Matt Cutts is no longer a Google employee. The last we saw of him, he had flitted off to do his public duty at the U.S. Digital Service. His last transmission was basically a farewell to the world of Google.
And no matter if you loved or hated Matt Cutts, his departure spelled a very real change.
Google has never really been all that transparent about their inner workings. And they’ve been especially cryptic about how their search algorithms work.
But at least with Matt Cutts, we received some sort of warning about major updates to the search engine. Ever since he made his departure this last year, Google has been largely silent.
Is this a good thing? Do we really need a “Matt Cutts”? What does this mean for the future of SEO?
I’m going to attempt to answer these questions and give you a clear picture of the state of things. Let’s explore this together, shall we?
1. Were the Google Update Announcements Really a Good Thing?
If you’ve read the book “The Circle” by Dave Eggars, you’ll know what I mean when I say transparency isn’t always genuine.
The book is a bit of hyperbole and the characters in it are representative of silicon valley as a whole. But you can’t help but make connections between the book’s references and our heavyweight contender, Google.
Like The Circle in Eggar’s book, Google has never attempted true transparency. And you can’t really call the Matt Cutts updates transparency.
They never revealed anything internal. And they always pointed outward at what webmasters needed to do to please the almighty algorithms.
The reason Google never attempted true transparency makes sense. According to Matt Cutts himself, “[Google doesn’t] want to give people a way to game our search results.”
No algorithm Google builds will catch all webspam. And knowing Google’s vulnerabilities outright would increase the number of people attempting to exploit them.
So, in a sense, Google keeping a lid on their “secret sauce” is probably a good thing for us all.
The Matt Cutts Announcements Were Better Than Nothing
Google has been training us like dogs. They change something major and we all react.
They say it’s to eliminate spam, but they’re really shaping a product and using us to do it. Do you really think the search engine is the product? Think again.
Google would be nothing without us. Just an indexing service for libraries or something.
Without quality websites popping up on Google’s search results, the engine and website called Google is useless. So, of course, Google wanted to shape how we create content and post it on the internet.
But was this better for SEOs, businesses, and online marketers? Yes. Any communication despite motives was better than none at all.
An SEO advertising company and their clients could be assured that they knew how to keep ranking and delivering quality websites for users. And they could at the same time keep abreast of Google’s changes.
While it never really gave you much more than a hint, at least it was a hint. If your traffic suddenly dropped off, you had a starting point. You could review and fix things.
2. The Phantom and Fred
Google is constantly tweaking their algorithms. This is fine with most anyone who works in SEO. These are usually barely noticeable changes.
But when Google makes even a marginally large change in the algorithm, it’s beneficial to know it’s happening. And there was only one time during the Matt Cutts era that Google didn’t notify users of a change.
What happened? Well, we quickly found out that it was somehow related to site quality. But it wasn’t Panda related. And Google wouldn’t acknowledge it happened for some odd reason.
Of course, a Google update isn’t really a singular update, but a periodically running filter most of the time. Phantom, as SEOs called the announced update, ran periodically from 2013 to 2016.
During that time Cutts left and Google went silent. Then Fred entered the room.
What About Fred?
Google sort of acknowledged (not really) Fred and then went on to do other things. They gave us no real indication of what Fred was really about.
The name Fred even came from a snide response from Matt Cutts’ replacement Gary Illyes. When Barry Schwartz pressed him to name the unannounced algorithm, he jokingly responded, “sure! From now on every update, unless otherwise stated, shall be called Fred.”
While Illyes thought he was being funny, nobody thought so. Fred was a link quality update. And the official line from Google was “we make updates to our core algorithm every day!” Yeah…but not ones that affect millions of websites.
Google’s Black Box
But Fred is a symptom. We’ve always had Google updates and we’re used to the uncertainty they bring to our lives.
We’re not used to Google’s “Black Box.” Google’s Black Box isn’t nearly as exciting as a J.J. Abrams Black Box. We don’t get any cool twists at the end of the story, only tragedy for some.
What do I mean by “Black Box”? I mean Google’s intentional silence on their updates and changes.
The Black Box is a new paranoid position for Google’s webspam department. It’s probably rooted in the philosophy that any hint of Google’s digital guts will tempt people to “game the system.”
But how many people actually succeeded in gaming the system during the Matt Cutts era? And what actually caused Google to pull back into its shell?
Was it that Matt Cutts was our only friend at Google, and everyone else thought SEOs were all selling snake oil?
I’ll be honest, I kind of get that impression. Even one of my friends at Google once outright told me SEOs were selling snake oil (he later recanted and demoted his statement to “SEO is a difficult to hit, constantly moving target”).
Whether this is true of the webspam department at Google, it’s impossible to know for sure.
Conclusion: We’re Flying Blind
Airplane pilots who fly blind often hit things and die. While a tanked website won’t outright kill anyone, a lot of people rely on their site for income.
Expert SEOs know how to “see” what Google does and they can help mitigate losses. But so many people will see their website tank and have no clue what just hit them or what they did wrong.
Whatever Google does in the future, I hope they see reason and start shaping their “product” again.
Where do you think Google is headed? Are we ever going to see another Matt Cutts? Let me know in the comments below.