Matt Cutts keynote at Pubcon 2013 Las VegasAfter reading several live blog notes (here and even better here) on the keynote address by Google’s Matt Cutts at Pubcon 2013 yesterday, I was seeing intriguing hints that he had spoken about some topics near and dear to me.

But since these were live notes, some of the details were a bit fuzzy. I really wanted to hear what Cutts actually said.

So I was grateful to find a video someone had posted of the first 20 minutes of his keynote: Thanks to Andy Akers on Twitter, heres a complete video of Matt’s keynote and the following Q&A:

Much of  Matt’s talk was about the things Google is actively working on now and will be pursuing in the future. In this post I’m going to pull out a few highlights and comment on them, mostly centering around the topics of Authorship and authority. 

Boosting Subject Authorities

Ahrend Booster

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Back in July of this year I wrote about Google Subject Authority Ranking. That post was in reference to a video by Cutts in which he spoke about Google “getting better” at identifying sites that are seen as authorities in a given subject, and then giving those sites a boost in the rankings.

Now at Pubcon (9:04 in the video), Cutts reinforced that they “want to be able to push you up a little bit higher” for queries related to a subject in which you are seen as an authority. Once again, he was sparse on details as to exactly how Google is evaluating and determining “authority,” but he did mention that there are “thousands of different topic areas” on which sites are being evaluated.

The problem here is that he remained ambiguous about whether he was referring to site authority, author authority, or both. At first I thought he had definitely said “site” in the video, but upon a closer listen this appears to have been (possibly) a slip of the tongue. He says, “If you’re an authority in a medical site…the medical space…” So it’s really hard to tell if he’s restricting this, for now, to just sites, or if it’s open to individuals as well. Throughout the rest of that section, he just uses the pronouns “you” or “your” so there are no further clues.

Even back in the earlier video I cited above, Matt never specifically himself limits what he’s saying to sites. At the time, I took it that he was referring to sites because the user question to which he was responding was about site authority. But anyone who listens regularly to Cutts knows he doesn’t always restrict himself to answering the question asked.

So does this mean that Google has begun to implement some form of Author Rank? I remain skeptical that it has. For one thing, in the past month we’ve had two prominent Google spokespersons state unequivocally that Google is not yet using Authorship data in search results.

For another thing, no one has been able to produce credible evidence that their Authorship in and of itself has led to their content getting higher rankings for a subject area. Frankly, I don’t even know how you would test for that. We don’t even know what the subject areas that Google would use are, nor how granular they are. And I don’t see any way you could isolate the effects of your Authorship from all the other signals, known and unknown, that could be affecting your rankings.

And Matt’s verb choice is interesting. Even though this was in a section about current “core quality changes” in Google search, he conspicuously does not say that they are pushing up authorities in the SERPs, but rather that they “want to be able to.” That leaves enough ambiguity that I don’t think we can call this a slam dunk pronouncement that Author Rank (or any kind of subject authority) is currently live in Google SERPs, except maybe in some preliminary and experimental ways.

Authorship and Spam. Later in the talk, starting at 17:31, Matt again brings up Authorship and identity. This time he’s talking in the context of fighting web spam. He remarks “if [the Google] webspam [team] knew who people were, it would be much easier to keep the spammers out of search results.”

Notice two things there: One, he doesn’t mention ranking here at all; just eliminating spam. Two, he again uses non-present language. It would be easier to eliminate spam, not it is now easier because of Authorship. Furthermore, he made these remarks in a section of his talk headed “Big future trends” (see the screen capture below from another video of the speech that included his slides).


So my opinion (and it’s just that) is that Google is implementing subject authority boosting first on a sitewide basis , and author subject boosting is still in the works, but even site subject authority might still be in the future. Don’t you love how clear Matt makes things?

While at Pubcon Matt said “there’s nothing you have to do” to become one of these subject authorities, he suggested that if you are a topical authority, you should “keep writing about it, keep developing, keep deepening the amount of content you have.” As we’re hearing with the Google Hummingbird update, high quality content that specifically addresses the information needs of searchers is more important than ever.

On that topic, Eric Enge of Stone Temple Consulting has published an excellent article on the reasons you must become an expert.

If Google Can Serve the Query Better than You, They Will

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Shocker: Google does not exist to promote your brand or site.

Actually, that shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been carefully observing what Google has been up to in recent years. In the Pubcon address, Matt Cutts stated it very clearly: Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information. Period. And he added, very tellingly, “the words ‘search engine’ do not appear in our mission statement.”

In other words, up until now, and for the time being, organizing the world’s information via an algorithm-driven search engine was the most efficient and scalable way for Google to fulfill its mission. But with the advent of things like the Knowledge Graph and Google Now, we are seeing the beginning of Google serving up information directly on its site, without the need for the user to click through to another web site. Add to that Google’s experiments with shopping results, hotel and flight reservations, and it begins to creep into businesses’ wallets.

Google Knowledge Graph result

This is the hard, cold truth that too many site owners don’t want to face. There is no longer any value in serving up generic or commodity information. With Hummingbird and semantic search, Google is getting better at using machine learning to understand the world’s knowledge base. The main reason for Google Search to exist, from Google’s point of view, is for people to be exposed to AdWords ads, the source of most of Google’s income. So what matters most to Google is that searchers are happy with the results they get, so they will come back to Google again and again. And if searchers can get the information they seek without an extra click, well, that’s just more happiness.

So should we site owners and marketers just give up? No! This just means that if you want to continue to get organic traffic from search, you’ve got to be creating resources that are so unique, so helpful, so valuable, that it continues to be easier and better for Google to send searchers to your site, rather than giving them a quick and dirty answer on Google.

Yep, excellent, useful content. Once again.

Social Signals are For the Long Haul

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Plus One Pillow by @Craftsquatch (Photo credit: Wickerfurniture)

Another interesting tidbit from Cutts’s speech actually provided information I don’t think we’ve heard before about social signals. I suspect this part of his address was motivated by things like the blowup over the much-misunderstood Moz study on search ranking factors, which showed a strong correlation between Google+ +1’s and high-ranking sites. After a number of bloggers started claiming that Moz was saying that +1’s could cause higher search rankings, Matt had to step in at Hacker News to categorically state that no, +1’s are not a direct ranking signal for Google search.

So what good are so-called “social signals”? In a very intriguing segment of his address, Matt told us that social signals such as Facebook Likes, Twitter retweets, and Google +1’s don’t do anything for you in the short term. In other words, just getting any of those isn’t going to immediately affect your ability to rank in search.

But…he said that over the long haul, a long history of accumulating positive social signals “can show a search engine that you should be trusted,” and perhaps eventually contribute to you or your site getting pushed up in search. So along with authoritative content, having a strong network of “fans” who like and promote you and your content is important, but it’s a long-term play, not a short-term ranking scheme.

UPDATE: In the Q&A, Eric Enge mentioned that when Matt talks about Google+ social signals and search, he always speaks of +1’s specifically. Eric asked if there was any differentiation in that regard between +1’s and other Google signals, such as a share. Matt said that there is not, that he merely uses +1 as a convenient shorthand for any sort of signals from Google+, and that neither +1’s nor shares nor comments at present have any direct effect on search rankings. But, he said, all of those are a part of the “long haul” effect he spoke about previously. They all may help to build your authority over time.

Fewer Authorship (and Other Rich Snippet) Results in Search

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Google Authorship search resultAnother brand new revelation in the keynote by Matt Cutts was that Google will be cutting back on the number of Google Authorship and other rich snippet search results shown in search. Basically, they are going to tighten up the qualifications for earning such a result, but without telling us what those qualifications will be, other than the oft-repeated “be a trusted authority.”

Cutts mentioned that their testing showed that a 10-15% reduction in the number of Authorship results shown greatly increased the quality of those results for searchers. That they have been doing such testing may explain why we’ve heard from an increasing number of members in the Google Authorship and Author Rank Community that their Authorship results had disappeared from Search.

I warned that this was coming in my post about the recent official Google Authorship FAQ where Google stated that linking one’s Authorship to low quality, non-original content, or to pages that really aren’t article-level content (such as product pages or a home page) might cause one’s photo to stop showing in search. Now Matt Cutts has confirmed that they are going to put teeth behind that warning.

So…same song and dance as above: create expert level content in your main topical areas, and build strong social networks of people who love and share it.

There was a lot more in Matt’s talk, of course, but these were the items that leapt out at me. What do you think?

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