Episode 82: John Mueller’s Take on Talking with the SEO Industry
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John Mueller’s Take On Dispensing SEO Information: Summary of Episode #82
The great John Mueller joins the podcast to share his thoughts on interacting with the SEO industry:
- How talking to search marketers of all levels impacts the SEO dialogue
- Handling the problems of SEOs and the complications that come with it
- On dealing with SEO controversy
Plus, we take a look at Google’s ability to update entities in a flash!
How Quickly Can Google Detect Changes to Entities? [03:19 – 13:44]
On Advancing the Great SEO Dialogue: A Conversation with John Mueller [13:55 – 48:40]
SEO News [49:23 – 55:06]
Top Stories Testing Context Section
Web Stories Added to Google AMP Test
Google Screened Ads to Release Nationally
Google Using Click Data to Rank Site? The Controversy Is Renewed
Microsoft Launched the New Bing Webmaster Tools
How Quickly Can Google Detect Changes to Entities? [03:19 – 13:44]
First, a little baseball background. About two weeks ago, the Major League Baseball (MLB) started its season with some modifications to handle COVID-19. Now, just as the season was about to start, a bombshell dropped. There is a single MLB team that plays in Canada, the Toronto Blue Jays. The plan was for them to travel in and out of Canada and for American teams to visit them in Canada. But when the Canadian government saw what was happening in the US they said not so fast. If the team leaves Canada they cannot come back in!
So the Blue Jays had nowhere to play. If they stayed in Canada they’d have to forfeit the season. So two days before the season they started shopping for a new stadium in the US to play in. The initial idea was for the Blue Jays to be based out of Pittsburgh and share PNC Park with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
That’s the background. Now, Mordy did a Google search for ‘Toronto Blue Jays’ and if you are familiar with queries for sports teams, they typically get a nice sized Knowledge Panel to the right of the results (on desktop). But in this case, just as this story was happening, and keep in mind this news story was just hours old, there was a section in the Blue Jay’s Knowledge Panel that read: Verify these facts to help others: Headquarters location.
What happened? Google saw the Top Stories carousel (and all of the other news coverage it indexed) with stories reporting that the Blue Jays are going to play in Pittsburgh so Google thought, “Hold on. Are the Blue Jays moving to Pittsburgh?! Let’s get info from our users!” By the way, when you clicked to help Google verify the location, it wasn’t asking, “Are the Blue Jays HQ still located at: 1 Blue Jays Way, Toronto, ON M5V 1J1, Canada?” Instead, the message read: Headquarters Location: Toronto… Is this info correct? Meaning, it knew that the Blue Jays moved to an entirely different city as opposed to just moving its address inside Toronto.
This is just fascinating. Here are some real takeaways:
- It appears that what happens in the news carousel (and in news content overall) can impact you as an entity on the SERP.
- That the impact can happen REALLY quickly.
- Google is good with details. It knows exactly which category of the entity is changing in real-time and not through Wikipedia. We know that Google has updated players being traded in hours, but that also gets updated to Wikipedia really quickly. Here, the story wasn’t even finished yet.
- It highlights how aware Google is.
For the record, the governor of Pennsylvania nixed the deal and the Jays are playing in Buffalo.
On Advancing the Great SEO Dialogue: A Conversation with John Mueller [13:55 – 48:40]
Mordy: This is an In Search SEO podcast interview session. Today we are talking to the Big Cheese himself. He knows the secret launch codes to everything at Google. He could tell you but then he’ll have to kill you. He’s bigger than John Lennon, at least to SEOs. He’s here to hold your hand through all of your SEO questions like, “How long should my titles be?” He’s the all-knowing, far-reaching, Twitter answering, SEO King. The man, the myth, the legend. He’s John Mueller.
John: Hi. Good to be with you. Good morning.
M: It’s a pleasure to have you. I have to ask you off the bat. The cheese thing? Is that a hoax? I like cheese. I like cheese on pizza, eggplant Parmesan, etc. But I have never met somebody who distinctly likes just cheese.
J: I think it started a couple years back where I left my computer unlocked and went to get a coffee or something in the office. Then Gary found my computer and he thought, “What can I do that won’t get me fired?” So he went to my Twitter and posted about cheese.
M: So it’s not true? Do you even like cheese at all?
J: Oh, I like cheese. Cheese is fine.
M: Were you angry with Gary?
J: No. I think it could have gotten a lot worse.
M: That’s the life perspective for Corona times right there. It could be a lot worse.
J: It’s one of those things that you would miss now where everyone’s working from home. I think it would be very awkward if Gary snuck in my home now. I don’t think he has a key to my house. I think it would actually be pretty cool to meet people again in person. At least on our side, we kind of miss it. I think most of us haven’t been to the office since March.
M: Yeah, same here. So today we’re going to get to know John Mueller. How did you even get to becoming a Googler? Was there an ad in the newspaper classifieds for Googler?
J: I had a software company before joining Google. At some point, the company was going well, and like everyone did at the time, we decided to start doing web hosting and doing stuff on the internet, because the internet might become really big at some point. At that point, sitemaps just came out. We put together a sitemaps generator for Windows that got pretty popular. I started posting in the Webmaster Help Forum at the time and at some point, I got an email from someone from Google asking if I would like to drop by their office. The email came to a domain where I usually don’t check the email so it was a great coincidence that I even got the message. After that, it kind of got the ball rolling. And it took, I’d say at least a year from then on to get through all the interviews.
M: Wow, they really vetted you.
J: Well, on the one hand, there’s that and on the other hand, I had my own company, and I didn’t want to just leave. So it took awhile.
M: Do you miss having your own company?
J: I don’t know. Every now and then I think it would be fun to have a company of my own. When I joined Google, I passed the company on to one of the other folks that was working there and I kept my desk there just in case because I thought I might be working at this American company that won’t last. A year later, we got together again and I told him that I think we can get rid of that extra desk.
M: This is how rumors get started. Someone will say that you miss working for your own company and it’s going to blow out of proportion. Does that piss you off when things like that happen or do you just sit back and laugh?
J: It happens. Especially around search. There’re so many different things that play a role, where sometimes one thing applies to one very specific situation. For example, you might have a server error and then suddenly, all websites have server errors. Well, it could theoretically apply to other sites but there’s really one specific answer.
M: This is one of my hard questions. Is that sort of why there’s sometimes a contradictory opinion out there among the Googlers on any given topic? Is it because things get taken out of context, is the context so specific that people are applying it in the wrong way, or maybe you just don’t agree?
J: I think the context is a really big one there. There are lots of situations where things really depend on the website and what people are trying to do. Someone might go in there and answer a specific question with, “Hey, you should really mention your keywords a little bit more often if you really want to rank for it. At the moment you don’t have them at all on your pages.” And for a different website, it might be, “You should work on your internal linking.” Then people take those two statements and ask, “What is it? Make up your mind, Google.” It can be either one of them.
There are situations where things are kind of hard to distill down into one specific item. It’s really hard to say what is the number one thing you should be working on. Depending on the current state of the ecosystem and how things are happening. One person might say x, and the other person might say y. That’s something that just happens from time to time. These things can change over time too. At some point we might say that everyone should put authorship markup on their pages and then a couple of years later, it might be that you don’t really need to use authorship. These things change.
M: It probably doesn’t help that SEOs like to oversimplify things and that can be a little bit hard to deal with.
J: There are lots of really smart SEOs that understand this nuance, they understand what they should be watching out for, and are taking the feedback and applying it to those situations. But like with any other niche, there are always new people that join in and they try to find this one simple trick that they need to do.
M: We’re in 2020, and it feels like we should have moved past these bad tactics a long time ago. It’s like a bad date that just doesn’t end and I don’t know why.
J: On the one hand, there are more people that join the SEO world which I think is critical. It’s important that you always have these beginners that jump in, but they have no idea what they’re doing. On the other hand, people like to keep their old content online. So these random old SEO blog posts from 2001 or 2005 are still out there. People can still find them.
It’s one of those things where it’s important when you get started that you realize that things can change over time. You should watch out and test things on your own. Try to understand the reason behind why people say stuff. It’s not this magic thing where if you put this symbol in your title tag you will rank. It’s to understand the word that you want to rank for and to make it obvious to search engines what your page is about.
M: One of the things you see on Twitter is, “John Mueller said this.” And, “Oh, yeah. Well, I think you’re wrong because John Mueller said this a different time.” It’s one thing where people are going to take what you say like the gospel. Is that something that’s really healthy for the SEO community? You just mentioned understanding the context around why things are happening and I feel like that’s getting lost. And not to blame you as it’s totally not your fault.
J: It happens. I think at some point, you get used to it. I think those who have a bit more experience with regards to SEO, who’ve been around maybe a little bit longer, who’ve tried more things out on their own, they realize there’s a lot of nuance in some of these simplified things. Those people I’m not so worried about. The people who take these one-sentence answers to solve all SEO problems, I think they’ll learn over time as well. And things on Twitter are always really hard because they’re so short. It’s very easy to take this one sentence answer and turn it into something else.
M: Sometimes SEOs complain. Sometimes it’s legitimate and sometimes it’s not. For example, I was talking to Alli Berry about this. She works as the SEO for the Motley Fool and they have a problem with ranking above their syndicated content. Yahoo Finance always outranks them, even though they’re the original source of the content. When that problem was brought up to the wider SEO industry or the industry in general, Danny Sullivan came and said, “Look, you have to negotiate your contracts and make sure that the canonical points back to you.” That’s great advice from somebody who probably should know better because he ran Search Engine Land but what leverage do I have, as a small publisher, over Yahoo Finance? In the end, the Motley Fool decided to stop syndicating (to Yahoo). So when you have these gripes that seem legitimate and it kind of comes off that Google’s glossing over the problem, how do you deal with those real issues that actually address the issue even though Google might not be making a change around this?
J: It is hard and it is something that we take seriously. The whole syndication thing is certainly one thing that we take seriously. It is something where we try to make sure that our algorithms are resilient against these kinds of situations. Some kinds of scenarios are just common on the web. And while there are ways that you can resolve it on your own, which if you’re a savvy SEO you can work it out, it also makes sense for us to make sure that our algorithms can handle it as ideally as possible.
It’s something where I see Danny, Gary, Martin, and everyone else who’s active in the public communication side of things. They escalate these issues to their teams all the time. It’s something where ideally we would like to improve our algorithms in this regard but that’s more of a long term prospect. We need to first run various tests to figure out how common this problem is and how visible the problem is. Is it just one very specific query that’s wrong, but the millions of other queries that people commonly do are okay? We need to analyze that. We need to come up with a plan to handle that overall situation and then test the different options and get all of that out there. And that can take a while.
That’s something we’d ideally like to improve on our side, but the short term approach to fixing it is something that you could take into your hand as well. Generally, in our messages outside, we will say, “Well, this is what you should be doing. We have it documented here. You could have been doing this all the time instead of complaining about this or eating it into yourself and getting complaints from other people about it.” It’s something where we’ll try to figure out a way to resolve, but it is generally something that we try not to promise because we don’t know. Maybe it’ll turn out that it’s a really weird use case that we don’t really have time to work on because nobody runs into it except for you. Or maybe we will be able to resolve that but it’s something like a couple months away or it’s in one of the next big core updates. Or maybe it is something that we can fix in a week but we can’t really know for sure until it’s actually live. So it’s pretty much impossible for us to make any promises in that regard.
So that’s why you’ll see these kinds of answers on Twitter where we show how you can fix it. If you fix it, it’ll be resolved fairly quickly. We do take this feedback on board and we try to improve things overall, but that’s something that takes an unknown period of time.
M: Yeah, I know personally from firsthand experience that there’s been problems that I’ve seen on the SERP that I showed to Danny and he passed it along and it was fixed. You guys are really good about that stuff. It’s a hard position that you’re in because people think that Google has unlimited resources and they get to do whatever they want. I know you might be answering me, but you’re really speaking to everybody at the same time. That’s a really good perspective to keep in mind because it is hard to speak to one person and everybody at the same time. Is it ever uncomfortable where someone has a legitimate problem and you don’t know if Google can fix it?
J: That happens from time to time. I think with regards to it being uncomfortable, overall, that’s something you kind of get used to over the years. You learn what you need to watch out for with regards to how you phrase things so that it doesn’t come across as this one-shot answer to solve everything around SEO. Sometimes there are situations where we don’t really have a great answer. Where you can’t really do anything about it and on our side, we can’t quickly just solve that for you. That can be an awkward discussion to have. But I think those are important as well because if people understand that we don’t have a magic answer to this, then they’ll know that they don’t need to wait for an answer. Maybe they find some other workaround.
M: I mean, yeah, that’s life, right? There’s not always an answer to the problem. You do an incredible job with your language on Twitter. How long did it take you to get good at that? Because that is a real skill.
J: I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I started on the Webmaster Help forums where we had a lot of these cases come up. There, it’s sometimes a little bit easier because you can experiment and get a little bit more background information. You get a little bit more details on what to watch out for. That’s something where you learn to interact with people of different mindsets. I think the hard part is, especially back then in the Webmaster Help forums, there were regularly people who were really in a bad situation because of the way that their website was performing. That’s something you still see on Twitter every now and then. It is sometimes really hard to engage with people like that, when you look at their website and you see this is really not great content. I’m sorry that it worked so well for them all these years and you rely on this as your main source of income, but I don’t see a simple solution.
Those are pretty hard discussions where even if you would look at the site and you see it’s a terrible site, maybe it was our fault that we ranked them so highly for such a long time. As someone who’s active on the internet, if you’re doing something that works really well and you make a lot of money from it, then you start to rely on that. It’s very easy to fall into a situation where you depend on this thing working even though you might realize it’s not really the best thing at all.
M: Yeah, that’s an emotionally charged situation. That’s people’s livelihood. That definitely sucks. Not to make light of that, but have you ever been out with your friends where you could answer a question the regular way or you can answer it the SEO way with very nuanced and thought out language? Has that ever slipped out by accident?
J: It is something that we watch out for because it is very easy to give an internal answer or a confidential answer to a question where you don’t really know if everyone understands that this is actually something internal or confidential. That’s something that we at Google learned fairly early on that the confidential things that you work on should be kept confidential and make sure that you don’t talk about them with friends and with buddies because it’s very easy for something like that to accidentally get leaked. If friends asked me about ranking and the things that we do in search, then I do watch out for it to make sure to say that I can’t talk about the internal stuff.
M: What is your security clearance? Do you have the keys to the codes?
J: I don’t think there are any security clearance levels. In general, a lot of the kind of confidential codes are siloed away for those people that explicitly work on it. I don’t work on the code. I don’t need access to that. I have access to a lot of the leads on the quality side on the ranking side so if there are questions, then I can contact them. They also need to watch out what they tell me because you’re telling someone who’s not directly involved. It is something where the leads take the information that we bring back to them very seriously and they do try to find ways to improve things overall. Sometimes, when having SEOs complain about something whereas a user, when you look at it, you’d be like, “Well, that seems fine,” you realize for publishers and SEOs that maybe it’s not so great. That is something that the leads very much care about, that they do try to make sure that it doesn’t cause any problem, and that they can fix whatever issues come up.
M: Speaking of security access and transparency. One of the things that inevitably comes up is how Google’s very tight-lipped about algorithm updates. It’s gotten a little bit different now the core updates are getting pre-announced. And good job naming them. Thank you for doing that. It comes up every once in a while people asking why is Google not more transparent about what they want or what they’re looking for? I understand in the past that will lead to a lot of gaming the system, but as the algorithm has gotten more complex, what would be the harm in being a little bit more transparent? There’s even one statement I saw which I don’t know is right or not that Google themselves doesn’t understand the algorithm because it’s so complex and based on so much machine learning.
J: I don’t think it’s impossible. There is a lot of abuse and spam happening so people do try to find all of those loopholes. The other thing that I sometimes see is that it’s very easy for people to kind of fall into the trap of working on one specific element of the algorithm. If we were to say keywords and titles have extra weight (I don’t know if that’s the case. This is just an example.) then people would focus very much on that one specific aspect. For us, in search overall, the idea is not that we want to show keywords and titles, but rather we want to show relevant results. And if people instead of working on relevant content they focus on keywords then, at some point, our algorithms will be updated and, actually, the keyword meta tag is the one that we give more weight to (which is not the case) then suddenly, everyone will think they have to move again.
Whereas if we say that the primary aspect for us is really the relevance, quality, and uniqueness of the content, then that’s something you can work on in lots of different ways. You can make sure that your titles match, you can make sure that headings are clear, you can put the content on the page, or you can build an internal site structure that matches that. There are lots of different things that you can focus on. So it kind of takes away from focusing on that one tiny part of the algorithm and encourages people to think about where search is headed and what you can do to remain relevant rather than what you can do to be relevant at this one specific time.
M: That’s a really good point. High-quality content is rarer than I think people think it actually is because creating unique quality content is very, very hard. But it’s also hard to understand what quality content is. Is that something that Google sits down and thinks about? It can be hard to pinpoint that and define that. It looks very different from one piece to another piece, from one site to another site. Is that the reason why you’ve shied away from talking about that?
J: I don’t know if that’s the reason why we shied away from talking about that. I think one of the difficulties is that more and more content is being produced online. That just means that the competition is always a lot stronger. So if we try to improve the relevance of the search results and we pick a slightly different approach to understanding relevance, quality, and all of these factors, then that can have a pretty strong effect on the sites that are out there. When you look at the sites, it’s not a bad sign, it’s not that they’re doing something wrong, it’s just that this other one is just slightly better for this specific query. Overall, it’s not that there’s something specific that you need to be doing differently, it’s just that in the bigger picture, things have shifted slightly.
M: One of my talking points is that content is probably the most malleable thing on the planet. My classic example is the 1960 presidential election. It was the first televised election. The first time people were consuming a television debate between Richard Nixon and JFK and just by the way JFK looked like he clearly won the debate. Nixon had a five o’clock shadow, he looked grumpy, and it just came off that way. Content is changing and what people are looking for out of their content is constantly changing. How we create content, how we read content, and how we find content is all constantly changing. So that must make your job really fun.
J: Yeah, I don’t have to come up with all of the reasons why things are different so I don’t have to figure all of that out all the time. On the one hand, that makes it a little bit easier, but it does mean that things change. Every time we talk about something externally, we need to watch out for where we are headed with this thing and how we can make sure that we don’t paint ourselves into a corner by saying, “You should be doing this.” We need to ask, “Does that limit us in the future if things change?”
M: I have one last serious question for you. I’ve always wondered about this. So you have the Googlers and then you have Danny Sullivan. You have the search liaison and you have the Googlers. What’s the difference?
J: Well, Googlers are, essentially, anyone who is employed at Google so Danny is a Googler too. But in general, our role is more around interacting with websites directly around search and Danny’s role is a lot more around interacting with the general public around search. That also includes various policymakers and all of those people who don’t specifically have a website of their own. So if someone has a specific question how do I do this in search or how do I get these specific results, then that’s something we’ll try to help answer. Whereas if someone has a question around, “Why am I getting these weird results in search?” or, “Why is Google doing this evil thing with search?” then that’s something more for Danny.
M: Good for you that you don’t have to answer that.
Optimize it or disavow it
M: My scenario to you is you’re on the Titanic, you just hit the iceberg, the boat is going vertical, everybody’s falling off, you get into a lifeboat, and there’s only one more seat left. Martin and Gary are holding on to the railings with their puppy dog eyes. Who do you let onto the boat? There’s only one seat left.
J: I would swap out and let them get on.
M: That was a good answer. Wow. That’s very noble of you, sir.
J: Luckily, we’re not on the Titanic. But it is something where I think that at some point, it’s good to have some new faces out there. So if it came to a situation where we needed to downsize or we need to change something specifically then I think it would be good to have some new faces working on these things. Martin is really new and Gary is kind of newish. He’s been around a really long time now but I think that would be good.
M: This is why you’re the master of this. That was amazing, John. I just want to tell you that we all really appreciate everything you do. It takes a ton of time, tons of effort, and by God a ton of patience to deal with all of us and I just want to tell you personally that I really do appreciate it. So thank you.
J: Thank you.
SEO News [49:23 – 55:06]
Top Stories Testing Context Section: Google is testing a new Top Stories carousel format. The format has the main story at the top of the card, but a link to another story towards the bottom under a header that reads ‘For Context’.
Web Stories Added to Google AMP Test: Google’s AMP test will now pick up the presence of a Web Story letting you know if the story is eligible for an appearance on the SERP.
Google Screened Ads to Release Nationally: After being in testing for a year, Google Screened Ads have started to roll out. These ads are similar to Google’s Local Service Ads but cater to professions such as lawyers and retailers.
Google Using Click Data to Rank Sites? The Controversy Is Renewed: Did Google imply they use clicks to rank sites? A document found as part of Congress’s investigation seems to maybe imply they do… but doesn’t specifically say so.
Microsoft Launched the New Bing Webmaster Tools: The new Bing Webmaster tools is here. The launch of the new platform comes with a slew of new tools with more coming!
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.