Matt Cutts: Head of Webspam at Google, policer of the internet, and generally the mouthpiece of Google to SEO. The real question is what’s Cutts cutting next?
Hello and welcome to another “What Matt Cutts Says.” It’s been awhile since the last one.
Matt Cutts provides what little transparency us SEOs get from Google (although Amit Senghal, Head of Google’s ranking algorithm, recently made a public appearance at SMX West).
I greatly respect him, and having seen him speak in public I can honestly say he seems like a great guy. Nevertheless, we often can’t help but blame the messenger – especially because it’s so hard to fully understand the message.
So let’s jump right into it: Matt Cutts has been awfully busy lately, and there’s much to cover.
- Cutts called for the end of spammy guest blogging for SEO
- Cutts and his latest slew of Webmaster Videos
- “Meet the Search Engines” SMX West 2014 appearance
Matt Cutts, Guest Blogging, and SEO
In a post on his blog at the end of January, Matt Cutts wrote about “The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO”. It’s been written about a thousand times since then. Page One Power’s Jon Ball tackled it over on SEW.
In summation, Matt has officially declared that guest blogging as an SEO practice has become too manipulative, too spammy:
“So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well.” - Matt Cutts
The industry was less than happy to hear this sort of rhetoric from Cutts. Danny Sullivan perhaps captured it best with his comments on the post:
“Your update helps, but no widgets infographics press release directories etc etc etc – the list is getting tiresome” -Danny Sullivan
“Of course, the fact that Google still largely depends on links for how to rank sites sure makes that tough for the many sites that do not rank well for some terms. They’re supposed to just hope that magically, they’ll naturally earn links that help them achieve decent ranking.” - Danny Sullivan
So now that Cutts has placed guest posting on the potential devalue/punishment list, it immediately begs the questions:
- Will guest blog links be devalued?
- Will guest blog links be penalized?
- If yes to #1 or #2, will this pertain to all guest blog links?
- How will Google delineate “guest blog links”?
- Can any form of guest blogging still be done?
There are no easy answers here.
However, it’s reported that at SMX West this last Thursday March 13th Matt Cutts said a well known blog network would take a hit:
— Rae Hoffman (@sugarrae) March 13, 2014
So, it looks as if the answer to #1 and #2 will be yes. That leads to questions #3 – will this apply to all guest blog links?
I think the resounding answer here will have to be no. I also think that Google won’t have a lot of good options as far as delineating “guest blog seo links”, and that guest blogging will absolutely still be valuable. Here’s my reasoning:
- Google can’t devalue all links from all blogs – there’s too much value there.
- Google can’t successfully separate/delineate all “guest blog posts” from normal blog posts.
- If Google decides to simply hit bio links or guest posts specifically labeled, those who are link building will just stop using those tactics.
- Far more reasonable then will be for Google to remove any link power from anything determined as a “low quality blog” or “low quality blog post”.
- This means (theoretically), that guest posting for links can still be done – as long as it’s done on quality sites, with quality & authoritative writing.
This is of course conjecture at this point. But educated conjecture. Only time will tell.
So what should you avoid with this latest news from Cutts? The same thing you should have been avoiding all along:
- Low quality content contributed to low quality blogs
- Mass produced guest blogs with thin links meant to manipulate Google
- Heavy reliance on bio links, especially with keyword rich anchor text
- Heavy reliance on a singular link building tactic
Matt Cutts Latest Webmaster Videos
Matt produces quite a few of these Webmaster videos in order to answer common questions about SEO. They’re often useful and share insight. If you don’t know about it, the site The Short Cutts showcases all these videos and gives the short answers. They are typically worth watching for yourself, however.
In particular, there’s 4 I want to mention:
1. First up we have Matt’s response to “should I build links using article directories?”
The answer is a resounding no. If you needed to ask this question you’re most likely out of date and behind on today’s link building/SEO landscape.
2. Next, we have “is there a version of Google that excludes backlinks as a ranking factor?”
This is one of the most interesting Webmaster videos Cutts has done, in my opinion. There’s a few reasons for this:
- First, Cutts admits that they at least internally tried to remove backlinks as a ranking signal. This is pretty shocking, as links are the core of their search algorithm.
- Secondly, Cutts reports that links are still a quality ranking signal. This means that Google will continue to rely on links unless they can find a better signal – but even then, they’d be more likely to use it as an additional signal instead of removing links.
“It turns out backlinks, even though there’s some noise, and certainly a lot of spam, for the most part are still a really, really big win in terms of quality for search results.” - Matt Cutts
3. Next is a longer video addressing “what is a paid link”?
This seven minute video gives some insight into what the spam team considers in terms of paid link, when actual money doesn’t change hands. Specifically, they look at:
- What is the value of the compensation?
- How close is the compensation to actual money?
- Is it a permanent gift, or a loan?
- What is the intent – to get links?
- Would a third party member be surprised to learn of the compensation?
These are all fairly good indicators as to what a Google Webspam team member might look for to determine a paid link. However, it skips past a pretty large question: how does Google determine any of this? How will Google know if/when there’s any act of compensation, be it money, a gift, or anything in between?
Very hard to say. As Julie Joyce is fond of saying, intelligent paid links still work. Meaning Google has no great way of tracking, much less deducing paid links done discreetly. Of course, that’s not an endorsement for buying links – it’s very much against the rules, so don’t do it unless you’re okay with being caught eventually.
4. Then we have Cutts response to “can sites do well without using spammy techniques?”
This video is worth mentioning to showcase Google’s attitude toward bad/spammy SEO practices – they don’t care who is responsible, only that the website be punished.
The takeaway? Hiring and managing an SEO company is part of your responsibility as a webmaster/business. If your SEO builds you bad links, you’ll still be held accountable. Hiring another company to represent your business is a serious undertaking, and shouldn’t be done lightly – especially in SEO.
Matt Cutts “Meet the Search Engines” SMX West 2014
Matt Cutts made a recent appearance at SMX West, appearing in a group presentation/interview with Danny Sullivan and Duane Forrester on March 13th.
Unfortunately, there’s no video (as of yet), however Rae Hoffman (often known as Sugar Rae) of Pushfire was there and live tweeted the entire event. She then took those tweets and made an entire post about the event and announcements made. It’s absolutely worth your time to read:
To recap what was discussed:
- Google is working on another iteration of Panda, which should be softer
- Mobile is increasingly more important, and mobile search might overtake desktop search this year
- A guest post blog network is being targeted this week by Google
- (Not provided) is here to stay
- A penguin penalty can follow your site across a URL change even without a 301
- Widgets are a bad idea for link building
- Sites poorly suited for mobile will be ranked negatively in mobile searches
- Manual penalty length is affected by the severity of the infraction
- If you’re hit by Penguin or Panda you have to wait for a data refresh before seeing improvement
- Panda refreshes happen around once a month and Penguin is around once every six months
- Priorities to rank in Bing and Google (by priority):
- Link building
- Author Rank data is used in determining which content to show in “In-Depth Articles”
- Negative SEO isn’t as common as webmasters seem to think, according to Cutts
- If you have “lots” of bad links, you should start removing/disavowing before you’re penalized.
Once again, thanks to Rae Hoffman for live tweeting the event and if you want to read about this in more detail, you should head over to her blog post.
As for my analysis, from a link building perspective there are a few key pieces of information I think worth taking away from Matt Cutts appearance at SMX West.
First, whichever "guest blog network" Cutts was referring to, and the specific action it will be "hit" with, will be very revealing. Many have theorized Myblogguest is the target, although that's not a network of guest blogging - more of a guest post service. Regardless, I think we'll be better able to understand the future of guest posting and link building based upon which network is hit, how hard, and how it's explained.
Secondly, the fact that Penguin can follow a domain change without a 301 redirect means Google is actively seeking to punish websites with bad links. This isn't arbitrary - you've forsaken all your links and decided to start over, yet Google has gone to the effort of keeping the punishment in place. That shows much of their mindset - Google really wants to break the spirit of spammers.
Furthermore, there's no way to recover from Penguin until a data refresh/algorithm update. We're talking potentially longer than 6 months - that's a really long time to languish without any way to know if you've done enough to recover. So if you determine you're experiencing Penguin problems, best to be thorough in your link removal.
And finally, the comment about removing/disavowing bad links before you're penalized was solid. If you're worried you might be in danger, it's a good idea to start removing links before it becomes an extremely serious issue.
As of this morning, Wednesday 3/19/2014, it's become clear that the "blog network" Matt Cutts was referring to was indeed MyBlogGuest.
First, his tweet came through:
Today we took action on a large guest blog network. A reminder about the spam risks of guest blogging: http://t.co/rc9O82fjfn
— Matt Cutts (@mattcutts) March 19, 2014
With quick searching, it became clear that MyBlogGuest was no longer ranking for even its own brand name. Soon after Ann Smarty, founder of MyBlogGuest, confirmed:
— Ann Smarty (@seosmarty) March 19, 2014
So, what does this mean? Well, that's not wholly clear yet. Matt Cutts was vague in his tweet, his only explanation a link to his previous blog post about guest blogging for SEO. He didn't even name the network in his tweet. Furthermore, it's not clear if this penalty is restricted to only the MyBlogGuest site, or if it will somehow extend out to users/publishers of MyBlogGuest (although that seems unlikely).
Many have labeled this a PR stunt for Google. Whether this is a warning shot across the bow, or the opening fire of an upcoming war is unclear. Personally, I suspect Google isn't capable of algorithmically determining the difference between a regular blog post and a "guest blog post", much less one done for SEO/manipulative purposes. So, they've resorted to targeting a well known facilitator of guest posting, which was often used for SEO purposes.
The future is as yet unclear, but clearly Google wants to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt when it comes to guest blogging.