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Last week during a SXSW panel, Matt Cutts, head of Google's search spam team, announced that Google has been working on a new tweak to its algorithm that will punish sites that are too optimized for SEO -- what he called "over-optimized" or "overly SEO'd," according to the recording of the announcement posted on Search Engine Land. Here's what you need to know about the new Google algorithm update, which has not been released yet but will go live in the next few weeks, according to Cutts' announcement.

What Cutts Revealed About the New Algorithm Update

Cutts hadn't planned on mentioning the algorithm update, but was given the perfect opportunity when an attendee asked the following question:

"With so many SEO companies showing up claiming to do SEO, a lot of markets are getting saturated with optimized content...What are you doing to prevent, for example, if you're looking for something, and the first page is just optimized content, and it's not what you're actually looking for? Are you pretty much out of luck if you're not optimizing your site but it has relevant content? If I'm a mom or pop and I'm trying to optimize a site by myself, I'm going to get beat by people paying thousands of dollars."

This algorithm update is working to level the playing field for sites without as many resources to dedicate to SEO. Matt explained the changes as "trying to make the algorithm more adaptive," or being more understanding of sites that have good content even if it isn't search engine optimized like many marketers have learned to do. The sites that will be penalized are those that "throw too many keywords on the page, exchange way too many links, whatever they're doing to go beyond what a normal person would expect."

What Google's Algorithm Update Means Practically for Marketers

If your content is driven by topics, you shouldn't expect to be penalized when the new algorithm update rolls out, even if you do take the time to search engine optimize that content with keywords and relevant links. If your writing is driven by keywords, however, we predict it's more likely you'll suffer some search ranking slips.

What's the difference between a keyword-driven content strategy and a topic-driven content strategy? A content strategy driven by what readers want, not what search engines want, is the direction that Google has been actively working toward rewarding even since last year's Panda updates rolled out. So if you're selecting topics based on what your audience would find helpful, you're doing content strategy right. If you're choosing what to write about based on the keywords you want to be found for, you don't have the reader top of mind; and Google is doing everything they can in its algorithm not to reward such sites in the SERPs.

Said Cutts on the panel, "Make a compelling site. Make a site that's useful. Make a site that's interesting. Make a site that's relevant to people's interests...We're always trying to best approximate if a user lands on a page if they are going to be annoyed...All of the changes we make are designed to approximate, if a user lands on your page, just how happy they are going to be with what they're going to get."

Marketers, business owners, and SEOs could also take a cue from Bing's Duane Forrester, who was also on the panel and addressed the attendee's question after Matt Cutts' initial response. He highlighted the importance of social sharing as a signal others actually like your content -- one of the key indicators of relevancy for search engines. "Does the rest of the world think you have a great product?" Forrester asked. "If they do, they will amplify this. If you're not engaged socially, you're missing the boat because the conversation is happening socially about you and about your content. Those are really important signals for us. Whether you're involved or not is your choice, but those signals still exist whether you're in the conversation or not."

Thankfully, Danny Sullivan asked the burning question we all had (or still have) on our minds -- whether Google is going to release an algorithm update that's designed to hurt the kinds of SEO activities that have been recommended to marketers to help their search rankings. In short, no; this algorithm update won't do that. Cutts clarified by saying, "SEO can often be very helpful. It can make a site more crawlable; it can make a site more accessible; it can think about the words users are going to type whenever they come to a search engine to make sure those words are on a page. The same things you do to optimize your return on investment and make sure things spread virally or socially are often the same things that work from a search engine perspective...but there are some people who take it too far. If you're white hat or doing very little SEO, you're not going to be affected by this change."

So marketers, it sounds like the same rules still apply. Create great content with readers in mind first, search engines in mind second. Then make sure your site is easily crawlable so bots can actually read and index that content. As more information is released, we'll keep you updated on whether this algorithm update will affect the way you approach your content or search engine optimization strategy.

What do you think of penalizing websites for over-optimization? How do you interpret Matt Cutts' announcement?

Image credit: Ed Yourdon