Over the past year, Google has pretty much set about eliminating any competitive advantages other than the quality of the on-page content itself. They seem intent on levelling the playing field to the point that those who previously had aces up their sleeves now gain no advantage whatsoever. Moreover, playing an ace from a sleeve may now result in a salvo of punitive measures. *1
Some might say that this approach flies somewhat in the face of the irrepressible human spirit of competition. However, it’s equally fair to say that it is often the laziest among us who can’t or won’t create unique and original content. There is general agreement that the best content ought to appear first, rather than thin content, artificially promoted by an SEO’s smoke and mirrors. I’m all for that – its fair and equitable.
Search Engine De-Optimization
Search engine de-optimization (SED) ought now be an important consideration. Basically, every technique previously used to support the magic of SEO has been negated in the past year. Google’s ability to detect good content from the mediocre, and filter out the smoke haze that SEO often employs to make the ordinary appear extraordinary, has advanced dramatically.
Almost every little possibility to improve our performance over and above the competition has not only been neutralized, it has been turned back upon us. In fact, there seem to have been assaults on the old methodologies from multiple directions.
Remedies to a now ‘disapproved’ aspect may have improved the score sheet momentarily but before there’s been time to take a break, along comes the next tsunami wave of change and subsequent penalties to ‘old school’ methods of improving ranking. Virtually all of the things that once worked to improve a site’s position in SERPs are now historical footnotes to the evolution of website ranking methodology.
If in the past you’ve employed someone to improve your website’s SERP positions, it is almost certain that some of those efforts crossed the threshold of that which is now not approved. De-optimisation is required to deactivate the potential impediments to achieving a site’s full potential.
Google Penalties – Individually Small but Cumulatively Damaging
Reduce the risk of an “over-optimization” penalty on your site’s content. The first thing to do is skim through the content on every page, revising any elements that could potentially be seen as over-optimization. There’s a growing consensus that the following items may create a cumulative impediment to top rankings: *2
Hyperlink Titles – use of the title=”” element in links containing text with exact-match keywords/sentences. Use link titles with caution, apparently, it’s indicative of over-optimization and Google may penalize you for it.
Internal Links – avoid exact-match keyword phrases in internal links. It may also signal over-optimization. Consider replacement with the somewhat more natural Read more, More info, Click here etc.
Image Alt Tag – adding concise text pertinent to the image is permissible. Adding targeted exact-match keywords, promotional texts, sentences or sales pitches is not.
Bold emphasis on keywords – restrain the use of this technique and only apply it where it makes sense to emphasize a point, not to promote a targeted keyword phrase.
Keywords Tag – not used by Google et al any more, and its presence may potentially be seen as an indicator of over-optimization efforts.
Description Tag – zero SEO traction. In some cases, Google says that not generating descriptions on page may actually deliver a better SERPs outcome. That’s because the description Google displays will vary and highlight the keywords in the searcher’s query. If comprehensive and well-written, the same post may rank for multiple terms, thus variable descriptions may increase click-through.
As a website promotional tool, link quantity is absolutely done for. Links need to be squeaky-clean and sourced only from reputable and trustworthy sources. Google actively and severely penalizes low-quality links. At the same time, it appears to be reducing its previously dependence on links as a quality indicator. The age of enthusiastically generating links with the expectation of increasing good rankings is long past!
If you have employed SEO contractors to actively build links month by month over a long period of time, you are bound to have issues to resolve.
What was somewhat unexpected is the active practice of applying penalties where links are viewed as inappropriate. To many people, that seems unfair in the sense that a site owner has no control over who links to them. Thus, a competitor can potentially generate harmful links to your site, and reap rewards from what is now referred to as negative SEO.
Equally, the poor links may have been generated many years ago, when there were no concerns about; link quality, relevance to genre or over-optimization of link titles. They may also have been created by over-enthusiastic staff, or contractors taking “short cuts” as part of efforts to help the site owner improve rankings. In many cases, a listing on one directory may lead to cloned listings on multiple directories in an expanding network.
The practice of “cloning” directories has been practiced by Google itself, with the Open Directory Project. Equally, hundreds of other sites cloned the Open Directory at one point, so an old site with a DMOZ link might easily have dozens of duplicated links across the internet.
Given the apparent move from links as a major ranking signal, the punitive approach to a very old links problem seems spiteful, ruthless and unworthy of a company with the power Google wields. It’s also an extremely difficult problem to resolve and in severe cases, the most cost-effective option is to migrate the website to another domain! *3
Link penalties appear to be happening on multiple fronts, including:
- the quality of the linking site
- the linking site’s relevance to your site’s genre
- the degree of optimization of the anchor text title
Not unlike the old photo vs. text analogy, a good link is worth 10,000 low-quality links. The important distinction being that even a small number of poor quality links with exact match keywords in link titles will do your rankings significant damage. *4
The most harmful factor seems to be the presence of over-optimized anchor text (link titles). A cluster of links with exact-match, high-volume keyword search phrases in anchor text seems to be far more toxic than an array of links from irrelevant / low quality sites. Combine all three factors in a group of links and you are in deep doo-doo indeed! *5
As in the Open Directory cloning aspect previously mentioned, if you had explicit link titles containing keywords, you might easily have multiple iterations of that over-optimized anchor text across a number of directories.
Compounding that innocent and unwitting transgression, it was common practice for “local” business directories to populate themselves with content with a view to eventually enticing you to pay for a featured listing. Some of those used your website’s home page title verbatim, potentially contributing to a Google interpretation of “over-optimized” anchor text.
Mobile Responsive Website Design
Another piece of the jigsaw is Google’s recent statement that it will reward websites using “mobile-responsive” design. This is a logical step, given the rapid expansion of mobile device internet access. *6
This is all about ensuring that your site does its best to deliver viewable, easily navigable pages regardless of the device it’s being viewed on. Mobile responsive designs automatically adjust screen size and rearrange content blocks for optimal display on desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones. While on the trail of potential ranking impediments, it makes perfect sense. Get this aspect of your site’s public access squared away and it will stand you in good stead.
Ben Kemp, a search engine optimization consultant since 1997, is a specialist in website redesign, and a veteran with 25+ years of experience in the IT industry.