Google's Head of Webspam, Matt Cutts, has posted a video to the Google Webmaster Youtube Channel explaining what he's been saying in private and on conference platform for years - that SEO per se is not spam; ethical SEO as practiced and long advocated by me (so much so that I worked with Matt when he was putting together the original Google Webmaster Guidelines a decade ago this month) is certainly not spam; but that some forms of SEO, in particular black hat SEO, are spam. The video is below and, for those of you without video playing capabilities, a transcript prepared by Lynda follows:
Transcript of "Does Google Consider SEO to be Spam?" By Matt Cutts
I wanted to take a minute and talk a little bit about search engine optimization and spam, and answer the question “Does Google consider SEO to be spam?”
And the answer in “No. We don’t consider SEO to be spam.” Now a few really tech savvy people might get angry at that. So let me explain in a little more detail. SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. And essentially it just means trying to make sure that your pages are well represented within search engines. And there’s plenty...an enormous amount ...of white hat, great quality stuff that you can do as a search engine optimizer.
You can do things like making sure that your pages are crawlable. So you want them to be accessible. You want people to be able to find them just by clicking on links. And in the same way search engines can find them just by clicking on links.
You want to make sure that people use the right keywords. If you’re using industry jargon or lingo that not everybody else uses, then a good SEO can help you find out, oh, these are keywords that you should have been thinking about.
You can think about usability, and trying to make sure that the design of the site is good. That’s good for users and for search engines.
You can think about how to make your site faster. Not only does Google use site speed in our rankings as one of the many factors that we use in our search rankings. But if you can make your site run faster, that can also make it a much better experience.
So there are an enormous number of things that SEOs do, everything from helping out with the initial site architecture and deciding what your site should look like, and the url structure, and the templates, and all that sort of stuff, making sure that your site is crawlable, all the way down to helping optimize for your return on investment. So trying to figure out what are the ways that you are going to get the best bang for the buck, doing AB testing, trying to find out, OK, what is the copy that converts, all those kinds of things. There is nothing at all wrong with all of those white hat methods.
Now, are there some SEOs who go further than we would like? Sure. And are there some SEOs who actually try to employ black hat techniques, people that hack sites or that keyword stuff and just repeat things or that do sneaky things with redirects? Yeah, absolutely. But our goal is to make sure that we return the best possible search results we can. And a very wonderful way that search engine optimizers can help is by cooperating and trying to help search engines find pages better. So SEO is not spam. SEO can be enormously useful. SEO can also be abused and it can be overdone.
But it’s important to realise that we believe, in an ideal world, people wouldn’t have to worry about these issues. But search engines are not as smart as people yet. We’re working on it. We’re trying to figure out what people mean. We’re trying to figure out synonyms, and vocabulary, and stemming so that you don’t have to know exactly the right word to search for what you wanted to find. But until we get to that day, search engine optimization can be a valid way to help people find what they are looking for via search engines.
We provide webmaster guidelines on google.com/webmasters. There’s a free webmaster forum. There are free webmaster tools. There’s a ton of HTML documentation. So if you search for SEO starter guide, we’ve written a beginner guide where people can learn more about search engine optimization.
But just to be very clear, there are many, many valid ways that people can make the world better with SEO. It’s not the case that...sometimes you’ll hear SEOs are criminals. SEOs are snake oil salesmen. If you find a good person, someone that you can trust, someone that will tell you exactly what they’re doing, the sort of person where you get good references, or you’ve seen their work and it’s very helpful, and they’ll explain exactly what they’re doing, they can absolutely help your website. So I just wanted to dispel that misconception.
Some people think Google thinks all SEO is spam and that’s definitely not the case. There are a lot of great SEOs out there. And I hope you find a good one to help with your website.
I'm still very troubled by this paid links issue after all these years!
I agree it's Google's right to penalise or promote any page/site in its natural listings, which represent Google's subjective opinion of relevancy.
However, the idea that all paid links are bad/"evil" is wrong in so many ways:
Paid links pre-date Google.
There is no machine-readable standard for labelling a paid link. I'll repeat that - there is no machine-readable standard for labelling a paid link.
Labelling paid links fails the "Does this makes sense in the absence of search engines?" ethical test. The answer may well be "Yes". (Where the answer is "No", I agree paid links are spam).
Labelling paid links fails the "Would I do this if search engines did not exist?" test. In fact, you have to know that Google exists, and that they mind about paid links, in order to label those paid links in the non-standard way that Google asks you to label them. This is perhaps my biggest beef with Google's approach to paid links - they actually violate one of Google's published Webmaster principles.
What does "paid" mean anyway? An actual exchange of cash? If you look at the top results for any hugely commercial field, say "car insurance", it's hard to believe that there is no commercial influence in the results! When all that a company does is commercial, then every link (positive or negative) to that company's site is commercial in nature.
I understand that a market in paid links arose because of Google's algorithm.
However, the irony is that in responding to that market by asking all publishers to label paid links in a non-standard way, Google violated its own principles. It started to ask publishers to adapt what they published to suit Google (because Google existed), and called them spammers if they didn't. That's the wrong way around. It's the spammers that do stuff purely because Google exists!
Thanks to Dan Thies for drawing my attention to the latest "mayhem" surrounding Google, rel=nofollow and the FTC. This is an area close to my heart, as my article from 2005, Search Marketing & The Law, made clear:
It would be foolish to expect to be operating in a multi-billion dollar global marketing industry and not expect to comply with marketing laws and regulations in the countries in which you are marketing.
The current confusion stems from Matt Cutts' blog post on paid links back in April, which called for both human readable and machine readable disclosure of paid links - machine readable first:
If you want to sell a link, you should at least provide machine-readable disclosure for paid links by making your link in a way that doesn’t affect search engines. There’s a ton of ways to do that. For example, you could make a paid link go through a redirect where the redirect url is robot’ed out using robots.txt. You could also use the rel=nofollow attribute.
The problem here is that there is no machine-readable disclosure for paid links. Matt suggests that there a "ton" of ways, but none of these ways mean "this link is paid", let alone the means, method and motive for payment. This is where the confusion starts.
Matt then goes on to discuss human-readable disclosure:
The other best practice I’d advise is to provide human readable disclosure that a link/review/article is paid.
Here I fully agree with Matt - it's important not to mislead your visitors. No confusion here.
The real confusion seems to come from the next thing Matt says:
Google’s quality guidelines are more concerned with the machine-readable aspect of disclosing paid links/posts, but the Federal Trade Commission has said that human-readable disclosure is important too:
The petition to us did raise a question about compliance with the FTC act,” said Mary K. Engle, FTC associate director for advertising practices. “We wanted to make clear . . . if you’re being paid, you should disclose that.”
To make sure that you’re in good shape, go with both human-readable disclosure and machine-readable disclosure, using any of the methods I mentioned above.
Some people have inferred that Matt is saying that paid links that aren't labelled in a machine-readable way are contravening the FTC guidelines. He isn't saying this at all. Read carefully. The FTC is concerned with human-readable disclosure, not machine-readable disclosure. There is no machine-readable disclosure for paid links.
It is possible to place deceptive advertising in search results using various means. But failing to label a link as paid in a machine-readable way is not one of them. There is no machine-readable disclosure for paid links.
Cloaking refers to the practice of presenting different content or URLs to users and search engines. Serving up different results based on user agent may cause your site to be perceived as deceptive and removed from the Google index.
Some examples of cloaking include:
Serving a page of HTML text to search engines, while showing a page of images or Flash to users.
Serving different content to search engines than to users.
That's fairly clear then. :)
My own definition of cloaking is
CloakingThe identification of a search engine spider by some feature of its IP address or HTTP request, and the resultant delivery of a response to that spider designed to game the search engine's ranking algorithm.
My rule of thumb is that you should not need to know that a search engine is making the request in order to deliver a response to that request. The obvious exception to this rule of thumb is Paid Inclusion. Paid Inclusion isn't cloaking. ;)