“Optimize” means to make something the best it can be. Search engine optimization is about making your website communicate as well with search engines as it possibly can. So how could anything be overoptimized? Wouldn’t overoptimizing your website mean that your website would be too good?
That’s not what Google’s overoptimization penalty is about. An overoptimized website is not one that has overly awesome content and gives visitors way too good an experience. Overoptimizing a website means using SEO tricks that interfere with a good experience for your visitors.
Overoptimizing interferes with natural language
Good content is well written, useful content. Overoptimized content focuses on keywords in an unnatural way. It doesn’t sound like natural language. Pushing your focus keyword into your content far more than anyone would normally do is called “keyword stuffing.” It’s one of the more obvious types of overoptimization.
There was a time when content like that could deceive search engines, but that time is long past. J. C. Penney famously got in trouble for keyword stuffing (and other Black Hat techniques). Google punished their website severely.
If your content sounds like you’re thinking about the spiders that crawl your website more than the humans who visit, you are probably over optimizing — and definitely not making better content.
Too much focus on technical SEO
Neil Patel, a favorite SEO blogger of ours, makes the excellent point that getting too focused on technical SEO can lead to overoptimization. Technical SEO is about things like page speed (important) and tiny details of meta tags and URLs (not important).
Technical SEO is valuable, but it can never take the place of great content and great user experience.
We’ve met many website owners who want to focus more on technical SEO than on content because they feel that it is easier. It has that air of magic to it — just add schema markup and you will magically outrank your competitors! That’s not true, though. It can be easier to work on technical SEO, and it doesn’t need the ongoing efforts content marketing requires, but it also doesn’t provide the same results.
Check out Neil’s article on overoptimization, linked above, for some specific examples of technical SEO efforts that can get you penalized for overoptimization.
As always, focusing on your human visitors is key for optimum SEO.