What Google’s Over-Optimization Penalty Means for Content Marketers

Digital Marketing Keywords Written On a Blue Board With Chalk

During the waning days of this year’s SXSW, Google engineer Matt Cutts announced changes to the search algorithm which will effectively penalize pages that have been subjected to heavy-handed SEO tactics. Cutts called these pages “over-optimized” or “overly SEO’d.”

What does this mean for you, the solo entrepreneur or small biz owner who handles her own content marketing and website?

What Others Are Saying About the Over-Optimization Penalty

How this algorithm tweak impact you, the small business blogger and content marketer?

Kim Castleberry noted, “Perhaps not much at all.”  SEO, she writes, isn’t dead — it’s still important — and for most business bloggers, it won’t change anything, as the penalty is aiming for the “worst of the worst” — the keyword-stuffers, the thousands-of-backlinks-purchasers, the spammy content-millers. If you’re focused on creating targeted, quality content and a great experience for your prospects and readers, you needn’t worry.

Lisa Barone agreed. In a post for Outspoken Media called “Is An Over-Optimization Penalty Coming For You?”, she wrote:

…[P]roper SEO actually levels the playing field between you and everyone else because now you can stand by the quality of your site, not by the search engine’s ability to figure it out. Because, sure, the search engines are getting better at understanding new technologies and “seeing” what is on your Web site – but would you really leave the success of your site and your BUSINESS in their hands (claws?). No, you’re going to do everything in your power to make sure it’s as crawlable and easy to navigate as you can. That’s SEO. It’s also good business. Neither of these will go away.

Ed Dale is more blunt:

There are no shortcuts. The only way you’re going to have any level of safety in your niche is build a fortress of content that delights your market. Stock it with the fuel of being one of the top 20 influencers in your market. When the next search winter comes you’ll need both of these things to survive (and thrive).

But as Vanessa Fox of Nine By Blue pointed out, it’s not like this is something altogether new for Google:

Matt talked about finding ways to surface smaller sites that may be poorly optimized, if, in fact, those sites have the very best content. This is not anything new from Google. They’ve always had a goal to rank the very best content, regardless of how well optimized or not it may be. And I think that’s the key. If a page is the very best result for a searcher, Google wants to rank it even if the site owner has never heard of title tags. And Google wants to rank it if the site owner has crafted the very best title tag possible. The importance there is that it’s the very best result.

A Simple, Do-able SEO Strategy That Will Earn You Google’s Love and Respect

Being prepared for this change, whatever it might mean in SERP result terms, means one simple mindset shift above all: Resolve to build the most interesting, most useful site you are capable of creating, at every single turn. 

That mindset–creating useful, compelling content that your targeted readers will find interesting, valuable, and share-worthy–should inform all your content creation efforts. Whether you’re curating others’ thoughts and words, working on a series of how-to tutorials, revising your foundational pieces, or making any other kind of addition or change to the words, video, audio, and files that populate your site’s pages, stay outcome-focused.

And the outcome is always “an interesting, useful site that my targets find valuable.”

So, repeat that like a mantra, and then adopt the following practices, if you haven’t already:

1. Write for your targeted readers — NOT for search engines.

I think this one fact above all would solve the majority of problems related to SEO. Too many times, content marketers grow anxious and fearful, and reactively begin to pepper keywords all over the page, or explore purchasing backlinks, or engaging in other kinds of on-page and off-page actions that are exactly at the root of the over-optimization penalty decision.

Search engines do not care about you, the site owner. They don’t care about your site or your business, either. The only thing they care about is delivering what the searcher is looking for. That means well-written, timely, accurate, valuable content that provides the sought-after, searched-for  information.

Do that. Write that. Whatever that is for your readers.

2. Mind the basics. 

Things like the proper use of heading tags, link formatting, keywords, meta descriptions and title tags are still important. So are more general site issues such as load speed, navigability, and share-ability. Pay attention to these factors. Don’t ignore them. But don’t imbue them with magical properties they don’t possess.

So use your All in One SEO or Yoast plugin (or Thesis) fields correctly and mindfully. Work to resolve issues that are slowing up your site’s load time. Make sure a new visitor can find what she’s looking for on your site. And then turn your attention to the most important stuff: the quality of your content.

3. Improve your writing. 

Pay attention to your spelling and grammar. Like it or not, they do count, and readers will draw conclusions about you and the quality of your services or goods based on what they see on your site. Make sure those conclusions they’re drawing are positive ones that enhance your bottom line.

4. Use keyword research in planning your content. 

Don’t ignore keyword research. It’s crucial, after all, to making your page findable in the first place. But use it in the beginning, when you’re planning your content. Let it inform your selection of topics for a particular month. And speaking of that …

5. Take content development seriously; an editorial calendar will help greatly.

There’s still a lot of resistance to this idea of treating content development as an integral, crucial part of a business’s marketing plan. Instead, too often, it’s an after-thought, or the result of a last-minute stroke of inspiration. There’s nothing wrong with honoring those creative bursts of insight, to be sure, but in my experience, business content marketing truly benefits from a more structured approach.

Try it for a few months yourself. Set out a schedule, based on how many pieces of new content you want to add in the following month. Do some keyword research, brainstorm some ideas, and select the topics that you feel will resonate most closely with your targets. Prepare those posts in advance, and then schedule them to drip publish throughout the month.

Tip: In WordPress, you can schedule your posts to publish at a certain time. For email and RSS subscribers, the time of publication can be important. Check your website’s time zone settings (in “Settings/General”) and your analytics to see what time of day most of your traffic hits. Schedule your posts to publish an hour or so before that peak hour.

6.  Follow a three-step process before you schedule your content to publish: SEO, proofread, and read aloud. 

Before you hit the “Publish” button, follow this simple three-step process to ensure you’re sending out the highest-quality, most valuable piece possible for your readers’ benefit:

  • First, treat the SEO process as an overlay, after writing your draft and revising it for substance. Check your keyword use. Add an appropriate meta description. Add well-written headings using the headings tags. Make sure your outgoing links and images are properly formatted.
  • Next, hit the preview button and proofread carefully. Fix errant spellings and bad grammar.
  • Finally, read the piece out loud. It’s the single best way to catch keyword stuffing and awkward writing.

7.  Make your content share-worthy, and make it easy for readers to share it.

One thing has always been true, and probably always will be true: search engines rely in part on others’ assessments of a page’s quality and value. To that extent, social signals such as tweets, likes, and +1s are important for your content’s social proof.

After you’ve written the most interesting, valuable content you believe you possibly can, take a hard look at your site’s social sharing tools. Have you made it as easy as possible for others to share your work?

Many Twitter plugins, for example, will allow you to prepopulate the tweet box with “RT @[your Twitter handle]” along with the shortened URL and title of the piece. It’s a simple thing, but it reduces the effort required of the reader, and that encourages sharing.

At a minimum, make sure the sharing buttons are at the bottom of the piece, where the reader will find herself once she’s done reading. Making the reader hunt all over the page for the familiar icons is a bad move.

Conclusion: Breathe Easy, But Recommit to Creating Excellent Content

It’s not necessary, and definitely not wise, to throw all that SEO know-how out the window in frustration. What we know, we still know, and it’s still valuable when it’s used appropriately — as tweaks to an already well-written piece of content.

But now more than ever, a content marketer’s ability to write compelling blog posts and articles that deliver the information readers are looking for will determine success or failure on the search engine results page.

Photo Credit: © Sawitri Khromkrathok | Dreamstime.com

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kimberly Castleberry April 6, 2012 at 12:39 pm

Hey Annie, thanks for the lovely mention. I think you do a great job of summing up both the issue and the solution. SEO in it’s newer form is certainly here to stay and a lot of the “foundation” techniques are still vitally important!

Jonathan Payne April 19, 2012 at 1:23 am

Fantastic post that summarizes all the talk around these changes. Very thorough, but also concise with no fluff.  Informative, of course!

Nathan September 8, 2017 at 2:35 pm

very thorough post, great job!!!

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