Google's ways and means of making it to the top

 

Millions of euro are spent by businesses trying to get to the top of Google search results, writes JOHN COLLINS

WHAT SEARCH results a website such as Google should display in response to a query is a far from objective question.

Should a search for “Barack Obama” direct users to the White House website or to his own site, BarackObama.com? In fact, earlier this week it was the US president’s entry in Wikipedia that popped up first.

These are the kind of issues with which Google grapples every day, and one of those who has a big input into its choices is Matt Cutts. The amiable self-confessed geek is currently head of head of Google’s webspam team, which ensures the results you see do not include scam websites and others that don’t deserve to be there.

With over 94 per cent market share for web searches in Ireland, according to StatCounter, it’s little wonder that millions of euro are spent by Irish businesses trying to get to the top of the results for searches related to their industry.

Cutts was in Dublin this week to speak at an event organised by Dublin Chamber of Commerce, where he cast some light on how businesses can improve their visibility in Google search results.

At its most basic, Google has created a service that can very quickly, thanks to its global network of data centres, match the documents it is aware of on the web containing the word or words you are searching for.

The secret sauce which enabled Google to overtake competitors like AltaVista, Yahoo and Excite was ranking those results so that the most relevant ones appeared at the top of the pile.

Much of the focus of search engine optimisation (SEO), and those who make a living providing it as a service, is on Google PageRank. This was one of Google’s earliest innovations; analysing the number, influence and relationship between the websites that link to a particular page.

Although it seems like common sense now, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin realised that the very structure of the web could be used to figure out which pages are popular.

Google assigns a PageRank score out of 10 (irishtimes.com achieves an 8) to pages on the web but, while important, Cutts insists it is far from the main factor in whether a page is returned on the all-important first page of a set of search results. “We consider over 200 different ‘signals’ when we are ranking a document – PageRank is only one of them.”

The key thing is that “Google wants to return results that are relevant and reputable”.

Reputation is measured not just by the number of links to a site, but where they come from. For instance, a link from a newspaper site carries an awful lot of weight.

“If you want to get a reputation, start small, expand in your niche,” advises Cutts. Rather than trying to become a global authority on mobile phones, he suggests a site should try to become known as an authority on, say, Nokia phones in Ireland, or even in Cork.

Not only does Google serve up different results depending on the country in which a search is conducted, but the results are customised down to the city in which the user is based.

Cutts outlines a range of ways in which a site can quickly build a reputation, such as providing useful information or tutorials, publishing original research, no matter how basic, writing a software code and giving it away, providing a live blog for an event or creating some controversy with a contrarian view on an issue. The last tactic, he advises, should be used sparingly so a writer doesn’t develop a reputation as a whinger.

Cutts has built a high profile outside Google through his own blogging, covering everything from the fine points of Google search to how to jailbreak your iPhone. Regular publishing of a blog or other information is something he recommends for all businesses.

“The more content you have, the more ways we can find you.”

There was much concern in the web development community recently when Google announced it would take the speed of websites into consideration, with slower- loading sites being pushed down the results. Cutts believes the reaction was out of proportion to the amount of attention Google will pay to site speeds, but he believes it is a factor designers and developers need to take into consideration.

“If you make your site faster, people will use it more,” he says matter-of-factly.

Cutts spent more than half an hour of his Dublin speech taking questions from the floor, jumping from a laptop to a whiteboard in order to illustrate his answers as interactively as possible. At one stage he pulled up a slide that showed the most popular blog posts on his own site, mattcutts. com, which also showed other information about his traffic.

An eagle-eyed attendee noticed the figures showed that his site has a high “bounce rate” – a large number of people visiting his site who read just one article but do not stay on the site after that.

A few questions later, when the audience member asked how a high bounce rate might affect Google rankings and referenced Cutts’s own traffic ranking, he laughed generously but still answered the question as factually as possible.

Although careful not to advise his Irish audience not to use SEO consultants – a valuable source of advertising dollars for Google – Cutts was clear he would prefer if webmasters felt they could get to grips with the issues themselves. “A lot of SEO is simply common sense. A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself how would a regular user see this.”

The SEO business is also one that has attracted more than its fair share of shysters and snake oil salesmen. Sites abound on the web selling software and services that guarantee to get a site into Google’s top 10 listings for their favoured search term for as little as €100. In reality they are little more than a scam to get the credit card details of the unsuspecting.

It is an issue that clearly concerns Google and the legitimate or “white hat” operators in the market. The “black hats” are not averse to taking advantage of someone like Cutts, who clearly loves his job and gives willingly of his time at conferences and other industry events. “Just because someone has a picture of me standing next to them on their website does not mean they are a white hat,” deadpans Cutts.


You can hear John Collins interview Matt Cutts in this week’s edition of business podcast at

irishtimes.com/business/podcast