On Leave

I wanted to let folks know that I’m about to take a few months of leave. When I joined Google, my wife and I agreed that I would work for 4-5 years, and then she’d get to see more of me. I talked about this as recently as last month and as early as 2006. And now, almost fifteen years later I’d like to be there for my wife more. I know she’d like me to be around more too, and not just physically present while my mind is still on work.

So we’re going to take some time off for a few months. My leave starts next week. Currently I’m scheduled to be gone through October. Thanks to a deep bench of smart engineers and spam fighters, the webspam team is in more-than-capable hands. Seriously, they’re much better at spam fighting than I am, so don’t worry on that score.

One critical point is that I won’t be checking my work email at all while I’m on leave. My friend and colleague Amit Singhal took about six weeks off not too long ago, and his #1 piece of advice was to unplug from work email. So that’s what I’m going to do. I will set up Gmail filters to forward some of my outside email to a small set of webspam folks, but they won’t be replying to emails.

Q: Is this because of some specific event?
A: Nope. I’ve been talking about doing this with my wife for a while now, and it feels like the right time.

Q: You’re not going to check your work email at all?
A: That’s right.

Q: No, really? No work email?
A: Really. I’m thinking of it like a 30 day challenge, except for longer than 30 days. :)

Q: If I can’t email you, how should I communicate with Google about search topics or find out about new things in search?
A: I’m so glad you asked! There’s still tons of ways, from our webmaster forums to Office Hours Hangouts where you can ask questions to experts. On the social side, instead of sending SEO-related comments to me on Twitter, you can ping the Google Webmaster Central account. Likewise, make sure you follow Google Webmasters on Google+. A bunch of different Googlers will continue to speak and answer questions at search conferences too.

For broader search-related news, read our Webmaster blog or Inside Search blog. To understand how Google thinks about search, we’ve made hundreds of webmaster videos and they’re designed to be evergreen.

Our web documentation is superb: Google Webmaster Central is the best place to start. From there, you can find our Webmaster Academy, our help documentation, and our SEO beginner’s guide. We even made a mini-site about how search engines work.

One of the most important ways to hear from Google is to add and verify your site in Google Webmaster Tools. That’s the primary channel to find out about issues with webspam or other errors or notices.

Q: Are you doing anything fun?
A: Yup! I’ve been taking a ballroom dance class with my wife, and we’re going on a cruise in late August. Our 15th (!) wedding anniversary is next year, so we might do some early traveling to celebrate that too. We’ll also be spending more time visiting with our parents. I’m also trying a half-Ironman race.

And just to reiterate, the webspam team is in great hands while I’m out. I’m looking forward to trying this, so thanks for your understanding.

The decay and fall of guest blogging for SEO

Okay, I’m calling it: if you’re using guest blogging as a way to gain links in 2014, you should probably stop. Why? Because over time it’s become a more and more spammy practice, and if you’re doing a lot of guest blogging then you’re hanging out with really bad company.

Back in the day, guest blogging used to be a respectable thing, much like getting a coveted, respected author to write the introduction of your book. It’s not that way any more. Here’s an example unsolicited, spam email that I recently received:

My name is XXXXXXX XXXXXXXX and I work as a content marketer for a high end digital marketing agency in [a city halfway around the world]. I have been promoting high quality content in select niches for our clients.

We are always on the lookout for professional, high class sites to further promote our clients and when I came across your blog I was very impressed with the fan following that you have established.I [sic] would love to speak to you regarding the possibility of posting some guest articles on your blog. Should you be open to the idea, we can consider making suitable contribution, befitting to high standard of services that your blog offers to larger audience.

On my part, I assure you a high quality article that is-
- 100% original
- Well written
- Relevant to your audience and
- Exclusive to you

We can also explore including internal links to related articles across your site to help keep your readers engaged with other content on your blog.
All I ask in return is a dofollow link or two in the article body that will be relevant to your audience and the article. We understand that you will want to approve the article, and I can assure you that we work with a team of highly talented writers, so we can guarantee that the article would be insightful and professionally written. We aim to write content that will benefit your loyal readers. We are also happy to write on any topic, you suggest for us.

If you ignore the bad spacing and read the parts that I bolded, someone sent me a spam email offering money to get links that pass PageRank. That’s a clear violation of Google’s quality guidelines. Moreover, we’ve been seeing more and more reports of “guest blogging” that are really “paying for PageRank” or worse, “we’ll insert some spammy links on your blog without you realizing it.”

Ultimately, this is why we can’t have nice things in the SEO space: a trend starts out as authentic. Then more and more people pile on until only the barest trace of legitimate behavior remains. We’ve reached the point in the downward spiral where people are hawking “guest post outsourcing” and writing articles about “how to automate guest blogging.”

So stick a fork in it: guest blogging is done; it’s just gotten too spammy. In general I wouldn’t recommend accepting a guest blog post unless you are willing to vouch for someone personally or know them well. Likewise, I wouldn’t recommend relying on guest posting, guest blogging sites, or guest blogging SEO as a linkbuilding strategy.

For historical reference, I’ll list a few videos and links to trace the decline of guest articles. Even back in 2012, I tried to draw a distinction between high-quality guest posts vs. spammier guest blogs:

Unfortunately, a lot of people didn’t seem to hear me say to steer away from low-quality guest blog posting, so I did a follow-up video to warn folks away from spammy guest articles:

In mid-2013, John Mueller gave spot on advice about nofollowing links in guest blog posts. I think by mid-2013, a ton of people saw the clear trend towards guest blogging being overused by a bunch of low-quality, spammy sites.

Then a few months ago, I took a question about how to be a guest blogger without it looking like paying for links (even the question is a clue that guest blog posting has been getting spammier and spammier). I tried to find a sliver of daylight to talk about high-quality guest blog posts, but if you read the transcript you’ll notice that I ended up spending most of the time talking about low-quality/spam guest posting and guest articles.

And then in this video that we posted last month, even the question itself predicted that Google would take stronger action and asked about “guest blogging as spam”:

So there you have it: the decay of a once-authentic way to reach people. Given how spammy it’s become, I’d expect Google’s webspam team to take a pretty dim view of guest blogging going forward.

Added: It seems like most people are getting the spirit of what I was trying to say, but I’ll add a bit more context. I’m not trying to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are still many good reasons to do some guest blogging (exposure, branding, increased reach, community, etc.). Those reasons existed way before Google and they’ll continue into the future. And there are absolutely some fantastic, high-quality guest bloggers out there. I changed the title of this post to make it more clear that I’m talking about guest blogging for search engine optimization (SEO) purposes.

I’m also not talking about multi-author blogs. High-quality multi-author blogs like Boing Boing have been around since the beginning of the web, and they can be compelling, wonderful, and useful.

I just want to highlight that a bunch of low-quality or spam sites have latched on to “guest blogging” as their link-building strategy, and we see a lot more spammy attempts to do guest blogging. Because of that, I’d recommend skepticism (or at least caution) when someone reaches out and offers you a guest blog article.

What would you like to see from Webmaster Tools in 2014?

A few years ago, I asked on my blog what people would like from Google’s free webmaster tools. It’s pretty cool to re-read that post now, because we’ve delivered on a lot of peoples’ requests.

At this point, our webmaster console will alert you to manual webspam actions that will directly affect your site. We’ve recently rolled out better visibility on website security issues, including radically improved resources for hacked site help. We’ve also improved the backlinks that we show to publishers and site owners. Along the way, we’ve also created a website that explains how search works, and Google has done dozens of “office hours” hangouts for websites. And we’re just about to hit 15 million views on ~500 different webmaster videos.

So here’s my question: what would you like to see from Webmaster Tools (or the larger team) in 2014? I’ll throw out a few ideas below, but please leave suggestions in the comments. Bear in mind that I’m not promising we’ll do any of these–this is just to get your mental juices going.

Some things that I could imagine people wanting:

  • Make it easier/faster to claim authorship or do authorship markup.
  • Improved reporting of spam, bugs, errors, or issues. Maybe people who do very good spam reports could be “deputized” so their future spam reports would be fast-tracked. Or perhaps a karma, cred, or peer-based system could bubble up the most important issues, bad search results, etc.
  • Option to download the web pages that Google has seen from your site, in case a catastrophe like a hard drive failure or a virus takes down your entire website.
  • Checklists or help for new businesses that are just starting out.
  • Periodic reports with advice on improving areas like mobile or page speed.
  • Send Google “fat pings” of content before publishing it on the web, to make it easier for Google to tell where content appeared first on the web.
  • Better tools for detecting or reporting duplicate content or scrapers.
  • Show pages that don’t validate.
  • Show the source pages that link to your 404 pages, so you can contact other sites and ask if they want to fix their broken links.
  • Or almost as nice: tell the pages on your website that lead to 404s or broken links, so that site owners can fix their own broken links.
  • Better or faster bulk url removal (maybe pages that match a specific phrase?).
  • Refreshing the existing data in Webmaster Tools faster or better.
  • Improve robots.txt checker to handle even longer files.
  • Ways for site owners to tell us more about their site: anything from country-level data to language to authorship to what content management system (CMS) you use on different parts of the site. That might help Google improve how it crawls different parts of a domain.

To be clear, this is just some personal brainstorming–I’m not saying that the Webmaster Tools team will work on any of these. What I’d really like to hear is what you would like to see in 2014, either in Webmaster Tools or from the larger team that works with webmasters and site owners.

Securing your Google Account after a possible hack

A couple friends have recently had security scares with their Gmail account where they were worried that their accounts might have been hacked. I was emailing one of them about how to make sure that your account is safe, and I realized it might be handy to post this on my blog as well.

Here’s the email that I just wrote to a friend:

Here’s what I’d do:
- change your password (make sure you’re on google.com when you change your password)
- check for any strange activity. In Gmail, go to the bottom right and look for a message that looks like “Last account activity: 30 minutes ago. Open in 1 other location” and click on the “Details” link and look for any unusual logins, for example log ins from countries that you haven’t been in recently.
- Also check for weird forwarding rules. If hackers get into your Gmail, sometimes they’ll create a rule that forwards all your email to them. To check your filtering rules, in Gmail click on the gear icon in the top right, then select Settings from the drop down. Click on the link for “Filters” and just check whether there’s any rules that look suspicious to you.

In an ideal world, you’d turn on two-factor authentication like is described at https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/180744?hl=en . It’s more hassle to use two-factor authentication, but it makes your account much more secure against being hacked.

I’m a big fan of two-factor authentication, but I realize that casual users might not want to turn it on. My take is that it’s a lot better to set up two-factor authentication than worry about a hacked account.

Funny SEO emails, part 6

Folks at Google get cold-call emails out of the blue just like everybody else. Here’s an email that a colleague of mine got recently:

I was on your website www.google.com and wanted to shoot you a quick note. I think I can make a few changes (aesthetically and/or SEO – wise) to make your site convert more visitors into leads and to get it placed higher in the organic search results, for a few of the select terms.

This is NOT like one of those foreign emails you probably get in your inbox every day. Just to be upfront I have 3 agents that work with me for development /SEO.

I would just need to know which (if not both) services you’re open to checking out information about, either web design or SEO. Would you be open to seeing more brief info / quote for what I would like to accomplish?

Regards,
XXXXXX XXXXX

So this person is offering help to convert Google visitors into leads. Or, you know, to improve Google’s rankings in organic search results. Sigh.

Earlier this week, I got a different email that said

I would like to extend our knowledge to your audience in the form of a uest post [sic]. This post will be written by a college educated writer fluent in English.

To recap we will provide-
- 100% original guest post with statical [sic] data and studies from professional writers.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if someone sends you an email with an SEO offer out of the blue, be skeptical. For example, check out some other fun SEO emails that I’ve gotten in the past.

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