Google's Matt Cutts on SEO: A Retrospective (2011-2013)

Panda. Google vs. Bing. Penguin. Guest blogging. The years of 2011 to 2013 were nothing short of tumultuous for the search industry. And as the voice and face of Google, Matt Cutts felt the wrath of angry webmasters and marketers.

We continue our look back at some of Cutts' 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 (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:

From 2011 onward, things should be pretty familiar to most of you. Still, there is much to learn from the past few years.


Matt Cutts in 2011

This was the year of the first Panda update and, let's be honest, it's easier to remember things from 3 years ago that 13. Believe me, in searching for the past stories I knew were out there I was off by as much as a couple years in the events from the early 2000s.

So let's look at the top few things from Cutts in 2011 ...

Rel="author"

This video is a good watch for anyone interested in how Google wanted to treat the authorship tag:

At this stage it wasn't cross-domain but it's alluded to, but more interesting (to me anyways) is when Cutts discusses authors themselves holding a value that will pass to their content on the sites of others (when cross-domain authorship applies). There's also a little slip around the four minute mark where he talks in the present tense about cross-domain authorship (but catches himself quickly).

Authorship is important; I think we all know that. It's interesting to hear what it's intended to do and while we can debate now how authorship value is passing, knowing what it's intended to be can shed light on what Google is likely working toward in their quest to understand individuals and their trustability.

Bing Copying Their Results

Cutts doesn't seem to get angry much (I suppose that's easy enough when you can simply get even), but when rumor spread that Bing may be copying the search results from Google, Google ran a test and confirmed it and Cutts blogged about it – well... yeah. I suppose since he couldn't get even with Bing it makes sense that he seemed a little mad.

Before we get into his comments on the subject, let's compare a sample set of search results for gibberish phrases that Google purposely set the results for in their testing:

Google vs. Bing Copying Results

There were more examples and if you read his full blog post on the subject here you can see them as well as read his full rant about the subject and even watch a video of him squaring off against Bing's Harry Shum and Rich Skrenta from Blekko. As he noted, he's not great at being snarky but directs those hoping for more to watch the following:

But to hear it straight from Cutts, his words on the subject were:

"If clicks on Google really account for only 1/1000th (or some other trivial fraction) of Microsoft's relevancy, why not just stop using those clicks and reduce the negative coverage and perception of this? And if Microsoft is unwilling to stop incorporating Google's clicks in Bing's rankings, doesn't that argue that Google's clicks account for much more than 1/1000th of Bing's rankings?

I really did try to be calm and constructive in this post, so I apologize if some frustration came through despite that–my feelings on the search panel were definitely not feigned. Since people at Microsoft might not like this post, I want to reiterate that I know the people (especially the engineers) at Bing work incredibly hard to compete with Google, and I have huge respect for that. It's because of how hard those engineers work that I think Microsoft should stop using clicks on Google in Bing's rankings. If Bing does better on a search query than Google does, that's fantastic. But an asterisk that says "we don't know how much of this win came from Google" does a disservice to everyone. I think Bing's engineers deserve to know that when they beat Google on a query, it's due entirely to their hard work. Unless Microsoft changes its practices, there will always be a question mark."

Why is this important? Well for one this is the first time I think I've ever read or heard Cutts get publically mad. I'm sure it happens privately but I'd yet to actually witness it (even when I thought it was deserved),

Secondly, this event highlights a moment in search history. The moment when not just the technologies were being infringed on, but the final product. Google may have patented everything else, but apparently that didn't extend to the finished product. If I was a lawyer I probably would have had some fun with that, but I'm not – and it's 2014, not 2011.

A Panda Attack

I promised it earlier and it's only fair to include what was the biggest SEO event of the year, the attack of the Panda. On February 23 it hit hard affecting 12 percent of search queries. In describing the update he said:

So it wasn't an attack on spam, it was an improvement to search quality. An important internal distinction I'm sure but to me that's a bit like saying (as he has), "There is no sandbox, there are just elements of the algorithm that may look and act like them." (I'm paraphrasing) In November of the year he spoke on the subject of recovery when he said:

"Improve the quality of content or if there is some part of your site that has got especially low-quality content, or stuff that really not all that useful, then it might make sense to not have that content on your site."

He also discussed the issue of scrapers in a reply to a question sent to him:

The Panda update was a turning point in SEO and, as had become usual, Cutts was the figurehead for Google in helping webmasters get a handle on what was happening. Onsite SEO took a hard turn from a focus on keyword density (remember that?) and pure mathematics to compelling copy and visitor experience.

While anyone doing SEO might not have loved this change (or any other major shift for that matter) it put the focus where it should be to maximize a website's health. Finally the goal of Google in working to results that users like match with the efforts of SEO professionals in seeking rankings. In the end it works well for site owners who want conversions and where the path to them is via rankings.


Matt Cutts in 2012

2012 was probably the most turbulent year in SEO. Pandas and Penguins ransacked the results pages and Cutts was at the center of it all (at least from a public standpoint).

On top of that the nature of the Internet itself was in question PIPA was on the table. And of course, Cutts was vocal about that too. Let's take a look at some of the top Cuttsisms.

PIPA (Protect IP Act)

If not before, Cutts made his position on the issue very clear in his blog. He wrote:

"Now it's time to rally and get loud. It's time to call your Senators. Heck, it's time to ask your parents to call their Senators. If you think the internet is something different, something special, then take a few minutes to protect it. Groups that support SOPA have contributed nine times more money in Washington D.C. than our side. We need to drown out that money with the sound of our voices. I'd like to flood every Senator's phone, email, and office with messages right up until January 24th."

So Cutts extends his influence past search and into the political spectrum (not for the first time but certainly the most aggressively I've seen). While interesting purely from the context of Cutts' career, it's also interesting to look through his time with Google and in the technology sector as he grew from the SafeSearch guy with not a ton to say into the search guy speaking not just on Google but on Bing thefts and now political issues.

Google Penguin

Penguin was an algorithm designed to target low quality links built only to impact search rankings. Rather than work on ways to determine which links are low quality, Google opted to punish website owners who had these links.

The logic of this approach being that if the punishment is severe enough, people won't use the strategies thus making the life of a Google engineer easier. Like cutting off the hand of a thief for stealing a pie.

Yes, the punishment far exceeds the crime, but people will think twice about taking that pie, no matter how hungry they are. Yes, what I'm saying is that Google acts a lot like the medieval judiciary system.

But back to Cutts...

When discussing the update and whether it was a penalty he said:

"No, neither Penguin nor Panda are manual penalties," explaining that Penguin was designed to tackle "the stuff in the middle" between fantastic, high quality content and spam. Panda was all about spam, but the need for Penguin arose from this middle ground.

"It does demote web results, but it's an algorithmic change, not a penalty. It's yet another signal among over 200 signals we look at.

A penalty is a manual action taken against a site and you will pretty much always be notified in Webmaster Tools if it's a penalty affecting your site."

So, what we have here is the explanation that Penguin was built to filter link quality. I found it a bit coincidental that the Penguin update took place at roughly the same time as 1 million "unnatural links" warnings were sent out to webmasters.

Now, I pick on Google a bit (as you can tell) but in the end, we created the bed we were lying in. I can blame Google for over-punishing (true in many cases), but when we look back at what Cutts has told us over the years and how any advice got almost immediately abused, we really can't blame them.

So now website owners were suffering due to the actions of previously successful strategies that we were told not to do. But there was a darker side and Cutts needed to address that too. If poor quality links can trigger a penalty (or algorithmic devaluation) then the issue needed to be addressed...

Negative SEO

2012 was the year that negative SEO returned to the forefront of our consciousness. I know that I personally had a client suffer a sudden spike in poor quality links with the anchor text "payday loans" and other similar permutations. The client wasn't at all involved with loans or the financial sector at all and yet... the unnatural links warning followed.

The concern (and legitimate obviously) was that a competitor could simply purchase large numbers of known-bad links and negatively impact your domain. Here's what Cutts had to say on the subject:

First, interesting that he refers to the webspam team thinking about negative SEO when it's in the context of algorithm updates that he noted previously weren't from that team, but let's set that aside.

Second, the big problem here is that Cutts is basically suggesting that website owners now have extra work on their plates in monitoring all their links and making sure to disavow the ones that might be a threat. This assumes that all website owners know how to do that or even that they should.

Another issue from this video is that he states, if a competitor is trying to frame someone in the eyes of the webspam team, there's a simple way to deal with it using the disavow tool. This directly contradicts Google's own statements on reconsideration.

Let's say that the webspam team takes the bait (and I've seen it with my own eyes). Google specifically states that once a penalty is in place they need to see efforts to remove those links prior to a reconsideration request being filed. So now the site owner is dealing with lost revenue, the cost and/or effort of getting the links removed as best they can, the time delay in hearing back from Google and then the delay in getting their rankings back.

While I don't blame Cutts for this issue obviously, his explanation of how Google's working for site owners here is simplistic and not altogether truthful.

And this brings us to...


Matt Cutts in 2013

2013 will be the last year we cover as we've just begun 2014. This piece will be updated in January 2015 with the best of Cutts this year. Will it be the knowing look at iAquire purchased links? Will it be the MyBlogGuest issues or is there even better to come?

Speaking of guest blogging, let's begin there with...

Guest Blogging

Let's be clear, this wasn't the first time we'd heard about guest blogging from Cutts, but he gave some great clarification. With all the confusion over guest blogging based on a few of his previous statements, Cutts does a decent job of bringing it all back to Earth in this video.

In short the message is, "Don't build links on crappy sites and use guest blogging as a method among others to get your name out there." A good reminder that there's very little black and white in the realm of SEO, just common sense. Thanks, Matt.

Matt Cutts on Everything

Speaking at PubCon 2013 Matt pretty much covered the full gambit of SEO-related topics. From discussing Hummingbird (more on that later) to rich snippets. The video can be viewed at:

I obviously can't cover all the areas he addressed here (see a great recap here), but the big takeaway from the content of this article (who is Cutts and why is this of key importance) is that in this video he discusses the "why" of some of the huge changes. At about the 3 minute mark Cutts gets goaded into replying to the thrashing the day before by Jason Calcanis (which is a bit entertaining), but at the 35 minute mark he does a great job showing us what they're dealing with on their end.

It's interesting; we generally view Google as an entity without remembering that it's filled with people. As he lists off the critiques of the services by major media outlets and the problems outlined in them (scraper sites, spammers, content farms, etc.) and the picture he paints and his reaction, while guarded as always, is one of the first times it really hit home to me personally that on their end it's not a matter of fighting little battles it's a matter of having the world watch you, say you're not doing a good job as you put in another late night, and suddenly the view of Cutts and the crew at Google take on a more human form.

While I've always found Cutts to be a pleasant guy when I've talked to him, one always goes away with the impression that while humorous and personable, he's got skin as thick as a tank and the ability to take you down. This was a change to all that in which we saw that he is affected by what's going on around him, that black hat is almost a personal attack.

While there were tons of tidbits in the session on a pure SEO level, none of it was really unknown at the time (though nice to have it all put together into one long presentation) the reason this video struck me as one of the more important the second I saw it was this human element I hadn't seen before.

The final Cuttsism we'll cover for 2013 will leave us with one of the highlights of the year...

Hummingbird

The actual Cutts comments on Hummingbird are in the Pubcon video above but the quiet launch of it on August 20 (announced to the public on September 26) makes the following video from July 8 more interesting:

In the video, Cutts is answering a question about how voice search is changing query syntax. He gets into discussing the changing way page content needs to be viewed. While I didn't first see this video and think, "Hey, they can't do that effectively yet," it was very interesting when the update did finally roll out.

Hummingbird was more of an infrastructure change. While 90 percent of queries showed adjustments, they were very minor. This update was more about adjusting the infrastructure and rewriting the algorithms to deal with the more complex tasks Google was working on (like voice).

This video is important because it highlights the importance of listening not just to what Cutts is saying but what it might mean. When he talks about changes in how Google needs to treat content in light of shifting user behavior or technology, we need to stop and think, "Have any of the recently algorithms done that?" If the answer is "no" or "not well" and it's a topic he's covering, you know that a change is coming.

Matt Cutts in Conclusion

I'll let each reader draw for themselves the impact Cutts has had or what's more important. These are the highlights of his career with my eyes and in retrospect but as mentioned in the beginning, I welcome your additions in the comments below.

Before we end this post, I'll leave you with a few of the funner (not officially a word but it should be) things I've seen over the year and in compiling and sorting the content for this article. Just a few things to lighten the mood while still calling it work.

Matt Cutts at School

Want to read the papers Cutts worked on when he was at UNC? Well you can at http://www.cs.unc.edu/~cutts/papers/.

Matt Cutts as a T-Rex

Enough said.

Matt Cutts on Ranking #1

This great mashup by Sam Applegate is a great way to close out the article. Enjoy!

Have a favorite Cutts highlight that isn't included here? Share it in the comments!

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.