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Is What’s Good For Google Good For SEO?

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Let’s get this out of the way: Matt Cutts is the head of Google’s web spam team. He is perceived as a rock star in the industry and everywhere he goes he is a followed by a giddy horde of search marketers. SEO trends and techniques live and die by the words of the affable Mr. Cutts.

Yet there remains a healthy degree of skepticism and about Google’s advice. At the end of the day, the various teams at Google are doing what’s best for Google’s search users, which is not always best for an SEO’s clients.

Continuing the SMX Advanced tradition, Matt was kind enough to sit down with Danny Sullivan once more to take on audience questions in a You & A with Matt Cutts.

Danny: Let’s save the paid links fisticuffs until the very end, so you can be prepared. First of all, I wanted to let you start it off, so any general responses

Matt: I was in the the link panel, some interesting tips. Like how Hamlet (Batista0 was “don’t worry about pagerank” focus more on looking at freshness of crawl, I thought that was pretty cool. Looking at clickthrough, search snippets, if that entices more people to click, I thought that was very cool stuff. SMX  is always one of my favorite conferences. One thing I wasn’t expecting was the Seattle sunburn.

Danny: I saw Brent Csutoras running & saying, I’m gonna get sunburned!

Question: How can you tell if your site is in the penalty box?

Matt: There’s different types of penalties, typically for things that are simple, hidden text or we think you got hacked. There are nuances, things like we don’t trust all of the links coming in or going out of the sites. If you see a sustained drop in rankings, that’s significant and there are webmaster forums and great SEO’s that you can ask that question of.

Danny: If a site that falls in the category of knowing spam, should they still put in a request?

Matt: It’s sort of like the credit card companies, you can’t really tell all the penalties you really have without giving it away for the spammers.

Q:  Previously, you supported Pagerank sculpting, and it seems that it is not something you support anymore. Also, is that now a negative indicator?

Matt: No, definitely not. However you want to do the links in your site, that’s okay. You can use Nofollow on sign-ins, but it’s a far better use of time to work on site architecture. If you have 10 links and 5 are nofollow, there is this assumption that the other 5 get page rank. That might have been partially true at one time, but that’s less effective these days. You’re not going to get a penalty, or get in trouble, there’s better uses of your time. If your using Nofollow to channel page rank around your site, it’s like a band aid, focus on designing your site  purposely to sculpt Pagerank.

Danny: Why is it less effective when we talked before in 2007, like when you talked about Youtube. What has changed that is no longer worthwhile?

Matt: With Youtube, the position hasn’t actually changed. What’s happened is that links to individual videos are Nofollowed, the specific situation is that the Youtube team said “here’s the main page of Youtube with a lot of random page rank, we didn’t want whatever random video ends up on the homepage to get massive amounts of page rank.” That was a deliberate choice by the Youtube team. You can use Nofollow who you want on your site, just be aware of what you’re not channeling page rank to.

Danny: With Youtube, rather than trying to inflate value of remaining stuff, it’s about trying “not to” inflate value of remaining stuff, but what was the actual change?

Matt: Initially if you had 10 links, and 5 were no followed, the other 5 would get the remaining page rank, it’s not that way these days. It bubbled up from the indexing team and  it could change in the future. Whenever we see people talking about that, it is a good chance to steer the in the right direction.

Q: If you were trying to mitigate the Nofollow sculpting, doesn’t that say that it’s working?

Matt: Suppose you have 12 featured videos, if those 12 videos are there when the Googlebot comes, they get an enormous amount of page rank. From the beginning their intention was for page rank to flow around the site more evenly.

Q: How does Google look at the issue that I can buy suspect links and point them at my competitor?

Matt: We try very hard so that someone can’t Googlebowl another person. We try to do things algorithmically, we use manual means.

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Q: I remember reading that an SEOmoz page had display colon non-css and that it actually tripped some penalty filter, at the same time I’ve seen websites will use that and not be penalized, humans don’t see it right away, whereas the Googlebot will.

Matt: Make sure whenever you write your own mouseover code, you don’t rollout your own custom thing that no one has ever done before. We try to handle that in all the common cases. We try to detect hidden text but we try to have it not trigger on mouseover code, but that’s typical mouseover code. We want it to trigger on “display none, 999px to the right etc.” If you want to be safe, make sure you don’t just write your own weird code from scratch.

Q: What about AJAX to paginate something, is your advice the same thing “copy other people’s code?”

*Huge audience laughter*

Matt: You’re oversimplifying a bit, there are perhaps “libraries” you can use that aren’t just copying other people’s code. Common idioms.

Q: So there’s 10 links on home page, 5 pages Nofollowed, where is that link juice going?

Matt: You can think of it as evaporating.

Q: It’s actually hurting your site then?

Matt: Use it sparingly, use it for links you can’t vouch for, if you are a power user and there’s a page you don’t want (sign-in) that’s a fine page to use Nofollow on. The only thing I Nofollow on my blog is a subscribe link, which is not all that useful for the main web index.

Q: If there’s a Nofollow page from that main page, there’s evaporation?

Danny: When page rank came out, 10 links on the page each got 1/1oth of the link juice.

Matt: Page rank has changed over the years, academic papers on this are fantastic. Our models and the way we compute it and the way we determine is more sophisticated than when the original papers came out.

Q: I work for a large SEO firm, is there any harm in 301′ing an old website

Matt: If it’s a site we don’t necessarily trust, I don’t think so if you’re starting fresh.  Sometimes it’s better to just start truly fresh. We do our best to clean up the backlinks. As long as we see an earnest effort to combat this, that can really redeem you in our eyes; there’s nothing that says you couldn’t insert a hyperlink to send more information to us.

Danny: Do you get extra credit if it’s on Google docs?

Q: What about theme-ing the website, does it makes sense to do this?

Matt: If it’s a new link, I would not use Nofollow in most cases,

Danny: Matt are you looking at a website and saying “this site has a lot of information about law, it’s about law” or are you still looking at it page by page.

Matt: We are getting more sophisticated all the time, you’ll see in our related suggestions, we use the Orion algorithm and data to say “this is a good related topic’ we don’t use a bunch of Latent Semantic Indexing etc.”, but eventually over time we wan to find out that this site is about “blank” .

Q: My question is about duplicate content related to companies that private label their website. A job site with jobs in San Francisco that private lable the same listings to 10 different websites.

Matt: Great question, within a site I wouldn’t worry as much about a dupe content penalties. With multiple sites,  if you have the same content on 200 different sites, that could generate a a pretty bad user experience.

Will that hurt you? Not necessarily, but it could. Your question is about co-brands though, at one glance this co-branding might be helpful, but you’d surprised how many user complaints we get, it’s like “I called X different numbers and got the same guy.” If you are the originator of that content and do syndication with a news paper, you want the page rank to flow to the original domain.

Q: You don’t just find all of them as being duplicates?

Matt: Typically, what’s best for the users, we try to find that index balance.

Danny: You guys have click-change, that now you are actually reading javascript, but you said “if you have paid links, you can use javascript and your good”, now you’re not good?

Matt: As Googlebot got smarter we started changing our advice on this. What we haven’t mentioned is that elsewhere, even on the onclick, you can put a rel=nofollow on a link within javascript, you can do that if you want to be completely safe, I expect to see those stay safe.

Danny: I didn’t see that at all, I watch that close. I think we might be in violation with our own site, I thought we were good, how quickly do we have to fix this?

Matt: My short answer is that javascript has not been a problem. Major networks have been doing iframes on things are in robots.txt anyways. Common URL redirects/ad networks are basically already covered.

Danny: Do I get until the end of the year?

Matt: Probably best if we do a blog post about that. Vanessa Fox did a great article about how javasript is more likely to be crawled and followed than it used to be.

Danny: You guys don’t like paid links, in particular it started out like “links are like votes, you don’t want people buying votes” that’s clear cut, I’m happy with that. But then all these weird things started going on, recently the thing with Techcrunch where they have a webcam and then they have an article about the company sponsoring  the webcam, what’s the deal, the article is written by the person sponsoring the cam, but they didn’t use Nofollow.

Lastly, Google IM last week invited all these developer and at the end of the day Google said “By the way,  you’re all getting free android phones!” Shouldn’t you accost all of them with little notes saying, if you link to Android, use Nofollow because we essentially bought the links. I feel like my head’s spinning, people are confused

Matt: You can continue to see broken HTML from 10 years ago used today, it’s an educational process for the entire world. Okay the crunch cam – it’s a webcam that shows Technrunch offices, if you want to sponsor it, we’ll link to you.

I  talked to Techcrunch about the link, the editorial side doesn’t even know, which is great. I said, look if someone is paying you, you should really put Nofollow links for the Crunchcam sponsors. The short answer is, I asked the author whether they knew about this, he’s a respected journalist I trust.

Danny: Someone sponsors your website – Nofollow. Somebody writing content – you shouldn’t have to worry bout that?

Matt: Reporters at the New York Times, if they think it’s the right thing to do to a particular site, that’s a great editorial link.  The Federal Trade Commission has interesting things to say on this – if you give money that’s clear cut, if someone loans you something that’s not so clear cut. There’s a spectrum of how you are involved.

The FTC says there may be a violation if there’s a material connection – if there’s a connection between the endorser and seller that might materially affect what you would say. My answer to the Android phones was that they used them to get people to develop Android applications not links. In 2002 we became one of the most linked-to pages in the world. We tend to not even think about gathering links. The last thing I want to say, is there is the spectrum of how money is involved and how people want to manipulate rankings.

The vast majority of things we see are where money is directly exchange, it’s not “Hey I’ll get you a  6-pack of beer.” I would like to talk to people and clarify it more. The common case is “you give me 20 dollars and i will link to your dish network whatever.”

Danny: What about contests?

Matt: When a contest says “and you have to link to us to enter” that’s much closer to what we are talking about . If you’re doing a contest, don’t make it explicitly your goal to get links.

Danny: Be subtle about it.

*huge laughter*

Matt: Shannon Yellen tweeted something fantastic “Social media is about visibility, it’s about buzz, and then it might be because of that, that people choose to link to you.” It’s not about links, it’s about doing something really cool that people like that they will link to. I’ll tell you right now, you make something really nice, and the links are so much easier to get.

Q: I have a site called Viral Conversations, we put manufacturer’s in charge of people that want to give free products to bloggers, it seems like exactly what you’re doing, except we have to go through extra steps and it seems like you’re profiling?

Matt: If you’ve got pay per post, that’ says “pay links.”

Q: Why do I have to put Nofollow but you don’t have to put Nofollow?

Matt: Google does not want to rank for cellphones, we want developers to make cool stuff.

Danny: In your view if you give someone a product, we’d like to buy a link?

Q: Android.com got links because you gave them away.

Matt: That’s not what we were looking for.

Danny: I have to clarify, because you two are going to do that back and forth. You’re not telling these people “don’t Nofollow your links to us.”

Matt: The closer you get to giving money, trying to do this to get links. To be clear, as a webmaster you can do whatever you want on your site, I’m just giving the guidelines and the sort of things we keep in mind.

Q: What is up with your blog?

Matt: I wanted to try a new webhost, with my previous webshot, every time i showed up on Digg, it went down. So I wanted to test this webhost to see if they can withstand the Digg effect. I was just putting my foot in the water (with the 302′s) to test out this new webhost. What I expected to happen was that my site would plummet, and what pleasantly surprised me was that they did go down, but not as much as i thought, about 25%.

Danny: We are going to 301 to the reception so thank you for being here.

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10 Comments

  1. Marty Weintraub on June 3, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    @matt_peterson Google will say it’s about their users and NOT about Google’s financial interests, that the 2 line up and that’s the do-no-evil magic.

    However, Google’s interests are (naturally) a hybrid. Happy users don’t mean shit if there’s no money. Money does not mean shit if there are no users. Monetizing is a balancing act between not alienating users with advertisements and truly serving their needs.

    SO, no matter what G says about the sacred users, they have the same sort of conundrums we all have. What’s good for Google is not always best for either users or SEOs who represent Google’s customers…you know Google…the customers who write the checks to pay your paychecks.

  2. Michael Martinez on June 3, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    Matt is wrong, and he knows he is wrong (because Danny and I have pointed this out to him repeatedly) about the Federal Trade Commission. They do NOT have “interesting things” to say about links.

    The U.S. Government’s formal position on links is that they are NOT endorsements.

    Furthermore, the Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines on disclosure are only concerned with practices that may create consumer confusion. Using “rel=’nofollow’” on paid links in no way addresses any potential consumer confusion issues since the consumers will never see the nofollows — Hence, NOFOLLOW is no way acts as “disclosure”.

    And given that Google has no mechanism for determining whether a NOFOLLOWed link was paid or not paid, they are not even in the position to honestly say that NOFOLLOW acts as disclosure to THEM.

    Matt needs to stand down on this topic as he has repeatedly sacrificed his integrity and his good reputation through these misleading remarks.

  3. Internet Strategist on June 3, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    @matt_peterson Marty beat me to an important point I wanted to make; however, I am going to go ahead and reinforce it.

    You wrote, “Matt is doing what’s best for Google’s search users, which is not always best for an SEO’s clients.” I believe we need to be very aware that Google always does what is best for Google although may claim to have the user as their highest priority. If they really cared about the end users and the advertisers they would fix expanded broad match or even eliminate it.

  4. SEO Aware on June 4, 2009 at 12:51 am

    Thank you so much for writing all of this for those of use that couldn’t be there.

  5. Deeho SEO on June 4, 2009 at 7:54 am

    It’s always interesting to listen to Matt and to try to read between the lines to see what he isn’t saying. That is where the golden nuggets lie. I always get the feeling he is gently coraling us to where he ideally wants us and away from the areas that he doesn’t want us to mess with… mostly because Google doesn’t have a fix for them at that time.

  6. Mich D. aka @MichDdot on June 6, 2009 at 10:01 pm

    Did anyone ever get a straight answer from Matt on the incentivised links. He seems to have dodged it pretty poorly and I can’t figure out for the life of me what he meant. Was it ok to give away stuff for branding that gets links or not? Paid is an easy open and shut case but what stance do we really have when it come to demo’s promo’s and giveaways?

  7. John Sullivan on June 7, 2009 at 3:15 pm

    This conversation is old and it’s like listening to politicians your not going to get a straight answer.
    Make your comments DO FOLLOW brother :)

  8. Nick Stamoulis on June 8, 2009 at 4:10 pm

    I think one thing that many people forget is that without Google none of us would really have thriving careers. Not saying Google is the mighty king but they did build the platform we use to feed ourselves.

  9. Matt Aird on June 9, 2009 at 3:37 am

    Matt Cutt’s has a challenging job – answering as many questions as possible with as few answers as possible. Here is an attempt at reading between the lines.

    Pagerank sculpting still works. Google would prefer you didn’t do it.

    Google ‘try hard’ to prevent googlebowling. Therefore it is safe to assume Googlebowling is still possible; it may be rare but still happens. Their preventative measures are imperfect.

    Googlebot is over-zealous in trying to prevent ‘hidden’ text and has incorrectly penalized some sites that have used custom/original CSS or mouseover code. To keep your site safe, don’t use code Google doesn’t understand.

    Duplicate content within a site is not likely to cause a problem (it is often simply buried in ‘More results from Domain’). Duplicate content on other domains (co-branded, syndicated, affiliated etc) is more likely to cause a ranking problem. Google’s ideal would be to identify the originator of the content and rank them highest or solely. They frequently struggle to do so.

    Matt Cutt’s was somewhat evasive about whether javascript click-change is a problem. Before initiating changes to sites, ‘Probably best if we do a blog post about that’ may simply mean he doesn’t know for sure but prefers not to admit it. If this could influence your site, you’d be well advised to key a close eye on this topic.

    Links remain googlebot’s algorithmic bread and butter. They remain concerned about paid links and would like to strongly discourage anyone from buying or selling them, to the point of vaguely quoting the Federal Trade Commission. Michael Martinez has already eloquently responded to this – The U.S. Government’s position on links is that they are not endorsements. Webmasters can and will continue to exchange, arrange, request, barter, give, sell and buy links. It is entirely legal to do so. Caveat emptor.

    Google would like all and any sponsored links to contain Nofollow. There is no reason to do so (a specialized tag buried in html source code is certainly not a disclosure to users that the link was sponsored!) apart from influencing search engine rankings. Do or don’t follow this advice, but don’t pretend it is for any reason other than influencing search engine rankings or ‘staying safe’ on Google. Again, caveat emptor.

    Android.com got a lot of links by giving away phones to key people. They did not instruct anyone to add ‘nofollow’ to any links obtained in this way; its just what Google would prefer everyone else does. To answer Mich’s question ‘Was it ok to give away stuff for branding that gets links or not?’, yes it was ok for Android to give away stuff for branding. They were then pleasantly surprised to obtain some links.

    Your sites may do better on Google if you are frequently pleasantly surprised.

    -Matt

  10. Matt Peterson on June 9, 2009 at 4:40 pm

    @Michael Martinez – I thought that channeling the FTC’s official language was a bit heavy-handed, not exactly appropriate for a search marketing conference . And I agree with you that nofollow is not as good as disclosure to the average consumer

    @internet strategist – That’s funny that you said that, my original sentence was not as civil.

    @seoAware you’ve very welcome, expect more SMX advanced coverage to trickle in over the next week, this conference was pouring serious and cool content

    @deeho Great points, as has been said before “how genius is it of google to get SEO’s to do their work for them”

    @mich d. – Michael Gray just published an awesome post that expands on this piece.

    @john Sullivan – I’ll have to talk to Marty about that one

    @nick stamoulis –That’s a great thing to keep in mind, but believe it or not, there was life before google and many people had thriving careers in this industry. Whether you enjoy their search, services or appreciate their philanthropic goals, there’s nothing wrong with holding Google to a higher standard.

    @Matt Aird – I found your interpretation thoughtful and entertaining, thanks for adding to this discussion

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