Google principal engineer Matt Cutts dropped serious hints in March about an imminent change to Google's algorithm that will penalise websites for being "overly optimised". Unfortunately, he didn't specify exactly what "overly optimised" means, or when this big shift will come - but you'd be wise to prepare your website now.
I contacted an industry expert to sort out exactly what you should and should not fear about Google's upcoming algorithm change. Judith Lewis is head of search at Beyond, which handles search engine optimisation and digital marketing for clients including Facebook, IBM, and the Hilton hotel chain.
Google takes aim at trashy search results
Lewis thinks Google's impending algorithm change acknowledges a problem with junky search results. Thin affiliates, or sites that scrape content from other websites, are ranking too highly in the results, as are pages that purchase links requiring specific keywords included in the anchor text (the text you see when you hover over a hyperlink). For example, one of Lewis's clients had a few bad results for one of its preferred key terms, including a foreign language page from Belgium that had to be translated although obviously English terms were used. Google is likely taking measures to fix such problems.
Legitimate businesses are caught in the crossfire
Some legitimate businesses have had to go above and beyond with search optimisation efforts to make up for a deficiency - such as a site using a shopping cart that doesn't translate well for Google search. Google is now effectively saying that you have to correct the core problem rather than trying to prove that your website is actually relevant for a term by engaging in excessive search engine optimisation efforts.
Which actions will Google target?
Lewis puts forward a few well-informed theories as to what Google will be looking for in its update, such as:
1. Too many anchor text-heavy links
Anchor text refers to keyword text over hyperlinks that lead to a page related to those words. For example, "shower drain" is repeated on the site with a link to a page on shower drains. Natural links should be what Lewis terms as "brand links", or links that lead to their respective product pages.
2. Keywords outnumbering brand name links
For every 10 mentions of brand names in your links, there should only be one keyword link, according to Lewis. This means you shouldn't be keyword-stuffing your links or other content. If I'm managing Lenovo's website, for instance, I'd include "just say lenovo" and "lenovo site" in my links along with the odd link to my terms, such as "computers and laptops".
3. Keyword-stuffed content
Google has been warning against keyword stuffing since the late 1990s, yet websites persist in repeating key terms ad nauseam. If humans can't read a website, Google won't like it, either. Google really targeted keyword stuffing in its Panda update last year; this infographic charts how well it's worked since it was introduced.
4. Link farm building
There's a huge difference between link building and link farm building. Link building is asking your nice online neighbours to link to your fantastic site. Link farm building is building up a massive network of links totally unrelated to your site that may or may not come from reputable sources. There's a distinct line, and you'll know if you're doing it wrong. If dubious websites are linking to yours, then try a discreet "Can you please take me off your website?" email.
How to tell if your website is naughty
Lewis recommends plugging your website into a free tool called Majestic SEO, which gives free reports for domains under your control. If you are looking for something more robust, SEOMoz costs $99 a month and up. The reports, which include useful things like anchor text profiles, should tell if your website looks unnatural to Google and if there is a problem.
Where to go for help
While you can easily handle small issues that crop up on your website, if there are multiple problems, hire a professional rather than stabbing in the dark yourself. Lewis recommends checking the Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization's (SEMPO) website. Because Cutts is speaking publicly about changes, it indicates they've been in the works at Google for months, so time is of the essence.