“But Google said…”
It’s a phrase that makes even the most seasoned SEOs sit up and pay attention. Google gave us some secret insight into how the search engine works? How the algorithm processes information? Ooh, I want to be the first to shout it from the rooftops! Let me call my editor — can we get this out today?
The temptation to take the crumbs of information that Google occasionally gives the SEO public can sometimes be so overwhelming that we forget to look at three key things: exactly what was said, who said it, and when it was said. Decoding the “newspeak” Google is fond of using isn’t that difficult if you keep these three things in mind.
They make mistakes. They say something in passing that later gets updated. Sometimes they don’t have all the most recent information. Sometimes, in answering a question, they actually answer a different question. There are three major Googlers who get quoted frequently, and they each have their own little idiosyncrasies you need to attend to:
One of the most well-known and most frequently quoted Googler, Matt Cutts, former head of Webspam, went on sabbatical (or retirement, or something that meant he wasn’t at work anymore) back in July 2014. Cutts was best known for his appearances at conferences, his witty banter with Danny Sullivan and his webmaster videos series.
Although Cutts made over 500 videos, most of them don’t contain any information that SEOs didn’t already know at the time he said it. In fact, Cutts was famous for the “non-answer answer,” where he either flipped the question around and answered something completely different, preached the esoteric value of “good content” or occasionally answered a question.
TheShortCutts is one of the most valuable resources to decode Cutts’ videos — you can watch the whole video or just see the answer to the question, which often came down to a simple “Yes,” “No,” or most often, “It depends.”
The most important thing to keep in mind with Cutts’ quotes is that they are old. The last one was recorded on June 4, 2014. I personally thought Cutts was terrific, but a lot of his quotes aren’t relevant any more, especially when you consider he started doing these videos in 2009.
The next Googler most of us came to know and appreciate is John Mueller. He’s a Webmaster trends analyst out of Switzerland. He was popularized during Webmaster hangout videos, where he just hangs out with other SEOs on a Google Hangout and answers questions — some of which are voted on in Webmaster Forums and some of which are posited by the SEOs in attendance. Mueller is also very active on Google+ and more than once has answered a key question on that network.
There are three key things to keep in mind about Mueller. The first is that he speaks carefully and slowly and uses a lot of filler words to avoid making mistakes or saying something that isn’t completely accurate.
The second key thing is that he’s not part of the Spam team at Google. His insight into how the algorithms work is not based on first-hand knowledge of working with the algorithm the way that Cutts was. Don’t get me wrong, though — he’s helped me with a lot of significant challenges, and he is a very smart man.
The third thing about Mueller is that he’s an engineer. His solution to a problem will more often be a technical one than a content-based one. I don’t mean to say that he doesn’t regularly espouse the value of quality content and signals — he does. Rather, he often looks to tech to solve a problem before he mentions quality.
Regrettably, I also have to point out that he’s made some mistakes in what he’s said a couple of times. We all make mistakes, but unfortunately for them, a Googler’s mistakes are very hard to take back after they’re published. Mueller is probably the most often misquoted Googler.
Gary Illyes is also a Webmaster trends analyst out of Switzerland (although he’s actually Hungarian), and he has been making appearances at industry shows since right around the time Cutts went on leave. He’s an entertaining character, has been dubbed “The New Matt Cutts,” and is the first Googler since Cutts that I’ve seen keep up with Danny Sullivan on stage — although as far as I know, Mueller hasn’t had the opportunity.
He’s also very clever, well-spoken and very, very literal. In his short time publicly representing Google to SEOs, he’s said several things that, taken literally, are absolutely correct.
However, while Mueller is probably the most often misquoted Googler, Illyes is the Googler most frequently taken out of context. He jokes and says things that could not possibly be true but which are fired around the social ecosystem as if they are true. He has a dry wit and sarcasm that is often misconstrued.
The thing you have to be most careful about with all Googlers’ quotes is understanding context — where and when it was said, and what exactly was said.
For example, John Mueller once said that subdomains and subfolders are treated exactly the same by Google, and it set off a firestorm in the industry. At face value, that statement is completely true: They’re crawled the same, and the on-page assets and links are processed exactly the same way.
But he was quoted as saying they’re equal. Whether you believe subdomains and subfolders are equal or not is not the issue; the issue is, that’s not what Mueller said.
Wednesday, Gary Illyes tweeted this:
This, of course, made a bunch of SEOs go “Whoa! Wait a sec! We’ve been told to noindex bad content!” In fact, Marie Haynes (an SEO known for penalty work) immediately responded with this:
The truth is that they are both right. There’s more than one way to solve a problem.
Generally, Google wants you to improve content, not remove it. And given that they’ve always said they would rather you improve or redirect content, as opposed to deleting it, I think what Illyes said was absolutely correct. It’s also my opinion (and this is total speculation) that Google uses a somewhat esoteric “trust” score — so I’ve never believed that removing thin content in the absence of quality content would be enough to get you out of Panda.
In other words, if you don’t have any quality content, then Google doesn’t trust you anyway. Removing the thin content doesn’t help you earn that trust. You have to have high-quality content to earn their trust. But that’s another post for another day.
The point is that Googlers are — *gasp* — human. They make mistakes, they are misquoted, and they are misunderstood.
So what’s an SEO to do? Ask yourself these questions to help decrypt any statement made by a Googler:
Was it one of the three men above? Was it Maile Ohye, who seldom speaks, but is also very worth quoting when she does? Consider the personality elements of each as discussed above.
Was it a conference? Go to Twitter and try to find the original tweet that sparked the discussion. Read the replies to the tweet. If the Googler was misquoted, someone probably replied to the tweet and explained.
Was it a video? Wait a couple of days after the video was posted, then re-watch it, and make sure the video wasn’t edited.
An article? Again, wait a couple of days after it’s posted and watch the comments. Often others who were there will correct a statement, or the writers themselves may edit it.
Let’s say you find a quote by Cutts saying that exact match links in press releases are totally okay (doesn’t exist, by the way). Before you freak out and send it to every SEO you know via Twitter or Facebook, check the date on the post. 2015? See above. 2005? You know that’s old-school thinking which is no longer relevant.
Be careful of how you share it. Be sure to share the original quote (exactly what was said) and the source — a link to the video, the post or the conference — so that others can fact-check you. (Plus, this raises your credibility.)
If you choose to take out filler with ellipses (…), make sure you don’t change the meaning of the message. Feel free to comment on what you think it means, but don’t put that forward as fact. If we all take the time to carefully consider what was said, who said it and in what context, SEOs everywhere will benefit.
I hope this primer on understanding Googlers has helped you. I want to reiterate that all of these people are great, kind and smart humans, but they are human. If I’ve said something incorrect or misquoted someone, please let me know. I’m human, too.