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Is Your Blog Over-optimized?

This guest post is by AJ Kumar of Single Grain.

The current hot topic in the search engine optimization world is Google’s recent Penguin update—a move the search giant claims is intended to help reduce the presence of over-optimized web pages in the natural search results.

In fact, the possibility of a forthcoming over-optimization penalty was alluded to as early as this year’s SXSW festival in March, where Google spokesperson Matt Cutts made the comment:

“[T]he idea is basically to try and level the playing ground a little bit. 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.”

Well, that “level playing ground” is here with the April 24th release of the Penguin algorithm update, which has affected an estimated 3% of all search queries. If you saw your blog traffic dip unexpectedly on this date, it’s possible you’ve been “pecked” by the Google Penguin—an indication that your blog is considered to be over-optimized in the eyes of the search giant.

Of course, knowing that you’ve been affected and taking remedial actions to recover from a Penguin penalty are two different things. Because of Google’s natural reticence when it comes to revealing the exact parameters that cause a site to be flagged for over-optimization, it’s impossible to know exactly which factors led to your site’s penalty.

The key to determining how to move forward following a Penguin attack lies in identifying potential over-optimization flags that can be quantified and measured by the search engines.  Remember, the Googlebot can’t manually assess the quality of every website online. Instead, it must rely on measurable signals that can be used to infer objective value.

Based on these criteria, there are a few possible areas that every post-Penguin recovery plan should address:

On-site over-optimization

The first potential avenue through which Google could quantify metrics and assess over-optimization penalties is through the abuse of well-known on-page SEO best practices.  The following are a few of the specific indicators you’ll want to pay attention to:

  • Title tags: Because your pages’ title tags play a big role in your on-site SEO, this keyword stuffing opportunity has long been abused by web spammers.  If you’ve ever seen a title tag that reads something like, “Lose weight, fast weight loss, lose weight now with these tips,” you’ve seen an example of on-site over-optimization that could easily be detected and penalized by the search engines.

    Instead, a far better solution is to structure your title tags as follows:

    • Incorporate your target keyword only once, in a way that sounds natural and accurately describes the content of your page.
    • Add your brand’s name to your title tags, as there’s some indication that Google is giving increased weight to websites with established brands.
    • Limit your title tags to 60-70 characters for maximum search engine consideration.
  • Internal links: Another on-site website element that’s easily manipulated from an SEO standpoint is its internal link structure. “PageRank sculpting” or “link sculpting” devotees claim that by manipulating the anchor text distribution and flow of Google PageRank from one blog post to another, they can control how each page on their site is valued by the search engines.

    Well, guess what?  Because the search engine spiders navigate the web using links, they’ve gotten pretty good at understanding what natural internal link distribution looks like—as well as what it looks like when bloggers and other webmasters build internal links in an intentionally manipulative fashion!

    For best results, link to other pages using internal links only when it makes sense for your readers.  Build your site’s navigation structure and architecture in a way that helps visitors access different areas of your site effectively, and add links between blog posts only when the information is relevant and provides value for your readers.

  • Footer links: This on-site over-optimization element is so obviously detectable by the search engines that it’s not even funny! I’ll keep this one brief: don’t pack the footer section of your blog full of unnecessary links for the sole purpose of manipulating anchor text, link relevance or internal PageRank flow.  Seriously, just don’t do it!
  • Scraped or stuffed content: Again, manipulated content is an over-optimization red flag that should be an obvious “no go,” yet it’s amazing how many websites still make use of content that’s either copied and pasted from other sites or so packed full of keywords that it’s nearly illegible to human readers.

    If you have either of these two types of content on your blog, get them off as soon as possible!  While scraped and stuffed content may have helped your site to rank well in the natural search results pages in the past, it’s an obvious red flag to a search engine that’s indicated its desire to go after web spammers.  Even if your site survived the Penguin update unscathed, chances are you won’t be so safe in the future!

Off-site over-optimization

In addition to the specific optimization activities you undertake on your website, your off-site actions can be treated as red flags by the Penguin penalty and future updates as well.  Here are a few of the specific elements you’ll want to pay attention to:

  • Link velocity: Although having external links pointing back at your site is an important part of optimizing your website effectively for the search engines, the rate at which you acquire these links (a.k.a. your “link velocity”) should be treated with the utmost caution.

    Ideally, your blog’s backlink profile should look as natural as possible—even if you’re following SEO backlinking best practices. If your blog is well-established and well-regarded within your industry, it may be able to handle receiving dozens of new backlinks a day.  On the other hand, if your site is new, you can bet the search engines realize that it doesn’t look natural to have a young site earning handfuls of new links every day!

    Although there’s no hard and fast rule about how many links are too many links, it’s best to focus on obtaining a few high-value backlinks than to spam your site with dozens or hundreds of low quality links.  Be especially cautious in the few six months of your site’s life, and hold off on any major link building campaigns until your site is indexed appropriately by the search engines.

  • Anchor text distribution: As you undertake your link building campaigns, steer clear of the dated advice to incorporate only your target keyword and a few closely related variations as anchor text within your new links.  Google Penguin has changed the way anchor text is valued, so having too high of a concentration of exact match anchor text backlinks could set your site up for future penalties.

    In addition, if you’ve used targeted anchor text links in the past, it might be worthwhile to remove as many as possible or to dilute their strength with untargeted links.  For more information on how to evaluate your existing link building profile for anchor text distribution, check out SEOMoz’s article titled, How to Survive Google’s Unnatural Links Warnings & Avoid Over-Optimisation.

  • Sitewide links: One final indicator of over-optimization you’ll want to be aware of is a high density of “sitewide links.”

    Sitewide links are those that appear in areas of a website that are displayed on every single page of that site—for example, in the sidebar or footer area of a blog.  Because these types of links can be used to quickly increase the number of backlinks pointing at a blog for the sole purpose of manipulating the search results, they’re an easy target for Google Penguin and similar future updates.

    To find instances of sitewide links, use the “Links to your site” feature found in Google’s Webmaster Tools or other paid link research programs like Ahrefs or the Open Site Explorer.  Then, as you encounter instances of sitewide links, you can either request their removal from the offending sites or increase your other link building activities in order to diminish their impact on your site.

Were you pecked by the Penguin?

Did you see a decrease in traffic following the Google Penguin update?  Are you concerned about future over-optimization penalties and how they’ll be assessed?  Share any other specific actions you’ve taken to improve your site’s optimization in the comments below.

AJ Kumar is co-founder of Single Grain, a digital marketing agency< based in San Francisco. Single Grain specializes in helping startups and larger companies with search engine optimization, pay-per-click, social media, and various other marketing strategies.

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  1. “…there’s some indication that Google is giving increased weight to websites with established brands.” That’s depressing. Doesn’t sound like a level playing field to me :(

    On the other hand, it’s actually kind of comforting to know that we can all finally just focus on creating good content and building a real community. Do you think we’ll ever see the death of SEO? (I guess Rand Fishkin hopes not!)

    • I think it is a level playing field because first of all the established brand are normally companies trying to sell things which means they already are big competition for you or you are advertising them on your blog so either way its fine. Most of these companies are big enough and so few that they do not hurt the market a lot because they probably already get #1 rank at the top of searches because they would pay for it anyway via. google ads.

      However, I agree that this could be unfair to many companies but I guess it works both ways. Thanks for the post though!

  2. Thanks for the explanatory post AJ. Great advice for those suffering from post Penguin panic! As well as scraped or stuffed content I’d also look at the quality of the content in terms of content levels and ensure you have a ‘decent’ level of high quality content on-page.

    Google Webmaster Central stated “if you believe you’ve been impacted by this change you should evaluate all the content on your site and do your best to improve the overall quality of the pages on your domain. Removing low quality pages or moving them to a different domain could help your rankings for the higher quality content.”

    Low quality content can potentially impact the entire domain thus lowering the authority of the site so ensure you review your content in detail and determine the best plan of action.

  3. I certainly wasn’t pecked – my traffic has shot up since the update. Same thing with Panda back at the beginning of the year. They obviously are good at spotting sites that don’t do any SEO but produce great content (but I would say that!).

  4. The traffic to my website dropped on April 24th. I believe I was hit by the Penguin update. My pagerank did not change, just the amount of traffic that I receive from the organic search results. I did not receive any warning messages in Google Webmaster Tools. Thank you for the info, I was not really sure how I could make corrections, your article has helped.

  5. Really great article. I really like the section about the site wide links. I have seen others who place on one blog many links in their side bar to a second blog that they own. One common thing I have seen blogs doing is putting RSS feeds in their sidebars pointed at their other sites. Pretty sure that google has got pretty smart to this practice!

  6. SEO has indeed become a balancing act! In the old days, one could paste invisible keywords all over their site and find their site magically appear on page one. Google may be a robot; but it is way too smart to fall for that garbage.

    Now, links are good; too many links are bad. Keywords are good; too many are bad.

    The solution, as you said is to simply write what will make sense to the readers!

  7. AJ, excellent article! Could you please talk more about “Be especially cautious in the few six months of your site’s life”… does it takes 6 months for a site to be indexed by Google or seriously considered? I am asking because I started a blog a month ago and I am interested in understand if there is a period where my site will be out… if you can tell me why 6 months that would be great. Thanks!

    • I think AJ means if you have a new site, don’t go crazy building loads of links in the first 6 month. Waiting for your site to be properly indexed shouldn’t take longer than a couple of week, and this is when you should start to build links slowly and naturally.

  8. These are all great points. I had problems with the links that I allowed on my site. When I first started out, I didn’t understand the importance of rel=”nofollow” tags and my site really didn’t move up in rankings. Once I figured out what to do with the tags I started ranking higher. Just got a 3 month old website to a PR3 doing the positive things you just blogged about. Great stuff!

  9. I was massively hit by Penguin combined probably with a few other issues I need to address. I think my problem is that I am very focused on food in melbourne and therefore stuffed with keywords on that. I appealed it though and am building back up.

  10. It is a great article you got there, it give a lot of ideas. and a thank you for that :) Mind if you check my site? hope this can also give you some other inputs. thank you! Have a great day!

  11. I was also hit by this penguin update due to over-optimization. All of my sites
    went down from Google Ranking. A lesson learned. Google now is very smart,
    and in order to take back all of your investments from blogging, just give what Google
    wants! Thanks for this very informative article..

  12. Between Panda and Penguin updates they destroyed many sites that were using blackhat methods of backlinking. I had one of my sites hit pretty hard and have had a hard time trying to recover. These are great points to take in consideration and stay on the good side of big G. Thanks for the great post.


  13. I thought I was hit by the Penguin update for one of my website. So I sent a reconsideration request. However, Google said that they didn’t find any manual spam. Within a month’s time, the site was again showing in normal results. I think that Google keeps updating its algorithm every now and then and that is why there are so many fluctuations in rankings. The point is – yes, high link velocity is definitely not a good idea. You should build these naturally when you have time and patience.

  14. Excellent advice AJ. I still see sites with unnecessary footer links and from time to time, we get clients wanting footer links as well as the same links in a side bar nav and a top line menu nav thinking that the more internal links the better – nooo!

  15. Traffic to my site has been impacted somewhat since the Penguin update in April – and I haven’t been able to determine the cause. I do not believe my site is over-optimised, and am not doing any of the things you specifically mention to avoid.

  16. Interesting that you mention keywords because most SEO’s seem to think Penguin is more about anchor text and links.

    I think many cases of keyword stuffing are non intentional but Google has taken the shotgun approach and wiped out many high quality sites.

    Google doesn’t seem to like using descriptive keywords and labels over use of this as keyword stuffing or over optimization which has been proven to be wrong.

    I have discovered Bing offers a tool that allows you to easily disavow incoming links which i have written about here.http://wp.me/p1lTu0-8Q1

    Only wish Google had this tool now but it seems they are several months behind adding this to GWMT.

    What is the general level of keyword density you recommend as a %?

  17. Though there are quite a few sites getting hit, the Google serp is not clean yet. The major change I noticed is, now amazon is ranking for almost everything, regardless of from where you search, whether they service to that country or not.

    Amazon is new Wikipedia when it comes to purchase intention queries or product related queries. The brand tilt doesn’t look like level playing field.

    Also still there are tons of sites which ranks, just because of the title tag stuffed with keywords.

    Nevertheless, great article.

    • Agree. Seems Google has benefited the big brand names which is supporting the economy of the country they are based in.

      Its NOT a level playing field and never will be when one country 100% controls Google.

      There’s no way they’ll let the online business go offshore which is one of the reasons they have changed the algorithm to protect big brands and the economy.

  18. My website is newish and to be totally honest, I think I couldn’t have launched the website at a better time. I think these latest updates by Google are good — they sort of level the playing field a little bit. Instead of concentrating too much on SEO, I can now focus more on providing real value to my readers. I understand that the updates have hurt many webmasters, but I think they will only make running a legitimate website that much easier in the end. Thank you A.J for sharing this informative piece on Google’s latest Penguin update.

  19. I recently added WP External Links plugin to get rid of outbound links that I had on my site. I know that this can hurt your rankings, however, do I want to get rid of all outbound links? In other words, make them all rel=nofollow? Besides the comment section, which I leave dofollow for my readers, there is no outbound links on my site.

    • Wade. I think you’ll find that regardless of the fact links are follow or no follow, they’ll still be followed by Google and show up in the GWMT account of the site they are linking to under Links to your site.

      WordPress comment links are no follow by default but they still display in GWMT for the site they link back to.

  20. Hi there, You have done an incredible job. I will definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends.
    I am sure they’ll be benefited from this website.

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