An interview with Matt Cutts, Google Distinguished Engineer, and head of the Google Webspam Team.
Eric Enge: There are people who think link building is illegal now. Is link building illegal?
Matt Cutts: No, link building is not illegal.
Eric Enge: Really?
Matt Cutts: It’s funny because there are some types of link building that are illegal, but it’s very clear-cut: hacking blogs, that sort of thing is illegal.
Eric Enge: Of course, people are using the term illegal in an imprecise way. So don’t be literal as an engineer with me now. They’re thinking that Google says all link building is bad.
“No, not all link building is bad.”
Matt Cutts: No, not all link building is bad. The philosophy that we’ve always had is if you make something that’s compelling then it would be much easier to get people to write about it and to link to it. And so a lot of people approach it from a direction that’s backward. They try to get the links first and then they want to be grandfathered in or think they will be a successful website as a result.
Their goal should really be to make a fantastic website that people love and tell their friends about and link to and want to experience. As a result, your website starts to become stronger and stronger in the rankings.
Eric Enge: I always liken this to doing marketing the way it used to be done, right? Businesses always tried to create the best product, the best value, of the best something. Then they would find a way to promote it. Then promotion becomes easy. For example, you can even do a press release and it may well attract attention and cause people to write about it.
Matt Cutts: Right. So the link from a press release will probably not count, but if that press release convinces an editor or a reporter to write a story about it, and that’s an editorial decision, then if that newspaper links to your website as a result of that editorial decision to write a story, it doesn’t matter whether it started or was sparked by a press release or it was started by an email that you sent. It’s still someone making a decision to cover it.
“… it is true that a lot of SEO is now circling back around to good old fashioned marketing.”
Going back to something that you said before we started the interview, a lot of SEO has been focused on technical matters and very highly specific ways to configure your website and stuff like that. There are best practices, and you need to make sure you get the basics right, but it is true that a lot of SEO is now circling back around to good old fashioned marketing.
There are lots of ways to do marketing and do it well; there are lots of different ways to get peoples’ attention and to get traction. And the more creative you are or the better the experience is with your website, the more likely you are to be successful. But in a lot of ways, if you think like a good marketer and think about what will appeal to people, you will find your job as an SEO and getting links or trying to build your links will be easier as well.
Eric Enge: One great way to build links in my vision is to build strong Twitter, Facebook, Google+ presences. Build strong, engaged, followings and then create great content and you push that out and then that audience will likely share it, and start doing other things that cause visibility and help it rank. That’s a cool way to do link building.
Matt Cutts: Absolutely, I completely agree. If you take that big picture view in which you’re really doing marketing, one of the ways to get the word out is to have a devoted following. Musicians could have a mailing list or people could follow you on Twitter or Facebook or Google+ or any social outlet.
I firmly support the idea that people should have a diversified way of reaching their audience. So if you rely only on Google, that might not be as strong of an approach compared to having a wide variety of different avenues by which you can reach people and drive them to your website or whatever your objective is.
Eric Enge: Yes, and as you said in our last interview before this one:
“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.”
You can argue about how good Google is about detecting a particular signal today, or whether a given signal is noisy or not, but over time Google’s capabilities in these areas will continue to get better and better.
“There are certainly people who are widely known on the web, who have a great reputation, who are experts, who are authorities, who everybody listens to or trusts.”
Matt Cutts: It’s definitely the case that we will improve over time at assessing the authority and reputation and all those characteristics of authors and people in general and people on the web. There are certainly people who are widely known on the web, who have a great reputation, who are experts, who are authorities, who everybody listens to or trusts.
Somebody like Nate Silver for example who talks about elections. If he talks about elections, you want to take what he says seriously. You might disagree with him, but you’ll probably pay attention to it.
There’s the same sort of thing with, for example, Danny Sullivan on search engines. You want to be one of those people because that’s useful in and of itself, and over time you can certainly expect that search engines will try and do a better job of saying this person or this website is an authority on this topic and therefore when they write about it, it’s something that users are more likely to be interested in.
Eric Enge: Another concept is the notion of syndicating great content. There are many different ways to do that. You can take content that you’ve published on your own website, and you can distribute that, which has its own issues. Some businesses have really strong fundamental reasons for doing that.
I know one business that has a massive content syndication deal with Yahoo! for example, and they get more traffic from their syndication than they do from search. But it turns out they have the same content on their site as well.
This notion of syndicating great content seems to be another very valid way of building links, particularly if you’re getting on authoritative sites.
Matt Cutts: Syndication can be a valid way to either increase your reputation or to drive traffic and potentially to get more links. The main caution that I would add is that there are some mechanical things that you should pay attention to and try to make sure that you get right.
“So if you are also publishing the article on your site, you want to try and do these mechanical things so you are still seen as the original author.”
Things like rel=canonical help. Embedding a link within the text of the article itself never hurts. Ideally, you’d want to insist on some sort of attribution on the syndicated page. You can use authorship markup. So if you are also publishing the article on your site, you want to try and do these mechanical things so you are still seen as the original author.
Or, see if you can make sure that the article publishes first on your website. Give it a few hours or days or however much of a window you can, and then syndicate it onto another site. If you think about it, search engines are not psychic. They have to use signals and heuristics to make their best guess about what the best website is or who wrote content in the first place.
“The more signals or hints or indications you can give us, the easier job it will be for search engines to make sure that the attribution and the reputation flow in the correct direction so that you enjoy the benefits of syndication but you also do well on search.”
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The more signals or hints or indications you can give us, the easier job it will be for search engines to make sure that the attribution and the reputation flow in the correct direction so that you enjoy the benefits of syndication but you also do well on search.
Eric Enge: Right. Of course, a much cleaner way of dealing with this, is to create content for syndication and not publish it on your own site. You can have a simple one-page piece of content that lists key resources for people looking for information on a specific topic.
Another very popular tactic that people like to use is guest posting. Frankly though, more often than not, when I see guest posting, it’s actually not good stuff. But, I would say that creating a very high-quality article and getting it published on a truly authoritative site that has a lot of editorial judgment is still a good thing.
Matt Cutts: Those are certainly good criteria to keep in mind. The challenge with guest posting is that people have different conceptions about what it means. And so for a lot of people, a guest post is something that a fantastic author has thought deeply about, labored over, polished, put a lot of work into and then publishes on a highly reputable domain name.
Posts like that can be a great way to get your name out there, to build your reputation, to make yourself more well-known, potentially build links or traffic or help with your SEO.
The problem is that if we look at the overall volume of guest posting we see a large number of people who are offering guest blogs or guest blog articles where they are writing the same article and producing multiple copies of it and emailing out of the blue and they will create the same low-quality types of articles that people used to put on article directory or article bank sites.
“If people just move away from doing article banks or article directories or article marketing to guest blogging and they don’t raise their quality thresholds for the content, then that can cause problems.”
If people just move away from doing article banks or article directories or article marketing to guest blogging and they don’t raise their quality thresholds for the content, then that can cause problems. On the one hand, it’s an opportunity. On the other hand, we don’t want people to think guest blogging is the panacea that will solve all their problems.
Eric Enge: In the opposite direction, when I advise people on how to accept a guest post, I give very simple criteria. First, I want them to really only work with people who have really strong social presences because it’s a measure of what they’ve done to build their authority.
And then the metric that I give them is if you have to ask them to share it on their social sites, then you don’t want the article, because that means they’re there to trade on your authority rather than they gave you their best stuff.
Matt Cutts: That’s a good way to look at it. There might be other criteria too, but certainly, if someone is proud to share it, that’s a big difference than if you’re pushing them to share it.
Eric Enge: Of course, it is important to look at this in the other direction in guest posting. You should only submit articles where the quality is high enough, and the site it is going on is authoritative enough that you would be proud to share it on your own social media accounts.
There’s also the notion of giving and getting interviews. If you are able to interview people with recognized authority and publish that on your own site, that’s good content. It’s also great if you can get interviewed by people, and have that published on their site with a link back to yours. Those would seem like very good signals as well. Of course, the quality of the content matters, and where it is published counts for a lot here too.
“… interviews can be a fantastic way to build awareness of your brand and to generate and distribute insights.”
Matt Cutts: Yes, absolutely. It’s interesting that you mentioned that because interviews can be a fantastic way to build awareness of your brand and to generate and distribute insights. It’s funny because if you think about it, the entire podcasting industry is often based around this idea of doing interviews or even just people in conversations.
Somebody like Kevin Smith has something he calls the SModcast which is just him talking with friends. He has been able to more or less make a living at just doing tours where he goes around and does his SModcast in an auditorium.
Criteria that come to mind are, “who are you talking to?”, or “how interesting is the conversation”? The beauty of an interview or a podcast for something like that is if you’re not interesting, people won’t tune in. Or they might tune in at first but they’ll tune out. It’s a self-limiting phenomenon. You can’t just do interviews with everybody forever if you’re always giving or getting boring interviews.
There’s a little bit of reinforcement that helps force you to either be interesting or say interesting things or think hard about how to make something compelling.
Eric Enge: You’ve had rel=author tagging for a while and people talk a lot about author rank or author authority. You made a comment back in October that:
“I think if you look further out in the future and look at something that we call social signals or authorship or whatever you want to call it, in ten years, I think knowing that a really reputable guy – if Dan has written an article, whether it’s a comment on a forum or on a blog – I would still want to see that. So that’s the long-term trend.”
Similarly Eric Schmidt said in the New Digital Age:
“Within search results, information tied to verified online profiles will be ranked higher than content without such verification, which will result in most users naturally clicking on the top (verified) results. The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”
Basically, as an author you should think about how you develop and build your authority. You should measure things to see how you are doing. Some ideas for this are:
- How much engagement does your content get?
- Try to develop relationships so you can post on authoritative sites.
- The inverse is true too, don’t publish on crappy sites.
Where you write, and who you’re trying to address, I would argue, is as important as what content you contribute.
“… you make a very good point that the outlets and the responsiveness of those outlets is a good way to get an idea of how other people think about you.”
Matt Cutts: While it remains the case that you always want to think about what you’re saying and make sure that that’s interesting and of use to people, you make a very good point that the outlets and the responsiveness of those outlets is a good way to get an idea of how other people think about you.
Just to switch to an analogy from email, Google has something called a priority inbox and we look at things like how often you reply to people and how fast you reply, versus do you always archive something, an email that somebody sent, or never even read it.
The priority inbox can start to get an idea of what is important to you. It might not know that this person is your boss, but it sees that you always respond within 5 minutes. It takes some of those signals and ends up with a pretty good assessment of which emails really matter.
You really want to think about, how do I make sure that in an SEO sense, I’m in somebody’s priority inbox? That I matter to them? That I’m relevant to them? That I can give them something of use? That they find me of value?
If those are the sorts of things you’re thinking about, that will be really useful because you’ll tend not to bore people or be pushing for favors when people are a little leery of doing that. That can be a good attitude to approaching life in general. How can you add value to anybody else’s life?
Eric Enge: Do you still believe that these types of considerations, i.e. the authority that people demonstrate online, will become a ranking factor?
Matt Cutts: I would concentrate on the stuff that people write, the utility that people find in it, and the amount of times that people link to it. All of those are ways that implicitly measure how relevant or important somebody is to someone else.
“Links are still the best way that we’ve found to discover that, and maybe over time social or authorship or other types of markup will give us a lot more information about that.”
Links are still the best way that we’ve found to discover that, and maybe over time social or authorship or other types of markup will give us a lot more information about that.
We’ll always keep chasing after the ideal world in which the search engines do what you would intuitively expect and bring you the best answer, whether it be from someone who is a friend of yours or someone who is an expert in the field or some completely different serendipitous author or person that you didn’t know about before, but they can really help with the information you need at that moment.
Eric Enge: Right. So as always we could speculate until we’re blue in the face as to what signals are driving ranking at the moment, but you shouldn’t necessarily get so wrapped up in that as monitoring the signals yourself to see whether or not you’re getting good reinforcement for what you’re doing.
Matt Cutts: Yes. If your emails are getting replies, if people are replying to you on Twitter or Facebook, if you’re getting good traction on your endeavors, that usually means you’re moving in the right direction. If people suddenly go radio silent or you’re not getting traction, that’s a good time to step back and do an assessment and see if there’s something that’s missing in your approach or something that you could hone in order to resonate with your audience.
Eric Enge: Right. So even if you are currently tracking signals that matter not at all to Google, but they’re really strong signals of the degree that you matter to people, you’re probably also sending off the signals that Google does take into consideration.
Matt Cutts: That’s a reasonable way to look at it. If you’re always trying new things, whatever your criteria is, and if you’re making forward progress on those goals, you’re often showing the signs of making progress in other areas well. It wouldn’t surprise me if in the process of setting and making progress on and achieving your goals you end up also getting traction, reputation as a person, as an individual, as an author, as an expert, as someone on the web and potentially someone in search engines as well.
Eric Enge: Thank you, Matt.
Matt Cutts: Always fun to talk.
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.
Credit for Matt Cutts conference speaking image: Josh Hallet on Flickr – used by a Creative Commons Attribution License.