Technical SEO

Google’s Over-Optimization Penalty an Evolution, Not Revolution

Google’s much discussed over-optimization penalty turned out to be a moderate evolutionary step in Google’s site quality crusade. Launched April 24, Google wrote in a blog post of its update, “The change will decrease rankings for sites that we believe are violating Google’s quality guidelines. This algorithm represents another step in our efforts to reduce webspam and promote high quality content.” I addressed the over-optimization penalty here last month, at “Google Plans SEO Over-Optimization Penalty.”

According to the Google blog post, an estimated 3.1 percent of U.S. search results will be affected by the algorithm update, while sites in countries like Poland that are more prone to produce webspam could see as high as 5 percent change in rankings. The algorithm will more aggressively penalize webspam tactics like keyword stuffing and irrelevant linking from sites that “spin” content with barely readable content. “Spinning” refers to the practice of scraping content from other sites and then manually or mechanically rearranging the words to create a “new” piece of content.

Is All SEO Webspam?

In its announcement, Google’s head webspam cop Matt Cutts also addressed the difference between search engine optimization and webspam. The first three paragraphs of the announcement details the difference between ethical or “white hat” SEO practices and manipulative “black hat” webspam under the guise of SEO. As an ethical SEO practitioner, I appreciate the vote of confidence for the SEO industry, but Google’s Cutts must really have felt under fire after his over-optimization comments last month to write such a missive. Cutts’ best advice is to focus on creating “amazing, compelling web sites.” That, to be sure, is not a newsflash to most ecommerce brands.

Doesn’t Google Already Punish Webspam?

Yes, Google does punish webspam when it detects it reliably. That’s what makes this more of an evolutionary step in the quality crusade than a truly new algorithmic attack on over-optimization. Unfortunately, the line between webspam and legitimate content and linking can be difficult for a software program to detect despite its obviousness to humans. This update releases new and hopefully better ways to algorithmically detect webspam so that higher quality sites can rise up in the rankings as the spammy sites sink down.

With only a few days in the wild, data on the types of sites affected by the update is scarce. To complicate matters, Google also released a previously unannounced Panda 3.5 algorithm update on April 19 —Search Engine Land describes it here — according to Cutts. Both updates attempt to improve the quality of sites being ranked well and demote sites that send low-quality signals. So sites that recently gained or lost traction did so based on Panda 3.5 or the webspam update. The latest Panda update was actually the 13th Panda update, with updates released roughly monthly since the first update in February 2011.

Was Your Site Affected by Google’s Updates?

Regardless, the performance of the site that matters most to marketers is their own. To determine whether a site has been affected by either update, check the site’s analytics before and after April 19 for the Panda 3.5 update, and before and after April 24 for the webspam update. If traffic from organic search fell dramatically on either day, the site may have been affected by the update that came out on that particular day.

Another data source to check is Google Webmaster Tools’ search queries report for keyword impressions, visits and ranking data. Scale the timeframe to a single day and save the data for April 11, 12, 13, 18, 19 and 20 to check the before and after data the week before the Panda 3.5 update and the days before, on, and after the update. Then do the same for April 16, 17, 18, 23, 24 and 25 for the webspam update. Sadly, Google Webmaster Tools’ reports aren’t as robust as a true analytics package. So you can’t see a daily trending chart unless you create it yourself in Excel. In addition, Google Webmaster Tools only displays data for a rolling 30-day period. Be sure to grab this data in the next two weeks if you’re interested in analyzing it.


All told, the webspam update seems to be less revolutionary than I had hoped and more evolutionary in Google’s long-running battle with webspam. Hopefully when the dust settles we’ll have a better idea which sites were impacted by which update, thereby deducing which specific webspam tactics were hit hardest. Until then, focus on creating quality content and avoid the temptation to look for loopholes and shortcuts to faster SEO success. Long-term organic search performance depends on ethical SEO creating crawlable, quality content and encouraging relevant links and social mentions.

Jill Kocher Brown
Jill Kocher Brown
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