Over Optimization is Dead. Long Live Optimization!

by Grant Simmons  |  Published 9:00 AM, Mon March 24, 2014

I’ve been in the search business long enough to look at a site and within 15 seconds know if the site has been optimized or not. Title tags, anchor text, romance paragraphs and internal linking are all indicators of SEO travail. But often, none of these older efforts actually enhance the user experience.

Google (and Bing) aren’t looking to rank the most optimized site (unless I missed the announcement). They’re increasingly giving relevance, usability, and utility a leg up in results, looking at over optimization signals as a reason to penalize, or reduce the likelihood of a site or page showing up highly in those results.

And yet, many SEO folk continue to leverage the same old tactics expecting the same ease of results as when I started the SEO “game” in the late ’90s.

Therein lie the challenges—and opportunities—for today’s SEO folk.
So after this doom and gloom opening (I hope I got your attention) where do we go from here? How do we, as SEO practitioners, adapt our art to better serve both users, clients and search engines?

Under Optimization is the New Optimization

Internal linking has traditionally been an SEO focus. “Sculpt” a site’s juice, and you end up driving relevance through the site. I’d be foolish to say this isn’t still valid, but the key is to add limits in a few areas:

  • Anchor Text — This needs to be as user-focused as possible. What would you, as a user, expect to find at the other end of the link, and does the anchor text provide context and information to help you in that expectation?

Yes…ahem…this looks *very* user-focused.

  • Silos of Relevance — A site with multiple topics needs to keep these topics separate, whole, and complete, with minimal—if any—cross linking. This goes against some grain of leveraging internal links as juice, but cross links shouldn’t exist unless they provide value to the site visitors, and even then, consider obfuscating or ‘no following’ to maintain separation between silos.

Obligatory silo image

  • Internal Linking in Body Copy — Navigation and connections within a site rely on the internal links as easy, intuitive and logical ways of navigation. Inline links should be used when logical, practical, and of value to the user. Linking to your own content (existing elsewhere in the site) is normally a navigational element, not something that exists three to five times within body copy. Consider sidebars or sub-navigation, or “related” link modules if you just have to add a link.

Unless you’re looking for a squeaky thing (which is actually a martial arts training tool).

  • Image Alt Tags and Image Names — The whole goal of image attributes is to provide accessibility support for folks (and search engines) who don’t know what an image is visually. Additional information on the image is valuable only if it describes the image itself, not the page, target keyword, or possible link.

I think someone is telling a Pinocchio (or porky pie, as we say in East London).

  • Footer Navigation — I like the idea and premise of a footer section to provide navigational direction to users, at least on a website home page. But once the footer area became a catchall for everything spammy, Google and I both devalued the morass of “linkage without thinkage.” Footers should provide directional navigation to related pages. You should NOT have the same footer on every page. Doing it right underscores the silos of topic expertise (see above) and provides real value to users, not sitewide navigation.

All the way down here isn’t really for users, and doesn’t replace better architecture.

  • Romance Paragraphs — Ah the paragraph of text we put there “just for search engines”, because the page itself has little to no content. Why should a page with no content rank? And why would you add copy that’s just for search engines? Optimization may require you add some copy to a page, but that copy is for users to help them understand and further discover what the site offers, ultimately answering their original query.

This is copy that could live at the top of a page…instead it’s buried at the bottom, helping no one.

So What Now?

You’ll notice I didn’t start this article with “SEO is dead,” because optimization for search engine traffic is far from bereft of life. The challenge is one that the SEO industry often brings upon itself, leveraging tactics that worked yesterday, with the expectation they’ll work today, tomorrow and forever.

Google isn’t so forgiving, and is in constant iteration to mitigate ranking factors it considers to be spam. Over optimization is low hanging fruit of a signal to draw attention to a site, potentially bringing the wrath of search engines upon it.

Focus on the User

Everyone says, “content is king,” but really it’s the user who is king, and providing a great user-focused experience should be the primary goal of site designers, site developers, and yes, SEO folk as well. Gone are the days of “easy SEO.” Welcome to a world of usability, utility, and usefulness, an opportunity for SEOs to take the lead, and optimize for the user experience as opposed to the search engine experience.

Does this mean we no longer need to acknowledge the search engine’s existence? Not at all!

Search engines are the most discriminating of users. Keep them happy, and your human visitors will engage, share, discuss, and amplify your expertise.

And search engines just love to rank popular “unoptimized” experts.


Grant Simmons currently serves as Sr Director, SEO, Social & Paid Media at The Search Agency, the top independent search firm in the USA.

Grant has over 23 years of agency experience serving industry-leading organizations such as; Paramount Studios, Countrywide Wholesale Lending, M&M/Mars, Red Bull, Move, Disney, Napster, Warner Bros., UPS, SunAmerica, Young Presidents' Organization, GE Plastics, Amgen and the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Described as an online marketing strategist, motivator, entrepreneur, idea machine, experienced bridge between marketing & technology, Grant prefers; father, sailor & innovator - though not necessarily in that order when there's a fair wind.

  • http://www.seo411.com Dominik Hussl

    Great article Grant. I have been in the SEO game since about 95 so I totally get what you are saying. I still see some of my old colleagues clinging to the old ways and not embracing the new methodology. Your article was a huge affirmation for my methodology since I have been taking the approach you talk about in your article for quite sometime now. SEO is an everchanging industry and if you get stale you will get left behind and even worse!

    • Grant Simmons

      Thx Dominik!

      The challenges we have in this industry are: a) too few people like yourself b) we tend to react to change, not anticipate c) brands still cling to old information d) too many SEO folk looking for shortcuts

      Appreciate the comment. Cheers.