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Google's Matt Cutts on SEO: A Retrospective (2006-2010)

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Welcome to the years of paid links. link bait, Caffeine, Google bombs, and page speed as a ranking factor. By this point, Google's Matt Cutts had plenty of important things to teach us all about the evolving landscape of search and SEO.

Our story continues by looking back at some of Cutts' blog posts, videos, and thoughts from 2006 to 2010 to get a better understanding of where Google's been, which in turn can be a great way to get a feel for where Google (and therefore SEO) is going next.

If you're just joining us, we've been going year by year, highlighting two or three of the biggest splashes he made. This post has been split into three time periods:

And away we go...


Matt Cutts in 2006

2006 is a hard year to consolidate into just a few snippets (as is pretty much every year after it) but a few moments stood out most.

BMW

For those who don't know, BMW got busted for hidden content doorway pages on February 4. Tsk tsk, BMW. On the Feb. 7, Cutts posted the following:

"I appreciate BMW's quick response on removing JavaScript-redirecting pages from BMW properties. The webspam team at Google has been in contact with BMW, and Google has reincluded bmw.de in our index. Likewise, ricoh.de has also removed similar doorway pages and has been reincluded in Google's index."

OK – so the quote itself is nothing special, but I needed to include this as it let the world know something very specific. Google is like George Orwell's "Animal Farm". In that book the commandment is, "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." It seems the same is true at Google.

I don't expect that if I got busted for cloaking that Google would be in touch with me personally and that I'd actually get an expression of appreciation from Cutts for addressing a violation of their guidelines. This animal is less equal it seems.

Paid Links

On his blog, Cutts often answers user-submitted questions. Here's one:

Q: If one were to offer to sell space on their site (or consider purchasing it on another), would it be a good idea to offer to add a NOFOLLOW tag so to generate the traffic from the advertisement, but not have the appearance of artificial PR manipulation through purchasing of links?

A: Yes, if you sell links, you should mark them with the nofollow tag. Not doing so can affect your reputation in Google.

While Cutts was careful to say it will affect reputation and not that you're get penalized, he's reiterating that paid links (either buying or selling) can and likely will have a negative impact on your rankings. One could easily add "if caught" as it was 2006 and for those who remember, paid links tended to work far better at the time than they do now.

There was always a lot of flak pointed at Google for statements about nofollowing paid links with the assertion that webmaster's shouldn't have to do Google's job for them (I've heard the same about schema). Either way, it's an important Q&A from the context of highlighting the continuing battle between Google and SEOs in the area of paid links. We'll see more on this below.

GoogleGuy on Google Video

I'd love to be able to post Cutts' initial videos from their original source, but alas, they were published over on Google Video before Google had purchased YouTube. Yes, even before YouTube, Cutts was making videos to help webmasters understand how to deal with Google.

On a similar tangent (and as alluded to above) in August Cutts admitted to being GoogleGuy. GoogleGuy was a username he used on a variety of forums to answer questions and at SES San Jose 2007 (a conference I had the pleasure of speaking at giving me the opportunity to witness this confession live).

While not directly related to a Cutts statement, it was on October 9 that the announcement was made that Google would be acquiring YouTube (for a paltry $1.65 billion).


Matt Cutts in 2007

Let's just cut straight to it as 2007 was an interesting year in search.

Privacy

In discussing privacy, Cutts said in his blog:

"I've seen firsthand how much Google works to protect users' privacy. I personally believe that we take more precautions and safeguards than any other major search engine. We also strongly protect users' privacy outside of Google (e.g. last year when the DOJ tried to get access to users' queries, and Google was the only company out of 30+ that said 'no' and went to court about it – and won)."

I'm going to give credit where it's due, say what you will, given the data stores Google has, he's right in that Google has done a decent job of protecting user data from outside access. He goes on to say:

"... your ISP has a superset of data that Google has, because everything you do passes through your ISP. So your ISP may have much more detailed records about places where you go on the net, plus they have a verified identity with something like a credit card, and they actually know which IPs you're on."

Suddenly the switch to "(not provided)" in 2013 makes a lot more sense.

Snippets

Let's begin with a video Cutts produced with the help of Google's Kirkland offices:

In the video, Cutts talks about how the data is selected to appear in the search results. Aside from just being interesting in-and-of-itself, it's a unique opportunity to hear how it was done in 2007. I also find it interesting that when the office had Cutts at their disposal and an hour to kill the first thing they thought to do was create some videos.

SEO Emails and Other Pubcon Musings

Probably my favorite note from Cutts in all of 2007 was when he stated in his keynote at Pubcon, "[The cold call emailers] 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."

But that's more for humor. Other great quotes from Pubcon were:

"Linkbaiting is essentially white hat SEO."

As true today is it was then, assuming the bait itself is ethical (i.e., just good content). And:

"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."

From copy to links to keywords, diversity is security. Write it on your hand so you don't forget.

Essentially Cutts spent Pubcon and much of 2007 taking Google's message from, "Here's what not to do," and adding in the part about, "Here's what you should be doing," in ways that gave webmasters actual action items and not just confusing jargon that left us more confused than helped and worried that the next thing we dreamt up would get added to their naughty list anyways.


Matt Cutts in 2008

Free Links

We all love links right? The only problem is that they take so darned long to develop (assuming you're not looking for ones to trigger an "unnatural links" warning/penalty. With this in mind it's the wording Cutts used to announce the launch of what is probably one of the best features in Webmaster Tools. He wrote:

"I can't believe a new feature from Google isn't getting more notice, because it converts already-existing links to your site into much higher quality links, for free. The Google webmaster blog just announced that you can find the pages that link to 404 pages on your site."

Even today this feature doesn't get the attention it deserves, but that's OK. Let's just keep it between us.

Matt Cutts Likes Keyword Cramming

OK, that's obviously tongue in cheek, but a video interview with Cutts helps illustrate the limitations Google faced then and the contradicting nature of what webmasters are told to do.

What Cutts says here is that we need to make sure to get in all the keywords people might search. The problem is twofold:

  • This isn't going to read properly and is going to use terms people might not be familiar with as synonyms. Fortunately Google has addressed this and is much better and filling in there blanks themselves (e.g., understanding that "usb drive" and "thumb drive" are likely meant to produce the same results).
  • The worse problem: This is exactly the opposite of what would be recommended today. It's this conflicting element that results in animosity and confusion. How can Google hold against me today what they told me to do yesterday?

I include this as a critical bit of Cutts from the year as, while the information itself is interesting enough, it's more this conflict that makes this memorable.

Irrelevant Link Bait

In an interview with Eric Enge, Cutts went on record stating:

"So, what are the links that will stand the test of time? Those links are typically given voluntarily. It is an editorial link by someone, and it's someone that's informed. They are not misinformed, they are not tricked; there is no bait and switch involved. It's because somebody thinks that something is so cool, so useful, or so helpful that they want to make little sign posts so that other people on the web can find that out.

Now, there is also the notion of link bait or things that are just cool; maybe not helpful, but really interesting. And those can stand the test of time as well. Those links are links generated because of the sheer quality of your business or the value add proposition that you have that's unique about your business. Those are the things that no one else can get, because no one else has them or offers the exact same thing that your business offers."

So the interesting thing here that made it one of my favorite tidbits of the year was that Cutts essentially told the truth (for the time) despite the fact that it contradicts previous statements. Here he's saying that a link to a resource that isn't particularly helpful but is cool holds weight which could be construed as meaning that the voluntary nature of a link is more important than its relevancy or usefulness.


Matt Cutts in 2009

PageRank Evaporation

The premise of PageRank sculpting is simple: if you have 10 internal links on a page the PageRank internally will flow with 1/10th heading to each target page (I'm brutally over-simplifying here but I'm hoping you'll forgive me).

The idea behind PageRank sculpting was that if you nofollow 5 of those links (e.g., to your privacy policy or other non-keyword-targeting page), then you would pass 1/5th weight to the remaining 5. And in fact, that was exactly the way it worked. Until he revealed that:

"So what happens when you have a page with "ten PageRank points" and ten outgoing links, and five of those links are nofollowed? Let's leave aside the decay factor to focus on the core part of the question. Originally, the five links without nofollow would have flowed two points of PageRank each (in essence, the nofollowed links didn't count toward the denominator when dividing PageRank by the outdegree of the page). More than a year ago, Google changed how the PageRank flows so that the five links without nofollow would flow one point of PageRank each."

Essentially this turned everything upside down. Fortunately I personally didn't chase after PageRank sculpting as a strategy as it didn't make sense but rather than it going from being a positive, it turned into a negative with (in the example above) 50 percent of the internal PageRank going absolutely nowhere. This became known as PageRank Evaporation.

Of everything from Cutts in 2009, this may be the more important.

Or was it...

Caffeine

In an interview, Cutts was asked about the Caffeine update. While the full update didn't roll out across Google until 2010 they had put it in a publically accessible sandbox location in August and rolled it out on one live data center later in the year. This video gives great insight into how Google works.

As an infrastructure update, rather than algorithmic, the changes were huge and far-reaching and really showed the push into speed and faster indexing to allow for a broader spectrum of search capabilities predicting advances into new areas of search and new features.

Google Bombs

And one I'm going to include in my shortlist of important tidbits from Cutts was when he wrote on his blog about Google bombs. In answer to a question regarding how automated the detection of Google bombs are when Obama's White House page no longer ranked for "failure" only a few hours after it became public he replied:

"The short answer is that we do two different things – both of them algorithmic – to handle Google bombs: detect Google bombs and then mitigate their impact. The second algorithm (mitigating the impact of Google bombs) is always running in our productionized systems. The first algorithm (detecting Google bombs) has to process our entire web index, so in most typical cases we tend not to run that algorithm every single time we crawl new web data. I think that during 2008 we re-ran the Google bomb detection algorithm 5-6 times, for example.

The defusing algorithm is running all the time, but the algorithm to detect Google bombs is only run occasionally. We re-ran our algorithm last week and it detected both the 'failure' and the 'cheerful achievement' Google bombs, so our system now minimizes the impact of those Google bombs. Instead of a whitehouse.gov URL, you now see discussion and commentary about those queries."

This discussion with Cutts is important for two reasons:

  • It illustrates the legitimate questioning about the highly coincidental timing of a Google bomb being publically mentioned and it's solving by Google. Are there manual actions being taken? Not if you ask Cutts, but I do sometimes wonder.
  • Nostalgia. I remember the Google bombs well and it's fun to think back to them.

If you don't know about the Google bombs you can find a bit more info on his blog at http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/defuse-googlebomb/.

And a Quote ...

To end the 2009 section of this post I'd like to end with a great quote from Cutts in his blog:

"The objective is not to 'make your links appear natural', the objective is that your links are natural."

Good advice.

Matt Cutts in 2010

Google I/O

The video is an hour long but it's an interesting enough watch when you have time. Cutts hosts a session at the Google I/O conference and tears some sites apart:

The funniest part comes in at about 5:48 where he essentially recommends being lazy. If you closed your eyes and didn't know who was speaking you'd almost think he was a black hat during this part.

The video itself has nothing revolutionary in it, but I referenced it a number of times and if you want to get a good understanding of where Google was at in 2010, this is great video. It also gave me personally a different take on Cutts and reinforced to me that:

  • He's a human.
  • He quasi-contradicts himself over time. (See previous point)

Page Speed

In February, Cutts put out a video discussing the important of page speed vs. relevancy:

In this he alluded to Google potentially using this as a factor in ranking.

Two months later he discussed the announcement that they were doing just that in his blog. On the subject he wrote:

"I know that there will be a lot of discussion about this change, and some people won't like it. But I'm glad that Google is making this step, both for the sake of transparency (letting webmasters know more about how to do better in Google) and because I think this change will make the web better. My takeaway messages would be three-fold: first, this is actually a relatively small-impact change, so you don't need to panic. Second, speeding up your website is a great thing to do in general. Visitors to your site will be happier (and might convert more or use your site more), and a faster web will be better for all. Third, this change highlights that there are very constructive things that can directly improve your website's user experience. Instead of wasting time on keyword meta tags, you can focus on some very easy, straightforward, small steps that can really improve how users perceive your site."

This was a pivotal moment in SEO. Until this point all we'd heard from Cutts in regards to rankings had mainly to do with content, links, link structure, and making sure the code allowed the bots to get through and prioritize.

This was the first time crawlable code was compared with other crawlable code and one deemed better than the other to a point where it was made a ranking factor. SEO was no longer just about getting good content in front of visitors; it had become about making changes no one would notice to eek fractions of seconds improvements in things like load time.

SEO grew up then and Cutts was the one who announced it.

The saga continues... Continue reading Google's Matt Cutts on SEO: A Retrospective (2011-2013).


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