Is Your Site Ready? Google Is About to Drop the Hammer on Over Optimized Sites

In our last Leverage Lowdown our Search Director Matthew Hooks, who attended this year’s South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi) here in Austin, recapped the most interesting SEO panel of the event.  The panel was all about ranking better in 2012 and was a chat with three of the biggest names in Search, Danny Sullivan, Google’s Matt Cutts, and Bing’s Duane Forrester.  Matt Cutts said something in that panel that captured the attention of many in the search world.  His exact quote was

“What about the people optimizing really hard and doing a lot of SEO. We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly SEO – versus those making great content and great site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go well beyond what you normally expect. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.”  [emphasis supplied]

Audio at SXSWi (it’s about 1/3rd of the way in).

Matt Cutts’ remarks about Google’s ranking algorithm become all the more intriguing when you consider another recent comment from Cutts & co.  On their official blog at the very end of February, Google wrote:

“We often use characteristics of links to help us figure out the topic of a linked page. We have changed the way in which we evaluate links; in particular, we are turning off a method of link analysis that we used for several years. We often rearchitect or turn off parts of our scoring in order to keep our system maintainable, clean and understandable.”  [emphasis supplied]

Hm, what’s that rumbling sound…

Is That A Bear?!!

Around this time last year, the so-called Panda update really shook up the Search world.  Many thin content and affiliate sites saw their traffic drop tremendously, as Google demonstrated its seriousness about unique and quality content.  What we are seeing now are indications that Google will continue down that path and will be isolating other methods that people use to game the system.  Sites that can’t stand on their own two feet without their gaming techniques will most likely fall.  Is it too early to pick out the baby’s name and call this the Grizzly update?

What are the targets of this potentially major update?  Both of Google’s clues point to at least one technique, and that is the over-optimization of link anchor text.  In other words, if Google looks at your site, and the links pointing to your site, and 90% of them say KEYWORD1, Google will rightly ask how you got those links and why they are all so similar.  What is the probability that 90% of the people that link to you would only use that one variation of one word?  Even “KEYWORD1,” “KEYWORD2,” and “KEYWORD3” as your anchor text looks more natural than that.  A link profile with identical anchor text over and over is like listening to someone repeat the same few words over and over – it’s annoying, and it may incur Google’s wrath in 2012.  Google estimates that 16% of searches they see every day are brand new.  So a link profile with nearly uniform anchor text is not going to look natural.

How to Be A Happy Camper in the SERPs

So, you may be wondering, how do I go about linkbuilding and still have it look natural?  How can I be a happy camper in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages)?

Respect Your Environment

First of all, do remember that there is nothing unnatural about promoting your site – if you have a website with great content, of course you want people to look at it!  Google does not have a problem with linkbuilding per se.  What Google wants is for the links to your site to reflect the editorial intent of the site linking to you.  If someone thinks your site is awesome, they’ll be more likely to link to you with “awesome site” than “KEYWORD 1.”  Or with anchor text like, “My friend’s business,” “eco friendly company,” “great sale,” or even, “click here.”  Don’t try to mow down natural linking patterns with manipulative anchor text requests.  Pursue anchor text, but don’t raze the forest.

Clean Up Your Trash

If your link profile DOES contain too much of the same anchor text, now is the time to vary your linking patterns.  Link to different pages than you usually do, and link with branded terms or variations of your keyword, or even, “click here.”  And if you have a really egregious batch of bad links, clean them up!  Perhaps the #1 cause of bear attacks is leaving trash and food out – clean that stuff up and don’t feed the Google Grizzly!

Don’t Start Forest Fires

Is there a little batch of bad SEO going unattended on your site?  Maybe some duplicate content, maybe it’s just keyword stuffed?  Put it out!  Too many pages like that could spread to Google devaluing your site as a whole.  This advice works for cleaning up after Panda, and it’s also just good advice for preparing for any Google update – stamp out bad SEO on your site wherever it may be.

Don’t Forget The Marshmallows!

The final thing to remember for being a happy camper in the SERPs is to not just avoid producing bad or mediocre content, but instead actively produce good content!  Content people like to talk about, content that makes people want to gather around and share your site naturally.  Being a happy camper in the SERPs is not about roughing it in the extreme wilderness, although it may feel like it sometimes – the most important thing is to make your site a natural, fun, social site that people want to visit.  Follow our tips to avoid the dangers and have a better site than before.  Happy camping!

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