Matt Cutts On Penalties Vs. Algorithm Changes, A Disavow-This-Link Tool & More

smx-logo-128Is it a penalty? Or is it just a change to Google’s algorithm? That’s been one of the hot topics in search marketing in recent months thanks to the Panda and Penguin updates, and it was one of the topics of discussion tonight at our SMX Advanced conference in Seattle.

During the annual “You & A with Matt Cutts” keynote session, Google’s web spam chief told Search Engine Land Editor-In-Chief Danny Sullivan that Google’s definition of a “penalty” is when manual action is taken against a site — and that Google doesn’t use the term “penalty” as much as they say “manual action.” Cutts went on to say that neither Panda nor Penguin are penalties; they’re both algorithm updates.

He also mentioned — and this will be good news to many search marketers — that Google is considering offering a tool that allows web masters to disavow certain links, but that may be months away if it happens.

Other topics included why some spam reports aren’t acted on, whether Google+ and +1 votes are a strong SEO signal right now and much more. We’ll have separate coverage of those topics in future articles, but for now you can read my full (and largely unedited) live blog below.


We’re just moments away from our annual “You & A with Matt Cutts” keynote at SMX Advanced in Seattle. The room is packed like sardines in a can and, with all of the recent Panda and Penguin news buzzing around the search marketing industry, this conversation should be interesting, to say the least.

Search Engine Land’s Editor-In-Chief Danny Sullivan will be handling host duties, and I’ll do my best to keep up with the discussion below. So, stay tuned, hit your Refresh button every few minutes if you want, and follow along with all of us here in Seattle.

So we’re actually starting out with that hysterical video by Sam Applegate in which Matt Cutts explains how to rank number one on Google:

Danny and Matt have arrived to a penguin-filled stage and we’re getting started. And Matt has just thrown one of the stuffed penguins right at me, nearly taking my head off. But he missed, which is proof that he’s better at fighting web spam than at throwing stuffed penguins.

Danny: What’s the deal with Penguin. Is it a penalty?

Matt: We look at it something designed to tackle low-quality content. It started out with Panda, and then we noticed that there was still a lot of spam and Penguin was designed to tackle that. It’s an algorithmic change, but when we use a word like “penalty,” we’re talking about a manual action taken by the web spam team — it wasn’t that.

We don’t think of it as a penalty. We think of it as, “We have over 200 signals, and this is one of the signals.”

DS: So from now, does “penalty” mean it’s a human thing?

MC: That’s pretty much how we look at it. In fact, we don’t use the word “penalty” much, we refer to things as a “manual action.” Part of the reason why we do that breakdown is, how transparent can we be? We do monthly updates where we talk about changes, and in the past year, we’ve been more transparent about times when we take manual action. We send out alerts via Google Webmaster Tools.

DS: Did you just do another Penguin update?

MC: No.

Danny references the WPMU story and Matt says that the site recovered due to the data refreshes and algorithmic tweaks.

DS: Now we hear a lot of people talking about “negative SEO.”

MC: The story of this year has been more transparency, but we’re also trying to be better about enforcing our quality guidelines. People have asked questions about negative SEO for a long time. Our guidelines used to say it’s nearly impossible to do that, but there have been cases where that’s happened, so we changed the wording on that part of our guidelines.

Some have suggested that Google could disavow links. Even though we put in a lot of protection against negative SEO, there’s been so much talk about that that we’re talking about being able to enable that, maybe in a month or two or three.

DC: asks about different types of links

MC: We’ve done a good job of ignoring boilerplate, site wide links. In the last few months, we’ve been trying to make the point that not only is link buying like that not doing any good, we’re turning the dial up to let people know that certain link spam techniques are a waste of money.

DC: Danny asks about messaging.

MC: If you roll out a new algorithm, it can affect millions of sites. It’s not practical to notify website owners when you have 500 algo changes every year, but we can notify when there’s been manual action against a specific site.

One thing I’d like to clear up — the news earlier this year about 700,000 warnings. The vast majority of those were because we started sending out messages even for cases of very obvious black hat techniques. So now we’re completely transparent with the warnings we send. Typically your website ranking will drop if you don’t take action after you get one of those warnings.


DC: Anything new related to paid links?

MC: We’re always working on improving our tools. Some of the tools that we built, for example, to spot blog networks, can also be used to spot link buying. People sometimes think they can buy links without a footprint, but you don’t know about the person on the other side. People need to realize that, as we build up new tools, paid links becomes a higher risk endeavor. We’ve said it for years, but we’re starting to enforce it more.

I believe, if you ask any SEO, is SEO harder now than 5-6 years ago, I think they’d say it’s a little more challenging. You can expect that to increase. Google is getting more serious about buying and selling links. Penguin showed that some stuff that may work short term won’t work in the long term.

DS: Affiliate links. Do people need to run around and nofollow all that?

MC: If it’s a large enough affiliate network, we know about it and recognize it. But yes, I would recommend no following affiliate links. (That’s a paraphrase! Not an exact quote – sorry.)

DS: Do links still work, or are social signals gonna replace them?

MC: Douglas Adams wrote “Space is big. You have no idea how big space is.” The web is like that. Library of Congress, the biggest library in the world, has 235 terabytes of data. That’s not very big compared to the way the web grows.

The actual percentage of nofollow links on the web is a single digit percentage, and it’s a pretty small percentage. To say that links are a dead signal his wrong. I wouldn’t write the epitaph for links just yet.

DS: You do these 30-day challenges, like “I’m gonna use Bing for 30 days.”

MC: I have not done that one, and I’m afraid to try! (huge laughter from audience – Matt then says he’s joking and compliments Bing team)

Danny challenges Matt and Google to do something to see the web from an SEOs shoes, and says that SEOs should try to see things from Matt’s perspective, too.

DS: What’s up with your war on SEOs? (laughter) Or is it a war on spam?

MC: It’s a war on spam. If you go on the black hat forums, there’s a lot of people asking, How do I fake sincerity? How do I fake being awesome? Why not just be sincere and be awesome? We’re trying to stop spam so people can compete on a level playing field. I think our philosophy has been relatively consistent.

DS: What about tweets earlier today about using bounce rate? You don’t look at how quickly someone bounces from a search result and back to Google?

MC: Webspam doesn’t use Google Analytics. I asked again before this conference and was told, No, Google does not use analytics in its rankings.

And now we’re going to audience questions.

DS: What percent of organic queries are now secure?

MC: The launch was a little backwards, because we didn’t want to talk about being able to search over different corpi/corpuses. It was a single percentage of traffic in the US, and then we rolled it out internationally.

I think it’s still a minority of the traffic now, but there’s things like Firefox adding SSL search in the browser. There’s a lot of things aimed at helping users with privacy. I recognize that’s not good for marketers, but we have to put users first. We feel like moving toward SSL, moving toward encrypted, is the right long-term plan.

DS: (reading audience question) How come WordPress didn’t get penalized with all the blogs that have WordPress links in their footer?

MC: If you look at the volume of those links, most of them are from quality sites. WPMU had a pretty good number of links from lower quality sites.

DS: How come AdWords isn’t being blocked from keyword referrals?

MC: If we did that, every advertiser would do an exact match for every phrase and then the ad database would grow exponentially. He adds that he wishes Google might have reconsidered that decision, though.

(I missed the next question.)

Matt explains that web spam team has been working together with search quality people and other groups. He’s using it to further explain different between penalty and algorithm adjustment.

DS: So we have positive ranking factors and negative ranking factors?

MC: Yes.

DS: asks question about rich snippet spam

MC: Used to be that people wondered why it was so hard to get rich snippets, now it’s the other way around. We’re looking at ways to handle the abuse … missed the exact quote, but he said something about maybe removing ability for a domain to have rich snippets if there’s abuse.

DS: asks question about link removing after getting an alert in Webmaster Tools

MC: We want to see an earnest effort to remove the links. When you do a reconsideration request, we’ll look at some of the links and see “how much progress have they made?” We’ve talked about the idea of adding a disavow-this-link tool.

DS: What if you can’t get rid of bad links pointing to a page, should we get rid of the page?

MC: If it’s not an important page, you could. Or you could at least document the effort to remove the links and share it with us.

DS: What percent of spam reports does your team take action on?

MC: We have a good list of leads ourself. We’ve shut down tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of domains involved in link buying. When you get a spam report, you want to take action, but it may not be as high impact as doing something about one of our own leads. We use a factor of four — we measure the potential impact by four and if it still shows up near the bottom of the list, we may not take action on it.

DS: asks question about Google+ and SEO

MC: When we look at +1, we’ve found it’s not necessarily the best quality signal right now.

DS: You have to be on Google+ if you want to rank well in Google.

MC: No!!!! It’s still early days on how valuable the Google+ data will be.

DS: Why’d you call it Penguin, by the way?

MC: For Panda, there’s an engineer named Panda. For Penguin, we thought the codename might give away too much about how it works, so we let the engineer pick a name.

DS: If you were hit by Panda and Penguin, should we just give up? (audience roars with laughter)

MC: Sometimes you should. It’s possible to recover, but if you’re a fly-by-night spammer, it might be better to start over.

DS: What’s the deal on paid inclusion? Is it coming to web search?

MC: You call it paid inclusion, but it’s a separately labeled box and it’s not in web ranking. Google’s take on paid inclusion is when you take money and don’t disclose it. Google’s web rankings remain just as pure as they were 10 years ago. We have more stuff around the edges, that’s true, but that stuff is helpful. Matt mentions using Google Flight Search to book his trip here to Seattle. “You can’t buy higher rankings. That hasn’t changed. I don’t expect it to change.”

DS: Mentions that some people have been really mean to Matt recently.

MC: I’ve had a lot of people yell at me over the years. I’ve developed a thick skin. People aren’t striking out because they’re vicious, they’re striking out because they’re hurt or they believe Google isn’t doing the right thing. You want to listen to that. Some of our best launches have come from some of the most passionate criticism.

DS: What are you most excited about right now in search?

MC: I like some of the stuff we’re doing that hasn’t launched yet. I do like the Knowledge Graph a lot. I’m really excited that we’re pushing for more transparency. If you’d told me 10 years ago that we’re going to tell every spammer when we catch them, I would’ve said you were crazy.

And with that, we’re done. Thanks for tuning in!

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Features: Analysis | Google: Disavow Links Tool | Google: Web Search | Live Blogging | Top News


About The Author: is Editor-In-Chief of Search Engine Land. His news career includes time spent in TV, radio, and print journalism. His web career continues to include a small number of SEO and social media consulting clients, as well as regular speaking engagements at marketing events around the U.S. He recently launched a site dedicated to Google Glass called Glass Almanac and also blogs at Small Business Search Marketing. Matt can be found on Twitter at @MattMcGee and/or on Google Plus. You can read Matt's disclosures on his personal blog.

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  • Erick Recors

    I have a question for Matt, or anyone else that knows. If you didn’t get a notice in WMT of unnatural link warnings, yet you can take an entire paragraph from my home
    page and google it and you wont see it anywhere in the top 10 pages, then what happened?

    Many of our pages are totally gone from the SERPS yet certain product pages and our contact us page show up for totally off the wall keywords.

    There has to be some real penalty in play here, not just devalued links. Right? I would almost rather have the notice in WMT because then I could communicate with Google. They just told me no manual action has been taken when I have enough valuable links and a 10 year old domain to know at least my site would rank for its own home page title tag query if not penalized.

  • Jeff Kean

    No more like “How can you claim the updates a success when its clear there have been legitimate places put out of business by this update, along with scores and scores of bad results rising to the top”  or “Why are you showing clear favoritism to certain big brands and not others in search results”

    Something like that :)

    Don’t get me wrong I appreciate the question you did ask, but there was a chance for allot more hard hitting questions that could have been asked. 

  • Sheldon Campbell

    I have to wonder whether Google will decide that offering a “please disallow this link” tool could be just too labor- and resource-intensive. I can imagine millions of hits/day on such a tool – if automated, it’d be a resource hog, and if manual… I suspect it just won’t happen.

  • fredwaters

    I would have luv the chance to have Matt Cutts in front of an audience and shown him some of the search results in my niche, which is Treadmill Reviews and Ratings.  The Penguin update has been a boom for web sites from India and East Europe that are written in barely decipherable english, and consist of the most blatant link spamming.  Here is an example of content from a site ranking on the first page of “Treadmill Ratings”

    “This is why WE ARE HERE FOR YOU as our site do all the research and providing the best treadmill reviews and treadmill ratings if you still struggling to decide which exercise treadmill would suit your budget and fitness requirements. Let us help you by as simple as just reviewing on the treadmill buyer guide and comparison. A good treadmill review will help you to get the best treadmill to get in shape and keep health! You’ll find honest treadmill reviews and everything you need to know here which suit to your needs and budget.”

    The Penguin update resulted in many of the best sites in their niche getting penalized for being over zealous.  Or it may be they were responding to the signals that Google was inferring by how they ranked websites in the past.  For example, if I were to do a backlink check on many of my competitors through Google PageRank, I would conclude that getting links on bogus directories was a necessity to compete. 

    Regardless, I welcome the news of a possible link negating tool.  I have one ebay affiliate site that has 1,100 links to my site in their blog roll.  They listed me as a resource. I have been unable to find the owner of this site.   They’re domain name is protected by whoisguard.  I also have countless sites from years ago that reprinted my articles from article directories.  That was back when writing articles was in vogue. 

    I do hope that Google works out the bugs and that the cream rises to the top.   In my niche the big brands and the barely english speaking sites have risen to the top. 

  • Danny Sullivan

    He didn’t. We, the SMX conference, did as a stage decoration. The audience seemed to find them fairly funny, as it did when we had pandas last year.

  • Danny Sullivan

    I’ve asked both him and Amit Singhal, who heads up the entire Google Search team about this fairly recently. Both have chalked it up to not being able to be 100% perfect and erring on the side of caution and allowing some spam through to avoid more false positives. See also

  • Ian Smith

     It seems if we totally abused the system, we would have got a specific warning telling us of our error. That is manageable.
    No warning – just an obliteration of rankings. Bit more tricky to deal with.

  • Maurine W. Sigmund

    So we should focus on building a good link profile and make sure that majority of the backlinks are not coming from one specific keyword.

  • Website Design Company

    Since 2011 I had a smell about such happening that something is going to happen very big, something similar in terms like any end user wants to see the result. Like If I need to buy something specific then definitely would prefer something trusted, related and real thing what I need. More or less we have to be agree that you have to prove, show, and if you are new then start building as a brand if you want to be shown in results. 

  • Steve1919

    Fantasticly funny video. More of that kind of humour please. More, more, more!

  • Steve1919

    Fantastically funny video. We want more of this type of humour. More, more, more! Genius.

  • Christopher Castellano

    Look like google took my advice -

  • Mike Webb

    In a previous interview with MC he did say that even brief visits to a site can be beneficial, especially if you’re looking for an answer to a simple question. If you manage to find the answer on the first page and then go straight back to google then they consider they’ve done their job correctly in helping you find the answer to your question.

  • Margie

    It seems like Matt didn’t quite answer the question about “bounce rate” – Danny asked about SERP bounce rate – and Matt replied about Google Analytics bounce rate.  I would really like to know the answer to the SERP bounce rate question – which would link to the stats in Google Webmaster Tools.

  • Manazir Ali Alvi

    Get you free Copy here ( 

  • Jake Bohall

  • fusiondesigner

    Nice interview Danny 

  • Tarjinder S. Kailey

    The way I see it the update was not created to penalize but to devalue/downgrade the value of any site that violating Google’s guidelines in SERP. 

  • Gregory Smith

    Seems like everyone and their granny is writing the same damn thing. Where is the pork (unique “quality” content) ?

  • Fahad

    every one asking if SEO is dead?? i finally want to say that i think seo is not dead but linkbuilding is dead…!seo is now rely only on content base work.

  • Mike M

      Exactly! What about all the poor, totally innocent Mom & Pops with a great,
    competitive product and with only enough knowledge of the internet to
    barely copy another site (or fill in a registrar template) that they
    find and adapt it to their own use? WHY should they have to know
    ANYTHING WHATSOEVER about the topic of SEO and what spammers do? Just
    like OLD websites which were around BEFORE Google and did things
    innocently, which made sense, helped visitors, but G later decided was a
    “tool used by spammers” because it JUST HAPPENED to break THEIR
    algorithm they should not be rated lower than a multi-million dollar
    company who can hire a website department. Sounds to me like G needed a
    better algorithm from the start to recognize the difference and which
    worked from the START, rather than constantly changing things today to
    try and block spammers and make the learning curve impossible for new

      So say my grandmother owns a shop downtown that makes cupcakes and
    wants to link to the nice folks who own businesses on either side of her
    (a car repair shop and a flower shop) out of the kindness of her heart
    or as a reference for location directions, or as an advertising idea (while waiting for your car repair stop in for a cupcake and pleasant conversation). Should she be penalized
    because they are not related in anyway to her business and look like paid advertising, other than
    proximity to her business (which I suspect G does not consider a valid
    relation). G has no business determining what is a valid link and what
    isn’t. There are so many reasons that someone may validly link that a machine
    cannot fathom.

  • Mike M

     It’s great if they were to TELL you which links are good or bad, but we have a lot of unpurchased links which look perfectly legitimate, or which are questionable but are they hurting or helping us?

  • Mike M

      Oh yeah? How about sites which post, as one example, the old aol stalker data with 10K links to your site from one site? Good or Bad? Didn’t ask for them, didn’t pay for them, but they demonstrate popularity.

  • Mike M

     They should face the fact that they have killed the primary tenet of the internet: hyper-linking. Everyone is afraid to link anyone anymore. Yes the percent of nofollows may be low (it’s stupid to use since it alerts G), but has he checked the rate of increase (or decrease) in linking AT ALL over the last couple years? We link out frequently where it helps users, for 15 years now, totally free (most are non-profit organizations – hope we didn’t accidentally get them penalized) Of course G pretty much kicked us totally out of G. They should just assume ALL links are paid these days. Who else would RISK it, unless they’re us, or being paid for it, or they’re on G’s permanent, official “Recognized Authority” list (which we obviously aren’t).

  • storecoach

    I believe Phil is talking about the 3rd party tool that someone is promoting.

    FYI, it’s nothing more than an interface that tracks your efforts. You’d be just as well off using a spreadsheet Phil.

  • colette234

    Is sandboxing obsolete now? Our site has been hit hard by the penguin update and rankings continually fluctuate up and down. Is there a way to learn more about what search criteria the new algorithms are using. Is backlinking /the pr rank of your backlinks the only criteria taken into account? Please reply if you get a chance and thanks for taking the time to read this :)

  • Patricia_B

    Google – You need to fix this mess you made and FIX IT NOW!! We are a small company spending thousands of
    dollars and hours to do everything right by your standards, neither of which we
    have because WE ARE TRYING TO RUN A BUSINESS!! 
    With your latest algorithm change, companies are encouraged to use “blackhat”
    techniques and are racing past us.  Not
    only that, we are on our second reconsideration with you as we found out that
    one of our competitors (or several) have attached backlinks to us in attempt to
    push us down and push themselves up and GOOGLE this is being encouraged by you!

    We now have a full time person who spends most of her day
    trying to get the bad links removed from these various sites.  Sadly, it is a fruitless effort as once she
    is done, the spineless  competitor(s) who
    are applying links to us will just do it again. 
    We have lost so much ranking, money and time, we are at the point we may
    have to lay employees off.  You do NOT
    UNDERSTAND the affect you are having on real, hardworking businesses and
    families who are just trying to do the right thing according to your

    PLEASE, as soon as possible, implement a tool for us website
    owners to go in and tell you which are valid links to our site and which are
    not and should be disregarded. This should end the madness that YOU HAVE
    CAUSED.  You have brilliant people
    working for you.  I can’t imagine such a
    tool would take longer than an afternoon to develop.  Looking forward to a prompt implementation.

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