Matt Cutts recently announced on his blog that he will be taking an “extended break” from his role at Google for “a few months”.

Cutts said he will be gone through to October. So between now and then, perhaps we can expect a lot of spam to dominate Google’s search results?  Only kidding.

Matt will be sorely missed by us here at Receptional, especially for his regular Webmaster Tools’ videos that both educate and entertain us.  Matt even had a short Q+A on his blog where he asked and answered the questions at the same time.  What a talented guy he is.

So in honour of Mr Cutts whilst he is away, here are 5 things we’ve learned from him so far in 2014:

1. Put more effort into your on page content

When asked last month how a page can rank if there aren’t many links pointing to it, Matt Cutts explained that Google are then judging it by the text on the page, as well as other factors, one of which he named as the reputation of the domain.

Cutts was suggesting that we need to put more effort into the content on our pages than manually going out to build links to it, or building links to low quality, thin content.

The key quotes from his answer are as follows:

“That refers back to the way search engines were before links.  You’re pretty much judging based on the text on the page at that point.

“The first time we see a word on a page, count it a little bit more. The next time, OK, a little more, but not a ton more. And then after a while, we say, you know what, we’ve seen this word, maybe this page is about this topic, but it doesn’t really help you to keep repeating that keyword over and over and over again

“In fact, at some point, we might view that as keyword stuffing, and then the page would actually do less well, not as well as just a moderate number of mentions of a particular piece of text.

“We do have other ways. In theory, we could say, does it sit on a domain that seems to be somewhat reputable? These are different ways you can try to assess the quality of content.

“Typically, if you go back to a user that is typing some really rare phrase. If there’s no other pages on the web that have that particular phrase, even if there’s not that many links, then that page can be returned, because we think it might be relevant. It might be topical to what the user is looking for.

“It can be kind of tough, but at that point we have to fall back and assess, based on the quality of the content that’s actually on the text, that’s actually on the page.”

Here’s the video in full

2. The amount of PageRank plus anchor text passed on from a page changes over time (May 2014)

Matt Cutts was asked about what happens when a single URL has two outbound links and if there is any difference in the amount of PageRank and anchor text benefit passed onto them.

He answered by saying there were much more important factors to SEO and hinted that they should not focus heavily on manual link building.  Cutts then went on to explain that the behaviour of their link extraction process and the benefit passed on from these links changed over time:

“We have a link extraction process, which is we look at all the links on the page and we extract those. Then we annotate or affix them to the documents they point to. That link extraction process can select all the links, or it might just select one of the links, or it might just select some of the links.

“That behaviour changes over time. The last time I checked was 2009. Back then we might, for example, only have selected one of the links from a given page.”

Here’s the video in full:

3. Links still have many, many years left in them

When asked if backlinks will lose their importance in Google’s algorithm, Cutts expected a natural decline over time but that they have “many, many years” of benefit in them yet:

“I think backlinks still have many, many years left in them. But inevitably, what we’re trying to do is figure out how an expert user would say, this particular page matched their information needs. And sometimes backlinks matter for that.

“It’s helpful to find out what the reputation of the site or a page is. But for the most part, people care about the quality of the content on that particular page, the one that they landed on.

“I think over time, backlinks will become a little less important. If we could really be able to tell ‘Danny Sullivan wrote this article. Or Vanessa Fox wrote this article’, or something like that, that would help us understand. This is something where it’s an expert, an expert in this particular field. And then even if we don’t know who actually wrote something, Google is getting better and better at understanding actual language.

“I think as we get better at understanding who wrote something, and what the real meaning of that content is, inevitably over time, there will be a little less emphasis on links. But I would expect for the next few years, we will continue to use links in order to assess the basic reputation of pages and of sites.”

Here’s Cutts’ answer to that question:

4.    How to tell if your site is affected by a particular algorithm

Matt was asked earlier this year how to work out if your site had been hit by a particular Google algorithm.  WebMaster Tools was one answer and the other was guesswork, as explained here:

“If you’re hit by a direct action from the manual web spam team that directly impacts the rankings of your site, then go to Webmaster Tools and check out, because it could very well be the case that we thought there was some keyword stuffing or cloaking or whatever going on. That’s a clear cut case. You’ll get a notification; you’ll get a message, and then you can start to figure out ‘where can I start to improve things or what can I change to make things better.’

“The other reason to check out Webmaster Tools is if there’s some crawl error. We have seen sites that will launch a new development website that was previously no indexed, and they forget to take off the no index tag. Or there’s 404s, or we can’t reach your site, those sorts of things.

“If your site is suffering from an algorithmic penalty or if you’re simply being outgunned by better content. It’s tough because we don’t think as much and really much at all about algorithmic penalties. The web spam team writes all sorts of code, but that goes into the holistic ranking that we do. So if you’re affected by one algorithm, do you call it a penalty? And if you’re affected by another algorithm, do you call it a penalty?  It’s a pretty tough call to make, especially when the web spam team is working on more and more general quality changes, not necessarily things specifically related to web spam.

“If your site is not ranking where you want it to rank, the bad news is it’s a little hard and difficult to say whether you’d call it a penalty or not. It’s just part of the ranking. The good news is it is algorithmic. So if you modify your site, if your change your site, if you apply your best guess about what the other site is doing that you should be doing or that it is doing well, then it’s always possible for the algorithms to rescore your site or for us to recrawl and reindex the site and for it to start ranking highly again.”

Here’s Cutts’ video of the above explanation below:

5. What is the criteria Google look at to determine paid links?

Matt Cutts went into great detail about how Google try to determine whether they see a link as being paid for or not back in March and therefore whether to act on it as being against their guidelines:

“What are the web spam team’s criteria for paid links? The vast majority of the times, things are incredibly clear. People are paying money outright for links based on page rank, flowing the page rank, trying to get higher rankings.

“Here’s an example spam email that I got: ‘We are offering our high-quality, genuine PR five-to-nine sites for selling text links. We maintain this quality with our sites.’ They talk about unique content with maximum of five outbound links. They’re selling these no fake PR, no drop domains, that sort of thing. So 99.9% of the time, it’s abundantly clear that these are links that are being bought and paid and sold and all that sort of stuff.

“But every so often, people like to split hairs and they’ll ask questions, like, OK, Matt, but what about if I don’t give the guy money, but maybe I buy him some beer and some pizza, and then he happens to write about my site? Those sorts of things. So I wanted to walk through the criteria that we use when we assess whether a link would be paid or not.

no such thing as a free lunch

“The main thing that I want to say up front is, these are some of the criteria, but just like the web spam guidelines, basically say, look, anything that’s deceptive or manipulative or abusive we reserve the right to take action on. It’s the same sort of thing. If we see a new technique that people are trying to exploit people’s trust or something like that, we’re willing to take action on that as well. But if you look at it in a pretty clear lens, you can see that people like the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, have actually defined, what does it mean to have a material connection if you are compensated? And so if I don’t cover the criteria or the examples that you’d be interested in, I would actually encourage this check out the FTC’s guidelines on that, or similar guidelines from other governmental agencies, because we actually conform pretty closely to the spirit behind those.”

You can check out the FTC guidelines as suggest by Matt – this link goes straight the PDF file.  Matt continues to discuss items in exchange for links:

“First off, what is the value of what you are getting? Even Google’s Code of Conduct recognises that if you get a $1.00 pen or something like that, that might not change your behaviour. And so if you go to a conference, and you pick up a free t-shirt that’s probably pretty low-quality, that’s probably not going to change how you behave. On the other hand, if someone pays you outright $600 to link to you, that is clearly a lot of value. And so on the spectrum between a pen and a t-shirt, all the way up to something of great value, that’s one of the criteria that we use. Another good one is how close is something to money?

Matt is discouraging paying for links.  He also thinks that some bloggers won’t be persuaded by cheap products in exchange for links.  That might be way of saying “don’t do it”.  Then Matt went onto discuss conferences, trials and reviews:

“We also look at the intended audience and it can be hard to judge intent, but bear in mind that the vast majority of the time, the intent is crystal clear when someone’s giving you actual money to buy links. But for example, suppose someone went to a SalesForce conference? So they’re at Dreamforce, and they represent a non-profit. And so they manage to say, OK, I’m a non-profit. I’d like to try out your service. And so, at SalesForce conference, or Dreamforce, they got a year’s free use of the service. Now, the intent there was not to get someone to embed paid links within an editorial blog post. The intent was to try to sign somebody up, see how they liked it. They can be someone who could tell other people about it. Maybe it’s a subscription or a trial where they get six months free, and then after that, they have to either convert or start paying money, or something along those lines. That is something where the intent is not trying to get links for SEO value.

“Another thing to consider is whether it would be a surprise. So if you’re a movie reviewer, it’s not a surprise that somebody probably lets you into the theatre, and maybe you watch the movie for free. That’s not something that’s going to be a surprise. If it was a reporter for a tech blog, and they said, give me a laptop, and I get to keep it, that would be a surprise, and it was something that was not reviewing the laptop. It was just like, I’ll write about your start-up if you give me a laptop. That would be the sort of thing that really should be disclosed.

“So when you’re looking at the criteria, first off, it’s how close is it to money, and how valuable is it? Because it’s normally money, and it’s normally the amount of money they’re paying to get links.”

Here’s Cutts’ answer in full:

6. Links are the most important ranking factor

When asked if there was a version of Google that excluded backlinks as a ranking factor earlier this year, Matt announced they had tried it internally but with no success.  As he explains in his quote here, links are a fundamental factor in determining the outcome of search results:

“We don’t have a version like that that is exposed to the public. We have run experiments like that internally, and the quality looks much, much worse. 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. We’ve played around with the idea of turning off backlink relevance, and at least for now, backlink relevance still really helps in terms of making sure that return the best, most relevant, most topical set of search results.”

We wish Matt Cutts a pleasant break from fighting spam. But in the mean time, if you need help building your brand and attracting links and visits to your site, get in touch and we’ll hatch a plan with you.