An interview with Google Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts, by Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting:
Eric Enge: I would like to review an example scenario with you. I often use this in my presentations on SEO. The scenario is one where a user searches on “frogs”. The first result looks promising, so they click on it, and they get something that looks like this:
However, they don’t see what they want, and they return to the search results and they click on the second result. Here is what they get:
The resulting page isn’t a duplicate of the first, but the information provided is the same. So they go back and click on the third result and get yet another non-duplicate page that still does not have what they want. At this point, they’re very frustrated. It turns out the information they’re looking for is what frogs eat, and they’re not finding the information they’re looking for.
The reason I use this example is I am trying to show clients that being non-duplicate is not enough, and they need to do more to expect to rank in the search results.
Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table.
Matt Cutts: That’s absolutely right. Those other sites are not bringing additional value. While they’re not duplicates they bring nothing new to the table. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with what these people have done, but they should not expect this type of content to rank.
Google would seek to detect that there is no real differentiation between these results and show only one of them so we could offer users different types of sites in the other search results.
Eric Enge: Of course, one thing that might make one of these sites a bit different is if it represents Jane’s opinion about frogs.
Matt Cutts: It might make it different, but that may not be enough. Without meaning any offense to Jane, but if Jane is just churning out 500 words about a topic where she doesn’t have any background, experience or expertise, a searcher might not be as interested in her opinion. In the case of movies, for example, a lot of people care about Roger Ebert’s opinion so that is an example where a person’s opinion could be of great interest.
Eric Enge: I also see a lot of e-commerce sites and aggregator sites out there. What about them?
It’s really the same type of issue. They need to ask themselves what really is their value add?
Matt Cutts: It’s really the same type of issue. They need to ask themselves what really is their value add? That does not mean they cannot create something that works, but they need to figure out what it’s that makes them special.
Eric Enge: There’s a lot of discussion in certain circles that Google loves brands. Some people even suggest that this is primarily because Google wants to reward its advertisers.
… whether someone is an advertiser doesn’t help in our web search rankings at all.
Matt Cutts: First off, I just want to emphasize that whether someone is an advertiser doesn’t help in our web search rankings at all.
Google does try to mirror the real world. We try to reflect the real-world importance of things as we see that reflected in the web. Brands sometimes are an indicator that people see value, but it isn’t the only way that people see value. There are many other possible indicators that something is important and worth surfacing in the search results.
A brand could be potentially useful, but it’s certainly not the only lens to interpret the world. There are lots of signals we use to try to find the results that bring the most value to users. And whether or not someone is an advertiser does not matter at all.
One of the great things about the web is that it still offers up-and-coming businesses opportunities to build their own reputation online. This can enable them to succeed even though other companies may have large advertising budgets.
Eric Enge: Going back to the way we started this chat, Google has compelling reasons for offering diverse results. Understanding this could offer new online businesses a way in the door. In the past people have referred to this as Query Deserves Diversity.
Matt Cutts: Yes, that is a part of what our algorithm does: work to find quality diverse results that help solve problems for users. I would discourage people from thinking about from an algorithmic perspective though. What they should focus on is looking at the overall landscape of their market.
If it is already a crowded space with entrenched players, consider focusing on a niche area initially, instead of going head to head with the existing leaders of the space.
If it is already a crowded space with entrenched players, consider focusing on a niche area initially, instead of going head to head with the existing leaders of the space. This is probably what you would have done if there were no search engines, and it’s often still the best approach. Find something that the entrenched players do not do well, and focus on that. Establish a reputation in that niche, become a leader in it, and then expand from there.
One great example of this is hipmunk.com for travel. They offer great visualizations of what your trip is going to be like. It’s a fantastic UI, and it’s attracting the attention of a lot of people.
Eric Enge: It dawned on me recently that link building is an interesting phrase that has misled people. It’s a bit of a cart before the horse thing. It has led people to think about links as something they get from the “dark corners of the web”. Places where no one ever goes, so it does not matter what you do there. So by thinking of it this way, as link building, you are off on the wrong foot even before you get started.
regarding the concept of link building: “It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things.
Matt Cutts: That’s right. It segments you into a mindset, and people get focused on the wrong things. It leads them to think about links as the end goal. It’s important to think about producing something excellent first. If you have an outstanding product, world class content, or something else that sets you apart, then you can step back and start thinking about how to promote it.
Eric Enge: So instead of thinking it as link building, think about it as PR/marketing.
Matt Cutts: Sure, that is a way to think about it. Whatever you choose to call it, I think the big thing is how you go about doing it.
Eric Enge: We always speak to our clients about focusing on activities that are brand building. Examples of places people have gone to get links that aren’t brand building include:
- Article directories
- Cheap directories
- Link wheels
- Blog networks
- Any sites that don’t care about the editorial quality of their content
Does that make sense?
By doing things that help build your own reputation, you are focusing on the right types of activity. Those are the signals we want to find and value the most anyway.
Matt Cutts: Yes, it does. By doing things that help build your own reputation, you are focusing on the right types of activity. Those are the signals we want to find and value the most anyway. Just promoting your site on a spammy blog network that no one would ever choose to visit is not a good strategy.
It’s wild to see some blog networks just repackage the same spammy sites and services and have the nerve claim that their content is “Panda and Penguin compliant” when the quality of the network is clearly not at the level that even a regular person would choose to read it.
Eric Enge: Let’s talk a bit about link bait. Many years ago there was a company that created this article on the x things you did not know about death. It was a big hit and they got tons of links. It’s slightly off topic, but not unrelated. How do you think about programs like these?
Matt Cutts:This kind of content can be useful as a promotional tool. Obviously it works much better if the content has a close relationship to your business. But if this is well done, and you use this as a tool to create visibility for your business, with an emphasis on something that people really like, you will typically be OK.
Eric Enge: What about infographics?
Matt Cutts: This is a discussion that makes me a bit troubled. I do agree that there are ways that infographics can be created and that represent an OK form of promotion, but the challenge is that as soon as I say something like that, people are going to use this as justification to do whatever it’s they want to do. They will push the limits, and that isn’t OK.
In principle, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of an infographic. What concerns me is the types of things that people are doing with them. They get far off topic, or the fact checking is really poor. The infographic may be neat, but if the information it’s based on is simply wrong, then it’s misleading people.
The other thing that happens is that people don’t always realize what they are linking to when they reprint these infographics. Often the link goes to a completely unrelated site, and one that they don’t mean to endorse. Conceptually, what happens is they really buy into publishing the infographic, and agree to include the link, but they don’t actually care about what it links to. From our perspective this is not what a link is meant to be.
Any infographics you create will do better if they’re closely related to your business, and it needs to be fully disclosed what you are doing. The big key is that the person publishing the infographic has to know, and agree with, including an endorsement to your site as attribution with the infographic. Even then, there is reason to believe that the link is more about the barter to get the infographic than a real endorsement of your site.
I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree.
This is similar to what people do with widgets as you and I have talked about in the past. I would not be surprised if at some point in the future we did not start to discount these infographic-type links to a degree. The link is often embedded in the infographic in a way that people don’t realize, vs. a true endorsement of your site.
Eric Enge: There’s one thing that I believe a lot of people missed with Penguin (and Panda). They represent entirely new algorithm capabilities for Google. Using Penguin and article directories as an example, you can imagine that someone manually developed a list of bad article directories.
Then you could algorithmically evaluate the backlinks of those sites, offline from the main algorithm, and that analysis could focus on determining whether or not you see a pattern of concern with the link profile. If you do, then you can adjust the ranking weight of something for that site.
My point is, that you can choose to do any of these types of manual analyses offline and use this type of mechanism to enhance the quality of the overall algorithm. I know you can’t comment on my example scenario, but does that make sense?
… you are right that these algorithms do represent new types of capabilities for us.
Eric Enge: Let’s switch gears a bit. Let’s talk about a pizza business with stores in 60 cities. When they build their site, they create pages for each city.
That information would be great on a top-level page somewhere on the site, but repeating it on all those pages does not look good.
Matt Cutts: Where people get into trouble here is that they fill these pages with the exact same content on each page. “Our handcrafted pizza is lovingly made with the same methods we have been using for more than 50 years …”, and they’ll repeat the same information for 6 or 7 paragraphs, and it’s not necessary. That information would be great on a top-level page somewhere on the site, but repeating it on all those pages does not look good. If users see this on multiple pages on the site they aren’t likely to like it either.
Eric Enge: I think what site owners may argue is that if someone comes in from a search engine and lands on the Chicago page, and that is the only page they see on the site, they want to make their best pitch on that page. That user is also unlikely to also go visit the site’s Austin pizza page.
Matt Cutts: It is still not a good idea to repeat a ton of content over and over again.
Eric Enge: What should they put on those pages then?
Matt Cutts: In addition to address and contact information, 2 or 3 sentences about what is unique to that location and they should be fine.
Eric Enge: That won’t be seen as thin content?
Matt Cutts: No, something like that should be fine. In a related situation, I had a writer approach me recently and ask me a question. He has this series of articles he provides to gyms that own websites. He wanted to know if there was a limit to how many times he could provide the same content to different gyms, yet still have it be useful from a search perspective for his customers. Would it be helpful, for example, if he kept on rewriting it in various ways.
Even before you get to what search engines think, users aren’t going to understand what the difference is between these 4 places.
It gets back to your frog site example. The value add disappears. Imagine 4 gyms in the same small city all offering exactly the same advice. Even before you get to what search engines think, users aren’t going to understand what the difference is between these 4 places. As a user, after reading your content, why would I pick one over the other? For search engines, it’s the same challenge.
Find a way to differentiate and stand out, so that people want to try your product or service and see what they think. When they try it, give them something outstanding and earn yourself a customer.
Eric Enge: Let’s talk about content curation. I am seeing these services emerge now, and it seems to me they’re going to be pushing sites to use content curation as a way to get rich text content on your site.
Matt Cutts: As with all the other things we have discussed today, what is the value add? Does it really make sense that visitors to your site are going to be looking to see your opinion on the latest content out there? If the information stream is coming from a third party service and you aren’t involved in anyway, except for providing a place to publish it, this may be something that you might want to decide not to do.
We might not view this as spam, but it’s sort of shallow and we would tend to not want to rank this type of content as highly.
We might not view this as spam, but it’s sort of shallow and we would tend to not want to rank this type of content as highly.
Eric Enge: Any last comments you would like to make?
Matt Cutts: The main thing is that people should avoid looking for shortcuts. In competitive market areas there has always been a need to figure out how to differentiate yourself, and nothing has changed today. Think about how you can create compelling content or a compelling experience for users.
… our ability to detect poor quality links, or spam links, is greatly improved. Our capabilities in these areas are only going to continue to improve further over time.
I was also heartened by comments on the “Ask the SEOs” panel at SMX Advanced. People are beginning to see that we are able to do a pretty good job at detecting spam. One of the panelists commented that we were not just talking the talk, but walking the walk now (Greg Boser). The point being made was that our ability to detect poor quality links, or spam links, is greatly improved.
Our capabilities in these areas are only going to continue to improve further over time.
Eric Enge: Thanks Matt!
Matt Cutts: You’re most welcome Eric.
Matt Cutts joined Google as a Software Engineer in January 2000. Before Google, he was working on his Ph.D. in computer graphics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has an M.S. from UNC-Chapel Hill, and B.S. degrees in both mathematics and computer science from the University of Kentucky.
Matt wrote SafeSearch, which is Google’s family filter. In addition to his experience at Google, Matt held a top-secret clearance while working for the Department of Defense, and he’s also worked at a game engine company. He claims that Google is the most fun by far.
Matt currently heads up the Webspam team for Google. Matt talks about webmaster-related issues on his blog.