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Is Google developing an SEO neutralising policy?

 6:16 pm on Jul 7, 2003 (gmt 0)

Recent posts on the topic of the Dominic and Esmeralda updates have introduced the idea of SEO neutralisation as a possible goal by Google. As far as I can tell, there is no hard data to back this up, but it remains an interesting topic to discuss - specifically whether it makes rational sense.

Too often analysis of updates and the Google algorithm in general lapse into detailed hypotheses with no hard evidence, forgetting about the basic core of search - that is identifying the most relevant results for a particular search query.

What is SEO neutralisation?

Some of us get a bit twitchy around update time - "have we used unethical practices, are we going to get penalised, have we linked to bad neighbourhoods" etc. This leads logically to "have we over-optimised?"

We might think that Google would introduce a new element to the algorithm, that is SEO neutralisation - i.e. penalisation of those who have over-optimised.

However, of course Google already does this, with its myriad of algorithm elements designed to combat spam, including penalising link farms, warning against linking for the purpose of increasing PageRank, introducing its spam report form etc. Over-optimisation is really only a different term for spam, or an unethical site design strategy.

Optimisation and over-optimisation

Optimisation is making sure that your <title> accurately reflects the content of your page, making sure that the header is marked as a header, i.e. <h1>, making sure that your images have alt text describing the images etc. Optimisation is analogous to good site design.

Over-optimisation is putting every possible keyword in your <title> tag, putting seven different keywords on the page each in their own <h1> tag, stuffing keywords into your image alt attributes. Over-optimisation is analogous to trying to kid the search engine that your page is more than it really is.

So let's get back to the basics

Let's take a big step back, forget about whether <h1> tags are still relevant, whether we've used the same anchor text too many times, whether our outbound link to keyword density ratio should be nearer 0.34 or 0.57 - and think as if we were a search engine reading a page that had never been near an SEO consultant.

The googlebot looks at pages. It needs to know what a page is about. It can't read, it can only see words. Certain specific words tell it what the page is about.

On most webpages, the title tag says something pretty accurate about what's on the page. Where <h1> tags are used, almost all the time they're used to highlight a heading. Not many people know about resizing h1 text with a CSS file, so <h1> means big bold text. When people link to a site, they usually use a sensible word or phrase that says something about the site, such as "buy books here" or "Amazon". If the page is about fish then it's pretty likely that the word "fish" will turn up in the body text and there'll be some pictures of fish, hopefully with some alt text saying that they're fish.

However much you worry about the intricacies of SEO, at the end of the day, any search engine has to get its information about the relevance of a webpage from somewhere. The relevance of a page is defined by what's on the page and the links to that page - that's a fact and it's not going to change.

Good website design and good SEO

Good website design is about creating useful, interesting and relevant content that is graphically pleasing, simple to use and interact with.

Good SEO is simply about telling the search engine what the page is about. Most people don't use all the factors that googlebot assigns importance to, so their links might be called "click here", for example, or they don't assign <h1> tags to their headings.

Too much website with not enough SEO leaves a website that underachieves, simply because Google doesn't know what it's about and therefore doesn't know that the content is relevant to what the user's just searched for.

Too little website with too much SEO leaves a website that overachieves, for which Google uses the term 'spam'. If you feel that you've reached a limit as to the amount of ethical SEO you can do then build more website - your ethical SEO will therefore now be more powerful.

So let's have a bit less paranoia and remember the principle - Google needs to know what your page is about to be a meaningful search service, but it doesn't want to be cheated. So tell it in all the ways you can, but don't oversell an inferior product - improve on what you've got by building a better site for your users, and see your ranking and traffic improve with it.



 1:09 am on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

oak357 & mohammed_e: yes, I have lots of blatant spammers in my topic, but also my niche market is so specialized, that I am confident of my site's higher relevancy...no one offers as many choices (styles) to the user as me (it's a very wide gap, and for some stuff, we are the sole manufacturers). I am also the only one that bothers trying to educate the user on safety issues, etc. - not just trying to cram products down their throats. (Yikes, was that too aggressive?)

That said, since relevancy is decided upon by the Google-King in the google-kingdom, and not necessarily by this serf's best efforts to bring good product to market, I am creating a new wholesale program now - thought I'd never have to turn to brick and morter again! :-) p.s. I'm a noon-to-9pm-er. Hooray internet!


 4:52 am on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

Nope....I'm finally seeing the results I expected to see. I bet you Esmeralda has finally settled, or at least has the index sites back in the results :-)

Although, the directory has still not been updated.


 1:37 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

Is GoogleGuy on vacation?


 2:57 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

No-one seems to be able to demonstrate exactly the point where an optimizer becomes a spammer.

When you start to consider yourself an optimizer; you're a spammer.


 4:28 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

I wouldn't go that far. However, there is a very thin line between a good web developer and a spammer.

A good web developer addresses standards, accessibility, usability, etc. while not doing the blatantly shady things a spammer would do (cloaking, hidden text, extreme keyword stuffing, etc.).

A good developer requests links from other on-topic, related sites while a spammer just gets links from anywhere.

The list could go on and on. But there is definitely a difference between good and evil.


 4:40 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

<<A good developer requests links from other on-topic, related sites while a spammer just gets links from anywhere. >>

I disagree.

A good WEBMASTER gets links from anywhere and everywhere. It's free promotion. If you are talking about reciprocal linking, that is a slightly different story, but nonetheless, is a backbone of the web.

The key to Google is links, links, and more links. A popular site will attract links from all over the web and will benefit in traffic, sales, branding and Google ranking.

If I own an online cookie shop, why am I a spammer for requesting a link from a travel site or dating service, or WebmasterWorld for that matter?

We all live in glass houses...


 4:50 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

That's where I see a fundamental difference.

Getting links for the purpose of PageRank is different than getting on-topic links for the purpose of establishing a site as an authority.

I would never run a site about cookies and request a link from a travel site. However, if the travel site (or any other site) linked to my site because it is a wealth of great information that is totally different, but I would never ask for off-topic links.


 4:52 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

Ultimately it is better for all of us if the results from Google are good (relevant to the searcher).
I have started a new tactic to get my website ahead of the spammers – report them to Google. I have reported a lot of sites in the last few weeks and I’m seeing results already. If we all reported websites that were spamming the index, we could stop worrying about all this stuff and get on with building good, relevant websites and Google could concentrate on returning relevant results, instead of trying to thwart SEO.


 6:50 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

I'm sorry, John, your post is very well thought out and presented, but I disagree with your opinions. The problem is not that other sites that I think are less relevant are ranked higher than my site, it's that sites that are not relevant at all are ranked higher than my site and many other similar, relevant sites. Google is broken...it's not returning relevant links anymore.

Wouldn't you know it...I happen to be in the widget business, right here in MyTown. I think that when somebody searches for "MyTown widget supplier," what they might like is a list of widget suppliers in MyTown. Some articles about or reviews of MyTown widget suppliers would also be relevent. That's the kind of results Google was returning before this latest update. My site was ranked third or so, and all my competitors were in the first 20 results, along with a few directories, articles, and that sort of thing. My site doesn't break any rules. There's no cloaking, no hidden text, no spamming. It's well designed, and validated with the w3c's tools, and has a fair amount of incoming links from reputable sources. My competitors' sites are similar.

Since this last update, though, I'm ranked 147th or so. Half of my competitors are gone from the top 20, also. In our place are completely irrelevant links. Widget suppliers on the other side of the country. A blog where somebody mentions the time their friend who's really into widgets visited MyTown, and happens to be a big Air Supply fan.

Heck, last week I thought about getting some more links, and realized I didn't have a link from my personal site to my business site, so I put in a "MyTown Widget Supplier" link on there. I figured it couldn't hurt. Now, that one page of lousy, completely irrelevant plain text is ranked 8th. My personal site has absolutely nothing to do with MyTown widget supply, except it has ONE mention of the words "MyTown Widget Supplier" as a link to my business site. The business site is still ranked 150th or so, as are many of my competitors.

Google is broken.


 7:22 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

When you start to consider yourself an optimizer; you're a spammer.

I disagree fundamentally.

I would say you are a spammer if you use methods that attract large numbers of visitors in the hope that a few will find your site worthwhile. If 90% of visitors think your site is irrelevant to their search, then I would say you are a probably a spammer.

If the majority of visitors to a website find it to be relevant to their needs, then I think it's hard to argue that the site is spam even if it employs dubious methods to attract those visitors in the first place. It is possible that this is the view at Google. In this case they may choose not to penalise some sites that they consider to be of a high quality even if they are guilty of using dubious SEO strategies.



 7:44 pm on Jul 8, 2003 (gmt 0)

I believe that even if you are optimizing soley to attract relevant visitors to your site you're still a spammer. It's a conscious attempt to manipulate the results returned by Google.

I don't argue as a hardliner because I don't totally agree with my own stand point but it has kept me from being banned on punished in Google.

I believe they're developing a neutralizing policy. Is it a good idea? I haven't a clue.


 4:51 am on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

All good points, Powdork. However, since you did quote my question, I would like to point out that you didn't answer it :-)

I see your point. Yes, I would. However I choose not the dark side. Build content and relevancy first. In addition I think Google can have their cake and eat it too if they reward good webmastery and straightforward optomisation whilst punishing deceit.


 5:58 am on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)


I just want to add my late pat on the back for a pair of most excellent posts. Well done.


 8:23 am on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Great post John_Caius,


SEO neutralisation

What an ugly phrase. I get a vision of SEO's being hunted down and "neutralised".

Can we give it another name? Something warm and fuzzy like: an "SEO damping factor"?


 9:43 am on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

How about SEO Extermination?

Not fuzzy but it gets the message across


 10:36 am on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

How about making a distinction between SEO and "URO"?

URO is (and I think I've just invented the term) User Relevance Optimization.

Google wants to find and rank sites with good URO.

A lot of SEOs want to find techniques to fool Google into thinking their site has higher URO than it actual does.

Google keeps spotting those techniques and discounting them. The winner -- usually -- is the user, not the SEOer with an out-of-date technique for faking URO.

Google's TOS is very clear about what it wants for URO. It doesn't have to be clear about what would be good for faking it.

Part of the problem is that Google can only guess what is user relevant....Three people search for "Apple". One wants computers; one wants the Beatles; and one wants a banana but couldn't think of the english word. Hence the various suggstions for more user profiling in searches.


 12:20 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Great posts John. I couldn't agree more with your approach. That's pretty much what I've followed since around 95-96, and while engines have come and gone, updates have been good and bad, spam runs wild for while and then dies, all of my sites have faired well regardless of the environment.

Patrick Taylor

 1:32 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

I saw a cartoon the other day. Two racehorses were coming up to the winning post and one rider said to the other "After you" and the other one insisted "No, after you."

If I have a site about "green apples" I will think of it as the most important site there is about green apples. Why wouldn't I? I'm interested in MY green apples being seen first. My domain is wwx.green-apples.whatever. The title of each page is "Green Apples something", I name all my files "green-apples-pageone.htm, green-apples-pagetwo.htm, green-apples.js, green-apples.css" and so on. My image names are all green-apples-something.jpg, with Alt text as "green-apples-something". The linktext is always "green-apples-something" with Title as "green-apples-something". And I talk good sense about (bolded or stronged) green apples quite a lot in the body text, and anything in connection with my green apples. Anyone with a site with content about green apples like mine, I ask them to link to my site using my "green apples" in their linktext. I check my pages in a "keyword density analyser" and the words "green apples" are nicely prominent. I link my pages to each other to maximise the PR of the index page, the one I want to feature highly in SERPS. And where I can, I do my outgoing links in unspiderable JavaScript (I hope). Basically, I do all the things I see on SEO sites that come top in Google. And no doubt some purists or "hardliners" will say I'm a hack spammer and maybe report me to Google. But I feel I'm doing nothing wrong or unethical. I'm just doing what is logical. And my strategy might not even work. In fact it DOESN'T work with Google because on a search for "green apples" my site has been buried for months beneath dozens of other sites about "green" and "apples" - not "green apples".

I think of the film Amadeus when Mozart is told his opera contains "too many notes". I'm no Mozart but in my hack music piece, which "notes" should I take out before my site is at least acceptable?


 4:45 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

I beg to differ with the starter of this thread as to what exactly is SEO Neutralisation.

- What John has described is SEO Penalisation. In other words, steps taken to penalise a SEO who is abusing the "rules"

- When I 1st wrote about SEO neutralisation, I meant that Google is actively changing the rules of the game inorder to ensure that SEO's who have got good at the game do not keep winning.

- It is a bit like Baketball, where the opposition identifies and heavily marks the best player. Except that here Google is neutralising the best players by re-writing the rules.

- Consider the following new rules introduced in the last 6 months:
1. Reciprocal links are neutralised: You get no benefit if you link to a site and it links back to you.

2. Only 1 inward link per site counts. If you had scored good PR by getting many links from a site to your site, now discard the value of all links except 1

3. Site "families" are neutralised: If you had 3 sites in a single I.P. group, you get no benefit. An I.P. group is for eg.:
This means if you are hosting several domains with one host who has given you an I.P. stack, you now have to get a seperate I.P. stack for each site or even start hosting with multiple hosts.

This even effects all of you getting your points from sub.domain.com and sub1.domain.com links. They are all likely to be in an I.P. family. Check.

4. Vary the algo every few days. This throws many off as to what works with Google.

Why would Google SEO neutralise? So that you buy more Adwords since now suddenly you are no longer top of the pops.

But having said that. I would also like to add that this is a very ego centric view of the situation. We are an ego centric race: the sun shines for us, the flowers bloom for us and when Google makes changes to it's formula it is to ruin the lives of us poor SEOs :)

Google is probably making these changes to get better results for it's users and we are affected in the bargain. I'm sure Google has an eye on SEO neutralisation, but it's less of a factor than we consider it to be.

But it is important to note, analyze and stay ahead of the changes...seo neutalization or not


 4:56 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Over-optimisation is really only a different term for spam, or an unethical site design strategy.

I think of it as a term for se algos that are full of holes, while the parent company does $1b plus in sales this year while blaming it's problems on the general webmaster public.


(there is no spam)


 5:31 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

<sort of off topic>
ok people its Neutralize with a z not neutralise with an s. Thanks for the world update Bigdave
</sort of off topic>

[edited by: satanclaus at 5:41 pm (utc) on July 9, 2003]


 5:33 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)


That's only in US english. Them furriners almost always use 's' in the places that we use 'z'.


 5:53 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

<<I think of it as a term for se algos that are full of holes, while the parent company does $1b plus in sales this year while blaming it's problems on the general webmaster public. >>

Yah, it's like they are saying, "My product is not working properly and people are taking advantage of it! If webmasters would just stop trying to rank well all would be solved" :)

Webmasters build sites- it's up to the big G to determine if and how to rank them.

Google can't control webmasters and webmasters can't control Google. Overall, webmasters definitely have the upper hand though...


 7:39 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

(superfluous pernicious adaptive mendacity)

jeremy goodrich

 8:15 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

>>>>Google can't control webmasters and webmasters can't control Google. Overall, webmasters definitely have the upper hand though...

Very true. Would webmasters still exist without Google? Yes.

Would Google exist without webmasters? Nope. They need us, whether they like it or not. Their business is directly dependent on US (you, me, and the search engine optimizer next door).

If there was no Google, or search engine, people would find another way to navigate websites. And, marketer's would still try to get ahead in the results. :)


 8:37 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Would Google exist without webmasters?

Would websites exist without webmasters?

n. A person whose occupation is designing, developing, marketing, or maintaining websites.

jeremy goodrich

 8:56 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

I think most of us here are familiar with what "webmaster" means ;)

A great resource you might not have noticed yet, is the glossary:

Highly recommended for people that are new to WebmasterWorld. Helps avoid confusion, and keep the discussion at a higher level.

Just noticed - webmaster isn't in the glossary, perhaps that's because the tagline for WebmasterWorld is

News and Discussion for the Advanced Web Professional


 11:46 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Advanced Web Professional

Now there's a term about whose meaning there might be more debate. A professional is just someone who makes money from his job. So what is an advanced professional?

Time for bed methinks

jeremy goodrich

 11:53 pm on Jul 9, 2003 (gmt 0)

Perhaps those who know a few definitions about the industry without the dictionary handy? ;)

Or that know that there is no spam, only bad algos. It's not like we forced Google to go out & index the web, now did we?

Since they go out & index it, and cache my site -> it's only fair that I do what I do. Neither party got an invitation, so given that, why cry foul if there are no rules in the game?

We all know there is no game. Only business.


 12:16 am on Jul 10, 2003 (gmt 0)


I beg to differ with the starter of this thread as to what exactly is SEO Neutralisation.

- What John has described is SEO Penalisation. In other words, steps taken to penalise a SEO who is abusing the "rules"

The point of my first post was that people worrying about this so-called SEO neutralisation may really be worrying that their overvalued site will be reduced to its rightful place in terms of its actual content. To me, good optimisation is making a good site look good to a search engine - there are plenty of examples of good sites that look really bad to a search engine, such as all those ones with flash intros and unspiderable content. So under this definition, SEO neutralisation doesn't make sense to Google. If optimisation is creating an interlinked network of sites with plenty of incoming guestbook links and a bit of hidden text, then SEO neutralisation is a great idea but we already have it with anti-spam algorithms.

If you've got a good site and Google chooses to not give credit for all those factors you listed then you'll probably not see too much difference in your positioning because every other site is subject to the same algorithm. A good site will hopefully have some decent one-way incoming links, e.g. dmoz and other people who saw and liked the site. Aside from the fun and games of the last few months, I don't think Google is going to make major changes to its algorithm every few days and it certainly won't do that just to throw SEOs off balance. If it's producing good and relevant results, it'll stick with them until the spam catches up. If Dubya comes up in a search for "American President" today then they're not going to want to change their algorithm so that Hillary comes up tomorrow. ;)

How much real data is there to support those points you made? (4) I'm not sure about at all, (1) I haven't seen any major changes in areas where I'd expect that to have an effect, (2) and (3) make a lot of theoretical sense in reducing spam results although I haven't seen any specific examples. I can see that (3) might possibly catch out some good guys although most webmasters only host a single site, those that host more are often those with many doorways to their main site.

John(ny Furriner)


 2:22 am on Jul 10, 2003 (gmt 0)

I believe that even if you are optimizing soley to attract relevant visitors to your site you're still a spammer.

This is backwards. Does this mean that every business that tries to make money is soulless? Every product that is advertised on television is spam? Billboards debase the community? Throw away the Yellow Pages? Even posting on this board everyone gains something, be it ego, exposure or personal fulfillment.

If no website was optimized, joes blog would be #1.

Creating a good site is directly tied to how well the sites do in search engines. I believe it is the duty of all webdesigners to create usable sites that are search engine friendly. Sloppy, graphics laden sites are nearly useless and unnecessarily burden the internet infrastructure.

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