Is 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?
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?
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!