The real lesson from this week

Hi, in case you haven’t been following along at home, I’ll give you the short catch-up info first. Blake Ross wrote a post criticizing some tips that Google recently tried. I agreed that I didn’t like the tips, primarily because the targeting was too poor (even substrings would trigger the tips). Danny Sullivan, who has covered the search industry for a decade, saw the tone of some of the discussion and wrote a good post about keeping perspective. He noted that folks should hold every company to the fire, not just Google. Right when it seemed like things were calming down, Michael Arrington decided to turn up the heat on the discussion up to the proverbial 11. He asked if this issue would be a tipping point where people would be much more negative toward Google. Arrington concluded with

And while Matt Cutts, the unofficial Google blogger, deals with the Ross post in a straightforward and honest way, I think he should be far more critical of his company. Even to the point of risking his job. Because that is exactly what Google needs right now.

I’ve never met Michael, but I respect him a lot. For example, I agree with pretty much everything he’s said about PayPerPost. But I believe his final statement (that I need to be more critical of Google on my blog) is dead wrong. To understand why, you need to know a little more about Googlers and how Google works.

Words can’t express how much I respect my colleagues at Google, but I’ll try. Googlers are smart, rational, and polite. They execute well on projects and listen to objections with an open mind. When they run up against an obstacle, they get creative and look for a new approach to solve the problem. Among the hundreds of Googlers I know, there’s also a strong streak of wanting to change the world for the better.

Google the organization in many ways mirrors the character of its employees. Google is a very polite, consensus-driven company. Usually if you get everyone in the same room and everyone explains their reasoning, the best decision emerges pretty quickly. As a result, I can’t recall ever hearing someone shout at Google. Even when issues are hotly debated, we tend to keep our discussion and our self-criticism within the company. So for me to be “far more critical” on my blog is not what Google needs right now. If anything, that’s more likely to burn bridges than to solve issues. I don’t have the outsider status that Scoble did. If disagree with something Google does, I go directly to the Googlers involved and I discuss it with them. I’m lucky to be enough of an old-timer that I usually can find the right person to ask, bug, or cajole.

Here’s the other thing you need to know about Google. We listen and respond to the feedback we hear. Google makes mistakes, just like anyone or any company does. That’s a given. The important thing is how you react to those mistakes. In an ideal world, you find out quickly when something has gone wrong. You correct it as soon as possible. And then you ask yourself “How can I try to prevent this issue from happening again?”–just like you’d do when you found a bug in a computer program. With any luck, future failures won’t happen unless several circumstances align against you.

Did a backhoe bring down your site by cutting a cable? Next time, you look to have redundant data centers and redundant network connectivity. If someone sends you a legal or DMCA request and you worry that the removal request impacts free speech, then you look for a better approach. You have to comply with the legal request and remove the requested pages, but maybe you revise your DMCA policy to give the other party a chance to counter-notify. Maybe you also add a DMCA notice at the bottom of the page that points to Chilling Effects so that users can get more background on the situation. We may think that a “Blog about this page” button on the toolbar is a good idea, but what do you do when someone cries foul because the button goes to Blogger? Well, one thing you can do is introduce the notion of custom toolbar buttons. Then anyone can add a button to their toolbar that posts to del.icio.us, TypePad, or they can make their own button for their favorite site.

So what does Google need to keep us on the right path?

I think what Google needs is more bloggers. I’m using a liberal definition of bloggers here; I mean people who monitor the blogosphere. In an ideal world, they’d also respond to feedback online. Some of the most dynamic teams at Google are the ones that listen to bloggers and respond. The webmaster console team has Vanessa Fox, Amanda Camp, and several others. Mihai Parparita and the entire Google Reader team listens for requests and responds to feedback in the blogosphere. Sometimes I’ve gone to answer a blogger’s question about Google Calendar only to see that Carl Sjogreen already arrived and answered it better than I could. There’s a VP of Engineering in ads who keeps a close eye on blogs, and I’d trust his intuition on any issue at Google.

My ideal would be if every Google project had someone watching the blogosphere for feedback. It could start as simply as a persistent search in Google News and Google Blogsearch for mentions of that product. That would help us spot if a particular project is causing headaches for someone. We should get the listening locked in first. As people get familiar with listening, they’ll soon be ready to comment, answer questions, and post a lot more.

Finally, Arrington’s mention of “Matt Cutts, the unofficial Google blogger” also set my spidey sense tingling. No single person should be Google’s unofficial blogger–that’s not scalable. I love working at Google, but at some point my wife is going to wake up and smell the coffee. She’ll say “Hey, we agreed we’d try this Google thing for four or five years, and then I’d get to pick what to do next. It’s been like eight years now! When do we move on to our next adventure?” Any Google engineer will tell you that a good way to scale something is to shard it. Rather than relying on one person, Google needs lots of unofficial bloggers.

So how do we keep the tipping point firmly in the “Google is Good” range?
- Each project at Google should monitor the blogosphere for issues. Reduce the disconnect to reduce the danger.
- Get more Googlers talking online. There will be some mistakes, but the conversations will be worth it.
A lot of this is already happening naturally at Google. I just want it to move faster. :)

My thoughts on recent Google tips

I wanted to talk about Blake Ross’ post entitled “Trust is hard to gain, easy to lose”. I agree with much of what he says. There’s a continuum to showing tips. Toward the “hawk” side of the spectrum is the notion that a company can show whatever reasonable content they want on their own web site. Toward the other side of the spectrum is the desire to show the best services, whether they are competitors or not. Historically, Google has been much further toward the “dove” side than most other companies.

I personally fall somewhere in the middle. If a Google searcher types in [picture] or [hard drive images], offering a tip to use Google Image Search makes sense to me because it tells a user that they should try image searches instead. Image search tips have been running for quite a while and users generally haven’t objected.

But everyone will have different opinions about what is fine or problematic. Here’s why these recent Google tips went over the line for me personally: they’re often poorly targeted or irrelevant. I’ll mention a few searches I’ve done in the last few days where I got annoyed:

In each of the previous cases, I was not in the market for a blog or calendar or photo sharing service. Furthermore, the triggers appear to match on substrings: if I type in “blogoscoped”, I’m looking for Philipp, not to create a blog. The poor targeting alone is enough reason to turn off these tips (if I had my way).

Here’s some Q&A:

Q: But if Google thinks its (say) Calendar is the best, isn’t it okay to give that as a tip?
A: In my personal opinion, not if the tip triggers for too many irrelevant queries.

Q: Is it fair that people hold Google to a higher bar than anyone else in the search industry?
A: Whether it’s fair or not, it’s a fact that people expect more from Google than other companies. People compare other search engines to Google, but people compare Google to perfection. We have such passionate users that they’ll complain loudly if they think Google is ever straying from the right path. If you’re a Googler, it may feel frustrating. Instead, I’d choose to be grateful, because that passionate feedback keeps our heads on straight. When our users yell at Google, they care and want us to do the right thing (for their idea of what the right thing is). What other company gets that kind of feedback? Besides, if Yahoo or Microsoft jumped off a building, would you jump off too? :) So yes, if the decision were up to me, I’d remove these tips or scale them way back by making sure that they are very relevant and targeted.

Update: Blake noticed that recent searches don’t return tips. So a search that has the substring “calendar” in it doesn’t return a tip for Google Calendar:

No more tip for a phpcalendar query

Over on Blake’s blog, I added this comment: “There’s a binary push going on and the tips are removed in that binary push. It will take a few days before the binary makes it out to every data center. Blake, thanks for your feedback on this issue.”

Good charities or places to help?

The end of the year is approaching. I believe that in the United States, if the letter is postmarked by December 31st, a charitable donation counts as deductible for that tax year. If you’re not aware of them, GuideStar and Charity Navigator are two good places to start.

I think I know what I’m doing charity-wise this year, but readers might enjoy seeing what other people suggest. Does anyone want to mention specific charities? Or mention other things that might not strictly be charities, but might be “good deeds” that readers would be interested in?

Reminder on comments policy

Someone has been trying to contact me by leaving tons of comments on my blog for the last couple days. Sussie, I’d already seen Adam emailing around a question about your site days ago, so I knew that your site was on his radar. As far as why I pruned your comments, I have a comment policy at http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/guidelines-for-comments-march-24-2006/
and I have to stick to it, especially this part:

I have a limited amount of time to blog, so going forward I won’t be able to answer site-specific questions or requests. If I answer one question about a site, that just encourages more people to post with questions about their site. Those types of posts are rarely of interest to most other readers. That includes “Matt, I think I have a great business and/or patent idea; will you please call me?” posts. Since I started this blog, the comment-to-post ratio is over 50 comments to every one of my posts. I’m grateful for that interest, but there’s no way I can respond to every comment. The best way for me to spend my time is to talk about topics that are of wide interest. I’m sorry that I can’t give feedback on particular sites. Going forward, I won’t moderate questions/comments about individual sites to be visible to everyone; I hope it makes sense why not.

I just don’t have enough time to answer questions about individual sites. As much as I’d like to give lots of site-specific help, as soon as I start down that path, I’d quickly end up doing nothing but answering questions about individual sites. With tens of millions of sites and only one of me, that’s clearly not the most efficient use of my time–especially during the holidays. I haven’t seen my family for months and they won’t be here for much longer; I’m sorry that I can’t respond to every comment on my blog.

I’ve seen a spate of spam on .dk and .se domains due to a particular webshop, so I’d take my SEO advice from earlier this year. Make sure that you don’t have any “Shop-SEO” doorways pages on your site, for example. After you believe the site is clean and after all doorway pages are gone, I’d be happy to see a reinclusion request for your site come into the reinclusion queue.

Merry Christmas!

I hope you are having great holidays so far!

Oz says:

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which is Feline for “Merry Christmas!” Emmy says “Happy Holidays!” as well. Of the two cats, she’s the more SEO-savvy, at least according to seotrumps.com:

Emmy is an SEO trump!

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