By Matt McGee
It’s not everyday you get to hear from someone that’s worked on Google’s Search Quality/Webspam team and isn’t named Matt Cutts.
But Andre Weyher, whose LinkedIn profile lists a two-year stint as a member of the search quality team, recently spoke with James Norquay, a search/digital marketer based in Australia, and shared some interesting comments that may — and I’ll say more about this below — help search marketers and webmasters understand a little better how Google views certain SEO strategies and tactics.
NOTE: Before publishing, we asked Google for a comment on this story. It declined. A day after publishing, Google got in contact to say that Weyher “didn’t work on webspam engineering or algorithms at Google” and said it found inaccuracies in what he said. The postscript below has Google’s full statement. Weyher has also responded to say that while he wasn’t an engineer, he did work within the webspam team. His statement is also in a postscript, below.
Weyher explains that each person on the search quality team covers a certain “market” or “specialization.” His was content quality and backlink profiles. Below, some of the quotes that I found most interesting from the interview along with a comment or two from me in italics where appropriate.
On Link Building
“Everyone knew that Penguin would be pointed at links, but I don’t think many people expected the impact to be as large as it turned out to be. At this stage a webmaster is out of his mind to still rely on techniques that were common practice 8 months ago.”
He’s referring to the Penguin update that launched in late April, of course. Google estimated that it would impact about three percent of search queries. There have been two Penguin updates since: in late May and early October.
“Not only this but take PR for example, getting a link from a high PR page used to always be valuable, today it’s more the relevance of the site’s theme in regards to yours, relevance is the new PR.”
“…don’t dismiss directories completely. I have heard people talking about directories being altogether bad and advise people to avoid them. This is not the case, good quality, moderated directories, or niche directories are still worth looking in to.”
On What Makes A Spammy Link Profile
“There are a good few elements taken into account here, like how many links are there in total? A very important one; what is the quality of the pages they come in from? Do the pages look “real” or are they just there to host the links? What anchors are used? The commercial vs. non commercial ratio of the anchors.”
One of the most common post-Penguin pieces of advice that I’ve seen is to vary the anchor text of links pointing to your website. This interview seems to confirm that Google is (or was) looking at anchor text ratios.
On On-page SEO
“Of course you can’t over-do it as Google now also penalises for over optimisation, so don’t putt [sic] more than 2 commercial keywords in your titles or Google will frown upon it.”
Google might disagree with this quote. There was talk earlier this year that Google was planning to penalize for over-optimization, but when the Penguin update launched, Matt Cutts clarified that “over-optimization wasn’t the best description.” See our Penguin launch article for more on that. Also, I’ve never heard any other Googler make such a specific comment about keywords in title tags.
“Try to work on your website as if SEO was not part of your plan.”
“…what I tend to tell people is the following; if you want to please Google with your SEO, then forget about SEO.”
This echoes a theme that I’ve seen many smart SEOs talk about this year. Probably the best article on this idea is Adam Audette’s SEO Should Be Invisible.
We reached out to Google, but the company declined to comment on the interview.
The interview offers what I think is an interesting and potentially valuable look into how Google views certain SEO strategies and tactics in relation to its search quality and anti-webspam efforts. But I think it’s also important to keep in mind that these are the views of just one member of a large team at Google. As with any interview, it’s up to us as readers to try to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff — i.e., what may reflect Google’s views versus what may be the interviewee’s opinions.
Postscript (Oct. 17): Google has now decided it does want to comment on this post, telling us about Weyher:
He didn’t work on webspam engineering or algorithms at Google. Given that we saw several incorrect statements in even this quick interview, we’d recommend sticking to trustworthy sources for accurate info on how Google works.
Postscript 2 (Oct. 17): Weyher tells us:
I wasn’t an engineer and wasn’t responsible for creating the algorithm in any way. No one within Google knows the entire picture apart from maybe 1 engineer, 1 level under Larry Page.
My tasks in the search quality team under Matt Cutts were executing Google policy, especially content quality rating and quality of backlink profiles, applying appropriate penalties and creating reports that would be taken into account by the webspam engineers.
By reviewing literally thousands of cases of what NOT to do, you learn what the limits are and from what exact point Google starts seeing something as spammy.
My answers in the original interview were based on my experiences in the 2 years I was on the team. Of course it’s important to mention that I am not an official Google spokesperson but certain things that I have learnt at my time in Google are still current.
As far as elements like commercial keywords in titles are concerned, I don’t think anyone would doubt that Google doesn’t like on-page over optimization. You can give it another name but it comes down to the same thing: try to make your page only search engine focused is not something Google likes.
It’s hard for me to comment about any incorrect statements without Google describing which were incorrect.