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UPDATE January 2, 2004 — Google seems to have returned to nearly normal. It seems it has increased the threshold for triggering the OOP. Rankings for my own and my clients’ sites have returned to their Pre-Florida level.

On November 15, 2003, the SERPs (Search Engine Result Pages) in Google were dramatically altered. Although Google has been known to go through a reshuffling (appropriately named a Google Dance) every 2 months or so, this ‘Dance’ seems to be more like a drunken Mexican salsa that its usual conservative fox-trot.

Most likely, you will already know if your web site has been affected. You may have seen a significant drop-off in traffic around Nov. 15. Three of my sites have been hit. I’ve lost a #1 ranking for “email marketing software” and a #1 ranking for “colon cleansing,” among many others. While one could understand dropping down a few positions, since November 15, the sites that previously held these rankings are nowhere to be found in the top 10,000 rankings (you can use a free tool at to track your rankings). Such radical repositionings have left many mom-and-pop and small businesses devastated and out of luck for the holiday season. With Google controlling approximately 85% of Internet searches, many businesses are finding a need to lay off workers or rapidly cancel inventory orders. This situation deserves a closer look.

What the Early Research is Showing

From what early research shows, it seems that Google has put into place what has been quickly termed in the industry as an ‘Over Optimization Penalty’ (OOP) that takes into account the incoming link text and the on-site keyword frequency. If too many sites that link to your site use link text containing a word that is repeated more than a certain number of times on your home page, that page will be assessed the penalty and either demoted to oblivion or removed entirely from the rankings. In a sense Google is penalizing sites for being optimized for the search engines–without any forewarning of a change in policy.

Here is what else we know:

  • The OOP is keyword specific, not site specific. It has selected only certain keywords to apply the OOP for. As an example, my informational site for Broadwick, was #3 for “email marketing” and is no longer in the top 10,000 results. However, it remains #1 for “email marketing resource”

  • Certain highly competitive keywords have lost many of the listings. For example, 92 of the former-top 100 sites for “Celebrex” are gone. 83 are gone for “Xanax.” 65 for “glucosamine.” (source:

How to Know if Your Site Has Been Penalized

There are a few ways to know if your site has been penalized. The first, mentioned earlier, is if you noticed a significant drop in traffic around the 15th of November you’ve likely been hit. Here are ways to be sure:

  1. Go to Type in any search term you recall being well-ranked for. See your site logs to see which terms you received search engine traffic from. If your site is nowhere to be found it’s likely been penalized.

  2. Type in the search term you suspect being penalized for, followed by “-dkjsahfdsaf” (or any other similar gibberish, without the quotes). This will remove the OOP and you should see what your results should be.

  3. Or, simply go to to have this automated for you. Just type in the search term and see quickly what the search engine results would be if the OOP was not in effect. This site, put up less than a week ago, has quickly gained in popularity, becoming one of the 5000 most visited web sites on the Internet in a matter of days.

The Basics of SEO Redefined. Should One De-Optimize?

Search engine optimization consultants such as myself have known for years that the basics of SEO are:

  • put your target keyword or keyphrase in your title, meta-tags, and alt-tags

  • put your target keyword or keyphrase in an H1 tag near the top of your page

  • repeat your keyword or keyphrase 5-10 times throughout the page

  • create quality content on your site and update it regularly

  • use a site map (linked to from every page) that links to all of your pages

  • build lots of relevant links to your site

  • ensure that your target keyword or keyphrase is in the link text of your incoming links

Now, however, the best practices for keyword frequency and link text will likely trigger the Google OOP. There is surely no denying that there are many low quality sites have used link farms and spammed blog comments in order to increase their PageRank (Google’s measure of site quality) and link popularity. However, a differentiation must be made from these sites and quality sites with dozens or hundreds of pages of informational well-written content that have taken the time to properly build links.

So if you have been affected, what can you do? Should one de-optimize their site, or wait it out? Should one create one site for Google and one for the ‘normal engines?’ Is this a case of a filter been turned on too tight that Google will fix in a matter of days or something much more?

These are all serious questions that no one seems to have answers to. At this point we recommend making the following changes to your site if, and only if, your rankings seem to have been affected.

  1. Contact a few of your link partners via email. Ask them to change the link text so that the keyword you have been penalized for is not in the link text or the keyphrase is in a different order than the order you are penalized for.

  2. Open up the page that has been penalized (usually your home page) and reduce the number of times that you have the keyword on your site. Keep the number under 5 times for every 100 words you have on your page.

  3. If you are targeting a keyphrase (a multiple-word keyword) reduce the number of times that your page has the target keyphrase in the exact order you are targeting. Mix up the order. For example, if you are targeting “Florida web designer” change this text on your site to “web site designer in florida” and “florida-based web site design services.”

It is important to note that these ‘de-optimization’ steps should only be taken if you know that you have been affected by the Google OOP.

Why did Google do this? There are two possible answers. First, it is possible that Google has simply made an honest (yet very poor) attempt at removing many of the low-quality web sites in their results that had little quality content and received their positions from link farms and spamdexing. The evidence and the search engine results point to another potential answer.

A second theory, which has gained credence in the past days within the industry, is that in preparation for its Initial Public Offering (possibly this Spring), Google has developed a way to increase its revenue. How? By removing many of the sites that are optimized for the search engines on major commerical search terms, thereby increasing the use of its AdWords paid search results (cost-per-click) system. Is this the case? Maybe, maybe not.

Perhaps both of these reasons came into play. Perhaps Google execs thought they could

1) improve the quality of their rankings,
2) remove many of the ‘spammy’ low-quality sites
3) because of #2, increase AdWords revenues and
4) because of better results and more revenue have a better chance at a successful IPO.

Sadly, for Google, this plan had a detrimental flaw.

What Google Should Do

While there are positives that have come from this OOP filter, the filter needs to be adjusted. Here is what Google should do:

  1. Post a communiqué on its web site explaining in as much detail as they are able what they have done and what they are doing to fix it;

  2. Reduce the weight of OOP;

  3. If the OOP is indeed a static penalty that can only be removed by a human, change it to a dynamic penalty that is analyzed and assessed with each major update; and

  4. Establish an appeal process through which site owners which feel they are following all rules and have quality content can have a human (or enlightened spider) review their site and remove the OOP if appropriate.

When this recent update broke on November 15, webmasters clamored in the thousands to the industry forums such as The mis-update was quickly titled “Florida Update 2003” and the initial common wisdom was that Google had made a serious mistake that would be fixed within 3-4 days and everyone should just stay put and wait for Google to ‘fix itself.’ While the rankings are still dancing, this fix has yet to come. High quality sites with lots of good content that have done everything right are being severely penalized.

If Google does not act quickly, it will soon lose market share and its reputation as the provider of the best search results. With Yahoo’s recent acquisition of Inktomi, Alltheweb/FAST, and Altavista, it most likely will soon renege on its deal to serve Google results and may, in the process, create the future “best search engine on the ‘net.” Google, for now, has gone bananas in its recent meringue, and it may soon be spoiled rotten.

UPDATE January 2, 2004 — Google seems to have returned to nearly normal. It seems it has increased the threshold for triggering the OOP. Rankings for my own and my clients’ sites have returned to their Pre-Florida level.

This Web Marketing article was written by Ryan P Allis on 2/9/2005

Ryan P. Allis, 20, is the author of Zero to One Million, a guide to building a company to $1 million in sales, and the founder of Ryan is also the CEO of Broadwick Corp., a provider of the permission-based email marketing software and CEO of Virante, Inc., a web marketing and search engine optimization firm. Ryan is an economics major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he is a Blanchard Scholar. [learn more.