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If SEO is Dead, Long Live Search Engine De-Optimization

exclusive-seo-bOver 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.

Links

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.

References:

1* – http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2276498/Pure-Spam-What-Are-Google-Penalties-What-to-Do-to-Recover

2* – http://moz.com/beginners-guide-to-seo/basics-of-search-engine-friendly-design-and-development

3* – http://www.seroundtable.com/google-penguin-recovery-15136.html

4* – http://www.portent.com/images/2013/03/google-declining-spam-tolerance.pdf

5* – http://returnonnow.com/2013/05/2013-google-penalty-plans-matt-cutts-video/

6* – http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2253965/3-Reasons-Why-Responsive-Web-Design-is-the-Best-Option-For-Your-Mobile-SEO-Strategy


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.

Web: www.SearchSmiths.co + www.Website-Redesign-Company.co

About the author

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Ben Kemp

Ben Kemp, a search engine optimization consultant since 1997, is a specialist in website redesign, and a veteran of 25-plus years of experience in the IT industry.
Web: www.ComAuth.co.nz + www.Website-Redesign-Company.co Email: support@Website-Redesign-Company.co

56 Comments

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  • It’s really shocking how SEO has to be eliminated due to Google’s strictness. Google never ever accepted that a website should come up the ranking if it lacks quality content and graphics. So, I feel rather than aborting SEO one should focus on making a site impressive and unique which will definitely work.

  • But still many SEO experts include exact-match keyword phrases in alt tags as well as file names and also recommend it. But even before Penguin 2.0, I have been avoiding these techniques and there is no negative impact on my site. Rather I got an advantage over my competitor sites in the SERPs after penguin 2.0.

  • It’s been very hard to understand what google really wants. Every day they come up with new things, new rules….

  • Google is now a dictator, judge and jury. Matt Cutts is an idiot for penalizing sites since it opens the door to negative SEO which is certainly happening now. Googles results are not crap anyway. Use BING !

    • Google is engaging in unfair trade practices in order to promote its own second rate services–Google+ especially. I urge all webmasters to file complaints with the FTC.

  • Can you be more specific? How can I increase the number of visitors to the blog ipsmart.blogspot.com? And how to increase the value of Pagerank?

  • Google needs to be broken up into little pieces by the Government. Their power over commerce and business has grown too large. I use Bing now and its simply a better search engine.

  • Good article, but don’t you think, that the issue about “bad links” is too loud? How many cases, actually, do you know, when someone was doing the negative SEO for competitor? Everybody is afraid, but it’s not profitable – to buy many thousands of “bad” links, to pay for them every month without any confidence, that this method would help to win…

  • If you own a website and are near the top of the rankings expect to be a target for negative SEO thanks to Matt the “genius” Cutts wonderful idea to actually penalize you in the search results for whatever Google “thinks” is a “bad” link…which of course changes everyday. Posting hundreds of thousands of crappy links to a competitor’s site is easy and takes just a few minutes. Google should have simply ignored bad links but penalizing sites is simply stupid. Oh and good luck going through thousands of your links trying to figure out what they consider a “bad” link. It’s absurd. Google actually gains by dropping a site in the rankings since often the site owner is forced to purchase their PPC ads to survive. Google is now a tyrant and their search results stink. Bing has become a much better engine.

  • I found myself agreeing with the points you made while at the same time considering whether Google is actually getting their strategy right.

    I understand that the back link reliance is and has been susceptible to abuse from companies or individuals prepared to pay for links from decent quality sites in order to boost their own ranking. So I can see why that might be a factor that Google would want to become less reliant on.

    But attacking titles and descriptions seems ludicrous to me. Someone generating content for the Internet that knows nothing about SEO might use exact match keywords to describe their subject quite legitimately, that is the topic they are discussing after all. I appreciate that overuse of keywords may be seen as a problem, especially when made into links, but I also think when someone is writing about a specific topic this really could happen naturally.

    It is almost like you have to mask your subject matter with non-relevant dialogue in order to not be penalized which to me is, as I said earlier, ludicrous.

  • When you look at the PR of directories and article directories, only about 10% are PR1 and above. This should indicate linking quality, the category indicates relevance. Yet crazed web owners demand their links be removed from anything below PR4 thinking this profile will somehow look natural to G. In my opinion, if you have a legitimate PR1, or above, quality site don’t remove working links. btw: we have offered to make links nofollow, change the description – fools just want their link taken out.

  • Hi Ben – Nice article. It brings together neatly the various strands that many people have been discussing. As an SEO person, you don’t come down off the fence regarding the premise in your title. So… do YOU think SEO is dead? Is it in its final death throes? Or are we on the brink of a new set of rules? You say Google can now detect quality content. This must be a good thing if it shakes out all the quick-fix SEO merchants who’ve been propsering on the back of esoteric ‘tricks’. Personally, I’d like to see a new-style SEO that is much more rigorous – and maybe draw a little more on the analytical techniques behind ‘usability’. Optimal usability is, after all, what’s behind all Google’s recent updates.

  • I use to say Google is a God. I took some months learning and testing and when I was in the right way had to came back. Allways learning!

  • SEO cant die but yes some SEO Strategies has dead and now most of the SEO Off Page activities are history. You have described the current SEO Scenario in effective manner.

  • google wants all the corporate companies on the first page, this is what all the updates are about, I have been led to believe it is all about brand now and all the corporate companies have the biggest brand, so that is what your going to see on the first page of google for a long time now big brands.

  • According to the philosophy of Sun Tsu, companies like Google are, in fact, designing their own demise. Instead of fighting Google head on we need to develop its replacement. When I look at search results in Google I notice that there is no way to filter based on the “kind” of information I am looking for. If I am looking for informative articles I can not specify that, so I get companies selling products. Google is still stuck back in text search, where are meta search is not even there. There’s your opportunity.

    • Ditto what Allen says. I’ve tried all sorts of keywords to get past the directories (e.g., Alibaba) and the crowd sourced (e.g., Yelp) to the actual websites and often can’t find a way to get what I want from google.

  • “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.”

    Thats is not correct. Matt Cutts just released a video explaining, that internal links will not flag your site.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ybpXU0ckKQ

  • Excellent piece and some very good advice. Google is basically going to shoot itself in the foot with this approach though because they are setting themselves up as the arbiter of “good content” and not leaving that judgement to the searcher.

  • “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.”

    This completely goes against accessible guidelines. Screen readers can often call up a list of on-page links for the user to browse and link from, hence why the use of “Click here” is discouraged.

  • I’m betting one content to win out in the end. It’s so easy to dump Google in favor for another search engine after my searches return junk. Plus Google has to be watching Facebook very closely as they become more search friendly.

    Long live content.

    – Phil

    Kids Toys (Malaysia)

  • We got great changes happening here. A new way to do SEO. Too many work, too many things to redo and rethink about SEO. Very nice post. Thank you!

  • A well researched and informative post. It seems that what I read some days ago on the net somewhere seems to ring true that Google is like a damn sexy and hot girl who everyone tries to woo, but doesn’t seem to be satisfied with all the antics.

    So the best bet would be to be yourself, do what you want and not care too much about what she (Google) does. Ignoring her will lead her to give you the attention you want.

    The moral of the story is keep an eye out for white hat and yet do not follow the hot chic (Google) and you will have her besotted.

  • What on earth do you expect? Google is a commercial concern and it has no real interest in giving anyone other than Google the ability to make money out of it. SEO has served it’s purpose but seemingly has no place in the next phase of the Google plan. Encourage your clients to use other search engines and broaden your marketing scope beyond Google. You people have collectively given Google it’s stranglehold on web advertising. Collectively you can take it away. Make other arrangements and take your influenced clients with you.

  • The thing about this big Google change is that they are promoting all the junk sites and many times no useful information is shown regarding the search query. Yahoo answers, and such which is nothing but wrong.

    Google is still using keywords or else their algorithm would be totally useless. Keywords are the heart of every search. If I am looking for a tooth brush that is my keyword. Google can’t show me plastic processing (base material of bristle) or else the results would be useless. Although they might be related, the results would be totally useless.

    Just like Yahoo answers is useless when I am searching for a tooth brush.

    All this algorithm boils down to keywords. I use them and my sites are up if I don’t they are nowhere to be found.

    Google is not using descriptions anymore?? Hmm interesting, because that’s exactly why I am not using google for image search anymore. Useless without description. I don’t want to visit 200 websites based on a photo I am seeing in the google image search results. I want to see the description of the image to know I am looking at the right photo for the right image.

    If I have no idea what a Burberry slipper looks like and I type it into image search, I don’t want to click on every image (just so google can prove a good click through rate) of 1,000 or more before I find the right image or not find it at all, because of the lack of description.

    Total bull this google algo and all. Keywords and description is the heart of it all. If not, google is not doing it’s job.

    Of course they are promoting sites such as Ehow and Yahoo answers, because those ones always come up at the top of the results and yet you never find a satisfactory answer to your search using their new algo system.

    Go back to the old ways and let us find what we are looking for.

  • The reality is that the biggest search engine is ALWAYS going to set the agenda. If there weren’t so many unscrupulous webmasters out there playing stupid black hat approaches, none of this”over scrutiny” would be needed. Instead, there is a certain group who will always go for the greedy land grab, instead of the measured approach. It’s because of them WE ALL PAY. Don’t blame Google, clean up your act.

  • Great post – thanks so much for this guide. I’ve been optimizing since 1996 and feel like I’ve been guessing for the past 2-5 years. This all makes sense for the future, finally.

  • Its alwayss interesting to read the varying viewpoints… 🙂

    Mike: thanks for the positive comment, much appreciated! In answer to your question, I think SEO is far from dead. Its back out of intensive care after a heart/lung transplant…

    Frankly, for some sites it may take years to undo what’s been done in the quest for SEO outcomes, so I expect to be busy for ages… 🙂

    Most of the changes are a long overdue, and it actually makes it far easier for the average site owner to prosper now, without any need for ‘tricks of the trade.’

    However, I don’t expect there will be a rush to create original and authentic new content. That’s still beyond the resources of those in a hurry to the top, so new schemes are sure to emerge…

    Joy: I’m with you! Its been a nightmare trying to figure out a path through the minefields! 🙂

    Kind regards
    Ben Kemp

  • The main thing that Google is looking for is new, more, better written content. stop looking for ways to beat or trick google write good content and your ranking will follow.

  • I appreciate the directness of this article. Yes, Content is King and it really should be. It’s not easy to consistently create good content but it’s ultimately the best way to define relevancy.

  • Excellent article, “deoptimzation” what I’ve been doing the past couple of months … hope it pays off

    Noticed that content is really a strong factor for Google …

  • So much has changed over the years but at the same time so much has remained the same, just stated differently.

    Throughout all of the ups and downs in the engines I did not stop to think about some of these very important observations that you mentioned in this post. Many of the hard earned links that were white hat and legit have come back to bite many of us in the wazoo.

    I can only imagine the horror faced by the older sites with thousands of pages that have keyword meta tags, descriptions, exact keyword anchor links and more.

  • What are you talking about? Are you saying that Google penguin rule has put an end to SEO and Search engine optimization? Weren’t they webmasters that were practicing white SEO? And doing proper searching engine optimization within an outside the websites? Are you saying that all those positive SEO and Search engine optimization are now dead?

    What kind of content do you think you are creating by twisting things around? Why can’t state clearly that “black hat SE and shady and tricky search engine optimization should be dead by now if not completely dead”.

    you are not creating a good content when you twist things around with “inflammatory/deceptive” titles just as you did in this article

  • Google want to do? Faced with these SEO data, I am increasingly understand.

  • Google Indexed Pages What is the law? We seem to know the answer, but you want to do is not so simple.

  • The answer for 99% of business moves is money. Follow the money. All I find now on Goggle is Walmart, Best Buy and such.

  • Very useful article. Google is very strict these days. Your must have to populate with good quality content for better ranking.

    Can you please confirm link building and article submission essential for SEO now?

    Thanks

  • I totally agree with the point of view you have raised in your article Ben. In my opinion it is really good to reward sites with high quality content, rather than seeking links. What we should seek is to offer fresh and useful content to our visitors. Google now rewards efforts to provide high quality content to its users, a policy that seems very successful.

    Now more than ever Content is the King, as it should be and must be.

    Ben thanks again for sharing this fantastic article.

    Best wishes,

    Omar

  • Google Started with these techniques like Alt Tag, Title Tag, Meta Keyword, Internal Linking and said these will tell it the importance of pages to show up for certain results but now we need to avoid nthese things….. My God, first We learn how to do these things now we have to learn how to remove these things… There are so many restrictions now for On page and Off page SEO.

  • You’re really drinking the Google Kool-aid if you think what they’ve been doing is “leveling the playing field.” Unless you mean that like the NRA and banking industry, whoever spends the most gets the most advantage.

    Haven’t you noticed how all the big brands who spend millions advertising are the ones reaping the most benefit from these changes? It’s not because they have great content on their pages. Quite the opposite in many cases—they’re just keyword stuffing and buying sponsored posts.

  • Well Google can make the optimization better. Overall Google wants to provide a better search experience to its end users. But many times Panda and Penguin are quite annoying and make us think “Gawd! What more can Google want from us”. Do they need a better content writing service to be done or better SE Optimization. Either way they should clearly specify a formula.. that all can follow to avoid spam penalties rather than using strategies that people only assume work , but finally end up failing.

  • Thanks for share this useful information. Each week google change many things, it’s very crazy!

  • I really feel like SEO isn’t completely dead, but responsive design is an absolute for the future. With everyone on the transition to mobile device reliability, we all need our sites to be able to respond to whatever sized devices our users are using.

  • They make it so hard these days to have a good optimization. They keep changing the algorithms so its hard to optimize to the current trend. Thanks for the post!

  • t’s been very hard to understand what google really wants. Every day they come up with new things, new rules….

  • SEO has been pronounced dead every year and here we are in 2016 and it is still live and kicking regardless of Google algorithm updates.