Over Optimizing Your Site: Just Say No

Yes, there is such a thing as an Over Optimization Penalty, and you don’t have to be a spammer to trigger it. How can you avoid suffering this penalty? Read on to find out.

You know about the trouble you can get into for keyword stuffing and spammy tactics. You know how much search engines hate that sort of thing. But you might not realize how much those strategies turn off your customers; by extension, they hurt your business even if the search engines don’t penalize your site. And you might be surprised to learn that your site might receive an over optimization penalty even if you haven’t crossed over the line into spamming the search engines.

Let’s be clear about this: there is such a thing as an Over Optimization Penalty (OOP). Search engine marketing expert Bill Hartzer observed that those who have not encountered such a penalty are more likely to be “white hat SEOs” and unwilling to push the limits. But grey hat and certainly black hat SEOs know it exists.

Hartzer gives a classic example of the OOP by describing what happens when you put too much anchor text in your site, “so that all the home page links say `keyword keyword home’ instead of `home.’” This leads to lost search engine rankings a few days later, but within a few days of changing the links back, the rankings return. Hartzer says he can point to many other instances that prove the OOP exists.

So given that there is an over optimization penalty, and that you don’t have to be spamming to trigger it, what can you do? Well, there are certain practices that you really need to avoid. It will help if you keep your main goal in mind, which isn’t just writing to make the search engines happy. Those of you who have been most actively keeping up with new developments in the SEO field may find that I’m covering some familiar ground, but hopefully even the very seasoned professionals will see a few things that are new.

Writing to score high in the search engine results pages might seem like the right goal, but that misses the point. Why do you want to score high in the SERPs? You want to attract visitors to your site. And even that is only part of the answer; truth is, you want to make them convert – buy whatever you’re selling, sign up for your newsletter, seek more information, take your pick. Heather Lloyd-Martin, president of Successworks, drove that point home a few months ago at an SEO conference. On a panel called “SEO Overkill,” she reminded everyone that “We’re in business to make money, and the search engines are not paying our bills…Whenever you put the computer first, you’re leaving customers out.”

What does it mean to write for conversion? Some of it involves considering things that affect customers, but search engines won’t pay attention to one way or the other. Or they could be things that search engines reward but cause customers to become confused. And some of them might seem a little surprising.

Lloyd-Martin refers to one of these problems as “conversion confusion.” It happens when a website actually starts with something good – lots of excellent content on the page that gives visitors all the information they need about a particular product and then some. It could even be really well organized. So the visitor decides to buy…and that’s where the site comes up short, because “there’s no conversion step or way for people to take action,” explains Lloyd-Martin. “People need to be told what to do. If you do not ask for the sale, they won’t take action.” A “contact us” button is not enough.

I’m pleased to say that another practice you don’t want to engage in, according to Lloyd-Martin, is misspellings. You might be convinced that customers will misspell your name or whatever it is that you sell, but Google tends to compensate for that with its “Did you mean…?” function. Plus, it hurts your brand. “Customers will notice misspellings pretty easily,” Lloyd-Martin points out, “which make your company look unprofessional, like you can’t spell, and like you don’t care.” It will make your customers think “if they can’t get their site right, why can they get my order right?” she added. 

Michael Murray, vice president of Fathom SEO, participated on the same “SEO Overkill” panel as Heather Lloyd-Martin. He had some great general advice for anyone trying to build up a permanent web presence: go slow. “Even sound practices may fail if they’re rushed,” he warned. You need to measure every link and think carefully about everything you are doing to your site, and how it will affect things overall.

According to Murray, good practices start with your domain name. Pick a domain name that is short and easy to read. Something like http://keyword-keyword-
keyword-keyword.com is going to be hard for your visitors to remember, difficult to read, and look like spam.

Another area you need to take a close look at is your title tags. These are heavily susceptible to keyword stuffing. Don’t go there. Remember that your title tags are going to show up in the SERPs, so potential visitors will see them. Title tags that are stuffed with keywords turn off web surfers. If search engine users take one look and decide not to click through to your site, they surely won’t convert. Murray suggests that you “pick one or two search terms and call it a day” when writing title tags.

You should also avoid keyword stuffing in your content. How much is too much? Estimates vary; some SEOs stick with three percent, while others say as high as seven percent is okay. Certainly once you hit 10 percent or higher, you will set off alarms with the search engines. Never mind the search engines, the humans you’re trying to reach will find the content difficult to read. You could benefit from using tools such as Keyword Cloud and Keyword Density here on the SEO Chat website to see whether you’re venturing into dangerous territory.

Yet another area you want to watch carefully is your links. Yes, you want to collect plenty of backlinks, since both Yahoo and Google reward backlinks to varying degrees. But you don’t want to collect them too quickly, and you really want to pay attention to where you get these links from. By this I mean you need to watch the quality of your links (avoid link farms!), and, especially with Google’s Big Daddy update, you want to make sure that your links are relevant to your site.

I mentioned content in the previous section. Real content is great, and your users will love you for it, but there are certain content issues you want to avoid. One of these is duplicate content. What is duplicate content? It is when the content of one page of your site is exactly the same as the content of another page on your site (or another page on a site closely related to the original site). I have seen webmasters claim it is an urban legend that Google penalizes for duplicate content, but do you really want to take that chance?

When you or an SEO you hire engages in practices such as keyword stuffing, hidden text, and the like, you’re making two assumptions. The first one is that the search engine spiders that index your site won’t take all those extra keywords amiss; that they’ll swallow your bait and give you the SERP ranking for which you’re aiming. The other one is that your users won’t be bothered by these tactics, because they won’t see what you’re doing. Both assumptions are wrong. I think I’ve explained why the first one is wrong, so I’m going to elaborate on the second one.

While many, perhaps most, people still access the web using a standard web browser on a desktop or laptop PC, not everyone does – and more users are accessing the Internet with nonstandard means every day. For example, some web surfers are blind and use screen readers. Guess what? These screen readers pick up all the keyword stuffing and hidden text. A website that uses these tactics sounds ridiculous through a screen reader; even for the blind, “That `back’ button is so close,” says Lloyd-Martin.

That kind of accessibility is not the only reason to avoid over optimization tactics like these. Think about the people who surf the Internet from web-enabled handhelds and cell phones. In order to conserve scarce screen real estate, these devices strip out the graphics when web surfing. This leaves users staring at text – all the text, including the “hidden” text. If you make your visitors scroll through all that on their tiny screens, they’re going to go elsewhere. Add to this the fact that the number of users who surf the web using mobile devices is likely to grow in the future, and you could have a real problem on your hands.

I’d like to make one final point as you consider your website and whether you have over optimized it. Search engines and their spiders are automated. They don’t care whether you had the best of intentions with your site and over optimized unintentionally, or you deliberately went overboard in the hope of fooling them. Whatever your motives might be, remember that too much of a good thing is too much. You will see the rewards in your SERPs and in a higher number of conversions. 

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