< Matt Cutts, Head of Google's Web Spam Team

Transcript

Friday, August 12, 2011

BOB GARFIELD:

Google’s search algorithm revolutionized access to information on the Web and has dominated the search market for more than a decade. But the company takes nothing for granted. Google’s tightly protected complex formula, its secret sauce, is constantly being tweaked, both to offer better content and to lower the rankings of websites that use devious methods to manipulate search results.

Google makes these tweaks unilaterally. If it decides that a website is using so-called “black hat” techniques to artificially boost its rankings and search results, Google has the power to essentially bury it.

Matt Cutts, the head of Google’s Webspam team, is instrumental in making these decisions. Matt, welcome to the show.

MATT CUTTS:

Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, where you come in is when Google catches people trying to game the system unethically or unfairly – cheating, basically - these people are often called “black hats.”

MATT CUTTS:

Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]

BOB GARFIELD:

Can you give me some example of black hat operations that you've had to fiddle with the algorithm to combat?

MATT CUTTS:

Black hat stuff can start from really simple, for example, white text on a white background, all the way to really complex, the sorts of things like viruses, malware. There are even people who will hack websites and then inject links that only search engines will see.

So there’s some really sneaky stuff that people will do, and people are always trying to find a way to game the system or rank higher than they deserve to rank.

BOB GARFIELD:

White text on white background. This is so simple and so [LAUGHS] sinister. This is when you take keywords and you put them in white, on white, so that a computer can read them. Can you tell me what people do along those lines, and why?

MATT CUTTS:

Absolutely. The white text might say, “Cartoons,” and then the actual content of the page could be pornographic, for example. So you don't want someone to search for a word like “cartoons” and land on a page that turns out to be porn.

And if you’re hiding text or if you’re showing different content to search engines than to users, then in some way that’s deceptive because we don't get to see what a user saw.

BOB GARFIELD:

There’s been a lot of talk about content farms like Demand Media and Associated Content, and others. And there has been a lot of speculation about what Google has done recently that would have a particular effect on content farms and make it harder for them to get their stories high up on Google PageRank.

MATT CUTT:

In fact, we started to roll out a new change to our algorithm that tends to rank lower quality or shallow content sites lower in the search results which ends up with higher-quality sites showing up higher. We always try to have our ears open and listen to the feedback from the outside world, and that’s actually something we'd been working on even before people were discussing this recently.

BOB GARFIELD:

As you go in and fiddle around the margins to keep the black hats from performing their tricks, is the algorithm getting so complicated that there’s a risk of it getting away from you and no longer delivering the kind of pure results that are everybody’s goal?

NATE ANDERSON:

I wouldn't say so. Thanks to the work of a lot of engineers at Google, we've paid attention to trying to make sure that our system is maintainable, that it’s understandable and that there are good reasons for the different changes that we make.

BOB GARFIELD:

Now, there’s another issue that comes up, and, and that is omnipotence. You have so much market share; you are so much the only game in town at this point that you can enforce these things unilaterally, without hearing or due process, putting the whole online world more or less at your mercy. Is there any process by which the people who are affected by algorithm changes and updates can make a case for themselves?

MATT CUTTS:

We have a webmaster forum where you can show up and ask questions, and Google employees keep an eye on that forum. And, in fact, if you've been hit with a, what we call a “manual action,” there’s something called a “reconsideration request,” which essentially is an appeal that says, ah, I'm sorry that I was hiding text or doing keyword stuffing and I've corrected the problem; could you review this?

And over time, we've, I think, done more communication than any other search engine in terms of sending messages to people whose site has been hacked or who have issues and then trying to be open so that if people want to give us feedback, we listen to that.

BOB GARFIELD:

When you make a switch and, whatever, hit “send” to codify it in the Google algorithm, do you and your team, you know, exchange high fives and hoot and holler because you've put another black hat out of business?

MATT CUTTS:

[SIGHS] I think it’s not a good idea to be completely impassioned. You don't want to act out of anger.

BOB GARFIELD:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, them is pretty words, Matt Cutts.

MATT CUTTS:

[LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD:

And I don't disbelieve you. But there must have been at least one time when you went, ha-ha-ha, take that!

MATT CUTTS:

[LAUGHS] Whenever you do run across someone who’s especially creative and especially doing harm to users, then, absolutely, it is satisfying to feel like you have made search better for everyone else. But the vast majority of the time, you really want to approach it from a centered, calm place and try to ask – what’s the best thing for users. Any change will have some losses, but hopefully a lot more wins than losses.

BOB GARFIELD:

Just doing my job, man.

MATT CUTTS:

[LAUGHS]

BOB GARFIELD:

Thank you very much.

MATT CUTTS:

Yeah, good talking to you.

BOB GARFIELD:

Software engineer Matt Cutts is head of Google’s Webspam team.