What Google’s “Over-Optimization” Penalty Really Means

Googles Matt CuttsThe dust is beginning to settle around the announcement Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, made at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin. Essentially, he commented that Google will soon be rolling out a new over-optimization penalty in their ranking algorithm. This update has supposedly gone live already according to some, but Google said “in the next few days” 36 hours ago. Regardless, there’s no shortage of speculation. Here’s some of what he said:

“Normally we don’t sort of pre-announce changes, but there is something that we’ve been working on in the last few months. And hopefully, in the next couple months or so, in the coming weeks, we hope to release it. … So all those people who have sort of been doing, for lack of a better word, “over optimization” or “overly” doing their SEO, compared to the people who are just making great content and trying to make a fantastic site, we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level.”

Putting the “Over-Optimization” Penalty in Context

For years Google has been very open with their wish to reward quality and unique content on their search engine results pages. As a matter of fact, their Webmaster Guidelines state:

“. . .make sure that your site adds value. Provide unique and relevant content that gives users a reason to visit your site first.”

This begs the question – What does “technical SEO” (on-page and off-page) have to do with quality content? For the most part – nothing. The major exception to this is Google’s Pagerank algorithm. In theory, webmasters should only wish to link to quality content. Therefore, looking at the number and quality of inbound links should be a good measure of content quality. The only problem with this is the myriad of ways to game link building in lieu of naturally earning them through good content.

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The Writing is on the Wall

Google has been clearly signaling to the world through algorithm and indexing updates over the last 36 months their intent to gradually minimize technical SEO benefits in favor of rewarding truly valuable content. Below are some of the changes that are helping move quality content to the forefront at the expense of technical SEO.

Dan Zarrella’s own research presented in the Science of SEO came to the conclusion (using millions of data points by the way) that unless a website sells pills, porn or poker it will get more efficient SEO results staffing professional writers as opposed to SEOs.

In other words, unless a website resides in a highly competitive search environment, creating and publishing lots of good content can provide the same or better levels of SEO success than deploying constant technical SEO. This speaks to how far Google has come in their attempts to devalue technical SEO in favor of valuable content.

Why a gradual phased out approach?

The fact of the matter is that Google doesn’t know how to build a 100% game-proof algorithm that only rewards highly valuable content yet. Google is still forced to partially rely on attributes that have little or no reflection as to the quality of the content being indexed. The above only represents small steps towards a true “Content is King” algorithm.

SEO Yesterday Today Tomorrow


Does this mean SEO is dying?

No – This just means that certain tactics are dying in favor of others. This is nothing new and has been happening for more than a decade. Remember when Meta keywords helped rankings? How about keyword stuffing?

It’s likely that someday in the future some blogger somewhere will ask the same questions about page titles and inbound links. Don’t be surprised if the future of SEO is as simple as creating lots of great content that’s shared and evangalized across social media (different tactics, same results).

The Fallout

If technical SEO is becoming less and less effective with Google over time what are the current technical practitioners supposed to do to keep their clients ranking in the near future? They should start creating more content, doing traditional public relations and spending lots of time building social media communities.

Good SEO agencies are doing exactly what’s recommended above currently. Over time they’ll probably be forced to rebrand into some form of Internet marketing, inbound marketing or earned media agency because Google is slowly muting technical SEO.


Don’t put too much stock in the speculation flying around the internet about what specific attributes the update will target. Matt Cutts and his spam team are the only ones that really know no matter what the industry bigs are saying. If the speculation of the over-optimization penalty going live a few days ago is true it will still take several weeks for SEOs to figure out its effects.

Which, by the way, Google says will only affect three percent of websites. They also said their SSL hidden keyword reporting would only affect 10% of searches. Kuno has documented a 50% average affect across the board this spring.

So what does Google’s new over-optimization penalty really mean to your website? If you’re busy publishing lots of great content, building active social media communities, not contantly tweaking your on-page SEO and unnaturally building backlinks than nothing.

However, if you rarely publish new content on your website and rely primarily on some combination of on-page SEO and unnatural link building to drive organic search traffic than you should be concerned. Not just for the over-optimization penalty, but for every update Google roles out for now on. To learn how Kuno Creative increased organic search engine leads by 633% using the content strategy mentioned above watch this video.

Image: Matt Cutts

Venn Diagram: @DanielUlichney

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Discuss This Article

Comments: 13

  • Bill Glosse says:

    The problem with this is that not all websites are meant to be information, per se. Many websites are simply businesses that are trying to advertise and acquire clients.

    Content doesn’t really change on these websites, because their business doesn’t change. Furthermore, most websites of professionals are not meant to give a way all of the information – the information or service is given for a fee, such as is the case with lawyers.

  • Bill Glosse says:

    Also, social media has no relevance to certain businesses, such as criminal lawyers.

  • I think you are spot on Chad! The info graphic is perfect. My company has been moving towards this for some time now, and think ultimately this will be good for the internet… but I do not like the penalties I am seeing currently that have been hurting so many quality sites.

  • Brian:

    You’re right. . . Even though many think Google can do anything they want with their technology they are far from perfect. Unfortunately, there will always be collateral damage.


    Your take is the most common objection I hear in this business. ANY company that follows your school of thought online will eventually fail. They might as well pay for a yellow page listing instead.

    People only go to the web for TWO reasons – to solve problems and/or to be entertained. ALL businesses are in the business of solving problems. Therefore, they ALL need to create problem solving and/or entertaining content around their area of expertise and publish it online in some form. They don’t even necessarily need to create social media communities, but if their content is that good at solving problems or entertaining it will get shared in social media naturally.

    There’s a reason the town crier went to the town square to ring his bell and make announcements in the middle ages. He did it because that’s where the people were. Today the people are online on the search engines and social media. Attorneys that want to get their message heard have no choice.

    Besides, I personally know a lawyer who is a chronic blogger and social media aficionado. He gets “mad love” from the search engines.


  • Bill Simms says:

    Matt Cutts states: “we want to sort of make that playing field a little bit more level”. That’s a bunch of baloney. In the health care niche I market to most of the top spots went to the major insurance companies with a professional team of webmasters. All the novice webmasters like myself who has optimized their pages and got top listings took a back seat to the big dogs on Aug 24th with the google over optimization penalty.

    But that ok! Most of the novice webmasters like myself are not quitters. We’ve been knocked down before, we got up, dusted ourself off and began building again. Aug 24th was just another one of those days. Google can not keep the small guys and gals of America down.

  • I did quite a bit of research and I believe the penalty is most correlated with over use of keyword anchor text. I wrote a post about it here http://www.seo-services.com/the-google-over-optimization-penalty/general/ . Would like to know your thoughts.

  • SEOwner says:

    Ya this update totally messed up everything. Destroyed businesses, and the EXAMPLE offender wasn’t even punished. Wtf?

    Look at my response please. I’m a long time underground marketer, but have no voice. Although I think my article explains what happened well.


  • I absolutely love the Infograph. It’ll be intersting to see how they end up going. The problem with SEO relying on social media to much is that it causes people to just hammer it with rubbish. That’s what I love about GPlus: They haven’t released an API to autopost to it yet… yet…

  • Larry Lau says:

    A lot of the other reads have posted, it’s going to be interested how the over-optimization penalty will take place. Although there are some obvious over-optimization techniques that Rand Fishkin covered in his last White Board Friday, there is this ambiguous concern for some border line white hat methods. Unfortunately, it will be inevitable that some legit businesses will be negatively affected by this.

  • Bill G,

    I disagree with you about the need for any business to perform content marketing and let the SEO chips fall where they may. If you have something to sell, then you have a customer base that wants to know more. If you provide them with useful information on a regular basis (like every day through your blog), you will establish yourself as a “thought leader” in your industry, and you will naturally find yourself with more traffic, leads and, yes, higher Google ranking on relevant keywords. It doesn’t matter what your profession is or who your target market is – the same basic principles apply across the board. SMB’s that ignore these facts are getting crushed by those that embrace them – there’s lots of data to support that. BTW, attorneys are definitely getting into the act with blogs, social media and even inbound marketing. Who do we know? Because they are hiring us.

  • Georgian says:

    To be honest, the Panda and Penguin updates are a necessity since the relevancy went down pretty much in the past years.
    It’s the content war now !

  • Carl says:

    Hello, I have just changed my SEO company due to an ineffective 12 month campaign, my blog was started over 6 months ago but has not brought me any extra rankings. How often should we be posting to avoid the over seo penalty.

  • Carl:

    Great question. Check out this prezo – it goes into the details of blog publishing and frequency.


    If you don’t like video than you can check out “The Content Marketing Manifesto” ebook. It goes into detail too.



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