I had the pleasure of attending (and presenting at) the internet marketing conference Pubcon in Las Vegas last week, alongside my Conductor colleague Brian McDowell (who also presented at several great sessions). The conference is a full four days long and has grown to ten simultaneous tracks, making session choices a difficult proposition. But choose I did; overall I found the conference both informative and entertaining.

marketers swarm matt cutts
Marketers swarm Matt Cutts at Pubcon Las Vegas.

Day two had Matt Cutts, Google’s Head of Webspam, keynoting. Jason Calcanis, internet entrepreneur and former CEO of Mahalo, keynoted on day one, and there were a few …interesting moments. Calcanis made some negative comments about his company’s experiences with Google, concluding “this executive thinks Google could be a better partner”. Cutts rebutted the next day, suggesting that Mahalo published thin content and that was why they lost traffic. There are plenty of places that covered [link] the back and forth so I won’t rehash it here.

What I do want to do, however, is call out the points Cutts made that are most relevant to SEOs:

Things, Not Strings:

Google has made a lot of progress in the last year in understanding searcher context. The example he cited was the engine’s ability to understand the difference between ‘the New York Times’, and ‘Times Square’. But, Google does not intend to stop there. He said a goal of Google’s is to teach the search engine to read and comprehend at a grade school level.

In my view, this is Google acknowledging that their North star in Search is to bring users continuously closer to interfacing with their search engine with natural dialogue, as though they were speaking to another person.

See here for more on our thoughts on that.

Turning Up the Dial on Webspam Detection

In talking about the recent algo changes, Cutts first suggested that Hummingbird did not affect SEO very much. He pointed out that it had been out for a month without people really noticing. He also stated that they are looking at softening Panda, suggesting they acknowledge that there have been some sites that have been caught up in the filter that should not have been.

Cutts also affirmed that Penguin 2.1 is essentially Penguin 2.0 with the dial turned up, and showed a screen capture of a comment in a black hat forum “WHO WANTS TO PUNCH MATT CUTTS IN THE FACE?” (In other words, if spammers are upset with him, he is doing his job.)

15% Reduction in Authorship in the SERPs

Google plans to become more discerning about the authors they show in the SERPs, and to reduce the authors shown in the search results by 15%. It will come as no surprise to many, but I got the sense that Google is very much working on (but not quite there) figuring out ‘authority’— how to algorithmically determine who has sway in any given industry, so as to surface their content for relevant queries.

He did specifically address the question, “So does that mean I should be running around trying to get social shares to get a rankings boost?” Essentially, Cutts derided that strategy, saying that people should instead focus on the long-term goal of becoming an authority by producing good, well-received content.

To me, authority as a ranking factor seems like it could take a similar trajectory to links; there will be those who will artificially build it and may achieve some success, but they risk Google ultimately detecting their illegitimacy. Better to take a long-term approach and build good content that will be rewarded with a genuine recognition of authority. For more on this, AJ Kohn of Blind Five Year Old published a good post on authorship: Authorship is Dead, Long Live Authorship.

‘Thin’ Sites Don’t Get Rich Snippets

When Cutts stated that sites Google perceive as ‘thin’ will not get rich snippet treatment in the SERPs, you could practically hear the crowd collectively say “ohhhhhh”, as though that clarified a longstanding mystery for many. In post-keynote chatter, this was one of the most talked about points. Some insisted they knew it was Google’s plan all along, while others lamented hours spent trying to figure out why their clients’ sites were not showing rich snippets.

You can see a theme emerging: this is another way Google penalizes producers of thin content.

Increasingly, User Experience Matters

Cutts made several points that tell us that Google is devoting more than a little brainpower to determining which sites are UX/UI friendly and which are not. First, Cutts stated Google is doubling down on discovering and penalizing pages that are ad heavy above the fold. In one of the most explicit statements of his keynote he warned site owners (paraphrasing): “If the very first thing on your homepage is ads, change it”.

Second, he said there was a Chrome release coming with a ‘request autocomplete’ feature that will let users fill out a form with a single click, and he enumerated the user experience benefits, such as reducing shopping cart abandonment.

Third, Cutts cautioned site owners against overdoing ‘infinite scroll’ on their websites both because it can make for a poor user experience and because Google bots might not know where to stop indexing, resulting in crawl issues.

Taken together, we think these factors are very much reflective of Google’s focus on appraising and rewarding searcher satisfaction in the SERP. That is, they keep a close eye on how satisfied searchers are with the search result they click on, measuring numerous factors to derive this satisfaction level. This means Marketers should be thinking well beyond site ranking, extending their line of thinking (or at least championing it internally) to user experience, site navigation and more. See Conductor’s take on this here.

Overall Themes

Looking back at Matt Cutts’s keynotes to divine what it might mean for SEOs, I think the main takeaways are: authority will matter and will become more exclusive, UX/UI is more significant than ever, and demoting webspam continues to be one of Google’s major priorities.