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April 20, 2012

SEOs ♥ Drama: Why Our Industry Thrives on Gossip and How the Over-Optimization Issue is a Perfect Example

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Estimated reading time:
6 minutes
Top takeaways:
• The echo chamber in the SEO industry often fuels fires to the point of being too hot.
• Taking things out of context is something we need to be careful of when trying to decipher information.
• Sometimes it better serves us to refocus from things like the algorithm to the bigger picture.

It’s true; the SEO industry feeds off of the hearsay, the juicy gossip, the scandal of algorithm changes and their effects. But it’s not our fault. The environment that we operate within – the constant feeling of never quite knowing whether or not we’re playing by Google’s rules creates a paranoid culture, where we’re constantly seeking answers from one another, sometimes obsessing too much over the “what if” details we know nothing about.

This gossip can escalate to the point of causing mass hysteria, but our little SEO society can’t seem to get enough. We propagate it further by creating more and more content surrounding said topic because, hey, people want to read it. And the vicious cycle continues.

As marketers, we’d love to take a relaxed approach to SEO, casually siding with Google’s stance about user experience as our guiding light; but in the same breath, our inquisitive (and sometimes-obsessive) personalities kick in, fanatically looking at every potential signal, trying to get our websites just right according to Google’s algorithm, which seems like the very thing the search engine is trying to get us not to do.

But as SEOs, we walk the fine line between what the user wants and what Google wants, which is technically what the user wants, but also what the algorithm wants – head spinning yet?

When we were students in school, we were taught very methodically. We knew that if we wanted to get an “A,” this is what we had to do to get there. The path was laid out and we could choose whether or not we wanted to be the best student we could be.

Fast forward to a career in SEO, and it’s not ever crystal clear what we need to be doing to stay afloat in Google. Everything is self-taught, based on data we uncover individually and collectively, our experiences and the user experience, and sifting through the mounds of statements that Google makes about its intentions.

So it’s no wonder the SEO culture is the way it is. Especially when people are dealing with site-crushing penalties that sometimes seem to have no clear explanation. Humans aren’t perfect and neither are algorithms. I truly feel for those people who have tried to do everything the right way and still get hit. For most people, their sites are their livelihoods and it can be confusing and devastating when penalized.

But that’s the sandbox we play in, folks. And sometimes, I think we need to stop obsessing over the details, take a step back and look at the big picture.

When Algorithm Changes Send SEOs into a Tailspin

Let’s take the soup du jour of the SEO industry,  Google’s “over-optimization penalty” announced at SXSW this past March, as an example of how we can take an issue and turn it into a complete freak out. Matt Cutts mentioned an upcoming initiative to target sites that are over-optimized, and all hell broke loose.

As the story goes here in our industry, speculation followed. Posts about best practices and things you should and should not do in SEO ensued – and this is all great. The people who do White Hat SEO as a profession need to continue to reiterate what they’ve been saying for years about good SEO practices and methodologies.

But the fact is, even after all the great advice people are giving, the unknown “what ifs” of this over-optimization penalty are still there. The algorithm is still a mystery.

I like Vanessa Fox’s level-headed approach to the issue. I tend to think this former Googler turned SEO happens to have a good understanding of what Google’s intentions are. Her approach to the over-optimization topic reminds us to look at the big picture and to not take things out of context.

Context is important when trying to interpret something. For example, you hear someone say, “I’m so hungry I could die.” When I say this, it’s just me being melodramatic. But, the same statement made by a person in a starving third-world community, well that’s legit.

Yes, over-the-top example, but my point is: you have to look at the big picture when trying to evaluate statements – how it was said, where it was said, who it was said to, what the context of the conversation was, what other things were said in addition to it, an understanding of the background of the issue and so on.

In many cases, only snippets of Cutts’ conversation with the crowd at SXSW were honed in on and discussed heavily. When you listen to the full audio recording, there’s all sorts of clues that this “over-optimization penalty” is not meant to be doomsday for SEOs. Here’s some quotable quips by Cutts at that session that gives more context around the issue:

“But absolutely, there are some people who take it too far. And what we’re mindful of is when someone says ‘We’re White Hat, we continue to do the right thing, and we see the Black Hats who are over-optimizing or going too far and they seem to be doing too well.

And so, we’ve been working on changes to try to make sure that if you’re a white hat, or if you’ve been doing very little SEO, that you’re gonna not be affected by this change, but if you’ve been going way far beyond the pale, then that’s the sort of thing where your site might not rank as highly as it did before.”

Going back to Fox’s thoughts on the matter, and building on the idea of context, Fox says that depending on a person’s definition of SEO, some people should worry.

“At some point, search engine optimization goes beyond making sure pages are as useful as possible for the target audience and that the site is crawlable and becomes a game of guess the algorithms.

Anyone who’s read or heard me before knows that I’m not an advocate for algorithm chasing. Historically, I’ve had this view because I don’t find it productive. Algorithms change hundreds of times a year. Signals differ for individual queries. The goal is always to extract all of the data on the web and show the very best page for searchers. So why not just invest time in making sure all of your content is extractable and are in fact the very best pages?”

As usual, this issue, like many prior, are a “wait and see” event. But when we focus less on the algorithm signals and more on what we know to be good SEO practices for the end user and the search engine, the changes Google makes every day seem less scary.

And all too often, I think we get sucked into playing a game of “Telephone” that snowballs out of control; where we hear only what we want, where the meaning gets lost in translation or perhaps where we just thrive on the gossip of it all.

The SEO community can sometimes be its own worst enemy. And in such a tight-knit community, the echo chamber can be deafening.

Do you agree with me when I say the over-optimization issue is an example of where the industry can often take an issue, morph it into something bigger or different than perhaps it needs to be at the moment? Do you totally disagree with this stance? Weigh in with a comment below!

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17 responses to “SEOs ♥ Drama: Why Our Industry Thrives on Gossip and How the Over-Optimization Issue is a Perfect Example”

  1. jakeSEO writes:

    I agree that SEOS can be dramatic about algorithm changes. however, this time there seems to be real drama becuase websites are now penalized for off site things which are mostly out of their controll. This change opens the door for attacks from competitors.

  2. Kent writes:

    Hi Jessica, long time didn’t come back to Bruceclay Blog. How are you?

    I put my focus on users rather than Google. I agree that we need to understand Google algorithm as well, but eventually, it is human who reads and buys services and products on your website.

    And fortunately, it works for me! :

  3. Mike cichon writes:

    A long time ago, as a kid, I went on an extended camping trip with a high school group. The outing would take us into the vast provincial parks in Canada, on canoe and by foot, through forests, lakes and past, as we would find, magnificent cliffs. Recognizing that we were kids, prone to temptation and wanting to explore, the Guide gave us a very simple bit of advice before we departed: “Don’t do anything stupid.” Granted, it’s over simplified, but it was the one thing that popped into our heads when we saw this super awesome outcropping of rocks that we wanted to wall climb. We didn’t climb the wall, and all returned safely.

    In this case, Matt Cutts is our guide and the web is that wide, vast unknown. White Hats just do the things that seem reasonable and ethical to get the best possible SERP placement. We sometimes get out performed by Black Hats, maybe our minds just don’t work that deviously.

    From my perspective, what Matt meant by over-optimized are those sites and SEOs who might be taking an otherwise appropriate tactic to a ridiculous extreme. Matt can’t say, “don’t do that” because applied in appropriate measure, the tactic (say using anchor text) makes sense. But, use them to get 853 links with identical anchors, and it seems reasonable that something might be amiss.

  4. Jan-Willem Bobbink writes:

    I totally agree on your point, most online marketeers, who name themselves SEO experts, are continiously blowing up everything Google does or say. No need to do that at all, just focus at getting the right things done!

  5. Rory writes:

    Hi Jessica, I think another good example of how us SEO’s have the potential to overreact and spin things to suit our own twisted needs is though this whole ‘negative SEO’ issue that has been getting a lot of coverage recently. Negative SEO has been around for years in various forms, (‘miserable failure’ etc.), but because of several high profile cases, it’s being treated like some kind of new tropical disease on the verge of breaking out into an epidemic. I’ve now seen several people state in the Webmaster Forums that they’ve been attacked by a competitor when in fact they simply have a really low quality and poorly optimised site. If the subject of ‘negative SEO’ had been treated with a bit more balance by our industry, I think it would have given less ammunition to those that already accuse of being snake-oil salesmen, SERP polluters and the like.

    Anyway, this kind of manic reaction that occurs at any non-event is why I love the industry and what makes working in SEO so interesting! Good blog :)

  6. Rubic C writes:

    Latest rummer is google share price will tank this year, we are observing an exodus of adwords advertisers. Shhh……. don’t tell anyone.

  7. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Rubic C: Ha

  8. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Rory: I’ve noticed that, too. Recycled drama. I agree with your point about the balanced coverage of SEO events. The negative views about what SEO is are only propagated by those. But you’re right, there’s never a dull moment in our industry! Thanks for your comment.

  9. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Jan-Willem: Right, if it feels like you’re pushing the limits, you probably are. I can understand the cause for concern when you don’t actually know what Google is targeting, but I think it’s safe to say it wouldn’t be the same practices they’ve been supporting for years. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Mike: Great illustration and poignant perspective. I suspect the over-optimization thing is just as you described.

  11. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Kent: I was wondering about you — glad to see you’re back! You’ve got the right ideas about SEO there. :)

  12. Jessica Lee writes:

    @JakeSEO: Thanks for your comment. It sucks that there are people out there who are malicious enough to do that. Are there enough of those people to truly put a dent in all the good SEO? I don’t know the answer to that. Algorithms aren’t perfect, so it would be great if there was an improved process in place for handling wrongly penalized sites.

  13. John S. Britsios writes:

    Obviously this update had nothing really to do with on-page factors. There are sites being penalized for off-page factors (IBLs), and in many cases sites that have been attacked by competitors building toxic links to them and which are entirely out of control of the victims.

    That said, I think it is a critical issue that we must seriously take into account.

  14. Nando writes:

    Interesting post.

    Sometimes you gotta wonder…

    If Google were to throw out all the websites good and bad from their organic search results, what would people do?

    Go to paid search?

    Is it a conspiracy to get every one to start paying to play the internet game?

    Stay tuned.

    Some people just love drama.

  15. Jessica Lee writes:

    @John S. Britsios: Yeah, that’s part of it, but there are measures you can take to be more proactive about inbound linking to your site. Agree?

  16. Jessica Lee writes:

    @Nando: I heard ad revenue was Google’s largest source of profit. So while it’s safe to assume that Google is in the business of making money, I do think user experience and relevance is also at the forefront. Competing priorities even within Google sometimes causes confusion. Thanks for your comment!

  17. Robert McCulloch writes:

    I thought I was reading too much into things. But after listening to these guys, I feel better about my SEO theories and options.



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