Matt Cutts, head of Google’s webspam team and the webmaster who applies Google’s Quality Guidelines, told Siliconrepublic.com that the search world is about to get a lot more interesting, a lot more secure and a lot more local.
Cutts, who has spent the past couple of weeks flitting across Europe like a cat on a hot tin roof, has just gotten his voice back after lecturing businesses across the region, including Dublin Chamber of Commerce, about how search engine optimisation works (SEO).
We missed each other in Dublin but he was gracious enough to take my call from Google HQ Mountain View and was generous with his time. We begin the interview with a bit of background on Cutts. He was one of Google’s earliest employees, having joined as a software engineer in 2000 directly out of college, the University of North Carolina, Temple Hill.
In the intervening years, Cutts has become an authority on SEO, dealing with the tricky subject of website visibility while applying Google’s Quality Guidelines. The future of search, he tells Siliconrepublic.com, will be very interesting when you consider that nearly every person on the planet will have a smartphone at some point not too far away and this will bring in areas like location, vision, augmented reality and maybe even touch and smell into the equation.
But security is his first priority. One of the innovations he is proud of is SSL search, currently in Beta, where users can instantly create a secure sockets layer (SSL) version of Google search by going to https://www.google.com.
“When I was travelling through Europe, I was at a bunch of hotels and internet cafes using Wi-Fi and if I wanted to do a search and not have that cafe or hotel be able to snoop or sniff what I was searching for, it is helpful to have SSL search. You can use this whether you’re at work or somewhere doing personal health research. It’s a nice way to protect the privacy of your searches. No one in between you and Google can snoop on what you are searching for.”
Searching for stuff is one thing, but the biggest headache people have, particularly businesses, is being found on search engines. This goes back to the basic rules of SEO which I put it to Cutts should really be about attention to detail. He agrees. “There are some very common problems that people usually don’t manage to fix and if you can fix common problems often you are ahead of about 80pc of the people.
“The common problems would be things like not making your website callable – really this means if you visit your web page on a really old browser, can you follow the links on the page and just click around and find every page on your site. Example, there’s a large store chain who will hide their store locations behind the search form and you have to type an address and it will show you the five closest stores and all they really need to do for us to find those store location is to create a clickable list of links – a site map – where there is one URL or one page for a store and click around to a State or a region and then click down to get more detail and end up on a page for each store with store hours and street addresses.
“Structure, it’s just basic structure. You would be amazed how many people use a search forum and don’t even think about search engines at all, whereas if a search engine can find those pages we can return a lot more traffic to your site. That’s one of the biggest ones.
“Another big one is people will do things in a blink and won’t even check whether their links on their own website are consistent.”
Beyond linking to URLs, the fact is the web is going to be a lot busier thanks to the onset of video and according to Cisco, we will have a global video community of one billion people by 2014. I ask Cutts will this make things trickier in terms of SEO. “A lot of it boils down to descriptions, for example if you put images on your site and the names of those images are DSP1100025.jpg that’s going to be harder for a search engine to interpret than ‘sunset over Howth’, it’s a little bit more information but it works.
“And it’s the same for video, even just a little bit of description of the video even just a few words about ‘This is the video interview between this journalist and that subject’. Then when you search that person’s name in the interview you’ve got a few words that can help.”
I bring up the thorny subject of newspapers who have been blaming Google’s role as a news aggregator rather than their own broken business models for their woes.
“We send billions of clicks every month to publishers and then they can find a way to monetise and build that into subscriptions, to up-sell more ads. The last thing anyone I know at Google would want to do is hurt journalism or hurt newspapers.
“I think if you look at things like Craigslist and the fact that classified ads are migrating to the internet rather than Google specifically, in many ways Google might feel uneasy ... but by the same token there are a lot of people at Google who work hard to try to present those sort of opportunities to newspapers appropriately within the search rankings
“Some of the trends that have been affecting newspapers – and they’ve been around much longer than Google’s been around – journalism as a whole is really important to society; I think everybody at Google agrees with that. And how do we keep good journalism happening is something that a lot of people I know are thinking about a lot.”
On the bright side, many of the innovations like Android smartphones promise a bright future for the web and media and Cutts is excited about the potential for search.
“I think there’s a couple of really nice things. One is that with the smartphone like the Android or any other type of phone, the ability to do a search right when you have an idea or when you have curiosity is huge. Just the fact that you can think of something and search for it immediately and not have to remember when you are at a keyboard in the office is really nice.
“And the fact that mobile phones have this sort of location built in is also really nice because if you’re willing to give a little more information to a search engine, like you are located in Mountain View, California, and then when I search for tacos or hotels or whatever it can give you a much more relevant reply. I think whether it’s finding friends nearby or useful businesses, mobile is just fantastic. I find myself just doing a lot more searches and not being as confused when I’m in a new location because I can get my bearings a little bit faster.”
Security in a mobile world
The onset of location via GPS in devices we all carry brings up the spectre of privacy and security but Cutts is adamant that the search-engine giant’s belief is to give the control to the user.
“If you take a look at a couple of the programs we have for Android, for example, there’s one called Google Latitude and it goes way out of its way to respect your privacy, it doesn’t share your information with anyone unless you have explicitly given permission. And even then you can say something like I don’t want to say exactly where I am but at a city level, so there’s really nice privacy and security features built in. There’s also another neat feature, a program that I use called MyTracks and I use that when I’m biking into work, I can track how fast I got into work or what route I took.
“It’s really nice and uses GPS and later you can have a feature called My Maps where you can upload your track. The important thing to note is you still choose who to share that with. You can make all of these listed. It’s important that it’s under your control and you can have the choice of who you want to share it with. But if you’ve gone on a nice walk to Glendalough and you want to share that with friends you can do that, which is cool.”
The impact of location-based services for businesses to advertise and attract passersby, Cutts agrees, is enormous. Especially when you throw in future developments like mobile-connected electric vehicles, augmented reality and other rapidly unfolding technological developments.
“The Holy Grail is that all of that will be useful. You never want it to be annoying or else it’s not going to be the sort of thing that you will pursue. But, for example, if you are a tour guide and you take people around parts of Ireland, maybe take you from Bray to Greystones. Well, how long does that take? ‘Well here’s a track that I did last week, it took about two hours, you can see the exact part on the map, you can grab an ice cream here’. That’s going to be really compelling. People are much more likely to say ‘I know this is something I can do, let’s sign up for this!’”
This brings me on to the future of search and Google’s mammoth premise of deciding to organise the world’s information. This goes beyond the quaint image of Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page running around Stanford buying up servers with maxed-out credit cards. It’s a whole new problem in a world of 4 billion smartphones and 1 billion personal computers.
Cutts asserts: “It’s tricky. Some things, thankfully, we’re well positioned for. For example, we’ve been re-architecting our entire indexing infrastructure with a project we call ‘Caffeine’ and the idea of that is to be able to return documents much faster, like within a minute or two, not just a day or after a few hours. I think the areas we are stretching is the ability to incorporate an order of magnitude for more documents and web pages, but also the ability to index those much faster and return those to users.
“That’s the core part of web search. I think there will always be different types of data to be searched, for example, I didn’t realise that searching over email was useful until Gmail came along and made it much easier to search over email. But then this really interesting future trend like mobile is fascinating.
“There’s more people with mobile phones than personal computers. If they can participate fully on the web and Google can push information from the web or help people find more information on their mobile phone, then that’s a lot more people who can benefit from the internet.
“I think that along with mobile come things like local: ‘where’s the next closest coffee shop?’ and ‘should I walk around the corner to get a better one?’
“There’s some really interesting trends going on, not just more data on the web and being able to index faster, but also new types of data and things like mobile and people with mobile devices will use the internet to find what they need. It’s really exciting,” Cutts concludes.
Photos: Matt Cutts, head of Google's webspam team (above) and the HTC Legend smartphone (below)