SEO is a complicated and fluid topic with many conflicting opinions. That’s why it’s always nice to hear words of wisdom from staff in the inner sanctums of Google.
One regular contributor to this, and arguably the most well-known of them all, is Matt Cutts – the former head of the web spam team at Google.
Matt is on leave from Google at the time of writing to explore other opportunities, but while he was there, he regularly posted videos on Google’s Webmaster YouTube channel to answer questions and provide thoughts on the topic of SEO.
It’s obvious why these videos are so valuable. You’re getting the opinion from someone who has worked in Google for years and knows the secretive algorithms more than anyone on the outside.
The videos are a little dated, but still packed full of useful things you really need to know to get those top page rankings. Here I’ll break down what I consider to be the top 10 best and most important videos by Matt Cutts on the topic of SEO.
Set aside 30 minutes for these. You won’t regret it. Quick note: these aren’t in any particular order.
1). The top SEO errors where webmasters make mistakes.
If you already know a fair bit about SEO, this is a video you can skip as it covers the bare basics. Otherwise, it’s a great video to start with. In summary, Matt talks about:
Making sure your site is crawl-able. Ensure that all the pages on your site which you want to be indexed can be reached.
Include the right words on the page. Here, Mr.Cutts says that you should figure out what the user is going to type, and then ensure that those words are included in your page. His example is that your page shouldn’t say “mount Everest elevation”. It should say “How high is mount Everest”. This is still useful, to a degree, but nowhere near as important as it was back when this video was made. Since then, Google’s algorithms have evolved with a lot of new AI which means they can extract answers from pages without looking for question-specific text (you’ll see evidence of this in Google’s Knowledge Graphs).
Think about compelling content, not link building. Ask Google anything about SEO, and the answer will almost always find its way back to content eventually. The premise does make sense. The better quality your content is, the more likely people are to share it, and the more backlinks you will obtain to increase SEO rankings. Obviously it’s not that simple for a lot of money-makers out there, but it’s what Google is always going to appreciate. Content is king, and you will be rewarded with better rankings if you make the internet a better place with it.
Think about the title and description. Bare basics here. The meta title is a significant on-page ranking factor where you need to include your keywords. However, the title and meta description also usually show up in your website’s snippet on the search engine results pages, so they must entice users to click your site out of a set of search results. Here’s why this is so unbelievably important.
Webmaster resources. Matt mentions that every webmaster should use Google’s Webmaster Tools. This is now called Google Search Console, but this is easily one of the best pieces of advice for anyone involved in SEO for their website. It allows you to adjust how Google crawls your site, view organic result metrics by search term (including impressions, clicks and CTR), see the backlinks to your site and SO much more.
2). Are links in comments considered spam?
There’s nothing particularly amazing here at first. Google considers links in comments (such as forums and blogs) to be of lower value. Duh.
However, the key part worth knowing is what Matt indirectly said: “If your primary link building strategy is to leave comments all over the web to the degree that you’ve got a huge fraction of your link portfolio in comments…”. Stop right there. What Mr.Cutts is alluding to is the idea of a natural link profile.
Google knows about the existence of SEO, and even try to help as seen above, but what they don’t like is an over-manipulation of the ranking factors to the point where it becomes deceptive.
One of the easiest ways Google can find this sort of activity is by assessing how natural a website’s link profile is, and a key example is do-follow vs no-follow. In short, Google will expect a natural link profile (built through non-artificial means) to contain a mixture of do-follow and no-follow links. However, if your link profile consists of an overwhelming majority of do-follow links, this is a big red flag to Google that your link profile is not authentic and has been artificially built (as most people only seem to care about grabbing those do-follows).
This means that it’s very important to ensure that your link profile is as natural as possible. It takes a lot to have your website directly penalised with a manual action by Google’s team, but this ensures that you don’t draw any negative direction to your site. Plus, speaking anecdotally here, Google may give more weight to backlinks if they consider the overall link profile to be more genuine
How do you build a natural looking link profile? It’s easy enough. Just imagine what your link portfolio would look like if it was built through purely natural means, i.e. links were shared because of quality content, value and usefulness. Generally, it would look like a varying mixture of no-follow links, do-follow links, anchor text, forum comments, blog comments etc, so be sure to mix your link building strategies up from time to time.
3). Are backlinks important?
This is a great video. Short and sweet but with a key message.
In response to the question of whether there’s a version of Google available which excludes backlinks as a ranking factor, Matt says that there’s not a publicly available version, but there is an internal testing version. When they used this and excluded backlinks entirely, he found that the quality of the search results was “much much worse”.
Why this is so vital for you to know:
There’s been a lot of discussion in recent years about off-site SEO’s dwindling importance in search algorithms. The theory goes that as Google’s algorithms and artificial intelligence become smarter, there’s less of a reliance on backlinks to tell Google which websites contain the most quality, value and relevance.
This is probably true, to a degree. Google is getting smarter, and they’re now not just able to analyse content, but they’re now also able to analyse the meaning behind the content. Over time, this will only improve.
However, the wise words of Matt Cutts say it all. Without backlinks, the search quality was considerably worse, meaning that backlink building is likely to still play a significant role in effective SEO for the foreseeable future. Even as Google gets smarter, it’s almost certainly going to have a continued role in some way. It’s simply a lot easier (and effective) if Google factors in backlinks so the internet tells them what is good and what isn’t.
I’ve seen this myself with plenty of other websites as well. Some out there are frankly awful when it comes to on-site relevance and SEO factors in general, yet they rank so high purely on the power of their strong backlink profile.
4). SEO myths
The question is a meaty one. The response, not so much, but you didn’t expect Matt to give up too many secrets that easily, did you?
Points to take:
Does buying ads negatively impact your organic ranking, and vise versa.
Mr.Cutts says no. This is because Google’s main objective, according to him, is to provide the best quality search results, because that will keep users coming back to Google and improve loyalty.
The reasoning behind it is not exactly bullet proof, as Google dominates internet search and really doesn’t have to worry about any meaningful number of visitors switching to other search engines out of protest.
However, I would say the biggest reason to believe it is just because that kind of deceptive strategy (i.e. reducing organic rankings to increase the CTR of adverts) would open a huge can of worms if it was ever proven, and result in massive anti-competition complaints. It’s frankly not worth the hassle.
Plus, there are other ways Google can increase their revenues. For example, Google brought out expanded Adwords adverts not long ago which allow two headlines, custom display URLs and more body text. These bigger adverts have increased Adwords CTRs tremendously for a lot of advertisers, partly by drawing more attention away from the organic results and towards the paid ads. Perhaps this was Google’s intention. Perhaps they just genuinely believe that this will result in a better search experience for users. We’re unlikely to ever know for sure.
There’s no magic bullet for SEO
Matt says that a proportion of webmasters tend to move from fad-to-fad within SEO. One day it’s a specific technique which will surge rankings into the sky. Other days it’s something else. In truth, natural rankings, based on quality, relevancy and value, are always going to be a mixed bag of factors from various sources. That’s why it’s important to use the full repertoire of methods available when attempting to increase your rankings. You’ll always end up with a stronger, more stable and more natural SEO profile that way.
Not exactly a busted myth, but a good point nonetheless. Matt says that the key to successful SEO is to understand what Google wants, which is to deliver high quality, relevant content for its users. He’s right. You can combine what you want (higher rankings) with what Google wants (better quality). Contribute to improving the experience of what users find on search results, and Google will certainly reward you for it by making this content more visible to them.
Of course you can use certain SEO tricks at your disposal, as so many do, but broadly pulling in the same direction as Google will make your life a lot easier.
5). Page speed and mobile rankings
The main point behind this video is a good one. Page speed is a ranking factor, so you should make sure that your site loads as quickly as possible by making it more efficient.
However, there’s an underlying point here which is really important to know. Matt says that you need to look at the sites which are returned in the results along with your own, and then check if your site is an outlier.
What this indicates is that Google does not use general benchmarks. Instead, it has tailored benchmarks which are specific to certain topics, search terms and types of website. This is why you should never take the “one for all” SEO rules out there as gospel.
Page speed is a good example of this in action. If you’re told that page speed is a ranking factor, you may try to speed up your site by removing more resource-intensive elements, which could be detrimental to your conversion rate. You may even try out many of the page speed loading tools out there (including Google’s) and then gasp in horror at a poor score.
However, what really matters in this case is the page speed in relation to your competitors. If their sites take a while to load as well, then you may be doing yourself a disservice by strangling the functionality of your site to get the page speed down as low as some tools and pages tell you to. As long as your site is the fastest out of that particular “group”, you’ll have a more favourable page speed rank factor against the sites which count.
This same methodology can be applied to many other aspects as well, which Google is likely to do. For example, content length, keywords and even backlink profiles. Just research what your competitors are doing SEO-wise and try to beat them on every factor. Don’t worry so much about everyone else.
6). Popularity vs authority in SEO
This video exemplifies the direction Google has been moving towards in recent years. Relevancy, which used to be the strongest ranking factor by far, is starting to be more closely matched by the importance of authority and reputation.
As Matt mentions in the video, it’s not just about the number of backlinks, or even the authority of the site doing the linking. It’s also about topical relevancy. One of the longest standing ways for Google to measure this is through the anchor text of backlinks. However, more recent updates to Google algorithms are placing greater importance on the topic of the content around the backlink itself, and then feeding this into a broader topical relevancy of a certain site.
Take a website about medicine, for example. Backlinks and on-page ranking factors will help Google determine if a page is relevant for a particular search term. However, they’ll also assess backlinks based on the anchor text, the topic of the site providing the link, and the topic of the content around that link, to determine how much of an authority the medical website is on the topic of medicine. Those deemed more authoritative will then find it easier to rank well for relevant search terms.
So how would you put this into practice?
When building a backlink profile, don’t just zoom in towards backlinks related to certain search terms. Instead, build a more balanced set of links which are focused on search term specifics AND general topic relevancy too. It will set you up better in the long run.
7). SEO of the future
Here, Matt Cutts is asked what he thinks Google will be like 10 years from now.
What is particularly interesting is that this video was made in 2013, yet at the time of writing, a lot of what he says is starting to come to fruition (Google Glass excluded at this point). One such example is Google’s Knowledge Graph system and the ability to synthesize information. The Google Pixel smartphone is also heavily focused on being an assistant with a huge wealth of knowledge and AI behind it.
What should perhaps leave a lot of webmasters uncomfortable is Google’s ambition to integrate more “solutions” directly into its site. Knowledge Graphs are a key example of this, where Google is extracting content from pages on the web and then displaying it directly in the SERPs (search engine results pages) to answer a particular question in the search query.
This is great for users, but not so great if you own a website, as it means that users have fewer reasons to visit it. Sure, links to your site are often included to give credit if Google extracts your site content for SERP display, but it still gives users less of an incentive to visit your site if they can get the answer there and then. Depending on the broader content within the page, some will find it beneficial to traffic whilst others won’t.
What this video should tell you above all else is to remember that Google will continue to change – perhaps drastically in the coming decades. That’s why it’s important to stay on top of developments and avoid putting all your eggs in one basket when it comes to traffic sources. Diversify where you can.
8). What does Google think of single-page websites?
As Matt says, this is a really good question.
In my view, single-page websites can be a hindrance or a help for search engine traffic depending on a number of factors.
Firstly, let’s look at the ranking goals. If you have a tightly-focused business, product or service, where you’re only really interested in targeting a handful of related search terms, then a single-page website may work well for you as the topics of the page can be grouped together tightly. However, if you have site where you want to target a broad range of search terms, then this may be more problematic.
The other side of it is content. There are two ways content on a page can go. If it’s one specific topic, then a site with more content on a single page will concentrate the relevancy of the page towards that particular topic. However, if there are multiple topics, then including all of those on a single-page site can dilute the relevancy of the page instead.
Then there are other factors to consider. For example, a single-page site can only have one title tag and one meta description to display in the SERPs (which heavily influences organic CTR). Yes, Google do occasionally customise titles and meta descriptions in the SERPs depending on what the search query is, but it gives you less control over exactly what you want to be displayed in front of users on the search engine.
It’s also known that Google considers the bounce rate as a ranking factor. The idea is that if someone finds your site in the SERPs, clicks it, and then presses back on the browser to return to Google without delving any further into your site, then this may be a sign that the user hasn’t found what they were looking for in relation to their search query. The jury is out on how important of an SEO factor this is, but I would expect it to be phased out further over time as more “intelligent” ranking factors take hold. I hope so, anyway, as bounce rate is a terrible ranking factor to begin with.
9). Link building techniques from Matt Cutts
Old but gold with slightly less hair. If people from Google actually TELL you about SEO strategies to build links, it’s well worth listening.
There’s certainly nothing revolutionary or “hacky” about these tips for obvious reasons, but all of them are still very valid today and will help you contribute towards a link profile which Google appreciates. To summarise:
Participate in communities
Connect and network with people through blogs, forums and other social sites. However, don’t think too much about obtaining a do-follow backlink from these particular sites. Instead, use them to direct traffic to your website which contains good quality, high-value content. If you do this, then people within your target audience may share your content, which THEN creates the good backlinks you’re looking for!
Obviously this doesn’t mean that you should spam forums with advertisements. Simply showcase your expertise, answer questions and be helpful whilst hinting to your site in signatures and profile pages. Curiosity will build, the traffic will come, and so will the new backlinks eventually.
Plus, this is a fantastic way to build connections. Sometimes, it’s not about what you know, but who you know.
Original, new content
Links to your site will surge if you can present something which is not only informative and valuable, but brand spanking new as well. Discoveries, interesting statistics, research, test results, comparisons and so on. Keep it as objective as possible to relay solid facts, but feel free to throw a little bit of subjective opinion into the mix if you want to spur on debate.
As Matt says, just digging a little deeper to present revelations which you’ve experienced first-hand can pay dividends when it comes to content which is highly desirable to share. Backlinks ahoy.
Establish yourself as an authority
The more people trust you, the more they’ll read your content, share it and link back to it on their own web platforms. It’s worth checking out my article on how to make yourself an authority in your field to see the step-by-step blueprint for this.
How-tos and tutorials
Writing useful tutorials can encourage others to share them, especially if they’ve used a tutorial themselves and then find someone else asking for the same instructions. Remember, one of the main reasons people like sharing content, and linking to it, is because they’re trying to be helpful to others.
Products, services and files (for free)
This takes a bit of investment and sacrifice, but the awards can be tremendous. If you have the know-how to offer a free product or service, or can even create a free file of value which you can host on your site, then people are likely to share it and link back to it. Plenty of sites do this nowadays with free on-page tools, calculators and so on.
Videos can sometimes be more effective than text when it comes to engagement. They’re also particularly suitable for topics with more visual elements. Just make sure that you embed such videos in a webpage on your site with some related content around them. You ideally want people sharing the link to your webpage – not the link to the video on YouTube.
You’ll notice that all of these follow the same pattern: make good content, and people will share it. There are other, more “direct” ways to build backlinks too, of course, but Matt covers the content-focused basics which will always serve you well.
10). Does Google use social signals as a ranking factor?
Now I know what you’re thinking: this video is old. You’re right. It’s from 2010.
Since then, Matt has released a more recent video in which he states that social media signals are NOT a ranking factor:
Gary Illyes has also Tweeted the same conclusion.
The debate about social signals and SEO will continue to rage on, but all I’ll leave you with are two thoughts:
1). If they do factor social media signals into their ranking algorithms, it’s not really in Google’s best interests to tell anyone that. Every video or blog post or comment Google makes about SEO has two motives. First, it helps webmasters to rank their sites higher. Second though, it directs webmasters towards strategies which Google appreciates and which will help improve the quality of the web as a whole.
The problem with social media is that, if Google even gives a hint of its relevance as a ranking factor, hundreds of thousands of webmasters will jump on that and start trying to figure out ways to game the system. This draws attention away from good quality website content towards social media, which risks traditional content on websites being neglected.
2). Despite some restrictions, social media is an absolutely MASSIVE source of data which connects directly into the human psyche more than any other. There’s an almost unlimited amount of data on how people interact, what they say, what they do, how they think and much more. This is far more than Google could ever gain by traditional analysis of website-to-website interaction.
Plus, social media is growing in popularity all the time, and will continue to do so as it becomes more advanced. Traffic to all the major search engines combined dwarfs the traffic of Google, and this difference may only increase as social media sites embed more functionality and content into their platforms.
So the question is, with such a huge source of valuable data, and all of the ingenuity and processing capabilities they have, are they really not using any element of social signals at all to help them determine rankings in their search results? Not even a teeny tiny bit? I’m not so sure about that.
And besides, if they are, they probably aren’t going to tell you. All we do know (which is why I posted this video in the first place) is that they have looked into it.
But Scott! What about this video, and that video?
I could include dozens more videos here, but I’ve picked out those which I think offer real value, some underlying meanings and some key lessons to keep in mind. Plus, after creating this piece, I’ve watched so many Matt Cutts videos that I now feel like I’ve known him all my life. I swear at one point I noticed myself nodding back at him while he was talking.
That being said, if you know of any other SEO videos like this which you would like to share, please post them in the comments below.