Is Google’s “Over Optimization Penalty” Its “Jump The Shark” Moment In Web Search?
The wolves are attacking Google again over its search quality. Last year, they were fed the Panda Update to fend them off. This year, Google may throw an Over Optimization Penalty to the pack. No, that doesn’t mean SEO is dead once again. But it may sadly confuse SEO with spam. It also doesn’t mean the penalty will improve Google’s results. Google already has problems enforcing all the other penalties it has rolled out over the years.
Jumping The Shark
“Jump the shark” is a reference to a Happy Days episode where The Fonz did a water ski jump over a shark. It was later seen as a milestone of when the television series had done all that it could do and so was resorting to crazy plots.
When Google said recently that an over-optimization penalty was coming, I felt like we’d reached a jump-the-shark moment in how the company is trying to improve the quality of its search results through penalties and filters. It’s getting crazy now.
From No Spam To Rules, Rules, Rules
Google’s slightly different in that we never ban anybody, and we don’t really believe in spam in the sense that there’s no mechanism for removing people from our index. The fundamental concept we use is, you know, is this page relevant to the search? And, you know, some pages which, you know, they may almost never appear on the search results page because they’re just not that relevant.
Today, Google has an entire page of things considered to be spam. Each thing listed is like a patch designed to plug a hole in Google’s ranking algorithm. Google keeps slapping on these patches, rather than doing what seems really necessarily, completely overhauling its infrastructure.
Rules & Unintended Consequences
Some spam patches focus on design issues and seem to make sense, when you understand their origins. For example, “hidden text” on a web page is bad, because it was often used as a way by publishers to load their pages up with words that might make them seem more relevant for a search topic than they really are.
Unfortunately, Google has long focused on the technicality of an error rather than the intent. A publisher with a page that’s full of images might replicate all the words in those images in hidden text, since search engines can’t read inside images. That publisher potentially could be banned from Google from doing this, even though the intent wasn’t to be harmful.
Other spam patches are more about behavior, which can also seem to make sense at first. For example, buying and selling links can get you in trouble, because to Google, links are like votes. It doesn’t want someone buying their way to win the Google ranking “election.”
Again, unfortunately, you can then have confusion. If someone writes about a product they’ve been given, is that a “bought” link? If so, does the link have to be blocked forever by that person, or only in a particular article? What about affiliate links? Google’s said that it catches these already and discounts them for major programs like Amazon. But it doesn’t for others. How do you know which ones, to be safe?
Penalized For Not Being Good Enough
Now matters are getting even more confusing, as Google unleashes penalties not for being overtly “bad” but for not being “good enough.”
Last year’s Panda Update was an excellent example of this. Suddenly, pages that were ranking well disappeared, because Google used a new system to decide if a publisher seemed to have “low quality” content overall. What was low-quality? Google gave a list of 23 questions for people to ask themselves, but the answer is largely “Google knows poor quality when it sees it.”
That would be great if publishers could see with Google’s eyes. But they can’t. Now they likely to have even more guesswork, to figure out if they’ve “over optimized” their web sites.
Too Much SEO?
No one factor ensures a top search engine ranking. Rather, Google uses a multitude of factors for each and every search to determine what should rank well. The Periodic Table Of SEO Ranking Factors from our sister-site Search Engine Land explains this in more depth. Some factors do carry more weight than others, but they are still supposed to work in combination.
Indeed, it’s this combination of factors that Google has long argued prevents it from making mistakes. What if someone buys a bunch of links and points them at your site, as an attempt to sabotage you? Google’s response has often been that it would see many other factors that would indicate quality, so that you wouldn’t be harmed.
But now, it’ll sound like to some people that doing a combination of things — things Google itself has advised and compiled into a PDF guide — might get you into trouble. As Google’s spam chief Matt Cutts said earlier this month:
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.
What’s overly doing your SEO? Who knows? That’s undefined. If you pay attention to multiple SEO factors, could that cross a line? Heck, is it better to do no SEO at all?
It’s easy to fear-monger here, if you want make Cutts as sounding anti-SEO. It’s easy also, if you don’t know what best practices SEO are about, to assume that Cutts is anti-SEO.
However, if you read the rest of what Cutts said with a knowledge of SEO (such as Vanessa Fox does in Google’s Upcoming Algorithm Change: “Overly-Optimized Sites”), you get the impression Google’s simply looking at some type of super-spam penalty, not going after those doing SEO as Google itself advises:
We also start to look at the people who sort of abuse it, whether they throw too many keywords on the page, or whether they exchange way too many links, or whatever they are doing to sort of go beyond what a normal person would expect in a particular area.
It sounds like going right up to the line of acceptability in multiple areas of SEO might cause problems, not just doing a variety of acceptable SEO techniques themselves.
Why Did SEO Have To Get Mixed Up With Spam?
We’ll see what really happens. But what’s disheartening is that talk of the forthcoming penalty will likely cause some people question any type of SEO at all. Until now, I’d say Google has been very careful not to equate SEO with spam. They are two different things, such as email marketing being distinct from spam mail. But talking about an “over optimization” penalty confuses the two.
Cutts talks about the move as a means of “making that playing field a little bit more level.” But there is no level playing field. Some great sites get found without doing any overt SEO. Some great sites don’t get found because they fail to follow SEO best practices. Both are true for poor quality sites, also.
But by suggesting that SEO is somehow messing with the “level playing field,” I feel like Google tosses the entire SEO space itself to the wolves. That’s an odd thing to do, given it just defended SEO last year in a video as something publishers should consider:
My fear is that talking about “over optimization” is Google trying to cater to the anti-SEO crowd, which blames any bad results on SEO, rather than Google itself not keeping up with the challenges of ranking. Heck, we even saw a reference to this on Dexter last year:
If that’s the strategy, it’s a well worn path Google’s walked before.
People upset about comment spam in 2004? Roll out the nofollow attribute in 2005, saying it’s a way site owners can prevent credit from being passed. As a PR exercise, it largely solved Google being blamed for comment spam. But it sure didn’t solve comment spam, both as an annoyance for site owners nor as a way people spam links to manipulate Google.
People upset about content farms? Give them the Panda Update, with metrics saying 12% of search queries were impacted. That gives the impression that the content farm monster has been slain, plus the impression results have improved 12%. In reality, we literally have no idea if Google’s Panda Update made things better or worse. There are no independent metrics about this. None.
Postscript: Actually, one survey tried to assess this last December and said gains were made. But they were made by both Google & Bing, the latter which had no big “Panda Update” news of its own. There have also been plenty of winner/loser assessments. But there remains no long-term, independent metrics on overall search quality. We have no “relevancy figure,” as I’ve written about before, those surveys do find general satisfaction by searchers.
People still worried about the quality of search results, especially complaining that Search Plus Your World has made things worse? Maybe you give them the Over Optimization Penality. No doubt when it rolls out, we’ll be told that some set percentage of queries will have changed, again giving the impression of improvement.
How About Enforcing The Existing Laws?
But here’s the thing. I can search for “SEO” on Google and still find companies showing up in the top results because of links they’ve dropped into blog templates or client sites or forums.
I demonstrated this to Google’s search quality team back in January 2010, then further explained it for the public in How The “Focus On First” Helps Hide Google’s Relevancy Problems, in October 2010. Despite this, it still works.
This is search quality 101, something that Google should easily be detecting and preventing from being effective. If Google fails to catch it for something it should be watching like a hawk, results for “SEO,” why are we to believe it’ll be better at using yet another penalty?
Missing this type of basic quality problem isn’t even unusual. Every month this year, I’ve read a different article of someone highlighting issues related to link spam:
- How Organized Spam is Taking Control of Google’s Search Results
- How Google Makes Liars Out of the Good Guys in SEO
- How Garbage Ranks in the SERPs: a Case Study
That middle story about Google making liars about of “good guys” in SEO especially resonates with me. Written last February, it reminded me of Jill Whalen’s story from 2010, Dear Google…Stop Making Me Look Like a Fool! From the same year, Rand Fishkin wrote about spam getting through but still warning that people shouldn’t be enticed by this to go the spam route.
Imagine that. SEOs sounding the alarm about spam. That’s a story you rarely hear in the general press, which is a pity, because those same SEOs see problems with the quality of search results long before the mainstream press does.
I agree with all of this. I think you should focus on quality content, a great user experience and enhance that with commonly accepted SEO practices. I dislike attitudes like “all SEO is manipulation” being used as an excuse to do anything to rank. I don’t want Google’s own flaws being used to justify spam.
We do need some penalties. We do need Google and Bing (which has all the same problems that Google has) finding ways to reward good pages and not to reward crappy content. I loved the general concept of Google’s penalty for pages top-heavy with ads, given how often these type of sites pollute my own search results.
But rather than yet another penalty being trotted out, maybe Google could police the things it supposed to already catch. Perhaps it could think more fully about the mess it creates when it confuses SEO with spam by talking about “over optimization.” More than anything else, maybe it could fundamentally improve the ranking system, rather than patching it up.
Search Plus Your World has taken heat in some corners, yet it represents the type of fundamental shift that is needed. Let’s hope Google and Bing both figure out the right mix of personal and social signals.
Now go watch Fonzie jump that shark:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MDthMGtZKa4
Postscript: As it turns out, Google has rolled out the penalty but clarified that it’s about catching spam. See Google Launches “Penguin Update” Targeting Webspam In Search Results.
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- Two Weeks In, Google Says “Search Plus Your World” Going Well, Critics Should Give It Time
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