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Google On “Over-Optimization”

Google’s Gary Illyes announced this week that he was looking for topics for a post that would seek to debunk some of the myths that exist in the SEO community. Because Google’s algorithm is kind of a black box, they’re rarely 100% clear in explaining how it works. People like Illyes, his colleague John Mueller, and Matt Cutts before them, are very skilled at putting out messages that seem like thorough explanations on the surface, but leave a lot open to interpretation. Because of this, the history of Google’s relationship with SEOs is full of people drawing the wrong conclusion from some statement by a Googler, leading to the spread of SEO myths.

Gary’s call for proposals got me thinking about a term that’s been making the rounds for a few years and that I’ve always had issues with: “over-optimization.” I don’t question whether it’s possible to take SEO efforts too far. If you ignore the needs of real users and just work to make a page as close as possible to what you think a search engine is looking for (ignoring the fact that the search engine is mostly looking for pages that meet the needs of real users), you’re going to end up with a page that ought to be ignored. Examples of these activities can include doing too much of anything, like getting 100,000 new backlinks in a week, publishing a thousand new pages at once, or using a keyword far too many times on a page, turning it into nonsense.

As I understand it, there isn’t a specific part of Google’s algorithm that looks for what’s called over-optimization, but Google is always on the lookout for signals that suggest that you’re making pages that are all about trying to please the algorithm and not at all about pleasing real people.

My problem with the term is really the term itself rather than the idea behind it. If “optimal” is as good as something can be, and “optimization” is the process of improving something — moving it closer to optimal — then what is over-optimization? You can’t make something too perfect, can you? But you can take something further away from perfect because you made the mistake of somehow overdoing it, when you thought you were making it better. It’s a mistake that a lot of SEOs make, and I think it should have a name that makes sense.

This all led to the following interaction on Twitter:

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