Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Web spam team, briefly outlined an algorithm update designed to “level the playing field” between sites with good content and sites that over-use SEO. This update will make search results more useful for Google users, but site owners who have invested in SEO will be understandably concerned about the effect this update will have on their visibility and ranking. Will all sites be penalized for using SEO? Is SEO still necessary for visibility, or is it now a liability?
This document presents Performics’ POV on this upcoming algorithmic change and its likely impact on Web results.
What sites will the update target and penalize?
Websites that prioritize SEO strategies over relevant, useful content will be the most likely to experience a reduction in visibility.
When will this update hit Google’s result pages?
Matt Cutts discussed this algorithm update on March 9, 2012 but did not provide any specific release date. He said “Hopefully, in the next couple months or so, in the coming weeks, we hope to release it.” Does this mean next week or before the end of the year? Your guess is as good as ours on this one.
What specific SEO strategies should be avoided?
It is important to understand the context of Mr. Cutt’s comments. As of March 20th, Google has made no official announcements about the contents of the update. News of this update came when Matt Cutts was at a SXSW conference panel and an audience member asked about how Google plans to address search keyword markets that have been saturated with optimized content. For example, certain search queries can return a full page of results that have nothing to recommend them except their optimization for that specific query with common SEO tactics. This can push relevant, useful content further down in the results, which leaves actual subject matter experts at a disadvantage if their sites haven’t done SEO.
In response, Matt Cutts referred in a general way to the planned update that he and his engineers have been working on. The full recording of the panel is available here. In this recording, Matt Cutts said that the update would target “the people who sort of abuse [SEO]”, and outlined several areas of content this update will address:
1. “Too many keywords on the page”
This likely refers to the insertion of targeted keywords on the page to create a high keyword density at the expense of the page’s meaning and readability. For example, the body copy contains several sentences that repeat the target keyword phrase and its variations, such as “Our company sells widgets. Buy a widget online today. Our company makes widgets and sells them” (etc. ad nauseum). Google has likely refined its algorithm to the point where it can distinguish between pages that use and over-use specific keywords, and will penalize the latter.
2. “Whether they exchange way too many links”
This likely refers to the practice of “Link Exchanges,” where a group of sites set up reciprocal networks of links that include targeted keywords in the anchor text. If a site has a large number of links that do not point to content that is relevant and useful, or if the site’s inbound and outbound links form a specific pattern resembling a link exchange (e.g. links to sites that link to the same sites, the link anchor text is repeated too often, etc.), the site will be penalized.
3. “Whatever they're doing to go beyond what a normal person would expect in a particular area”
The basics of SEO tactics - search engines like links, they look for repetition of specific text in the body copy, etc. – are so well known at this point that they can be abused by programmatic text generation or obvious repetition for the sake of visibility. Experienced Web masters or search engine users can easily tell when a search result has been “SEO’d” or “over-optimized”, that is, structured to produce visibility rather than provide usability. In the same way, Google’s algorithms will become more advanced at detecting sites that are attempting to game SEO basics and mimic relevance to keyword searches.
How will Google’s update affect SEO in general?
Google’s update does not represent any sort of departure from its standards and is fully in-line with its previous algorithmic developments. Performics will revise none of its SEO practices because we have always encouraged our clients to create pages that are useful and relevant for visitors. Google has achieved its market dominance by largely keeping its result pages spam-free, and as SEO abuse has become another kind of spam, Google will target and penalize these abuses as per usual.
Basic SEO involves well-written title tags, a logical site architecture, and representative body content that search engines can index. While basic SEO will always be necessary for websites that depend on search traffic, it can be abused, and Google’s new update specifically targets this abuse.
Good SEO, on the other hand, will never need to chase algorithms. Performics’ successful optimization tactics result from working with our clients to ensure that their pages are not only rich in content and provide a relevant, useful experience for visitors, but also that their content is fairly and accurately represented to search engines.