Google is right to penalize sites that over-optimize internal links

November 21, 2008 •

In today’s blog post at Search Engine Journal, Ann Smarty reveals results indicating that Google penalizes sites with over-optimized internal links.

Specifically, she examined the effect of linking to the Home page using keyword rich anchor text. These results are very instructive (thanks Ann!), and they make a lot of sense. Google is right to penalize sites with over-optimized internal links. Here’s why…

When a visitor first arrives at your site, one of the first things they’re gonna try and do is find the Home page. (Jakob Nielsen: Top Ten Guidelines for Homepage Usability) And when they do, they’ll look for a link, menu or button that says “Home” (or they look for a logo at the top left of the page). They won’t look for a link that says, “Computer Spare Parts Home” or “SEO Copywriter Home” or “Red Tennis Shoes Home.”

So by optimizing links to your Home page, you’re certainly not improving usability. Your optimization is purely an SEO tactic with no visitor benefit. (Indeed, if you replace all straight “Home” links with optimized links, you’d be actively undermining usability.)

Why should this affect your ranking? Simple. Google wants quality, helpful sites in its SERPs. If you make your site less usable, that’s not gonna reflect well on Google, so it makes perfect sense that your ranking will drop as a result.

I hate to say it (well… err… no, actually, I don’t ;-)), but Ann’s results reinforce what good SEO copywriters have been saying for years: “never sacrifice readability for searchability.” It’s also what Google’s been saying all along.

And, although Ann’s results relate to Home page links only, the usability message (and maybe even the penalty) applies to all links. Don’t over-optimize them. Here’s just a few reasons why:

  1. 79% of users scan; only 16% read word-by-word. (Nielsen: How Users Read on the Web)
  2. People look for links when scanning a page. (Nielsen: How Users Read on the Web)
  3. Concise copy is 58% more usable, and scannable copy is 47% more usable. (Nielsen: Concise, SCANNABLE, and Objective: How to Write for the Web). Over-optimizing links makes them both less concise and less scannable.
  4. Low-literacy visitors don’t scan effectively. They tend to read word-for-word. And if the text gets to dense, they look for the next link, often skipping important info in the process. If that link is also dense, they’re more likely to skip it too, resulting in more info skipped. (Nielsen: Lower-Literacy Users)
  5. The first two words of scannable items, like links, are vital, because they’re often all the visitor sees. They should be words that carry the most information. (Nielson: Passive Voice Is Redeemed For Web Headings, Writing Style for Print vs. Web and Top Ten Web Design Mistakes of 2005) And that generally won’t be your keywords. In most cases, the visitor is already on a page related to your keywords. Starting a link with those same keywords really only tells visitors that the destination page is related to the current page. It doesn’t tell them anything notable about the destination page, so they can decide whether they want to read it. Knowing that it’s related to the current page isn’t enough.
  6. People love clicking on links; it’s the Internet’s most used feature. (Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer: Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use) So you want to make it easy for them to do what they like, and to find what they’re looking for when they do it.

Maybe Google is already taking all of these usability issues into account, maybe it’s not. One thing’s certain though: your visitors sure are!

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Ross Hill wrote on November 23rd, 2008

Overoptimise - what a funny word. Surely that could only exist in the seo world..

comment avatar
Glenn (Owner) wrote on November 23rd, 2008

Chuckle. Sadly, the seo world is full of things that could only exist in the seo world!

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