Over optimization Penalties in Google – Myth or Reality?

Your website is very well optimized for the search engines, and you’re quite pleased that you did it all with “white hat” SEO tactics. But your ranking suddenly dropped in Google. What happened? Your site just might be “over-optimized.” Read on to find out what could cause this problem, and what to do about it.

Can a site that contains relevant keyword-rich content and is appropriately optimized for search engines be penalized? The issue of an over-optimization penalty in Google came to my attention after I’d seen one of my client’s sites disappear from Google (not completely, but enough of a drop to be invisible to the average searcher). I posted a question about why this would happen in an SEO forum, being careful to state that the only thing we’d done was begin a link placement campaign in earnest. I speculated in my post that the link placement may have been the cause since we were getting links fast, albeit by hand, by employing one dedicated soul to spend a few hours a day requesting reciprocal links and adding the client’s site to directories.

I mentioned that the site was very well-optimized and all SEO tactics were white-hat. I was shocked when several people suggested the pages dropped in Google were overoptimized. Let me take a step back here and define the difference between “white hat” SEO and spam (e.g., using “black hat” techniques).

What constitutes a well-optimized page?

A page that is considered well-optimized for search engines contains several standard components which you are probably aware of if you are reading this article. These include title tags, meta keyword and description tags, keyword-rich header, link and body text, alt tags and a generous set of links to other pages on the site that search engines can follow (e.g., text links instead of images links). This hypothetical page will repeat the keyword whenever it is natural and relevant to do so, no more and no less. There will be no repeating of keywords in any of the above-mentioned components, no invisible text or text that is too small for the naked eye to perceive (all “black hat” tactics).This page may also contain the keyword somewhere in either the URL or the filename (e.g., www.mydomain.com/keyword.html). It seems perfect, but could it be too perfect?

I generally give myself a pat on the back after I’ve completed optimizing a page using the above (white hat) tactics. Hey, it’s not always easy to hit all the components of a well-optimized page in a natural and meaningful way. To this end, I don’t force the issue because I understand that we are first and foremost writing for visitors and not search engines. Over-optimization penalties, if they do exist, really tread the fine line between good SEO and spam. This is fairly black and white for me – it’s either spam or it isn’t spam. However, it occurred to me that a search engine such as Google could be programmed to detect different levels of spam.

The law of averages. Google undoubtedly looks at keyword density values on pages compared with overall text. Thus, it is possible that a page with a very high keyword density (e.g., it repeats the keyword a lot, but has relatively few overall words) could be flagged by Google simply because the density of that page is much higher than what it considers average.

Even if this page is well-integrated with the rest of the site, a very high keyword density could indicate the page is a doorway, especially created for the benefit of search engine spiders. If you want to know how Google feels about “doorway” pages, here is an excerpt from Google’s advice to webmasters.

“Another illicit practice is to place ‘doorway’ pages loaded with keywords on the client’s site somewhere. The SEO promises this will make the page more relevant for more queries. This is inherently false since individual pages are rarely relevant for a wide range of keywords.”

..and..

“If an SEO creates deceptive or misleading content on your behalf, such as doorway pages or ‘throwaway’ domains, your site could be removed entirely from Google’s index.”

Ouch. Okay, so that’s pretty clear. But what isn’t clear is how Google determines that a page is a doorway page. Thus, it is theoretically possible that an innocent page which is highly optimized could be mistaken for a doorway page based on the keyword frequency of your term.

Modified text. Search engine optimization experts (SEOs) employ the use of modified text to enhance the weight of the targeted keyword. Simply put, your term should appear bold, underlined and/or in a heading at least once. But what if your term is modified with all three of these things (e.g., it’s bold, underlined and in an H1 tag)? Could this trigger yet another Google red flag?  This thread on the Webmasterworld.com forums debates the existence of over-optimization penalties and, at one point, suggests that repetition of keywords in the various SEO-relevant tags including title, meta description, meta keyword and header tags may trip an over-optimization filter and cause Google to drop your site:

http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum3/24049.htm

Off-page elements. This theory is loosely tied to the modified text theory I mentioned above, only it pertains to off-page elements a.k.a. incoming links. A lot of incoming links that repeat the keyword in the link text and are virtually identical in syntax (e.g., Mike’s blue widgets, Visit Mike’s Blue Widgets, Click here to buy Mike’s Blue Widgets) may trigger a red flag in Google. It is also quite possible that the link text plus your on-page elements (modified text) could be a deadly combination (in the theoretical world of over-optimization penalties).

The term over optimization comes up mainly in connection with Google and its purportedly more complex and sophisticated algorithms. In researching this issue, I have seen some skepticism that Google is more advanced than other top search engines. Visit www.google-watch.com for an interesting devil’s advocate viewpoint on Google.

It remains to be seen whether or not Yahoo! or MSN penalize sites for using white hat SEO tactics in excess, a.k.a., “over optimization.” Though the consensus among SEO professionals has been that Yahoo! and MSN are sub-par in terms of search technology, this is changing. For example, the launch of MSN’s new search engine, which came out of beta in January 2005, has spawned speculation that Microsoft is gearing up to dominate the search market. Many webmasters have commented on the “deep crawling” ability of the new MSN bot, noting visits from MSN in the hundreds or thousands. This is significant when considering over optimization because it indicates that MSN may be moving away from strictly page-by-page ranking optimization, which relies heavily on keywords in tags and the appearance of the keyword in the text on a specific page.

Like Google, deep crawling for MSN could mean that it is moving towards a topical-ranking algorithm that factors in the contents of an entire site and the content of the external sites linking to the specific page (e.g., the keyword “neighborhood”). If this is the case, a page that is “overoptimized” without appropriate support from pages within its own domain or its link partners (e.g., off-topic link exchanges), could rank poorly and/or be penalized as an out-of-context page that could be a doorway.

Yahoo!’s Web results favor content-rich sites that are well-optimized and seem to allow for a higher keyword density than Google. It is nevertheless recommended that you optimize for specific keywords with care, and keep your pages thematically relevant when compared with your entire site.

So is it really true that too much optimization can get you penalized, even banned, from the search engine results pages (SERPs) on Google, Yahoo! or MSN? I believe the answer to this is no, simply because the word “optimization” by its very nature means that your content is represented to search engines and human visitors in the best possible light for both constituencies.

If there is too much repetition of your keyword in all of the relevant text, tags and components and not enough true content either on any given page or on the pages that connect to it, then the “optimized” page becomes a liability rather than an asset. This makes sense. It is an excellent way to filter out sub-par sites that offer content of no real value.

Now that I’ve said all this, please keep in mind that this is a speculative article based on my own experiences and the experiences of others as posted in various SEO forums. The best way to find out what your specific next steps are is to perform some analyses of your own. My high level recommendations to anyone who feels that their page is being penalized for optimization is to take a look at their page compared to the pages that rank well in the given search engine. Look at the top ten or twenty results and analyze on-page factors as follows:

  1. What is the density of the targeted keyword?
  2. What type of language is being used to support the keyword (e.g., if it is a used car Web site, are there terms such as “certified pre-owned vehicles” cropping up)? Yes, this will require you to actually read the well-ranking page.
  3. What type of language is present on the rest of the website? Does the keyword show up often on other pages that are listed in the given search engine?
  4. What type of sites link to the top-ranking page?
  5. Who is linking to your site? Are these contextually-relevant links?
  6. Write down any glaring discrepancies. These discrepancies can be turned into a list of next step SEO tasks for your own site.

Yes, this is time-consuming, and although there are tools available to help with this type of analysis (www.gorank.com provides an excellent free keyword density analyzer), it is nevertheless a painfully slow and detailed process. However, if you are trying to get your site to show up for your coveted keywords, then it is worth it to perform this type of research yourself, or hire someone to do it for you. 

One final note

Any SEO worth his or her salt will preach the importance of good, relevant content and the value of writing for your visitors, not for the search engines. This is certainly true, but it is also important to consider the structure of your site and the connectivity of the pages and terms on every page. Building a site with thematic relevance naturally precludes the possibility of any type of search engine penalty. It’s also great for usability.

Build your site so that it makes sense to visitors, the navigation and link structure are intuitive and every page is easy to get to via a site map and a well-planned internal linking structure. Don’t waste your time getting links from sites that are not topically relevant to your own. While this may have been a successful tactic in the past, it is clear that reciprocal links from relevant sites carry more weight than ever before.

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