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2007: A Search Odyssey? Keynote Conversation with Matt Cutts

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"In this ecosystem," wrote one analyst recently, "Matt Cutts is a brand new oxymoron: the celebrity engineer." In addition to being an oxymoron, though, the same writer reassures us that Matt "is not the dark Sith overlord of the Googleplex," but rather "just a really nice guy," a guy you'd like to have a beer with. However, if you're spamming Google, you'd be smarter to stick with his trademark Sprite if you're going drink for drink with Matt. You don't want him getting more secrets out of you than vice-versa.

Looking for more biographical notes on Matt, you'll find that he "works in the quality group at Google." Evidently, Google isn't too big on titles.

Day Two of Search Engine Strategies London kicked off with the staple keynote conversation, this time led by conference chair Chris Sherman, who interviewed Matt "Jagger" Cutts of Google. Only the most grizzled of grizzled search marketing veterans dared miss this session, and those tiny few skipped out on the misguided grounds that there'd be nothing new to learn.

In fact, Cutts had plenty of new information to share with the large audience, while also touching on some of the basics. As for audience size, certainly the largest SES ever for London – you can always gauge this when the whole group comes together for the keynote. The large hall was nearly full, but with some empty chairs left and plenty of unused standing room, it could have accommodated another couple hundred. Anything the organizers tell you about record attendance: consider it roughly accurate.

Sherman's questions, though sometimes controversial, were delivered in a manner analogous to wait service in a fine restaurant. So smooth you barely noticed.

A longer version of this story for Search Engine Watch members covers more of Cutts' talk, including a look at Google's indexing practices, and conspiracy theories debunked. Click here to learn more about becoming a member.

Cutts led off by highlighting two of the key types of search engine index spam they're fighting these days at Google. By and large, it seems that search quality and spam issues run on a continuum of relevancy and troublesome issues for users – from "most useful and relevant" to "least useful and relevant."

Though we've noticed in some high-level search engine research and patents, there is a school of thought that will be willing to label pages and sites as spam, period, most issues are not as clear-cut. This is reflected in Cutts' focus on "off-topic spam" and "duplicate spam" as warm-button issues for Google. In many cases these aren't spam pages on purpose, but still pose a problem for relevance.

Debunking SEO Myths

Sherman highlighted Cutts' role in debunking popular SEO myths through his blog (Matt Cutts: Gadgets, Google, and SEO – as if he needs the link). For example, does visiting an unindexed Web page with the Google toolbar installed in your browser lead to it being indexed? (Note: this isn't exactly the way that experts in search talk – they might say: "debunking the toolbar thing, you know"... as if you know.)

Sherman asked Cutts to offer his favorite "ridiculous spammer stories." (Kind of like America's Dumbest Criminals.) Cutts referred to the poster who bragged that he used "undetectable methods" to dupe Google – "something like super-duper cloaking." In reality, Cutts and the Google team found it easy to detect the methodology, which included some pages with URLs ending in "/doorway_google."

When it comes to the cold call e-mails from companies offering tricks to boost ranking in Google – such as the cheesier link farm companies – Cutts makes no bones about the fact that he and others at Google will promptly get in touch with them, posing as a customer. Cutts simply follows all the links and talks to them about what they offer until he gets the information he needs.

"They even e-mail Google with automated messages that say 'we can increase the visibility of Google.com.' Here I thought we were a pretty well known site," smiles Cutts.

Not leaving the world of spam, but turning to academic study of it, Sherman asked Cutts about a group that he belongs to that studies "adversarial information retrieval" (essentially, how to run a search engine in an open environment characterized by the presence of pecuniary incentives for Web site publishers to cheat and spam). "It's essentially a program committee that I belong to," says Cutts. "I review several academic papers a year. There's been a real progression of academic interest in spam. Papers have gotten more and more quantitative."

Sherman asked about increased "coopetition" among search engines, alluding to their recent moves to adopt standards on certain elements of the indexing and webmaster relations process. "Are you getting more buddy-buddy?"

Buddy-buddy they are not. "It's definitely the case that we compete very hard," admits Cutts, but "regular webmasters shouldn't have to deal with hassles. It took ten years from robots.txt to nofollow, and it wasn't very long after that that we all agreed on the common Sitemaps protocol, Sitemaps.org."

Cutts went on to explain that the common Sitemap format would ensure that sites could convey information about themselves to the search engines using the same XML schema, so they wouldn't have to submit different information to different search engines. In essence, with Google as the catalyst, the engines together have now collectively embraced a contemporary version of the old third party "site submitters." After all, you do want your site to appear on all the engines, don't you?

Personalization a Threat to SEO?

Sherman then asked about the trend towards search personalization. "I've noticed – and I actually enjoy it very much – that you now serve personalized results to anyone with a Google account who happens to be logged in. It's a great thing. And also a threat to search engine optimization, because there will be no common rankings that apply to every query."

Cutts argued that "the best SEOs don't reverse-engineer particular algorithmic changes; they see what's happening down the road, and try to get ready. Linkbaiting is essentially white hat SEO. The nice thing about personalization is you don't see one monolithic set of results. In 2002, if you ranked on Page 1 for the search phrase [data recovery”, you were happy. Now everyone can rank in the top ten for some niche, so there is no weird step function; it's not winner-take-all anymore."

"Realistically," Cutts continued, "building your strategy around showing up #1 for your trophy phrase is not a good approach. If you're going after that, it's fantastic if you get it, but diversification is even better," he added, evoking the concept of the Long Tail of search query frequency.

Injecting a local flavor, Cutts argued that "you should get different results for searching 'football' in the UK than you do in the US. We're already doing different rankings for many different countries and languages around the world, of course."

Cutts' Favorite Tools

On his favorite online services, Cutts cited a number from Google as well as some for competitors. The one many attendees took note of was Google Browser Sync, which synchronizes your Firefox settings on different computers, no matter where you are (including passwords). On this point among others, Cutts made assurances of privacy protection. Other Cutts favorites include Google Reader, Gmail, Google Calendar, Yahoo Site Explorer, MSN's advanced search, Bloglines, and Ask Smart Answers.

Sherman asked: "If you could boil down to one thing, what is the single best way to improve a site?"

Cutts enthused about Google's new Webmaster Console, the latest iteration of the webmaster relations tool that began life as Sitemaps. "It will alert you to 404 errors, page load slowness, some spam penalties, and integrates application for reinclusion, so it's now a wonderful one-stop shop." Gesturing towards the hallway he saluted Vanessa Fox and her team for building and improving the tools; the crowd applauded appreciatively.

A key feature of the new console is a full backlinks list, something Google plans to develop and improve steadily.

Cutts also noted that Google Webmaster Blog will enable comments. Presumably, this is to take some of the onus of Matt's own blog as a repository for Google feedback.

Sherman identified a sea change in Google's overall approach to communications. "Google used to be seen as monolithic; secretive. Now you're more open."

"This trend will continue," replied Cutts. "We want to be as transparent as possible. After removing spammers, and so on, we want to share more information about how to get better indexed. We just needed more resources and time to be able to communicate better with the outside world. Now that we've built that capability it's more feasible than it once was."

The Future of Google

"Craig Silverstein [director of technology at Google” joked that he wanted Google to be like HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but not killing people," continued Sherman. "What's the future of search going to look like?"

Cutts stressed that his was not the official company line, but he felt that personalization and localization would be key, but also that the effort to build Google Search and related services leads to a new ability: massive data storage and a kind of personalized memory.

"You could almost run a startup for free on Google services. It's never been cheaper to start a business," enthused Cutts. "And today you can search for all kinds of different data. Five-plus years ago, Google was only Web search. Now our mission statement is 'to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible'. I never realized before how much search matters to e-mail, for example. In the past, you had to save important stuff, put it in a folder, or save a file, or something. Now search allows you to find it later. It's like a safety net."

Cutts alluded to a range of other search types: image search, video, code search, and Google Desktop – which, like e-mail, Cutts believes is a safety net because it also remembers all the pages you've visited online and can bring up cached versions. Of course, one man's safety net could be another man's Exhibit A. "As you fast forward, there will be new types of data you can search. The list goes on. Patents, books, etc."

"So, Ubiquitous Google," ventured Sherman.

"I always want there to be competition," concluded Cutts. Yep, even if only so there's another huge brain that can shut off HAL when he starts running amok.

Andrew Goodman is the founder and principal of Page Zero Media and author of Winning Results with Google AdWords.

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