By Cory Collins
08 Apr 2014

SMX West 2014 Keynote Amit Singhal – Google’s Head of Search

Advanced SEO

Amit Singhal is a Google Fellow and leader in Google search. He’s been overseeing Google’s ranking algorithm since 2000.

Probably better than anyone, he knows the secrets of Google search. So it rather goes without saying then that SEOs should be extremely interested in anything he has to say.

At SMX West 2014 this last March Amit sat down for an interview with Danny Sullivan for the keynote. Danny came prepared.

They discussed:

  • Hummingbird (1:11)
  • Links (6:21)
  • Social Signals (8:33)
  • Other ranking signals (11:59)
  • The knowledge graph (14:15)
  • Google’s management of search (27:53)
  • Layout changes (34:00)
  • Google’s competitors (37:42)
  • Google Now (42:54)
  • Google future – 5 years from now (45:05)
  • The future for Marketers (46:19)

Google’s Hummingbird Update - 1:11

Hummingbird is Google's preparation for the future. A future which Amit refers to as "the mobile revolution."

Amit candidly talks about the need to rebuild Google's search foundation, to further incorporate new technology from the last ten years, and to question and examine long held beliefs.

The key belief Amit discusses is the transition from the old belief that searches will search in a few key phrases, to moving into the present and future where searchers will use natural language and longer, convoluted sentences while searching. Hummingbird helps break apart sentences and utilizes the knowledge graph (and presumably other algorithms) to understand which phrases and words are important.

"Hummingbird has been about understanding long queries, understanding natural language queries, decomposing queries to their constituents, and using the power of knowledge graph to understand what constituent needs to be closer to what constituent to make a document, or a sentence, or a piece of text relevant. So it's kind of ground up rethinking of how would we we build search for the future, and what foundation will that be built on. Hummingbird is not only a full search system in its own, it's also the foundation on which we can build that future." - Amit Singhal

No one really knows yet what will come from the Hummingbird update, but from Amit's speech we can expect Google will be ready for it.

I, for one, must admit that I no longer type into my phone when I want to search. It's much easier and more efficient to simply vocalize my search to Google.

Links - 6:21

Links have been Google's core ranking signal since the inception of Google. Hummingbird hasn't seemed to change that.

Danny noted the recent tension with links - the fact that Google seems to want to discount more and more links - and notes the recent 9 minute video attempting to explain what a paid link is.

Amit is quick to note that Google now uses over 200 ranking signals, and that they want to take a holistic view of a site to determine quality. However, he's vague about any other potential signals, and reinforces Google's use of links:

"Links are clearly an important signal about the importance of your content - they are still really valuable. But at the end of the day we look at the holistic picture of how your site, what type of content it has, and so on and so forth. Because you think of it from a users perspective." - Amit Singhal

Again, Amit focuses on providing value to the user - an admirable goal. However, despite Danny's directly asked question regarding the validity of links as the core of Google search, Amit's reply reinforces the validity of links as a signal.

Social Signals - 8:33

Danny directly asks if social signals (tweets, +1's, likes, etc.) are used within search. Amit's answer is a definitive no, citing a lack of access to the data, and the unreliability of that access. However, Amit does state he's open to using social signals, but that it's not possible currently.

"You're right Danny, it is not coming into play right now. And we're clearly always open to adding new signals into our ranking system. With systems like Twitter where we don't really have access to the data, you can imagine how hard it is for us to build a system, reliable system, with our lack of data." - Amit Singhal

Danny then follows up with a question regarding G+, since they obviously have access to that data. However, Amit again states that Google isn't using G+ signals, outside of personalization for when users are logged in, citing that has been much more positive for users.

Other Ranking Signals - 11:59

Danny, on the heels of discussing links and social signals, asks Amit an open ended question regarding other possible signals that Google is either looking at or contemplating for the future.

Amit is once again vague, stating it's a human problem, and that Google engineers look for signals that pull quality, relevant documents to the top. They then utilize those signals (without giving any hints to what those signals might be, outside of the fact there's over 200 of them).

"You have to look at it as a human problem of what is relevance, what is high quality relevance, and you just basically have to then figure out what signals bring those relevant documents higher in the rankings, and we use those signals. Links, being one of them, there are 200 plus more signals out there." - Amit Singhal

The interesting thing here is Danny pushed beyond that, trying to determine other signals. Specifically, he referenced Author Rank and reaffirmed it's not implemented.

Amit was clearly weary of the subject, giving a terse response and asking if they were done talking links. It was interesting however that he referred to Danny's questioning of other signals as "the links questions."

The Knowledge Graph - 14:15

Amit was very happy with the knowledge graph, calling it the future of Google.

"Knowledge Graph is our [Google's] understanding of the world." - Amit Singhal

Danny quickly tackled the difficult question, asking whether or not Google was going to provide an answer to every question. He cited the below tweet, which was a bit of a viral black eye for Google and their Knowledge Graph, which is beginning to extend beyond Wikipedia and Freebase and scrape other top sites.

As you can see, the tweet is rather pointed and resonated with quite a few people: 34,376 retweets and 3,906 favorites.

Amit answered relaying a story about the utility of a Swiss Army Knife, gaining a new tool - a wine opener. This doesn't mean you no longer need your other tools, but lo and behold when you need it the Swiss Army Knife is there. This section is definitely worth watching yourself. My interpretation is that the Knowledge Graph will play a big factor in mobile. That, and Google doesn't intent to relent. They want to provide information as it's needed - the faster, the better.

This quote from Amit was particularly telling:

"Sometimes, on the go, especially in the mobile world, you need an answer. We are building the product that users want. We are building the product that is necessary in this mobile world for the future." - Amit Singhal

I suspect that Knowledge Graph will factor heavily in the mobile game, and doubt it's a coincidence that it meshes so well with the answer cards utilized on Google Glass. As for his advice for SEOs, Amit says it's time to adapt:

"Good SEO is all about change. The world is changing. Good SEOs adapt and change with how the world is going to change." - Amit Singhal

Google's Management of Search - 27:53

Danny asked who managed search, since Amit as the head of the ranking algorithm comes about as close as Google has. Amit responded explaining it's a very collaborative process, which is what makes it work as well as it does. Amit was firm in saying collaboration is what makes beautiful products.

Danny and Amit also discussed the separation of church and state - or rather, in Google's case, the separation of organic and paid. There's absolutely no way to pay Google money in order to improve your search rankings. Organic and paid ads are entirely separate.

Perhaps the most interesting portion of this was section was Amit's discussion of how Google's team determines what various SERPs will look like. Now obviously SERPs are determined algorithmically, as they can't go through the billion possible search terms and decide for each one. But they still need to decide what different elements will look like.

Here Amit reveals his authority within search, stating that he, the head of ads, and their lead designers get a in a room and make those decisions. Amit explained it as painting a canvas, and maintaining important pinciples such as the separation as search and paid, and clearly labeling ads.

This led the discussion to the new layout.

Google's Layout Changes - 34:00

At the time of the video the layout changes weren't official. Since then, they've become official. The main changes are a move from desktop to match mobile - notably replacing they yellow background shading on ads and with a yellow tag with the word "Ad".

Amit also emphasizes that Google is constantly experimenting and testing. They're always looking to improve the experience for their users, and will always be changing and evolving.

Google's Competitors - 37:42

Google has become synonymous with search. They've become such an epicenter of the internet - it's truly hard to imagine the web without Google. As such, it's sometimes just as hard to imagine real competitors for Google. (Sorry Bing).

Amit has an interesting perspective on this:

"What you observe as your competition today, is one thing, but in this world of technology, you don't know what comes out next, right? The timelines are so compressed, that you can build a small company and sell it for billions of dollars in a small time. And it can change the world, which is a good thing." - Amit Singhal

It's a very good perspective to keep in mind, for anyone working with online technology. No one can tell what tomorrow will bring. So what's the answer? According to Amit, we must continue to keep our eye on the ball, and build products that our users love.

Google Now - 42:54

Google Now is best described as the most amazing technology Google's working on that should really scare you. It's absolutely amazing, and slightly horrifying.

About to head out the door to your flight, but your flight is delayed? Google Now will let you know.

New episode of a show you like airing tonight? Google Now will give you an alert letting you know the time and channel.

Traffic congested when you're getting ready to leave the office and head home? Google Now will tell you.

That's but a few of the key features, and it's amazingly predictive. To an alarming degree.

Is there more coming? Amit is vague, but says generally of Google "we're just getting started."

Google's Future - 5 Years from Now - 45:05

Danny asks what the future of Google looks like, and what it'll be like 5 years from now. Specifically, he asks if we'll even recognize it.

Amit refers to himself as an eternal optimist. He says that there will be new technology and new devices to come out in the next five years, and that search within these devices will be foundations - part and parcel. Mobile will be huge, and search will change to meet those devices.

The Future for Marketers - 46:19

The future for marketers, according to Amit, won't be serving the current billion devices online - it will be learning how to best serve the next five billion that come online.

Amit relays the story of already being able to 2g in rural India, and how amazing it is that a rural farmer in India has access to as much information as the King of Spain did but 50 years ago.

Amit says the next 5 billion people online will:

  • Be using small devices with increased technology
  • Have increased access to information
  • Be more mobile
  • Have tremendous power.

Amit says he looks forward to the future, that it's going to be a beautiful place, and he's happy to live in these times.

Cory Collins

Cory Collins is the Business Development Manager at Page One Power and has been with the agency since 2012. Cory is an SEO strategist, writer, runner, and outdoor enthusiast residing in Boise, Idaho, with his wife, daughter, and (too) many pets.