Friday, May 11, 2012

Google’s Over-Optimization Penalty and Exact Match Domains

Google’s Over-Optimization Penalty and Exact Match Domains

Yesterday, we found out that the latest Google algorithm update was underway (dubbed the Over Optimization Penalty). Google posted about the update on the Webmaster Central Blog. By the way, Google is officially calling the update the Webspam Algorithm Update and not the Over Optimization Update (although I like the sound of the latter). There has been a lot of speculation about what the update would look like, which spammy tactics would get hit, etc. I’ve been keeping a close eye on the various webmaster forums, and there are already many reports of sites getting nuked. As Google explained in its blog post yesterday, it was targeting webspam tactics that were being used to game the system. That could mean spammy inbound links, keyword stuffing, doorway pages, etc.

The goal of the latest algorithm update is to level the playing field rankings-wise. Google realizes that there are many sites that have great content, but simply can’t compete against other sites that have been overly optimized. And when I say “overly optimized”, I’m referring to using spammy tactics to game the system. As I’ve always said, those tactics might work in the short-term, but the long term impact could be devastating. And those sites are seeing the negative effect now.

What Does Over Optimization Mean?

There’s a lot of speculation with what over optimization actually is, and what can get you penalized with this latest algo update. For example, keyword stuffing, too many inbound links with rich anchor text, overly optimized title tags, footers filled with optimized content, etc. Basically, any spammy tactic that companies have used to game the system…

To be clear, these aren’t tactics that a typical webmaster would use. Based on the screams from webmasters that have been hit during recent testing, and now as the algo gets rolled out, spammy inbound links seem to be causing a lot of problems. That said, I’m sure we are going to see many examples of different tactics getting penalized too. By the way, if you are interested in checking your own inbound links, then check out my recent post about finding spammy links using Open Site Explorer. It will only take you a few minutes…

The Exact Match Domain Threshold

One tactic that I think hasn’t received as much attention during this update is the use of exact match domains. Mike Wilton mentioned this in his post about Over Optimization, but most people have been focusing on inbound links, keyword stuffing, on-page optimization, etc. But anyone in SEO will tell you that exact match domains have been a tactic that has been abused over the years. It involves someone registering a domain name that exactly matches the keyword they want to rank for. Unfortunately, the engines heavily weight keyword-rich domains in the SERPs. As you can imagine, that flaw has led to an abuse of the system.

For example, imagine you sold widgets in Princeton, NJ. You might register or You get the picture, and my guess is that you have seen many exact match domains rank well as you search Google. On the one hand, if you legitimately have an exact match domain, and you use that domain as your core website, then I get it (and that’s fine to me). Also, if you happen to have a brand name or company name that matches a highly searched keyword, I get that too.

But the abuse has come from business owners (and heavily local business owners) who simply want to dominate a certain category by using exact match domains. And that’s where I think it crosses the line. In addition, some companies use their core domain for their website, but register a bunch of exact match domains that simply link to their core domain. As you can see, that’s not a “normal” way to set up websites for a company (or how to build inbound links for the core domain).

Will Exact Match Domains Get Hammered by the Webspam Algorithm Update? It’s hard to say to what degree, but I know some will get penalized (actually, I see some are getting penalized right now). I obviously don’t think all exact match domains will get nuked, since that’s way too extreme, and would include the legitimate use of exact match domains (as I covered earlier). So, there might be a threshold that Google uses while determining which exact match domains to penalize.

An Example of Webmasters Reporting a Drop in Rankings as Algorithm Update Rolls Out:

Below, I’ll list some thoughts about what that threshold could look like. And I hope this goes without saying, but we’ll all find out over time how extreme this algorithm update was. We are only on day 1. :)

1. Number of Domains Per Company
As I mentioned earlier, there are some companies that have registered an exact match domain for their business website. If that’s the sole use of the domain, and you are adding high quality, valuable content, then there’s no reason for that domain to get hammered. But, if a company registered 5 different exact match domains, in addition to having its company website, then you can start to see how this would violate Google’s guidelines. The company is simply trying to game Google and rank across multiple sites for target keywords. This type of set up is at great risk right now (in my opinion).

And by the way, if you think Google doesn’t know that you own all the domains, think again. It has multiple ways to understand this, including your own Google Analytics account. :)

2. Cross Linking of Domains Using Rich Anchor Text
Are all the exact match domains linking to either each other, or to another domain you own? Again, that could easily be perceived as spamming by Google. Buying a bunch of exact match domains only to cross link them using rich anchor text could definitely get you in trouble. I’ve come across this a thousand times while analyzing inbound links for companies. You clearly see several company-owned domains all linking to one another with the exact anchor text that they want to rank for.

3. Doorway Pages
Similar to what I explained above, some companies employ exact match domains (and pages within those domains) solely to help another site rank. In addition, some companies use EMD’s to funnel traffic to a core, company website. Again, typical webmasters aren’t going to do this… They will build high quality domains with the goal of impressing prospective customers, educating them, and landing new business. They will build links naturally and not try to buy their way to the top of the rankings. Google has a clear view of doorway pages, as stated in its Webmaster Guidelines.

4. Thin Content and Panda
With the latest algorithm update, there is a chance that a website could fall victim to a double whammy penalty. For example, getting hit by both Panda and Over Optimization. All you have to do is combine what I’ve listed above and you can see how a website might have both thin content and be in use solely to help another site rank well. If that’s the case, then it could get hit by the Panda Update (which targets low quality content), and by OOP (which targets webspam). Good luck recovering from that perfect storm…

Summary – We’re only in the beginning stages of OOP
As crazy as this sounds, this is an extremely exciting time for anyone involved in SEO. You get to watch a major algorithm update get pushed out, analyze the sites that get penalized, view collateral damage, try and better understand what Google’s objective was with the update, etc. In this post, I’ve tried to outline how the latest update could impact exact match domains. Unfortunately, nobody will know the exact impact for weeks (or longer). I plan to write more about the Webspam Algorithm Update in future posts, so keep an eye on my RSS feed.

And, if you have been hit by the latest update, feel free to reach out to me. Although many spammy websites will get penalized, there is always collateral damage.