Losing Rank? Over-Optimization Might Be Your Problem

Kurt Krejny
July 13, 2012 — 2,794 views  
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Google recently announced they are working on a search ranking penalty for sites that are “over-optimized” or “overly SEO’ed”.Read the recap on Search Engine Land.

As a full-service digital agency, with our roots in SEO, Fathom is used to the changes and is prepared to react quickly if we see drops in organic keyword rankings. After all, one of our core values is “Make Order From Chaos“. We saw this update coming a few months ago and put measures in place with our sites before the vague Google news hit the internet.

Our efforts to understand the changes (and taking action quickly) can be beneficial to others dealing with the same updates by Google. Well-aligned optimization tactics are what it took over the years to rank for highly competitive keywords, and those tactics are still important… however we can expect Google to continue to make changes to overly optimized sites with the intention to improve their search results and drop rankings for low value content. Below are some practical tips to help you in efforts to “un-optimize” your high traffic landing pages that have dropped a few spots in the organic keyword rankings. If your site pages have low value content and have been de-indexed from Google completely, there may be bigger issues at hand that this post will not solve.

The Situation:

You have secured a top 10 competitive keyword ranking for a long while, and the ranking has dropped, and worse yet… the ranking URL has changed. You feel the intended ranking page is optimized to the best of its ability, and the inbound links support the keyword focus, yet you are scratching your head as to why your aligned efforts aren’t moving the needle.

The Reality:

Google is constantly making algorithmic changes and you are at their mercy. Ranking reports and ongoing analysis allow you to review trends as they relate to keyword rankings. Sometimes proper tweaking of content or more inbound links can move the needle in the right direction – but there is a need to dive deeper if you are at a standstill or the rankings continue to drop. With the flip of a switch Google can decide to rank a lesser desired page, but in Google’s eyes the page is more naturally optimized, and not “over-optimized”.

What to Check:

  • Determine what’s common among the top 10 ranked results? (How does your site compare?)
    • Title tag, description/snippet, on-page content, inbound links and quality, social media shares, domain authority, freshness of content, keyword density, does the homepage or interior page rank?
  • Review keyword synonyms highlighted in the SERPs
  • What are strong keyword modifiers that are still ranking? Here are some tools to help find keyword variations:
    • Google Analytics > Entrance Keywords to Landing Pages
    • Google Webmaster Tools > Your site on the web > Search queries
    • Google Suggest
    • Google Related Searches
  • Do you have top rankings for the keyword modifiers? Can these offset the drop in the strategic keyword ranking while you are revising your optimization tactics? Can these keywords reinforce the strategic keyword ranking?
  • Take a technical deep dive looking at crawling issues and internal linking structure
  • Perform an on-page ranking analysis using tools, data and experience (why did Google decide to rank a page that isn’t as good of a fit?)

Start Testing:

  • Use the data above to start revising the way you optimized your pages that have recently dropped – think about creating sustainable content!
  • Get all the SEO foundation basics and technical optimization cleaned up
  • Start lowering the keyword density and closely check the keyword ranking movement, traffic and conversions
  • Tweak the anchor text on inbound links to be more natural (remove low value links)
  • Tweak the anchor text on internal links to be more natural (do you have too many links pointing to a select few pages?)

Long Term Solution:

  • Re-evaluate your information architecture and directory structure. This could be preventing proper crawling and competitive keyword rankings
  • Remove any technical and crawling roadblocks. Review site load time. Poor usability could be a hindrance as well.

Tools for Support:

  • SEO analysis tools – BrightEdge, SEOmoz, Raven Tools, etc.
  • Google Analytics
  • Google Webmaster Tools
  • SERP spot checks
  • Firefox and Chrome plugins for quick spot checks of your site and competitors (i.e. Search Status)

Kurt Krejny


Kurt Krejny is the Director of Online Marketing at Fathom. Kurt has over 10 years of experience in online marketing with a concentration in search engine optimization (SEO). Kurt's background in Visual Communications Technology at Bowling Green State University has allowed him to assist organizations in solving complex online marketing problems. Using a diverse skill set including traditional marketing, graphic design, usability, website development, and video, Kurt has been focused on getting things done to show results. Follow Kurt on Twitter @KurtKrejny and connect on LinkedIn