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How You Can Avoid Google’s “Over Optimization” Algorithm

During SXSW, Matt Cutts (a high profile search engine quality member of Google), was interviewed about a new algorithm change directed towards addressing people who are optimizing a site to “trick” the search engines into ranking the site well.

Now before we all get our panties in a twist, chances are, if you’re considered to be a “white-hat” SEO, you probably don’t have to worry about any “over optimization penalty.”  However, if you find you’re asking yourself, “Am I really doing something sketchy even though it’s getting me to Page 1?” The most likely answer is yes; yes, you are, and you bet your ass Google is going to figure it out.  But what exactly is “over optimization” anyway and how does one avoid such a penalty?

Here at Wagger Designs, we’ve compiled a checklist of issues and examples that may trigger Google’s over optimization penalty.

1. Excessive Internal Linking in Content

For years, SEOs have been talking about keyword to content ratio, but what they fail to mention is the importance of the internal anchor text link to content ratio.  While content on a page is one of the most essential elements of SEO, it’s also just as important — if not more so — not to make the mistake of having a high percentage of links vs actual HTML content.  This general HTML content is considered to be anything located within <p> (paragraph) tags.

In the “Women’s Cardigans” example below, the link to content ratio is approximately 51%.  This means that 51% of all words in this paragraph are internal links.  This is something search engines could easily red flag and penalize the site for over optimization.

Create relevant unique content to every page with 3-4 links to every 500 or so words. This will not only reduce your chances of getting dinged by search engines, but will also help increase user readability and time spent on site. Also, make sure to switch up your internal link naming scheme so that the keywords are similar but varied when targeting the same page.

2. Highly Targeted Links in Footer

Historically speaking, web designers have used footers to display only the very most important pages on the site such as an HTML sitemap or an “about us” page since top-level navigation will include most if not all sub-navigation pages.

In order to increase the relevance of internal page topics, websites will place an excessive number of keyword stuffed anchor links at the bottom of a web page.  These “over optimized” websites try to position deeper pages as the “footer.”

A prime example of keyword stuffed footers can be found on the screenshot of a wedding site below.  Not only does it contain optimized links within the footer, the site lists out a highly detailed list of links at the bottom of every page.

Review the links listed at the bottom of each landing page and ask yourself three questions:

  1. Is the number of links listed in my footer (or at the bottom of my page) more than 10-15?
  2. Are my anchor links making it easier or harder for my user to find key pages?
  3. Are the links highly optimized to target keywords?

3. Link Stuffed Navigation

Over optimizing primary navigation to be filled with targeted keywords may also flag search engines that the site was intended to optimize against search engine algorithms and not be tailored to the end user.  We uncovered two primary examples of navigation “over optimization”:  Sub-Categories and Breadcrumb structure.

Breadcrumbs were initially created with the intent to help a user find their way back to the home page or go back to a higher level category.  Later on, search engines began to use this breadcrumb navigation as a cue and began to utilize the keyword category structure within search engine listings.  Some websites have begun to take advantage of this breadcrumb navigation and create more than one path home.  While this type of navigation may ultimately help search engines associate products with multiple categories, users may become confused.

For example, the screenshot of the clothing site below uses three separate link paths for users and search engines to retreat backwards.

A more common “over optimization” technique for navigation is targeting and creating a page for every product under the sun and then labeling it using optimized keywords with a clear intent to boost search engine rankings and no regards to the user.  The funny thing about this technique is search engines understand category relations.  In other words, search engines understand that if the primary navigation is “Women’s Wakeboard Shop,” all links placed underneath are related to “Women’s” and do not need to contain “Women’s.”  This technique also makes it harder for a user to browse the site, which is something a search engine, like Google, may counter with this new “over optimization” penalty.

If your website has a high volume of pages, you may want to re-evaluate your navigation to ensure it relates first and foremost to a user and not a search engine. Consider installing an online survey or asking your friends and business partners to give you their opinion of your website. This will not only help you combat getting pinged in future search engine algorithm changes, but may also assist increasing KPIs such as page views and time-on-site.

4. Keyword Stuffing

One may say, “Wow… keyword stuffing?  People really do that?  Isn’t that sooooo 1999?  …Even more importantly, it works?”  Yes, people still do it on the sly, and it seems to still help websites (coupled with other optimization tricks) rank in the Top 30 to this day.

For example the footer on this Northern Virginia/DC Metro Web Design site lists out top targeted keywords.  While it’s not entirely hidden and done in a classy way, these are the kinds of things the “over optimization” algorithm may intend to target:

Evaluate your site content to see if it contains a high number of lists containing targeted keywords. Typically these lists are located at the bottom and may be hidden using CSS formatting.

5. Keyword Filled Title and Meta Tags

Another issue related to “keyword stuffing” as noted above, is injecting a long line of keywords into title and meta description tags.  Title tags should always be limited to include just one primary keyword and 2-3 supporting keywords when relevant.  Titles should look natural to entice the searcher and meta descriptions should be written to promote a call to action while occasionally including keywords.  Since search engines want all aspects of a site intended for a user and not the search engine, the new Google algorithm may begin to identify when too many words are stuffed into a title or meta description and deplete the value of such a site.

The example below attempts to target every “Green Tea” related keyword into the Title and Description.

If you find your landing page title and meta descriptions are targeting too many keywords, you may want to consider building out content to target each keyword instead of “over optimizing” the title and description by stuffing them with multiple keywords. Instead, try targeting one keyword and minor variations such as adding the plural version.

6. External Linking

Historically speaking, Google has come down hard on individually high-profiled cases noted in sources such as the NY Times about abusing external link algorithm.  Such examples include JC Penny’s paid link buying or discounts offered by Overstock.com in exchange for a link.  Smaller businesses have managed to shield themselves in the fact they don’t have the amount of budget or customer leverage to drastically increase links to the scope of JCPenny or aren’t big enough to gain the spotlight for shady schemes.  However, Google’s new “over optimization” algorithm may be coming to get these smaller players in the upcoming months.

The thing that has always baffled me is how the all-mighty stock-splitting Google has enough money to investigate these notorious link-buying companies and their web networks, but has clearly never taken action to detect them and wreak havoc.

For example, many websites and their targeted backlink anchor text are featured under a WordPress blogroll and other similar side bar of links:

If you’re currently link buying, you may want to consider either heavily reducing the amount of links you’re purchasing (JCPenny got into hot water since the amount of links purchased daily was enormous). You can also request these companies completely remove all historical links pointing to your site immediately.

What Would Wagger Do?

While Wagger Designs believes SEO is a core component of web design, we believe it’s most important every website we build is intended for the end user.  While it’s important to get users to your site, it’s even more important not to forget that your users are your customers.  After all, search engines aren’t going to pay your rent.

About the Author

Colleen ClarkColleen Clark is a guest blogger for Wagger Designs. She currently works as a full-time SEO Analyst at Razorfish NYC. In her career, Colleen has worked across a number of different Fourtune 500 industries including automotive, retail, food, pharmaceuticals, entertainment and B2B. Her agency expertise enables her to work across multiple disciplines while providing a deeper insight into overall website strategy.View all posts by Colleen Clark →

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