Google's Matt Cutts on SEO: A Retrospective (2000-2005)

Since 2000 Matt Cutts has been working with Google. After a brief stint with the SafeSearch team, where he earned the nickname "porn cookie guy" (thanks Wikipedia... hey, if Google can "borrow" from you I can too, right?) he moved over to the search quality team.

Cutts has pretty much been the voice, face, and brain we tend to associate with search. In fact, it's quite interesting to look back on some of his blog posts, videos, and thoughts 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 is going next.

What follows is sort of a timeline of Cutts' most notable moments.

We'll go year by year, highlighting two or three of the biggest splashes he made. This post has been split into three time periods:

Our story begins with his earliest years at Google. It's a little light, as things didn't really get rolling until 2003.

And if you have some favorites that aren't included here, well, that's what the comment section is for!


Matt Cutts in 2000

Having just joined the Google team in January there wasn't much of note coming from him. Sorry folks, all we have for this 365 day run is that he started working there.


Matt Cutts in 2001

Another pretty light year for our friend. Despite the infancy of SEO at the time, it was clear that negative SEO was on the radar, personalization and user behavior metrics were taking their first steps, and Cutts was ascending the ladder.

The only public statement I've ever read from Cutts from 2001 was in regard to a feature of the Google Toolbar that he was overseeing. The feature would allow users to click either a happy face or an unhappy face based on whether they liked the page. In discussing the feature he noted:

"We do have a lot of safeguards in place to make sure someone can't hurt someone else unfairly."

As noted, the most interesting thing about this feature is that it's the earliest use of user input to impact rankings I know of and that they were aware of the ability of this feature to be used "incorrectly." This is also the first reference I know of to Google being aware of negative SEO (and perhaps the first mechanism to do it).


Matt Cutts in 2002

The only specifically notable comments from Cutts in 2002 were from a discussion with Paul Bruemmer about PageRank and black hat strategies. In their discussion, Cutts said:

"Google's PageRank search technology works by first identifying the link structure of the entire Web, then ranking individual pages based on the number and importance of pages linked to them."

This was the first official reference to importance being a factor in links. Further in the interview he discussed the guidelines and black hat SEO. He stated:

"Stay away from hidden text, hidden links, cloaking, sneaky redirects, lots of duplicate content on different domains, and doorway pages. Webmasters should also stay away from programs that send automatic queries to Google. The worst thing you can do is try to cheat: Shortcuts to boost PageRank or rankings usually do more harm than good. Even if an SEO [search engine optimizer] does think he's found a shortcut, about two-thirds of the time it may be a sting operation. Don't bother with link exchanges, signing guest books, or other tricks – the best use of a Webmaster's time is building good content – and honestly promoting their site. When Google punishes spam like cloaking, we sometimes take out not only the cloaked domain but the SEO's client as well."

While his "two-thirds" assertion was extremely optimistic (I know... I was doing affiliate marketing at the time) the message was clear. "We'll punish you and we will be harsh. Oh, and we'll take out your clients too." Sounds a bit like the wicked witch threatening Dorothy's "little dog, too" but I can't blame them, it was after all the Wild Wild West.


Matt Cutts in 2003

For the veterans in the crowd, 2003 was the year we heard more from Cutts and not coincidentally, the year SEO got hard. It was the year of the Florida update and as Aaron Wall put it "Prior to that point in time, on-page optimization tips from many SEOs would have sounded something like this 'use your keywords heavily everywhere.' But that update changed how on-page-optimization works."

Back then (how old do I sound?) the updates didn't roll out like they do now (and we rode dinosaurs to work). In fact, for you lucky young whippersnappers it looked a lot like:

Flintstones SEO

Google DanceBut let's get back on track; the updates didn't roll out on-the-fly. In fact, the SERPs stayed essentially stable until once every 4 to 6 weeks the "Google Dance" rolled out and shook things up.

If your site improved you knew it would hold for a while; if your site went down, you could make changes, build links and tweak all you liked, you'd have to wait until the next Dance before your efforts would show their results. It was on this very subject that Cutts commented in July:

"Back in January, we changed some scoring stuff. It was subtle enough that most people didn't notice it at all."

And he was right, most people didn't. Website owners did. SEOs did. But most people didn't. Of course the same could be said of most updates, but this was the first time I know of that Cutts commented on the Google Dance. It's only important because of the subject matter and that it's a retrospective and the Google Dance had to be mentioned.

Perhaps more relevant to our chronicling Cutts' top public notations were his comments in March of the year regarding links and their impact on PageRank in light of a new type of penalty that had launched: the PR0 penalty. This penalty essentially took sites from whatever PageRank they held and dropped them to a zero (along with their traffic).

Generally, this penalty had to do with spammy links, a problem Google themselves created when they gave webmasters some green pixels in a toolbar and gave us a benchmark for their monetization. But back to Cutts.

When discussing that links out from your site could impact your site negatively (a step to alleviate the sale of links to poor-quality sites or sites from, shall we say, less than altruistic industries) he noted:

"If someone accidentally does a link to a bad site, that may not hurt them, but if they do twenty, that's a problem."

And Most Importantly...

On September 30, my favorite Google patent was filed with Cutts listed as one of the inventors. Probably the most important publically available information Cutts put out that year. Titled "Information retrieval based on historical data" it was patent application 20050071741.

Interestingly, this document is still relevant today and covers such topics as:

  • Adjusting rankings based on how often a page is clicked when it appears in the search results.
  • Adjusting the rankings based on a perceived desire for new vs. older content.
  • Adjusting rankings based on the traffic to a web page.
  • Basing link weight in part on the relevancy of the linking and linked-to documents.

I still keep this patent highlighted and flip through it occasionally despite first printing it in June 2005. I can't say specifically which parts he wrote of course but this is easily the most important public-facing work he did that year. You can read it if so inclined here.


Matt Cutts in 2004

As you can tell, it just keeps getting more interesting. Following Cutts over the years is starting to give us a glimpse into Google itself (no surprise there).

Things started to get very interesting in 2004, though this was still a quiet year from the perspective of Cutts talking openly. It's the last such year however; in 2005 he gets much more vocal.

Links

AT SES London, Cutts came right out and said what the SEO community had suspected, "Thematic incoming links from authority sites carry more weight than on-page optimization."

This was huge news that put an even higher value on links. The downside in the real world was that Google wasn't yet great at determining which links were relevant and which weren't, so the strategies employed by many were, shall we say, less than ideal from Google's standpoint (as illustrated in the infamous "Nigritude Ultramarine" SEO challenge held at the time).

What we do see here however is that after starting with Google in 2000, Cutts has risen to now filing patents and commenting on global weighting and appearing as the Google rep at SEO conferences.

And if there's any doubt, welcome to...


Matt Cutts in 2005

In 2005 Cutts essentially became the formal Google Guy rather than just the guy who backed into carrying the name. He began blogging over at MattCutts.com (beginning with a post on how to password protect a directory using an htaccess file), doing more interviews, and speaking at conferences. This was his year. Well, this one and pretty much every one that followed.

Nofollow

In January, the three major engines at the time (Google, Yahoo, and... wait for it... MSN) banded together to announce that all three would support the rel="nofollow" attribute. Cutts provided clarification on its use when he said:

"It doesn't mean that it is a bad link, or that you that you hate it, just that this link doesn't belong to me."

He then went on a couple months later on his blog discussing extensions to allow webmasters to visually see which links were nofollowed (I use SEOquake).

Reinclusion Requests

After moving from an email address to a web form earlier in 2005, Google made it easier for webmasters to submit a reinclusion request (now called reconsideration requests – yes, until we hit 2007 I'm going to keep using the "wrong" word). Three interesting pieces from his September 18 post are:

"In the days of monthly index updates it could take 6-8 weeks for a site to be reincluded after a site was approved, and the severest spam penalties can take that long to clear out after an approval. For less severe stuff like hidden text, it may only take 2-3 weeks, depending on when someone looks at the request and if the request is approved."

That's right, if you think it's bad now just think of what it was like then. At best you'd be dealing with 2 to 3 weeks. Most people I know where talking numbers more to the upper side of the spectrum (even for "smaller" stuff).

"Don't bother mentioning that you spend money on AdWords or you're an AdSense publisher. The person who will look at your reinclusion request doesn't care if you have a business relationship with Google. Remember, we need to know 1) that the spam has been corrected or removed and 2) that it isn't going to happen again."

While many doubted that this was true, and you'll find "evidence" on both sides, I've seen none that convinced me that folks who spend money on AdWords get treated better. It was interesting to have an outline from The Horse's Mouth as to what to include. At the time the form was pretty simple.

"I would request reinclusion for one domain at a time. It looks bad if you had 20+ sites all thrown out at once, and you send a reinclusion request for 20 domains in one email."

This suggestion boggled me even at the time. Advice to hold information back from Google in order to succeed in your reinclusion request? Seems he does care about webmasters and site owners (or just slipped up... either/or).

Interestingly, just a couple days after he published this, he announced that Google was starting a program to send alerts to sites being penalized rather than just hitting them with a penalty and leaving it up to the site owner to figure out.

CSS Positioning

At Pubcon, Cutts was asked about the impact of using CSS to position elements. His reply to the question, "CSS positioning? How does it affect ranking?" was:

"Good question, I don't know. If you're doing an include, it probably won't matter either way."

CSS opened the door to spammers allowing then to include such tricks as showing great heaps of content some 3000 px to the left of the page and other tricks. While Google obviously viewed that as spam (and can now easily detect it so don't... just don't) it's interesting to note that in 2005 they weren't weighting this when, as we know, now it's a significant factor in multiple areas including ad placement and above-the-fold content zones.

The saga continues... Continue reading Google's Matt Cutts on SEO: A Retrospective (2006-2010).

About the author

Dave Davies is the CEO of Beanstalk SEO Services, an organic SEO firm out of Victoria, BC, Canada. He writes with over a decade of experience in SEO and Internet Marketing.

He is an industry writer, reporter and speaker who wrote the second edition of SitePoint's SEM Kit, hosts a weekly radio show on Webmaster Radio and has spoken at a number of Search Engine Strategies conferences on topics ranging from ranking on all three major engines to Google patents and Net Neutrality.

Dave got his start in Internet Marketing in 1999 working for a Canadian web hosting company. Like many industry professionals - it didn't take long to connect the dots and figure out that it's easier to convert a client who comes to you than to find them yourself and what better what to do that than the organic results. Dave went from optimizing a single site to working as an affiliate marketer to then becoming the Marketing Manager for another successful SEO firm. From there it didn't take long for him to launch Beanstalk with his wife Mary.