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

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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 its 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.

The Writing is on the Wall

Google has been clearly signaling to the world through algorithm and indexing updates over the last 36 months its 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 toward 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, then 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, then 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

Inbound Marketing is the New SEO

Inbound Marketing IS the New SEO

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Great article, Chad.  
Most of the 'technical SEO' professionals I've spoken with are planning for these changes. They're trying to figure out how to source quality content for their clients, coach their clients to do it themselves or they're building editorial teams at their agency.  
I don't buy the argument that "social signals" will completely take the place of links. Both can be gamed. It does make sense that more weight will go to social signals since gaming is a bit harder, but I can't see them going 100% to that as a replacement for links.  
Also, I'd be interested in your take about how personalization and localization will factor into this? The fact that we all "see different results" based on our location, previous search history or are friend networks, DOES make link building less important. And it seems like personalization and localization are happening at a quick pace.  
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 1:55 PM by Peter Caputa
Great article -- and important topic. 
I've long since believed that most organizations are better off getting the technical SEO "basics" right (clean link structure, on-page fundamentals, etc.) -- but then focusing most of their energies on creating more/better content. 
Too often, I come across companies that are obsessed with advanced optimizations when their core content is just not interesting or valuable.  
Google is making it increasingly hard to get search traffic to mediocre content. It often takes far fewer calories to create better content than to try and get poor content to rank.
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 2:25 PM by Dharmesh Shah
I know of one very large SEO agency who went so far as to remove "SEO" from their name and brand already! However, they're ahead of the curve IMO. There's another enterprise level agency I know of that is battling the same decision and have been for the last four months. BTW, the two agencies I'm talking about above both do PR, content creation and social media. 
I'm still neutral on whether or not social signals will "eventually" replace the page rank algorithm. It certainly isn't ready for prime-time now. I suppose it hinges on the future of SM, Google+ and the experiment known as SPYW. I do believe however, that Google would like to move away from links. They just can't right now.  
That J.C. Penney/Overstock scandal sure put egg on Google's face. . . Also, I'm not quite convinced that social is gameable yet. The truth is that we don't know what their social algorithm looks like. Folks trying to game it are just guessing at best. Would gaming look like a "social media link farm?" I don't know.  
Some of the "life of" a tweet visualizations Dan Zarrella has shared point to some very tough to replicate signals with a "farm" model. Whatever happens I'm sure I'll still be writing about it :) 
The personalization you mention above seems to be a little "taboo" in technical SEO circles these days. Add to that Google's hidden keyword reporting and it makes the value of the technical SEO less valuable IMO. 
It's because of these two things I COMPLETELY IGNORE rankings and encourage all of my clients to do the same. I measure how many keywords drive traffic and focus on growing that metric instead. That's the best way to "scrub out" the personalization issue and accurately measure healthy SEO. 
Thanks for chiming in Pete! 
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 3:09 PM by Chad H. Pollitt
Great to see you chiming in on our blog. Your comment is spot on and I couldn't have said it better if I tried. You and I are walking in cadence and marching to the same SEO drum for sure. 
You're right - this is an important topic. What really concerns me is the number of smart "technical" practitioners that are fighting this unstoppable evolution in SEO. They want to argue over semantics and what people are calling it.  
Quite frankly, I don't blame them for trying to preserve their livelihood, but it comes at the expense of clients. If I can make the transition and embrace our new reality than so can they. . . and I hope they do before it's too late. 
See you at Inbound 2012!  
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 3:24 PM by Chad H. Pollitt
Great info Chad. Peter C asked me to chime in. I believe it's more complex than that, unfortunately. What the real updates seem to be about are funneling of new business to Google's Paid products. Think about it? If every few months organic results get shaken up, the public will run (willingly or other) to PPC, where it's "safe". Here is what we know 100% post Panda 3.4/3.5(4-24-2012) updates: 
-Content is the new backlink-if you create IRRELEVANT off-page backlinks which points to relevant on-page by KEYWORD only, you will be penalized. 
-Speaking of keywords, the old days of "keyword targeting" or "keyword SEO" is officially dead (off-page, and I am not talking about negative SEO, which apparently still does work...more on this later). If you use the same anchor text over and over, you will get penalized. Not immediately, but you will (see my upcoming point on negative SEO). We don't know how many TIMES or what PERCENTAGE you may use that same target keyword (in hopes of ranking well for that particular keyword) or how it relates percentually vs the target site text or variation of pages vs html vs text vs target (off-page) optimization.  
-Negative SEO-it works, it's alive, Cutts won't talk about. I assume they can manually review (and do manually review) all sites suspected of "negative SEO".  
-Organic linking-we know that Google's algorithm now differentiates between a site going "viral" vs "velocity" or "automated" linkbuilding. Slow and steady as she goes Captain. That's the new rule. 
-Keyword and link diversification-backlink platforms must be content rich, but beyond that, they must be varied, using varied backlinks, including natural(-ly appearing?) distribution. All in the interest of NOT getting penalized for "over-optimization".  
-Speaking of "over-optimization", it's really great of Google to have defined this for us SEOs. Or not. 
So let's circle back to talk about what WILL work. 
-New content 
-Varied content 
-Varied platforms of backlink structures 
-Non-keyword focused backlinks 
-Varied keywords (no longer focusing on 5 or 10 kws, rather optimizing for a wide variety of "natural searches" producing "natural rankings). 
-Brand building 
-Authority establishment (and I don't mean Authorship Rank), I mean geo/industry linked 
This is going to be a wild ride. Hope you are all ready for it. I called this MONTHS ago, and as my boss can attest to this (so can my co-workers), I've been waving the red flag that the LSI/GSS change is coming, and unfortunately, I was right, however not smart enough to see it coming sooner. SEO I am. Clairvoyant? Not so much. 
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 4:25 PM by TheGodofSEO
It's not a math problem, it's a human problem! That puts mathematicians out of work... a big problem for SEO companies!
Posted @ Thursday, April 26, 2012 4:39 PM by Douglas Karr
We're 100% in agreement on the PPC funneling piece. However, I don't believe it's mutually exclusive to their desire to reward quality content. That has been their mantra for as long as I can remember. IMO - they are two sides of the same coin for Google. A true "have your cake and eat it too." 
Your points on Google's algorithm are great and your advice is dead on. IMO they bolster the point of this post -  
Focusing on writing real, great content rather than all of the technical aspects of SEO will deliver great organic fruits!  
While your advice is more nuanced with detail, my advice accomplishes the same thing because by prolifically writing quality content and ignoring the technical side of SEO you're are accomplishing:  
-New content  
-Varied content  
-Varied platforms of backlink structures  
-Non-keyword focused backlinks  
-Varied keywords (no longer focusing on 5 or 10 kws, rather optimizing for a wide variety of "natural searches" producing "natural rankings).  
-Brand building  
-Authority establishment (and I don't mean Authorship Rank), I mean geo/industry linked 
. . . and you're doing it completely naturally without having to worry about all of the technical stuff.  
I know this to be the end result of publishing a lot of content while paying little attention to technical SEO from our own efforts and that of our clients. In fact, one year after deploying this new "content-centric" philosophy this site grew organic search leads 633%. 
The point is - we're saying the same thing, but you're looking at it from an algorithm/math side and I'm looking at it from the perspective of a content marketer. 
I didn't always do that. Like you are now, I used to be neck deep in Google's algorithm. By transitioning how I measured SEO success from rankings and traffic to number of keywords driving traffic and leads/conversions I was able to shed the burden of constantly chasing Google's algorithm. 
Once that was lifted I was able to devote more time and resources into content creation which led to the 633% growth in organic search leads. 
I'm an SEO by trade, but a content marketer by evolution. 
Thanks for sharing your great SEO insight. 
Posted @ Friday, April 27, 2012 10:04 AM by Chad H. Pollitt
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