Matt Cutts Gives Talk on White Hat SEO

WordCamp 2007 was a two-day conference held recently in San Francisco for WordPress users and developers. Perhaps the most popular and eagerly-anticipated item on the schedule happened the first day of the conference at 5 PM, when Matt Cutts gave a talk on white hat SEO tips for bloggers. Keep reading to see what he had to say.

If you’ve been doing SEO for any length of time, Matt Cutts needs no introduction. He’s the closest thing the industry has to a rock star. Working as part of the spam team at Google, his panels and talks attract huge audiences at conferences, and he writes one of the most widely read blogs covering Google, SEO, and other cool topics. A number of bloggers covered his talk; at least one blogged it live.

Why would a talk given by a search engine expert be of such interest to bloggers? Blogging isn’t just a labor of love anymore; many people are actually making money from their blogs. And like other online businesses, much of their traffic comes in from Google. In anticipation of the talk, blogger Patrick Havens noted that “You aren’t supposed to rely on a single source for incoming [visitors], but I know from practice over the last couple years, that Google brings in almost 50% of my traffic to sites at times. So whatever can be learned will be important.”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the talk myself. San Francisco is a little far to travel from South Florida. To all accounts, Cutts is a very entertaining speaker, and his presentation was wickedly funny in addition to being packed full of information. 

Much of the information was common sense. For instance, set your blog up so you’re prepared for change; call your blog directory “blog” and not “wordpress” so you can change. Don’t put your blog at the root of your domain, because if you want something besides a blog it will be harder to change – besides, when visitors link to your blog, they’ll often link to the main page of your site and the main blog page, so this way you get a little extra link love. Some of the items were less obvious; others were somewhat obvious, but only if you do SEO for a living.

Cutts started his presentation by talking about the web site of someone who is selling patented magnetic rings which, when worn, are supposed to give the wearer immortality. The site owner claimed that he was being kept out of Google as part of a conspiracy by the pharmacy companies, who supposedly fear that the invention will put them out of business. Cutts revealed that the reason the site was banned from Google was a bit more mundane: keyword stuffing. The site boasts a 20 pixel text box; when you look at the source code, you see that the text box contains hundreds of keywords, most of them irrelevant gibberish (what does an “alien cemetery” have to do with immortal humans?). It underscored an important point: if you think Google hates you, check the webmaster guidelines.

Cutts also revealed some important details about the way Google handles various things. For instance, does the file extension in your URL matter? Matt’s answer: no – unless it is .exe. Otherwise, it will not affect your ranking in the slightest.

How about slashes in your URL? In other words, does it matter how many directories deep your page is? Surprisingly, Matt said no to this as well. So you no longer need to be concerned about this affecting your Google rankings. Matt did hint, however, that this might matter for Yahoo and Microsoft’s Live Search, so proceed with caution here, especially if you’re getting significant traffic from these search engines.

Matt mentioned one important change to how Google handles URLs that has either already been implemented or will be implemented soon: underscores will be treated as word separators. Google used to not treat them as word separators. Matt first discovered this back in 1999 – and from his point of view it was a good thing, because it allowed him to do some very geeky searches, such as FTP_BINARY, and get meaningful results (rather than pages that returned hits for either “FTP” or “BINARY”).

Of course, a lot of searchers these days aren’t quite so geeky – and even more importantly, neither are a lot of the people who create URLs. TypePad and Movable Type blogs used underscores by default rather than hyphens to separate words, so this change on Google’s part will certainly help them. Matt still recommends using dashes to separate words in your URLs, followed by underscores; either way, it is very important to separate those words! If you don’t separate the words in your URLs, the search engine will get confused and must make some kind of guess.

Many of the other items that Matt Cutts talked about will be familiar to SEOs. When you put together a blog entry, for example, think about what keywords web surfers might type into the search engines to find your content. One example he gave was “lol kittens,” which one person used as a tag for some of their Flickr photos. You want to slip the keywords into your posts as naturally as you can; synonyms are your friends. Use keywords not only in your tags and your content, but also in your category names. Oh, and for your posts, swap the title and the blog name.

This is great advice for someone who is just starting to set up a blog. But what should you do if you already have one that you’ve been building up for a while? Matt advises you to not completely mess up your URLs just to change things. Leave the old entries as they are, and make things better going forward.

If you have images in your blog – and let’s face it, some of us really love to post pictures – use ALT tags. Search engine indexing bots can’t “see” images. Limit yourself to no more than three or four relevant words. Adding ALT tags will also make your site easier to crawl, which is very important to getting listed.

You shouldn’t forget your human visitors, of course. Some of them may be coming in on a mobile phone, especially since Apple’s iPhone has a screen that is large enough for mobile browsing. Cutts said that you should use a different style sheet for mobile visitors, not a different site. Such style sheets are not particularly difficult to construct; they were covered in a book I reviewed on Dev Articles several months ago.

Matt also went a little bit into the attitude with which you should approach getting people to your site. “Get traffic from Google, then get noticed”? Not by a long shot; it should be the other way around: “Get noticed, then get traffic from Google.” And how do you do that? You create link bait. Cutts gave several examples: a lolcat builder, selling your moustache on eBay, a free hugs campaign, putting up tutorials, analyzing someone else’s blog, liveblogging an interesting event…and these were just a few. A directory of something very popular (like iPhone applications) or lists of reasons why something rocks or sucks also attract visitors.

Moving to a new IP can be a traumatic experience. Matt suggests that you do it in a particular order: first, you want to reduce your DNS time-to-live. Then back up your site and bring it up on the new IP. After that, you need to watch carefully to make sure that Googlebot and web surfers are fetching your site from its new IP address. Once that is going smoothly, you can take down the old site.

Do you need to worry if you use dynamic URLs? That depends. Matt said that Google treats URLs with a query string the same as static URLs. That’s only true if there are no more than three parameters in the URL. Or as Stephen Spencer explained writing for CNet, “you won’t take a hit in your Google rankings if you have a question mark in your URL; just don’t have more than two or three equals signs in the URL.”

What should you do if you’re moving to a new domain? Most people will do a 301 redirect. Matt suggested that it’s better to do a 301 redirect on one subdirectory, and when you see that that one is working fine, do the rest of your site. You should also write to those who have registered with your site and ask them to update their links. You should also try to standardize your backlinks: make them all either www or non-www, and do the same for the slash at the end.

On a related topic, if you do an RSS feed, you should consider what is more important: page views or loyal readers. If you want loyal readers, you should go with a full text feed; otherwise you can use a feed that gives partial content.

One tip that was sure to help those who use AdSense to make money covered how to focus the service on the right content for the ads rather than having it scan your whole site. You can use special AdSense tags. They work like this:

<!- goggle_ad_section_start ->

Put AdSense-relevant content here

<!- google_ad_section_end ->

Matt Cutts covered so much material that it’s difficult to get it all. He mentioned plans to put up at least the PowerPoint part of his presentation on his web site, if he could get approval from the appropriate people at Google. In the meantime, this information will hopefully assist you in increasing your blog’s traffic.

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