I've always advised people not to worry about search engine optimization (SEO) with the explanation that it's the job of the search engine to optimize its performance -- not yours.
Over on SEOBook, there's a great article pointing out how Google is now measuring any attempt at raising the rank of a web page as the work of a spammer -- no matter the quality of the content -- and it will penalize the site.
Any attempt to modify the rank of a web page, after it's been ranked, could spell disaster for the site owner.
A little known Google patent called Ranking Documents details what Google is looking at. Here is the explanation:
Google may shift the rankings of your site, in what appears to be a random manner, before Google settles on a target rank.
Let's say that you're building links to a site, and the site moves up in the rankings. You would assume that the link building has had a positive effect...
Google then toys with you for a while before sending your site plummeting to the target rank. This makes it harder to determine cause and effect.
If you're a webmaster doing anything at all that might be considered an effort to improve rank, then you're a "spammer".
This is a messed up situation because even if you change what you were doing to follow the line of Google's acceptable SEO practices, it is still viewed as an attempt to modify Google's index and thus it is the work of a spammer.
The massive Panda algorithm change last year caused havoc among hundreds of thousands of web sites whose rankings changed overnight. If they did anything to try and regain their lost ranks, (and lost business) that immediately flags Google as the work of spammers!
This explains why the scrapers of legitimate sites rank higher than the original because they haven't tried to change their initial rank.
If you try to improve the quality of your site, that can work against you. For example, HubPages tried to restore its original rankings in the wake of Panda by improving the quality of the content by deleting pages, and by trying to improve grammar and even spelling. Nothing worked until it republished with subdomains, thus starting with a clean sheet.
At the time, HubPages CEO Paul Edmondson told me that there seemed was a random element at work in Google's rankings so they couldn't determine which type of SEO was working. This is a direct match with the language in Google's Ranking Documents patent description:
During the transition from the old rank to the target rank, the transition rank might cause:
- a time-based delay response,
- a negative response
- a random response, and/or
- an unexpected response
Be careful if you try to improve the quality of any of your pages by adding links, adding information, or anything at all!
Once engraved into the fabric of the Internet the content must be unchanged or Google will flag you as a spammer and penalize your ranking. The permalink has become a permafrost for content.
Take a look at the full article on SEOBook: Is Search Broken? Does Google Trick SEOs With Random SERP Ranking Changes?
Also, my article from 2007: Is search broken? | ZDNet