Articles, tips, and resources for webmasters

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SEO 101:
Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • Myths & Facts
  • Submission and Spidering
    • Submission
    • The spider keeps on comin'
    • Removing barriers to spidering
  • Keywords
    • Avoid single-word terms
    • Avoid terms that are too broad
    • Avoid terms that are too specific
    • Avoid terms that are unpopular
    • Avoid highly-competitive terms
    • Mine your server reports
    • Target word variants and word order
  • Ranking Factors
    • Content is King
    • One-page factors
    • Page Weight
    • Dead Links
    • META tags
    • Unknown Factors
  • NON-Ranking Factors
    • META Keywords
    • ALT text
    • Title attribute
    • Web Standards
    • Dedicated IP address
    • Changing hosts or IP's
    • Adsense
    • Resubmitting a site
  • Penalties
    • Over-Optimization penalties
    • Non-WWW penalties
    • Black Hat SEO penalties
    • Paid Links penalty
    • Duplicate Content penalty
    • Why did my site disappear?!
  • Black Hat SEO
    • Invisible text
    • Cloaking
    • Keyword stuffing
    • Doorway Pages
    • Orphaned Pages
    • Spam
  • Links
    • Anchor Text
    • Links in the body copy
    • Internal Links
    • PageRank
    • Backlinks
    • Reciprocal Links
    • Link Farms and Directories
    • Buying and Selling Links
    • Pages not passing PR
    • Link Age
    • Relevance and Authority
    • Suspicious Activity
    • Splitting PR (removing or forcing theWWW)
    • Summary of link factors
  • Changing domains, and renaming pages
    • Move a whole site
    • Move a directory to a new domain
    • Move specific pages
    • Advanced Redirecting
  • Hiring professional help
  • Summarized recommendations
  • Further Resources

How to get good search engine rankings

« Part 6: NON-Ranking Factors

Part 7: Penalties

Part 8: Black Hat SEO »

What is a penalty?

The term "penalty" is often incorrectly applied to things that aren't penalties at all. If an SE punishes your site by lowering its listing (or removing it from the index entirely), that's a penalty. But if a site simply fails to have what it takes to rank well, that is not a penalty.

Let's say that all the words on your site are really images. It's pretty, sure, but Google can't read those words. As a result, you won't rank as well for those words as you would if the words were plain text. Is that a penalty? No. Google didn't punish you, by intentionally moving your site lower in the rankings. You just failed to show Google why they should elevate your site any higher than it already is.

That said, let's take a look at some actual penalties.

Over-Optimization Penalties

Many webmasters think that the engines can penalize some sites which "try too hard". The theory is that if you've got your money phrase all over the place -- in the <TITLE>, <H1>, <H2>, <H3>, <B>, and <I> tags, ALT and TITLE parameters, domain, subdomain, directory name, and filename, and it's repeated several times throughout the page, and it's the only link text that other sites use in their links to you, then the engine figures you're making a blatant attempt to cheat and they wind up pushing your site further down, rather than further up. And while the engines rank pages, not sites, it's believed that some penalties apply to a whole domain, not just to a specific naughty page.

Whether over-optimization penalties really exist has been hotly debated in online forums with a lot of convincing arguments and evidence each way. My feeling is that such penalties do exist, but that they're not applied consistently and that it's difficult to tell what triggers them. But to me there is little doubt that they get applied sometimes.

Here's an example: In a Google search for "cheapest airfare", only one of the ten results contains that exact phrase in the title! This is a competitive term and there are obviously many sites vying to rank well for it, so it's inconceivable that only one high-PR site is using the term "cheapest airfare" in its title. That means that sites which use the search term in their title are out there but not ranking well. This is strong evidence that Google has penalized them.

When I first noticed this particular case my first reaction was to assume that Google was penalizing pages for no other reason than that their titles contained the exact search phrases. But remember that this violates one of the primary points mentioned in the Myths section earlier: It is nearly impossible to discern cause and effect, especially at first glance. Stepping back a bit, it's easy to come up with another plausible explanation for this phenomenon: Google might not be penalizing pages because their titles were too specific, but rather because their titles were too specific and that same search phrase was repeated throughout the page in an SEO-like manner. It could be that Google doesn't care if a title has the exact search phrase, as long as that same search phrase hasn't been stuffed everywhere else on the same page (and in file and directory names, and in link text, etc.).

How can we tell which is the case? Or if it's something completely different? We can't -- not easily, anyway; not without a great deal of research.

So how to deal with this? Here are my recommendations. For the title tag it's simple. Search for the phrase you want to rank on. If the results use that phrase in the title, then you use it too. If the top results don't use that phrase (and you know it's a competitive enough phrase that there are sites using it in their title who aren't ranking well), then do like they do and use a variation of your preferred phrase rather than the exact phrase itself. Just be careful and don't automatically assume that a lack of pages showing the exact search phrase in their titles means that the engines are discounting them; it could mean that you got lucky and found a search term that doesn't yet have a lot of competition, and that there aren't many other pages yet using that search term in their titles, or it could mean that the penalty is not for an exact match in the title alone, but an exact match in the title combined with more matches in other places on the page.

For other factors, I suggest using the on-page factors as you normally would, just don't use the same exact phrase in every single place. Once your PR is similar to the sites you're competing with you should be near them in the SERPs. If you're not, then it could be time to consider modest de-optimizing at that point. But in general, I don't worry about de-optimizing unless there's a page I can't get ranked well normally after several months.

Incidentally, my site is one of the top ten on that search for "cheapest airfare", but without using the exact search phrase in the title. I changed my title to include the exact search phrase, and a couple of weeks later I went from #3 to #8. Of course, I couldn't be certain that it's a result of my title change, though. Still, I changed my title back to the original to see if I'd move back up, and I bounced back up to #4 pretty quick. While we can't draw any definitive conclusions from this, it suggests that having the exact search phrase in the title tag might have hurt my ranking in this particular case. For most pages it's probably still a good idea to have the exact phrase in the title, changing it only if good rankings can't be achieved, and if the pages that are beating yours don't use the exact search phrase in their title tags, either.

Non-WWW penalties

You might prefer to have your server automatically remove the www. if people type it in or follow links that include it, or you might have your server automatically add it if they don't. The reasons you might want to do one of these things are:
  • Personal preference
  • Have the addresses be consistent
  • Get the most credit for incoming links, explained below under splitting PR

Stripping the www. has worked fine on the vast majority of the sites I've done it with. But there was one notable exception. I'm the webmaster of a popular site which is one of the best in its industry. We've done great in Google, but were nowhere to be found in Yahoo. Searching Yahoo for <> returned only our home page, not any of the other 600+ pages of content. I wrote to Yahoo in Jan. 2005 and they told me that a penalty had been applied but would not tell me what the reason was. They referred me to their generic list of reasons why a site might get penalized, but I couldn't see that we were violating any of their guidelines. I thought I was at a dead end, but then someone suggested that instead of removing the www., we should force the www. I was reluctant to do so because I really hate the www., but I tried it. A day or two later Yahoo started to add pages from our site to their index.

I can't say conclusively that it was the forcing of the www. that did the trick, because I'd also resubmitted our site to Yahoo for review as they suggessted I do once I thought our site was clean, and it could be that a human editor reviewed our site and manually lifted the penalty at the same time I told our server to force the www. By the way, after three months I switched it back, telling the server to remove the www., and we remained inYahoo's good graces, thankfully.

The mechanics of how to strip or force the www. are explained below under splitting PR.

Black Hat SEO penalties

The engines are thought to punish pages and sites that engage in SEO methods the engines don't like,

Orphaned Page -- A page without any internal links pointing to it.

which are referred to as Black Hat SEO. These are covered in the next section. I'll mention one specifically here since you might do it accidentally, and that is having orphaned pages. Why orphaned pages are usually accidental, some webmasters intentionally use orphaned pages to try to trick the engines (see Doorway Pages below), and thus orphaned pages are thought to trigger penalties in some cases.

Duplicate Content penalty

If your site is substantially a mirror of another site, or if pages within your site are substantially similar to other pages within your site, your ranking can suffer.

This does not mean that you can't reprint articles (as long as you have permission, of course). Here's an article on why reprinting doesn't invoke the duplicate content penalty.

Paid Links penalty

Google has stated that it considers sites which sell links to be gaming the system, and in October 2007 it started penalizing them. Paid ads are okay, paid links are not. So what's the difference? Paid links are just links with no other text, and are usually not relevant to the page they appear on. Paid advertising is when the link is accompanied by at least sentence or two of description, and is relevant to the page it appears on.

Actually, it appears that Google wants webmasters to identify even paid ads by adding the "rel=nofollow" attribute to its outgoing links. Many webmasters are bristling at that idea. In any event, it's harder for Google to detect paid ads vs. paid links.

For more on this, see articles by Jennifer Laycock, Andy Beard, Barry Schwartz, and Danny Sullivan.

Unknown Penalties (or, My site has disappeared from the SERPs!)

It is common and normal for sites to temporarily disappear from search engines completely. I can't count the number of times this has happened to one of my sites. I'll be on page one, then suddenly my site is gone -- not even in the top 100 results. I do nothing, and then a couple of days, weeks (or rarely, months) later my site is back on the front page.

If this happened to you, don't panic. First review the dropped site checklist at NetMechanic for possible things you could have done to cause your site to get dropped, and also make sure you're clear on the possible penalties described above. If you're clear on all those things then your site will likely reappear automatically at some point, so there's nothing to do but sit back and wait. The search engine won't tell you why your site was dropped, so there's nothing more for you to do at that point. (Well, you can keep adding high quality, content-rich pages to your site, but you should be doing that anyway.)


Now continue this series below...

« Part 6: NON-Ranking Factors
Part 7: Penalties
Part 8: Black Hat SEO »

I was born into a cult.

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation is a small psychological cult in New York city. My grandparents were members, so my mother was born into it, and so was I. Recently I created a website about the cult to get the word out. I hope you'll check it out.


We'll cry if you don't link to us.


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