Over-optimisation, Matt Cutts and the Future of SEO

SEO is a constantly evolving field and a whole industry has sprung up around it. With companies investing significantly to boost their rankings against those of their competitors, experts are constantly working out new ways to rank highly with Google. At the same time, Google wants to make sure that only genuinely relevant websites with compelling content get to the top in its search results.

In less sophisticated times, the most basic SEO meant filling in keyword metadata (lists of keywords to describe you site that are coded in rather than visible on screen) with as many keywords and phrases as possible. Some people would ‘stuff’ as many keywords in as possible to help drive traffic to a site, including keywords of little relevance to the site’s content. Google soon downgraded the importance it gave to keyword metadata (but not keywords in a site’s visible content), and began to give  more prominence to links coming in to your site. Link building or link baiting (a term Google surely doesn’t like) then became big business.

Now Google is focussing on what it calls semantic search. It is trying to ensure that the relevancy and quality of a website’s content is the key factor in getting a web site a high ranking, that search results are in line with ‘user intent’. Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Web Spam, speaking as part of a panel at the trendy culture fest that is SXSW in the States in March, spoke about ‘over-optimised’ sites.  Cutts explained:

We don’t normally pre-announce changes but there is something we are working in the last few months and hope to release it in the next months or few weeks. We are trying to level the playing field a bit. All those people doing, for lack of a better word, over optimization or overly doing their SEO – versus those making great content and trying to make a fantastic site. We are trying to make GoogleBot smarter, make our relevance better, and we are also looking for those who abuse it, like too many keywords on a page, or exchange way too many links or go  beyond what a normal person would expect in a certain area. We have several engineers on my team working on this right now.

Some people have interpreted this as a Google crackdown on SEO which may be a bit over the top but it is certainly a crackdown on SEO abuse and black hat techniques. The other search engines are broadly working in the same direction. Following this, Duane Forrester from Bing emphasized the importance of sites being ‘socially engaged’ so that links occur naturally as a genuine sign of popularity. You can hear the full SXSW panel discussion, Dear Google and Bing: help me rank better, at Search Engine Roundtable.

It will be worth watching Google’s next moves closely over the next few weeks or months.  Matt Cutts explained that Google does not hate SEO but warned that if your SEO techniques ‘go beyond the pale , your site might not rank so highly’.

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