Over Optimizers Anonymous: A 3-Step Recovery Plan

Google has been on a rampage against many sites in recent months. While they are technically targeting sites in violations of their guidelines, many sites have been caught in their cross hairs. From new iterations of Panda to de-indexing private blog networks that lead to the shut down of BuildMyRank, many sites have been caught in its cross hairs. Perhaps they took notice of Wil Reynolds’ post on the SEOMoz blog, How Google Makes Liars Out of the Good Guys in SEO”.

Many sites have taken a significant tumbling in the SERPs, with even “innocent” sites getting caught up in it. These losses are painful and personal with the losers cumulatively suffering millions in lost profits. In addition to the loss in search rankings, webmasters and those that practice SEO may also live in a culture fear. Will their site(s) be hit next? Do they need to drastically alter and adjust their tactics to avoid a penalty? Are their SEO strategies still sound going forward?

A lot of this self-doubt can distract them from what is important. As Chris Winfield of Blue Glass once wrote (not sure if he can claim credit for this quote), “Our minds prepare us for success. They can also prepare us for failure if we let our thoughts become negative.”

Links Are Still King (And Content is Queen)

Despite their decreasing potency, links are still the primary currency on the web and their value is not going away any time soon. Google has always valued links and webmasters know this is a key component of what they need to succeed in the organic rankings.


Nevertheless, for many that develop sites, Google is like a drug you can’t quit. Webmasters need their traffic. Google still accounts for nearly 80% of all search traffic. If your site has faced an over-optimization penalty (or may be about to have one), here’s a 3-step recovery plan:

#1. Prune Your Links.

If like many others, you started learning and doing about SEO just a few years ago and primarily built links to the head terms to your URL, it’s time to prune your link profile (if it’s not already too late). This can be painful. A lot of hard work went into these links. Unfortunately, there is no statue of limitations with Google.

There is no reprieve if you’re over-optimization occurred year ago. As the character Marcus Aurelius said in the film Gladiator, “Your faults as a son is my failure as a father.” If only Google would accept this type of mea culpa.

You may be a target if your website has an unnatural back link profile or it has too many anchor-text manipulated links on other sites. If your site does not have a balanced link profile, it is time to do some serious Spring-cleaning on your site. Remove the lower quality external links (and possible internal links too) that make your link profile out of balance.

Focus on links that can attract more longtail traffic that may also benefit your head keyword terms. Partial match anchor text can also be an attractive target. Geoff Kenyon of Distilled wrote this excellent post on anchor text distribution.

Google wants a great user search experience. The last thing they want are sites appearing highly in their rankings that got there by manipulating their algorithm. Only the site owners win with that experience. These sites certainly haven’t paid Google anything to obtain their high SERPs. Google wants this to change. They want to reward brands and paying customers that provide a good user experience.

#2. Produce Great Content.

Whether it is text, video, images, or a combination of mediums, create something so cool and valuable that it can’t be ignored. This has the added benefit of increasing your traffic streams. Creating great content can generate more referral traffic and also have an organic SEO benefit with all the social buzz and links that can come into your site. This is easier said than done but something that should always be aspired to.

Ideally, not more than about 1/3 of your traffic should come from Google. Emphasizing social networks and other forms of referral traffic (which can also bring direct traffic) can be a big win. Just like in a lot of industries, you want to have a diverse stream of business income. You never want to be too invested in just one source, even if it is the granddaddy of them all.

Panda was not a link based algorithmic change; it was more about unique and quality content. The fall out from Panda lead many webmasters to prune content from their site that was not bringing in traffic or of value. However, since then, Google penalties have really ramped up and now target sites that are over-optimized for URL keywords. The over-optimization penalty Matt Cutts referred to (which some have referred to has Google’s “Jump the Shark” moment) could be more about links than title tags.

Google Panda Algorithm Infographic

SEM Infographic by SEO Book

#3. Build Up Your Brand, not your keywords.

The party is over. If you had an exact match URL and had any knowledge of SEO, you could rank quite well for that keyword a few years ago. The algorithm has shifted. Adapt or die. It’s a Darwinist world.

Google doesn’t need publisher’s to build out the Web; there are millions of sites out there. Their focus is not on attracting AdSense publishers; it’s about attracting AdWords paying customers. They want sites that give real value to the user in the SERPS. They want brands to appear in the organic rankings.

Brands are primarily what have contributed to the massive revenues of AdWords. The tables have turned on publishers – you need to provide real value to users. In turn, maybe then you’ll be an AdWords paying customer. Google doesn’t want MFSEO sites in the SERPs.

If you aren’t an established company, act like one (or become one) and provide top-notch quality content and a user experience (including social networks) that match or exceed those of “real” companies. Consider trademarking your brand name to solidify your presence and market it.

These three steps are a good staring point for a recovery plan. If you are affected by a Google over-optimization penalty, just hope it is for your head terms only and not your entire site. In the mean time, get busy…

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