Matt McGee live blogged the extremely well-attended event, which kicked off with a parody video of Matt Cutts clips assembled by Sam Applegate. Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts came out to a stage decorated, appropriately enough, with stuffed penguins, highlighting the search engine’s Penguin update. This led naturally into Sullivan’s first question: is Penguin a penalty?
According to Cutts, Penguin is not a penalty – but when they use the word “penalty” at Google’s web spam team, they mean taking some kind of manual action concerning a website. Penguin, on the other hand, is just another signal in the algorithm, designed (like Panda) to tackle low-quality content.
From the matter of Penguin, Sullivan moved on to a topic that’s been lighting up SEO forums a lot lately: negative SEO. Matt Cutts admitted that “Our guidelines used to say it’s nearly impossible to do that, but there have been cases where that’s happened, so we changed the wording on that part of our guidelines.” Cutts tantalizingly hinted at a possible tool in the pipeline that would allow website owners to disavow links: “we’re talking about being able to enable that, maybe in a month or two or three,” Cutts said.
What about notifying site owners when they’re affected by a change? While that certainly fits in with Google’s efforts to be transparent, it’s not always possible. “If you roll out a new algorithm, it can affect millions of sites,” Cutts noted. “It’s not practical to notify website owners when you have 500 algo changes every year, but we can notify when there’s been manual action against a specific site.”
Indeed, Google has even started sending out warnings when they spot someone using very obvious black hat techniques – and if you receive one of these warnings and take no action, you can expect your website’s ranking to drop. Connected with this, Cutts said that Google is continuing to improve their tools to spot paid links; for example, some of the tools they use “to spot blog networks, can also be used to spot link buying,” he said. He emphasized that Google is getting more serious about tackling those that buy and sell links, and pointed out that “if you ask any SEO, is SEO harder now than 5-6 years ago, I think they’d say it’s a little more challenging.” Even so, links will continue to be an important signal, even as social signals keep growing.
Then Sullivan asked one of the more loaded questions: “What’s up with your war on SEOs? Or is it a war on spam?” Cutts insisted that it’s a war on spam. He showed little patience for those in the black hat forums trying to find shortcuts to success. According to Cutts, they’re asking how they can fake sincerity and being awesome, which he thinks misses the point: “Why not just be sincere and be awesome? We’re trying to stop spam so people can compete on a level playing field. I think our philosophy has been relatively consistent.”
The biggest surprise for many SEOs, though, came right after this point. Answering a question about looking at bounce rate, Cutts said that “Webspam doesn’t use Google Analytics. I asked again before this conference and was told, no, Google does not use analytics in its rankings.” Make of this what you will. You can read Matt McGee’s full live blog of the event at the link earlier in this article.