Stuffed! Has Google over-optimised its content?

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Google’s latest update – dubbed Penguin - is designed to stop ‘keyword stuffing’. The change was announced in an official Google blog post containing eight keywords in the first seven sentences. So what exactly is keyword stuffing, and is it still possible to optimise quality content without being penalised?

Here, Ali Harris, content manager for leading UK internet marketing company ClickThrough Marketing, looks at the implications of the latest chapter in Google’s cat and mouse game with the SEO industry.

SEO is a delicate art. We’re all painfully aware of the fine line between good, natural keyword density, and ‘keyword stuffing’.

I’m a big proponent of natural, keyword-rich copywriting – we’ve always aimed to produce high-quality, rank-topping content which strikes the right balance between readability and optimisation.

The general rule of thumb for SEO copywriters dictates it’s unwise to obviously overload an article with keywords. Google agrees – and the search engine giant has just released an algorithm update designed to root out and down rank websites which use keyword stuffing to trick its spiders and manipulate ranking.

The update is now live – and has officially been dubbed Penguin, despite the outcry of social-media savvy SEOs, who nominated ‘Titanic’.

Google engineer Matt Cutts originally warned that Google would be penalising ‘overly optimised’ sites. Google has since said ‘over optimisation’ was a poor choice of words: the update is designed to destroy webspam, not SEO.

None of our current clients has been downranked as a result of Google’s recent search engine updates – but, oddly, we’ve had a number of random calls from non-clients panicking because their website’s suddenly disappeared off page one, asking what they can do to fix it.

Many reputable webmasters have seen similar ranking divebombs – hence the cheeky suggestions to call the update Titanic.

Google has issued its own advice, of course, on top of its best practice guidelines, and the bottom line stresses the importance of high quality content.

But there’s an elephant in the room – the original announcement came in an official Google blog post which, surprisingly, was stuffed face-first with keywords.

The post on Google’s official blog features eight instances of ‘search engine optimization’-style keywords in the first seven sentences. ‘Search engine optimization’ features three times in the first paragraph alone.

For most SEO copywriters, this approach to front-loading keywords is usually a total no-go – based entirely on the fear that Google would discount their efforts as spam at best.

So, how come Google is looking to penalise ‘keyword stuffing’ whilst essentially overusing keywords itself?

Is Matt Cutts’ post an example of the much-vaunted ‘quality content’ which won’t be affected by the update? Or is it just sloppy copy?

The key here is readability. Yes, the first paragraph could probably be edited down to more simple sentences, and the triplicate mention of ‘search engine optimization’ perhaps wasn’t entirely necessary in traditional good writing terms (where repetition should generally be avoided).

But this is an article about search engine optimisation, honestly talking about search engine optimisation, to people interested in search engine optimisation. And therefore, including that term repeatedly in such a small space is seemingly okay, in Matt Cutts’ writing mind at least.

This update is designed to crusade against sites which use keywords as a crutch – where key phrases are randomly jammed into an unrelated paragraph, or whole pages are turned over to farm lists of various search terms. Other tactics include hiding little boxes of text at the bottom of a page, or putting keyword links into completely unrelated pieces of content.

These tactics can help rubbish websites rank higher than genuine sites – something Google wants to stamp out to ‘reward’ honest SEOs, level the playing field, and ensure users only get to see informative, quality search results – not spammy farms full of nonsense.

It hasn’t gone entirely to plan so far – examples abound of honest site rankings being obliterated, whilst spammy, low-quality sites suddenly soar up the SERPs.

The resulting downranking and outcry from honest webmasters could be put down to a lack of information about what Google was looking at with Penguin.

Of course, giving everyone a hint of what the changes entail would’ve given the spammers a heads up to make the necessary changes to avoid punishment – but the fact so many apparently white hat sites have suffered suggests webmasters need a little bit more information on these matters.

But where do most people go for information? Google search.

The name Penguin took a day or two to surface, but now it has, there are no official Google results on page one for a ‘Google Penguin update’ search.

At least we have a name now. When the update launched a day ago, there was one important announcement on keyword stuffing from Google’s own mouth – that on the official blog, written by Matt Cutts, stuffed face-first with keywords.

You’d hope that post would probably return in a Google search result for ‘keyword stuffing’.

It doesn’t.

Nor does it appear for search terms ‘keyword stuffing change’, ‘keyword stuffing algorithm’ or, even, ‘keyword stuffing Google’.

And herein lies the problem. With utter keyword overload in Matt Cutts’ announcement post, even the mighty Google can accidentally over-optimise their content. Where does that leave the rest of us?

We’ll be paying particular attention to the rankings over the next week, to see if honest webmasters survive and nefarious spammers are punished as the dust settles on the Penguin webspam algorithm update – here’s hoping Google does, too.

About the author:

Ali Harris is an award-winning journalist with more than ten years’ experience in printed press, public relations and online PR. He is the content manager for ClickThrough Marketing, an Internet marketing agency based in Lichfield, UK, specialising in SEO, PPC and conversion enhancement. For more information about ClickThrough Marketing’s web content services, call 0800 088 7486.

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