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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

June 5, 2008 at 5:03 PM

A chat with Google guru Matt Cutts

I thought I was getting a preview of the new Mike Myers “Love Guru” movie when I approached Google’s Matt Cutts, sitting cross-legged on a stage at the SMX search marketing conference in Seattle this week.

He was surrounded by fans taking his picture and seeking advice on how to get more love from Google, the search engine that dictates so much of their online marketing strategies.

While Cutts was at Bell Harbor for the conference, a Google mapping/photography crew was spotted doing its survey business a few blocks away in Pioneer Square. I wonder if they travel together.

Anyway, here are some excerpts from a chat I had with Cutts during his visit:

Q: You head Google’s Webspam team. Has the spam war been won yet?

A: There’s email spam, there’s webspam and then things like phishing and hacking. It’s strange to think of, but webspam is actually getting close to a historic low.

Q: Is the work Google’s doing to reduce webspam a factor in the lower click volumes reported by Google earlier this year and the comScore flap?

A: I think that was more clicked-on ads. I do know that Google is paying attention to the long term, so if there’s some way we can increase quality — even if that means fewer clicks on a particular result …

Q: During your presentation, you asked how many search marketers in the audience were in-house versus consultants, and most were in-house. Do you think the search-engine optimization industry will dwindle, as site owners learn the tricks and techniques to build the best sites by themselves?

A: I think it does speak to a couple of things. In-house SEO is getting more common. We try to make SEO not have a stigma attached to it because there are lots of great white-hat ways you can make your site more accessible and crawlable … without having to cheat.

It also might show that there’s not as much benefit to the people who try to take shortcuts or try to cheat. It’s almost like skill that can be trained — regular people can pick up best practices, it doesn’t have to be black art.

Q: Are there any interesting trends you’re hearing about at the conference?

A: A lot of it is accessiblity and crawlability — how do I make a flash site that also works well in search engines (for instance).

Q: So is the future dim for the SEO industry, with more being done in-house and search engines getting better and more accurate?

A: There’s always new challenges … My hunch is there’s always going to be a role for consultants on things like really hard questions and training up companies. If we can get some of the bad apples out of the SEO industry, I think we’ll see broader acceptance of SEO.

Q: Tell me more about crawling Flash.

A: Google’s always working to make it so Flash is more searchable. Over time we get better and better at extracting text that’s within Flash.

Q: Is that why Google introduced the annotation feature at YouTube, so users would add more searchable text to their Flash videos?

A: Cutt said he thinks it was done mostly because “annotation is a cool thing to do, it let’s people participate more directly” but that text could be used to make it more crawlable.

Q: Are you guys going to rehire Vanessa Fox, now that she’s left Zillow and freelancing around here?

A: I’ve joked with her that she always has spot if she wants to come back.

Q: As search results become more precise, some sites will see lower traffic since they’ll be casting a smaller net – isn’t that going to be a big adjustment for some?

A: I think the smartest SEOs and the smartest web site owners know it’s not just about getting a lot of traffic .. if you’re a small business in the Seattle area and you have plumbers in the Seattle area, you don’t want people from Prague. What we really try to tell people is you might not be number one for plumber everywhere in the world, but that’s okay.

I think there’s a little bit of a precedent where people see the traffic going down but it’s a much higher quality lead … the smartest advertisers we have often tend to be the people who don’t try to buy up every phrase in the world, they do research and say what phrases do really well.

Q: What did you think about Kevin Johnson’s speech at SMX?

A: I read all the books I could find on Microsoft a few years ago … I have a huge amount of respect for them. In general I think competition is great for the search industry.

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