Thursday, November 24, 2011

PubCon 2011: Is SEO Dead (Again)???

Leo Laporte of TWIG (This Week in Google) seems to think so – as he announced at PubCon this year.  Pubcon, a conference about search marketing, is a place for the greatest minds in search, SEO and marketing to come together, solve problems, create transparency and promote the industry. However, for the last couple of days,  the tension among those with differing opinions has been palpable – specifically among those in Leo Laporte’s camp and those in the Google camp (like Matt Cutts).

                                              Me and Matt Cutts at PubCon 2011.

During his speech at PubCon, Laporte essentially forecasted an end of days for Google – an assertion to which Matt Cutts later responded during his own keynote address. Here, you’ll find videos of both addresses, along with a little bit of my own commentary thrown in.

Laporte seems to believe that Apple will displace Google as the search engine of choice with its new technology, Siri. Laporte, mentioning an article he read by his friend Mike Elkin, asserts that Siri will serve as an “intermediate” to search; essentially, he and Elkin believe that people will begin to query Siri instead of visiting the Google search engine. Noting that he has seen many companies rise and fall, Laporte ominously predicts the epic fall of Google because of this and other factors (like the fact that Google’s social network will contribute to this failure  because Facebook is so focused and Google is not). Don’t believe me? Watch the video here for yourself:

Laporte feels that Larry Page has a challenge when it comes to Google +; but he doesn’t stop there. He addresses the audience full of SEOs and search engine marketers, as you can see in the video, saying “If I were in your business, I would really be looking at alternatives to search engine marketing and search engine optimization.” He continues by adding that he doesn’t feel these are viable careers, as in the long run Google won’t be existent or won’t be the search engine of choice anymore. Why not? Because, he says, we don’t actively have to search for anything anymore – that times are changing and Google isn’t on the right side of the change.

As you might be able to imagine (or, as you experienced if you are here at PubCon), this speech wasn’t received well. Many SEOs and SEMs walked out more angry, though, than discouraged. Laporte had just asserted that our careers were not going to be viable down the road, in a speech that seemed more bitter towards Google than informative. This anger remained until Matt Cutts took the stage for his keynote, and renewed our faith in Google and SEO.

Matt Cutts Fires Back: “The Fact Is, SEO is NOT Dead”

Matt Cutts, head of the webspam team at Google, fired back at Laporte’s comments in his own keynote speech, which he presented and then reinforced with a Q&A. Google software engineer Amit Singhal also participated in this part of the session.

As his speech opens, Cutts addresses Laporte’s claim that SEOs will be out of a job in 6 months with an incredulous “WHAT?,” a dramatic spitting of his water in surprise (in response to a tweet in which someone quoted Laporte: “I don’t know if search engines are relevant in 6 months” and then added, “Somewhere, Matt Cutts just spit out his coffee.”) Cutts notes that everybody’s favorite “mean” is to say that SEO is dead – and then goes on to disprove Laporte’s assertion. From our seat up in front, we got a great video of the keynote.

This is where I sat anxiously awaiting Matt Cutts’s keynote and response to Leo Laporte’s inflammatory comments. Once he came on stage, I could see Cutts’s genuine incredulity at the idea of the impending “end of SEO.” Watch the video below to see what I mean:

This is a video of Matt Cutt’s keynote speech, in which he denies Leo Laporte’s claims. Also in this video, during the Q&A portion, is Amit Singhal.

How Cutts Disproves Laporte’s Theory

So how does Matt dispel the collective angst of the SEOs in the audience who have just been told to go find a new job? He tells us the truth – that SEO is marketing, and that “marketing appeals to human nature…and that’s never going to go away.” He assures us that what we contribute is useful, and notes that SEO is akin to coaching, making sure people present themselves in the best possible light. There is nothing wrong with that, he adds.
“There will always be a role for people who want to present themselves better.”
Cutts attributes the longevity of our careers to the fact that “more and more, SEO is about human nature – and trying to appeal to human nature.” While search engines continue to change, so will SEO. And we’ll all adapt to those changes. While it’s true that SEO was simpler years ago, today it encompasses so much more – search is a different challenge now with voice, mobile, and social elements. The most important point Cutts makes, in my opinion, is that with SEO, “The only constant is change.” SEOs have always understood this, as Cutts notes, as we don’t want to go where search engines are, we want to go where search engines are going to be.
The take away from Matt’s speech? Search engines will always try to improve  user experience – so as long as we are working with them, change will benefit us as SEOs.
The Rest of His Keynote
As Matt segued away from refuting Laporte, he brought up some interesting points about SEO and its future. We’ll just graze them here – you can watch them in full in the video posted above.
First, he addresses Panda, noting that no algorithm is perfect and that Google uses mistakes that are made to try to improve the system. Reconsideration requests have also improved communication.
What the Future of Search Will Look Like
10,000 Foot View: Long Term SEO Trends
1. Mobile
2. Social – longer term, we will begin to think about social (Google +, anyone?!) – Social is a good way to create a reputation for authors (it seems like he’s referencing the rel=author markup). He notes that if the reputation of content authors is transparent, it will make the whole web better. He also adds that social is one of the areas where you don’t really have to optimize for search engines – this is a trend toward change for SEO.
3. Local
1,000 Foot View
1. Better Page Understanding- there is an algorithm change coming up for improving page quality, specifically when it comes to the content above the fold (I’m assuming this means, if you have so many ads above the fold that the user is turned off, this algorithm will not treat you well) – all for a better user experience (the theme of the speech – and of Google’s current mentality as a whole).
2. Search as a More Personal Experience -There is a trend toward people sending more personal searches to Google. Stay tuned.
3. Better tools for Search – Google is likely working on verbatim or literal options, to give searchers exactly what they want.
4. Communication and Transparency
5. Sending information to Google – What if when you publish content, you could send it to Google so they could know where it originally came from (to stop scraper sites from ranking higher than original content)?
1 Foot View 
In this portion of his presentation, Cutts provides tips to SEOs for how to keep up with Google and the changes to which we all should adapt:
1. Sign up for Webmaster Tools.
2. Sign up for email alerts.
3. Set up “fat pings”when you publish content.
4. Subscribe to Google’s Webmaster Blog, Inside Search Blog, and Webmaster Video Channel.
The Conclusion of Matt Cutts’s Keynote Speech: Yeah right, Laporte
At the end of his keynote and just before Amit Singhal comes on stage for the Q&A, Cutts takes one more shot at Laporte’s argument, asserting with a laugh that “I think search engines will be around for a little more than 6 months.” If all SEOs understand Google’s emphasis on the best user experience possible, we’ll all experience the longevity that everyone but Laporte feels Google will continue to experience. To watch Amit speak and participate with Matt in the Q&A,  watch the video posted above – Amit joins Matt around the twenty minute mark.


Matt Cutts is somewhat of a celebrity in the world of search technology. He is the head of the Google spam team that is in charge of ensuring Google search results are free of sites that promote malware, use blackhat SEO techniques, and misrepresent their content. He is also the developer of the Google Safe Search option that protects users from encountering adult material when using the search function. Before safe search was developed, it was very common for results to contain links to pornography websites, something Google does not like, want or appreciate. The advent of safe search has made the Google search engine friendly for users of nearly all ages. I personally don’t think young children should be unsupervised on the internet, but safe search does limit the amount of adult content they can access.

The brain behind safe search, Matt Cutts, is a regular contributor to the tech community. He often writes posts to clarify changes to the Google algorithm and helps webmasters understand how to avoid being penalized by Google updates. SEO’s are very familiar with the Youtube videos that he posts every month or two. If you are interested in watching some of Matt Cutts’ informative clips they are available here:


Earlier today Matt Cutts released a blog post outlining 10 new algorithm changes and briefly described each.

1.) “Cross-language information retrieval updates: For queries in languages where limited web content is available (Afrikaans, Malay, Slovak, Swahili, Hindi, Norwegian, Serbian, Catalan, Maltese, Macedonian, Albanian, Slovenian, Welsh, Icelandic), we will now translate relevant English web pages and display the translated titles directly below the English titles in the search results. This feature was available previously in Korean, but only at the bottom of the page. Clicking on the translated titles will take you to pages translated from English into the query language.”
This change offers the potential for reaching new markets that were previously unattainable. Languages that only had access to a small percentage of the web will now have access to English pages that have been in existence for a long time. This provides many new advertising opportunities for well established authority sites.

2.) “Snippets with more page content and less header/menu content: This change helps us choose more relevant text  to use in snippets. As we improve our understanding of web page structure, we are now more likely to pick text from the actual page content, and less likely to use text that is part of a header or menu.”
The days of manipulating search results with header descriptions, alt and meta tags are behind us. This has been occurring slowly for some time now. Page content dictates whether a site is related to a particular keyword so it makes sense. Quality content has been ruling the search results since the Panda update and now we know why. The information on each page is integral to ranking well in the SERP’s.

3.) “Better page titles in search results by de-duplicating boilerplate anchors: We look at a number of signals when generating a page’s title. One signal is the anchor text in links pointing to the page. We found that boilerplate links with duplicated anchor text are not as relevant, so we are putting less emphasis on these. The result is more relevant titles that are specific to the page’s content.”

It is no secret that Google users anchor text links as an indicator for a sites content. That is why backlinking is the backbone of any SEO campaign. This tidbit of information lets SEO’s know that site wide linking, links in headers, footers and blog rolls, will no longer rank well. I would hazard a guess that this is to drop the value of any paid for linking services. Many websites offer links in blog rolls and footers for a small onetime or monthly fee. This change should make the value of these links nearly worthless driving many paid linking sites out of business. Google does not like when people manipulate search results and this is one way to restrict that ability.

4.) “Length-based autocomplete predictions in Russian: This improvement reduces the number of long, sometimes arbitrary query predictions in Russian. We will not make predictions that are very long in comparison either to the partial query or to the other predictions for that partial query. This is already our practice in English.”

This does not really have much effect on SEO’s. I guess this change was to improve the search engines usability for Russian’s. Google would love to hold a dominate portion of the Russian search market. Yandex currently holds the title of most used search engine in Russia and the surrounding area. Their economy is booming and ripe for advertising revenue. If Google could establish itself in the Russian market they could make a lot of money on advertising in the region.

5.) “Extending application rich snippets: We recently announced rich snippets for applications. This enables people who are searching for software applications to see details, like cost and user reviews, within their search results. This change extends the coverage of application rich snippets, so they will be available more often.”
Any company that is trying to market software better take this as a warning to input as much information about their product as possible. It is not uncommon for webpages to fail to fill out all the information about their site, ie. alt tags, meta tags and descriptions. Now webmasters are extended the option to fill out rich snippets for their applications. This will help convince consumers to purchase or use a program before clicking on a link as the information will be displayed with the search results. Any website that does not properly fill out their rich snippets will probably lose business to competitors in the industry that take advantage of this new capability. This will be a great tool for SEO’s to use to help promote the visibility of client sites.

6.) “Retiring a signal in Image search: As the web evolves, we often revisit signals that we launched in the past that no longer appear to have a significant impact. In this case, we decided to retire a signal in Image Search related to images that had references from multiple documents on the web.”
I am not sure what to make of this algorithm change. I guess it was implemented to improve the image search function. It is hard to imagine why images that have references from different document sites would not have an impact on the rankings in the image search. The more people that link to pictures and documents with the same description should indicate what that image is about, and help place it in the rankings for particular keywords. This could be a way to downplay the importance of images that have links and descriptions from the plethora of free image libraries online. It is quite possible to influence the search results for images by placing an image on as many free image hosting services as possible. ie. flickr, shutterfly, dailymotion, slideshare, issuu etc. This change is possibly Google’s method for decreasing the link value on these sites.

7.) “Fresher, more recent results: As we announced just over a week ago, we’ve made a significant improvement to how we rank fresh content. This change impacts roughly 35 percent of total searches (around 6-10% of search results to a noticeable degree) and better determines the appropriate level of freshness for a given query.”

The “Freshness” update changed the way a lot of content on the web is ranked in the Google search engine. The time a post or article is written helps Google determine whether it is relevant to a variety of keywords. They say 35% of total searches will be affected by this change. It is important to note that the is a differentiation between searches and search results. Only around 10% of search results are affected by this change because some searches will receive the same search results as other queries. They are just different versions of the same query. The Freshness update has made daily website updates and interaction a must for any webmaster that intends on ranking well in the SERP’s. Consistent blogging and community involvement has never been more important than it is now. If I could sum this update up in one sentence for SEO’s it would be, “Blog multiple times a day, comment multiple times a day, and don’t stop.”

8.) “Refining official page detection: We try hard to give our users the most relevant and authoritative results. With this change, we adjusted how we attempt to determine which pages are official. This will tend to rank official websites even higher in our ranking.”

Good news for branded authority sites, bad news for webmasters trying to enter highly competitive niches. This change will only help to increase the rankings of well known “official” sites. The definition of “official” lies at the heart of this issue and makes it difficult to understand how this will effect websites. I think it is beneficial for corporations to rank highly for their name and industries because many users are expecting to find those results when using Google search. The problem with this take on search is that it gives industry giants a strangle hold on markets that they are already dominating. This will not help promote the development of new companies and websites in established markets.

9.) “Improvements to date-restricted queries: We changed how we handle result freshness for queries where a user has chosen a specific date range. This helps ensure that users get the results that are most relevant for the date range that they specify.”

This feature makes current events and up to date content even more important. This helps users target news as it is happening. It is probable that the Caffeine indexing system as well as the “Freshness” update helped spur the creation of this new search feature. Allowing date ranges to be specified also helps search users navigate search results regarding events that happened in the past. Finding articles and information on news stories from 10 years ago will be much easier than with the current system.

10.) “Prediction fix for IME queries: This change improves how Autocomplete handles IME queries (queries which contain non-Latin characters). Autocomplete was previously storing the intermediate keystrokes needed to type each character, which would sometimes result in gibberish predictions for Hebrew, Russian and Arabic.”

Once again, this change will not really effect the English speaking Google users. This change was implemented to improve the search experience for non English speaking users. Even if this does not effect me and my clients, I find it comforting that Google is constantly working on making the Google experience better.

These ten changes as described by Matt Cutt’s are a nice look into how and why Google makes changes to their search algorithm. Not all updates are intended to remove or penalize certain types of sites. Many of the changes are to improve the usability of their flagship product. Search is responsible for the majority of Google’s annual revenue if users are not happy they will not make money, it is as simple as that. It is no wonder that Google is constantly improving their service with nearly 500 yearly algorithm tweaks and changes.

The original Matt Cutts’ post is available here: