically ill when I see a list of conspicuous keywords, usually all tagged with internal links, at the bottom of a page. This is sometimes done when a site is attempting to appeal to a broad base and stuffs internally-linked keywords anywhere in the body of the site to artificially boost rankings.
  • Ugly site design – sites that rely on SEO manipulation rarely put in the effort or resources to create an aesthetically appealing, user-friendly site design.
  • Weak content – if your site is re-hashing material from other websites and offers uninspiring content with a low value, you’re exposing yourself to a penalty.
  • Few or zero value propositions – a value proposition is something that provides value to the searcher. Not only are these important to conversion, but the lack of one will make your site suspect. What are you offering your reader? An e-book? A white paper? A free consultation? Make it count. You brought them to your site for a reason, didn’t you?
  • Domain name is keyword – did you buy for its SEO benefit? You might have wasted your cash. While this won’t trigger an automatic penalty, it is on the over-optimization checklist.
  • All “home” link anchors in the site navigation use the keyword – this was long thought to be clever, but now it’s written off as a cheap trick.
  • Excessive back-linking – if all of your back-links have the same anchor text and all point to your main URL, you’re in the danger zone. Please note, however, that organic back-links with unique anchor texts that lead to specific landing pages, articles, or blog posts are very healthy for your ranking.
  • Back-linking to untrustworthy sites – if you’re linking to a low quality site, you may be exposing yourself to a penalty.
  • Duplicate content – content duplication is when you use the same text over and over again on your website, changing only the keywords and links.
  • Automatic page re-directs – anything other than a permanent 301 redirect won’t be supported by Google, and could signal that you’re trying to dupe searchers.
  • Doorway pages – doorway pages are those that offer no navigation options to the browser, and instead only display affiliate links or advertisements so that the browser either “bounces” (exits) or clicks on an ad to leave the page.
  • Excessive H1 tags – all together now: H1 is for the top heading; H2 and H3 for the rest. You should only have one H1 heading per article or page.

To find out if your site has been penalized by Google, you should compare the number of previously indexed URL’s from your site with the most current figures.

To do so, use the command in Google’s search bar. If you don’t see any results, try If you still get nothing, then there’s a high probability that Google has targeted your site for over-optimization and has assessed a penalty.

What Can I Do if I’ve Been Penalized?

If your site has been penalized by Google for over-optimization, go through the above checklist and make the required changes to your site. Once finished, you can request that Google reconsider your site for inclusion in its index, and by then, you’ll hopefully have learned your lesson: write naturally, using SEO as an augmentation or as a guide, rather than dogmatically keyword stuffing. This isn’t 1999. The rules have changed.

Without addressing all of the strikes against you and making a formal request, there’s nothing you can do – other than hope that all of your intended customers use either Bing or Blekko.

What Does This Mean for the Future of Search Marketing?

As previously mentioned, the vast majority of these no-no’s are perpetrated by black hat SEO’s or amateurs, so above all else, do not panic.

SEO isn’t going anywhere, nor is its close cousin, content marketing. At this point, based on the infrastructure of how information is catalogued and shared on the internet, that would be impossible. Until Google switches entirely to natural language search interfacing, which it has all but sworn to never do, or until search engines learn to read people’s minds, we are dealing with a keyword-based information hierarchy.

What this does mean, however, is that it’s now more important than ever to hire an SEO and content marketing firm that not only understands the intricacies of SEO content and how it interacts with the rest of a marketing campaign, but can also fix potential violations you or others have made on your site in the past.

While SEO used to exist as an island in the sea of internet marketing, the tides have changed and we now find that SEO, like so many other aspects of digital advertising, is a peninsula of a Pangaea-like continent.

Or, to use a different metaphor, SEO is only one of many different working parts that keep the machine working. To do it properly is to reap the rewards – of two sites with comparable quality and content, the one that has been properly and legitimately optimized will receive a significantly better ranking.

This article originally published at Searchcore and re-posted with permission.

Discuss This Article

Comments: 16

  • Rick says:

    Interesting article. I’ve been working on building my website for a while and now I will go back and see if I’ve done any of the items listed above.

  • Very well written. I’m glad to see Google voicing official steps of what it likes and what it doesnt, so people stop obsessing about SEO checklists, the ridiculous but persistent keyword density issue, and the role of website usability in SEO.
    Personally, I see things converging around usability and content quality metrics. For those who learned how to write a good research paper, content marketing looks like a bright future. For the rest, I guess it means brushing up on their research and writing skills and rules.
    The interesting thing is that Google addresses the “ugly site design” issue. Granted, aesthetics is difficult to measure especially since Google sees HTML code, not how the site actually looks. So I’m itching to find out how they will quantify aesthetics. My guess is they may perhaps rely on CSS color palette use, clean and functional Navigation, and probably they’ll weave in the recent “avoid too many Ads above the fold” advice I’ve read somewhere.
    Interesting times, to say the least. Things look quite promising for people who have work ethics in their company ethos.

  • very interesting articles.but one question in my mind how google penalize the site on over optimization and what is the basic to avid it.

  • Alex Havian says:

    I don’t understand such a penalty specially mentioned about “if all of your back-links have the same anchor text and all point to your main URL, you’re in the danger zone” Ok But can you explain what is somebody use this gig against your site would you get penalized ??? check this out –

  • @Alex Havian – negative SEO does not exist. For one, the gig you mentioned is gone. And two, Google’s method for penalization is to de-index sites where you get links from, NOT penalize. I saw this first hand as my site dropped in rankings since i had so many links from BuildMyRank. My site has since bounced back (evidence of no penalty), by diversifying my link building strategy.

    @Alex Wall – i see you’ve re-published this article and neither your source (or you) have mentioned where the list of bullets that make up your “what qualifies for over-optimization” list comes from. Has Cutts or anyone else from Google published such a list?

    Other than suspicion, what cause is there to provide such a dramatic list without backup?

    • Alex Wall says:

      Mike, I syndicate articles from my blog, Searchcore, to B2C, so the “source” to which you are referring is me. I hope that clears one thing up.

      Furthermore, it’s established knowledge that Google uses over 200 signals in its algorithm to filter between good and bad links, and the signals listed are assembled based on my experience, expertise, and general knowledge.

      For reasons apparent, Google is tight-lipped about the qualifiers it uses to parse good from bad, and conclusions drawn from testing and experience are often all we have to go on. I’m sure you can find other lists with similar items, perhaps some different, because all SEOs are not built the same.

      That said, if you don’t want to believe it — don’t. I stand by my findings.

  • Vibhas Sen says:

    How is Google going to find the abusers and differentiate between the good and the bad is a question we all are waiting to get an answer for. It’s not only going to be difficult but I believe it will probably bring focus on SEO basics of On-page optimization, and there is room to define inbound links relevancy as well. What Google will also need to look for, is websites which have good content but zero SEO, surprisingly high PR and high SERP rankings.

    While this is good news for all those who believe in websites with highly relevant content, it could mean another drop in rankings for those who have not understood the search engines move to increase relevancy since the Panda update.

    • Alex Wall says:

      You’re absolutely right. Things could get ugly from here on out, but I don’t believe that the competing forces of Google and the SEO/SEM community are really going to let that happen. I think that in the long run, these are positive changes, even if they represent short-term complications.

  • Personally I think this is a good thing, just wrote a short post for the Irish SME community

  • Jade says:

    So this leaves it open for black hat people to spam competition sites and drop them from rankings? This could be a big mess and make allot of legit business suffer.

  • Peter says:

    Google has launched its algo update..I have noticed in a lot of forums people were stating abrupt change in their search engine rankings

  • Jerry says:

    Very informative, Alex. I’m an SEOer but I still appreciate that quality content is moving up the list of things that make a site rank.

    “…is a peninsula of a Pangaea-like continent.” Sorry Alex, you lost me on what I am sure is a very clever metaphor.

  • Mark says:

    To the guy who said negative SEO doesn’t exist, I would challenge him to put a URL he owns and a target keyword where his mouth is. It is far easier to drop a site into a black hole than it it is to move it higher.

    • Alex Wall says:

      Quite so, Mark, and I’m inclined to agree with you. Particularly with these new penalties, which have been masked as a “webspam algorithm update” (also now known as Google Panda), even associating with questionable sites can tank you in the rankings.

  • Simon says:

    These updates by Google really penalized so many websites. I would like to thanks Google that my websites are not penalized because I always follow the rules.

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