EXCLUSIVE- Interview with the head of Google’s webspam team , Matt Cutts

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I am sure no one ever expected me to interview Matt Cutts, especially after I nicknamed him MaCu and after the first post on this blog, the one about Link Schemes.

Here we are, it is 2015, Matt Cutts is still on extended leave, but….we met each other after his speech was finished  at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and I asked him to give an exclusive interview.

He accepted with a smile.

Me: I’m curious to see where you see the future of the Google Guidelines and why are they so undescriptive?

Matt: People should be able to think. It would be really good to have examples and the folks at Google are working on making this clearer. Having more details is a pretty good way to go forward.

Me: Speaking of link schemes, I came across an ad looking for a SEO manager and they were looking for “expertise in buying links.” What would you say about this?

Matt: When people advertise for that, you have no idea how many people write to Google and say they are offended. We get those job descriptions forwarded to us. I wouldn’t be surprised that we have something like this in the Webmaster Console in the future, just like we had the Spam Report form. We try to approach things algorithmically and also take people into account. We consider buying links to be outside of our guidelines and we are preparing to take strong actions on that in the near future. If people want to ignore that, we as a search engine might take action on that because we want a high-quality index.

Me: Since we’re talking about links, the more links you get, the higher you get ranked. What about links that come out of your site?

Matt: I think it’s good for your users, and therefore it’s good for search engines.

Me: I want to talk about search pages and indexing of search pages. We have a catalog of many items and we want these indexed. How can you make it user friendly and search engine friendly?

Matt: We basically said that you should avoid search result pages for good results for your users. However, that’s not in the quality/spam guidelines; that’s in the technical guidelines. It’s more of a “best practices” guideline. We do reserve the right to remove result pages that don’t add value to the user. What is the value at? If it just looks like search results that are available anywhere else, you have a problem. If you have unique content, that’s much better. Categories are great. Pretend you’re a competitor and ask “would this be a good page?” It will help you think of search in new ways.

Me: We have millions of products and our category pages are in trouble. How do I put this against my competitors?

Matt: Suppose your product is in 3 categories – shoes, sneakers, “best” category. Find the best-applicable category instead of having the same object show up 30 different times. That’s why you’re outside bounds.

Followup: But if you have color, shape, etc – you’ll still have trouble.

Matt: It’s difficult to slice and dice that. Color as a category may not be as important. Take a look at your category – talk to your users, and only work with the categories that are most important. As far as competing with your resellers, that’s tough. A lot of these companies are savvy – look at what they’re doing. You can learn a lot from competitor analysis.

Me: What is the impact of click-through on authoritativeness (personalized search aside) in organic results? Some guys at Ungagged conference in LasVegas talked about this as if it was something groundbreaking.

Matt: We haven’t talked about whether it will affect general web search. What I will say is that if you were to use that as a signal, it would be very noisy. If usage metrics are involved, everyone will jump onto it. I’m afraid of using metrics like that. I think BING has actually said, “yeah, we use that.” But because of the people who would try to optimize, we haven’t talked much about those signals and to which degree.

Me: Why does Google love Wikipedia? When will you break up with her:)?

Matt: That’s an interesting question. Let me put it to you differently. By definition, people who do SEO are not regular users. Regular users do like Wikipedia a lot. That said, it’s not always the right answer. It’s a fairly good result most of the time, but for expert results, sometimes it’s not the most accurate. We change the algorithms to make the most accurate result #1.

Me: I wanted to ask you about the algorithmic vs. human powered in terms of a recent Google Penguin update. Everyone agree that it was not a human intervention, but now you said to me (before interview) that there is human intervention. Please clarify.

Matt: The Penguin update to algorithm is completely algorithmic. My understanding is that the algorithm was not changed. It doesn’t run every day. It runs every 2/3/4 months. Google does reserve the right to use humans in a scalable way and to take manual action on spam, and to the best of my knowledge, it has remained that way.

Me: I have a question about image results in the search results page. How is this going to evolve?

Matt: When people look for “sunset,” they are often looking for an image of a sunset. If you’re looking for “fix a sink,” it might be appropriate to have a video result. We’re getting better at image analysis but by no means are we perfect. People can come and say “the search for my name is incorrect” and we’ll try to fix it.

Me: Do you have a tip about LSI?

Matt: My bottom answer is “try it and see what works for you.” You might have “bio,” “biography,” “discography,” etc. Work these in a very organic way. You don’t need to do it artificially. Work these synonyms in a natural way. There are people who are fans of LSI. Google does a lot of work behind the scenes to do good semantic matching. If people are searching for bios, they are generally looking for biographies. But Apple and apples is not the same thing, for example. If you can do it on your own, that’s fantastic, but we as Google will try to do semantic understanding ourselves under the hood.

Me: You’re extending your leave into 2015, when can we expect you back?

Matt: You should ask my wife (laughter)


UPDATE- This morning I reached out to Matt to see if he have any comments about SERP changes (that happened yesterday, Feb 5, 2015.) and he confirmed it is Google Bomb 2.0 update.  He said this update is basically targeting fake sites, on-site spam and bad UX.