Matt Cutts, Google’s sheriff of all things SEO, caused quite a stir among search folks when he let slip at SXSW that Google is essentially rolling out an official algorithm update that will penalize sites that engage too vigorously in search engine optimization. To paraphrase, Cutts said that, as part of Google’s ongoing effort to rank the most relevant results (i.e., the ones most satisfying to the user), their engineers are actually developing a way to promote good content (regardless of how “optimized” it is) over content that might not be as good, but has clearly had some work done from an SEO perspective.
In a sense, this should be no great surprise. The kind of “over-optimized” content that Cutts is referring to is often not a very good result if you’re the actual searcher. As such, this fits into the overarching Google theme that good content should win. What’s striking about it, and what has gotten the attention of the SEO community, is that it singles out SEO by name and almost lays down the gauntlet. That seems to have really spooked some people who do SEO for a living. The real problem is what people (and even Cutts to a degree, apparently) think that SEO is all about. There’s a perception (well-deserved, in some cases) that SEO is a bag of virtual parlor tricks. Let me reach in and grab a few tags, some keywords and a couple of links and voilà: your site will levitate to the top of the page.
It should surprise no one that Google wants to fight this perception and the underlying problem. Low quality content ranking because of a few SEO tricks is bad for Google, it’s bad for the user and it’s ultimately bad for whoever is achieving the ranking. Any search engine optimization exercise should start with an analysis of what you should legitimately be ranking for. From there, the SEO is about creating really good content (if it doesn’t already exist) and making it easy for Google and the other search engines to find and deliver that content at the right time to the right people. It’s not rocket science, and it certainly shouldn’t be shrouded in a veil of binary mystery.
Too many agencies and marketers want to do SEO over on the side, segregated from the really legitimate marketing efforts. This is why you’ll often see a series of landing pages tied to paid search campaigns and a series of totally separate landing pages created to rank organically. That in itself should be a major red flag if you’re looking to avoid this new “over-optimization” penalty. If you’re creating a page that you don’t want to deliberately send keyword-driven paid search traffic to, why would Google or any other search engine want to point their users to that content by ranking it prominently? So if you want to get ahead of this new algorithm update, take a good look at the content you’ve been trying to optimize. Is it the result you’d like to see if you’re the objective searcher? Is it content you’d like to present as the best possible result for that keyword if you’re a search engine engineer? If not, it’s probably time to put your “optimization” efforts on hold and work on creating really good content. For that, there will certainly never be a penalty.
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