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August 27, 2008

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Over Optimized – the Minus Thirty Penalty Strikes

Well it finally happened to me, I’ve been hit with what looks like some sort of minus thirty penalty in the big Google. One key search phrase was slowly moving up the list, and I was impatient. So I sought out links, lots of links – but I never paid for them. Anyway, about last week, the page I had been promoting completely fell off the SERPs and one of my related pages ended up ranking 30 spots behind where the original had been.

For a less competitive keyword phrase:

Week1

  • Page A = #9
  • Page B > #1,000

Week2

  • Page A > #1,000
  • Page B = #39

Yet, for the more competitive one-word search, Page A still ranks in the top 20.

These appear to be indications of a minor, page and phrase specific minus 30 penalty. Luckily, it hasn’t hit my entire domain and hopefully this “warning shot” from the search engines will be the wake-up call that gets my future SEO better in line with the best practices in the industry.

What causes the minus thirty?

Here is some advice from Google itself via Adam Lasnik regarding the minus thirty:

  • Is my site providing unique and compelling content?
  • Would most consumers find my site to be more useful than others in
    this space?
  • Am I abiding by all of Google’s Webmaster Guidelines?

The first two are obvious: Write awesome content. Write the kind of page that really helps people understand what they are searching for. Anticipate the questions visitors are asking, like: What causes a minus thirty penalty? How can I recover?

Webmaster world has written the tome on this issue, nearly 200 pages of discussion to be precise. I’ve dug through the thread as far as I can without signing up for their paid, premium service, so I’ll share what I know.

The common theme in the minus thirty penalty is “Over-optimization.” Here are the most suspected causes:

  • “Thin affiliate” – not a lot of content, mostly just commercial content
  • Ultra-repetitive anchor text – Did you get 100 deep links this week with the exact same anchor text, and does that anchor-text happen to be a highly competitive adwords keyword phrase?
  • Do all of your backlinks come from the same few sites?
  • Do you have ten times more backlinks than the sites you’re ranking next to in the SERPs?
  • Are you keyword-stuffing? Are your targeted keywords repeated excessively in the content? Does this match the anchor text coming in from suspicious sites?
  • Are your backlinks decaying or turning-over rapidly? (Do you post to several high PR bookmarking sites just to have your link fall off the page an hour later?) High PR backlinks are great – but they need to be stable and last. Constant wild fluctuations will trigger another flag.
  • Are you spending significantly more time on SEO than creating new content?

What I should have realized was that the sites ranking at the top of the phrase I wanted to be on all had very few backlinks and had organically achieved their top spots over the course of a year or more. If the top website has two years of age and 20 backlinks, my two month old page with 200 backlinks was obviously going to look suspicious.

Now what? How do you recover from the minus thirty?

My plan is to simply spend more time on the content and less on the backlinks. Already, I’ve seen my number of indexed pages jump up a little bit higher since I’ve adopted this strategy and at least Page B is now moving back up the SERPs mountain, even if its coming in from 34 spots away.

This isn’t guaranteed by any means – and there’s a good chance that my Page A will never have the same search ranking it used to have (ahh the good old days).

The best cure is prevention. Write content. Get a few backlinks from authoritative websites. Just don’t overdo it! Even white hat SEO can turn grey when it is used excessively.

Are you sure?

No! Absolutely not! The internet is a guessing game. All you can do is listen to Google webmaster guidelines and read about the experience of those who have gone in before you. If you figure out the puzzle, you can succeed.

The only thing I’m sure about is that content matters. There’s nothing quite like going viral – not just for immediate traffic but also for long-term search engine position. Google seems to know the difference between real hype and manufactured marketing. If people like your website, search engines will too.

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