When I first heard about the upcoming Over Optimization Penalty, I sighed heavily and longed for the days when my knowledge of such things did not extend much beyond the pros and cons of PPC vs SEO. Sometimes, ignorance truly is bliss. After spending the past couple of years working for one of the best SEO firms in the country, I know all too well the panic an algorithm change of this kind can incite across the blogosphere.
But as long as the Internet exists, SEO will serve a purpose and reports of its death are not just premature but completely ludicrous. Of course, if you are dependent on black hat techniques and invest in quick fixes instead of quality content, you should be afraid and that does not sadden me in the least bit. On the other hand, a change of this kind still has the potential to harm reputable sites that engage in ethical SEO practices and, as Danny Sullivan suggests, could tarnish the public perception of SEO as a whole.

If you carefully pay attention to what Google’s Matt Cutts actually said about over-optimization at SXSW, you should feel fairly confident that Google does not hate SEO and has no intention of penalizing those who devote time to making their pages more search-engine friendly. He clearly states that, “We’ve been working on changes to try to make sure that if you are a White Hat or if you’ve been doing very little SEO that you are going to not be affected by this change. But if you’ve been going way far beyond the pale, then that’s the sort of thing where your site might not rank as highly as it did before.”
That seems relatively straightforward, but the examples he listed, such as excessive linking and keyword stuffing, have always been considered black hat SEO tactics that fall under the category of spam, not legitimate content. Conflating spam with optimization feeds negative perceptions about SEO and completely confuses the issue of what “over-optimization” really means.

Making a site useful, interesting, and relevant

It sounds like Google will attempt to juxtapose the quality of content against the level of optimization, and if the ratio is too heavily weighted towards optimization, you will find your site penalized. Put another way, it negatively targets sites built on a style over substance paradigm, which theoretically sounds great, but since content quality is subjective, there seems to be significant room for error. If that makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone, but there is very little you can actually do about it, which brings us to the inevitable “content is king” conclusion.
During the same panel, Cutts made a point of saying, “We tell people over and over again, ‘Make a compelling site. Make a site that’s useful. Make a site that’s interesting. Make a site that’s relevant to people’s interests.’”
This is not news to anyone in SEO, and it seems to be the primary message of every algorithm change. Focus on creating a unique, engaging site that adds value to the web. Your SEO efforts should revolve around the concepts of making your site more crawlable and creating a better user experience. If you find yourself devoting an inordinate amount of time to optimization, recalibrate and direct your attention to your site’s content. If you do that, algorithm changes will most likely not decrease your page rank. In the event that they do, there may actually be some substantive issues that you need to address.
Google is not perfect by any means, and it implements approximately 500 algorithm changes annually, most of which go unnoticed by the general population. It always has a few major updates that significantly impact page ranks, and, for some reason, people tend to panic. On way to allay your fears is to remember that Google is not intentionally and maliciously moving the brass ring to drive the SEO world crazy. It is improving its product and refining how its bots assess and index pages.
If you approach your site with similar intentions, you will fare well. Also, keep in mind that every data point may not always mean what a Google bot thinks it does, but enough factors are at play that damage should be kept to a minimum.
Whether you work for one of the best SEO firms in the world or are managing your own site, you should pay attention to algorithm changes like this over optimization penalty. The key is to remain calm and focus on your actual site. Danny Sullivan rightly makes the point that this would be a lot easier to do “if publishers could see with Google’s eyes,” but our own eyes will have to do. As Matt Cutts explains, “We’re always trying to best approximate if a user lands on a page, are they going to be really, really happy instead of really, really annoyed? And if it’s the sort of thing where they land on a page and they are going to be annoyed, then that is the sort of thing that we’ll take action on.”
That succinctly explains what good SEO is all about as well. Look at your site with a critical eye and never stop improving its user experience. It is not a quick, easy, or straightforward task, but its complexity is part of the fun. When done with genuine care and good intentions, “If you build it, they will come,” actually yields optimum results.
Author’s note: The Over Optimization Penalty is the latest algorithm change that has even the best SEO firms scratching their heads in confusion. What does it mean for your site?