Since Google launched its Search Off the Record podcast and Google Webmasters Google Search News video series, SEO professionals have had more insight into the search engine’s recent inner workings and changes.
Both the podcast and video series include Google’s senior webmaster trends analyst, John Mueller, who also streams SEO office hour videos where he answers questions from SEO pros and webmasters around the world.
Over the years, Mueller has received his fair share of criticism from the SEO community.
For example, in an article published by Northcutt, an SEO company, their content specialist, Cara Bowles, wrote:
“…the hangout format just keeps leading us down a familiar path: Webmaster asks question about contentious SEO subject. Mueller offers dismissive, short, uninformative response. SEO news sites publish said uninformative response with clickbait title. Commenters respond with snark and conspiracy theories. Uninformed webmasters make bad decisions based on uninformative responses from Google and misleading internet comments.”
John Mueller is, without a doubt, an intelligent, experienced, and reputable webmaster.
However, as his followers point out, he has to limit his public comments to what Google allows.
He wants to be helpful but can’t always give the answers that SEO professionals want.
But this conundrum often creates the cycle of confusion that Bowles highlights.
It raises an important question for SEO professionals who follow Mueller: would you be better off if you stopped listening to Mueller’s advice?
Mueller’s comments on link building, in particular, have sparked confusion and controversy for years.
In 2015, when Mueller said he “tries to avoid” link building, his words were widely misinterpreted, and when he tweeted, “You focus too much on backlinks :)” in 2019, it added more fuel to the discussion.
If you take a closer look at what Mueller has to say about link building strategies, you may start to question why some SEO pros seem to hang on his every word.
Here’s why you should take Mueller’s link building advice with a grain of salt and lean more on tactics with proven results that will serve your company’s goals, not Google’s.
You Can’t Follow Ambiguous Instructions
Even if you wanted to enact everything that Mueller says, you’d have trouble identifying actionable suggestions regarding link acquisition.
Moreover, you’d have a false direction about what to avoid.
Mueller, and other high-profile Google employees, tend to give intentionally ambiguous answers to questions from SEO pros.
A prime example of Mueller’s artful misdirection comes from a July 2020 episode of the Search Off the Record podcast.
When discussing ranking factors, Mueller said this:
“And it’s also not the case that any particular kind of factor within this big network is the one deciding factor or that you can say that this factor plays a 10 percent role because maybe for some sites, for some queries, it doesn’t play a role at all…And maybe for other sites, for other queries, it’s the deciding factor. It’s really hard to say kind of how to keep those together.”
So, what does this mean for link building?
If it’s just one of countless ranking factors that may or may not be considered to determine a specific page’s rank, how much time and energy should SEO pros put into link building – or any factor for that matter?
Mueller often offers glimpses into Google’s complex algorithms but can’t offer a full picture.
If you’re looking to him for guidance on a comprehensive SEO strategy – you won’t find it – you’ll only find tidbits of advice with few practical applications.
Mueller said it himself in the same Search Off the Record episode: search is not a science with an absolute truth dictating which pages rank for which queries.
If Mueller can only say so much given Google’s tight-lipped approach to guarding their algorithms, and search isn’t a “science” to begin with, you can’t expect anything more than ambiguity.
You’ll Encounter Confusion & Contradiction
As a consequence of ambiguity, Mueller’s statements often drive confusion.
After his “you focus too much on backlinks” tweet, SEO professionals are outraged as you can see from the comments on Search Engine Roundtable to discuss their dissatisfaction.
One commenter said Mueller’s comments have “as much use as a chocolate teapot,” and another suggested that Google intentionally misdirects SEO pros and sends them on wild goose chases.
But quick jabs and Google conspiracy theories aside, these comments and other online criticisms of Google share a common thread of frustration and confusion.
But ambiguity isn’t the only issue with Mueller’s statements.
Sometimes, it’s the apparent contradictions that leave SEO professionals with wide-ranging beliefs about what does and doesn’t work.
For example, Mueller made the following statements within a span of eight months:
In an Ask Google Webmasters video about nofollow links, Mueller said that Google takes note of them and includes them in Google Search Console reports, but they do not pass signals.
“In general,” said Mueller, “this means we do not pass any PageRank from the link source to the link target.”
Then, in a Google Webmaster office-hours video, Mueller said:
“I think we’re already in that state where essentially we’re using nofollow as a signal. It’s not the case that we completely always ignore those links. Especially in some locations, we’ve seen that a lot of new websites are only linked with nofollow links, and it would be a shame for us not to be able to discover those links and to show them in search. That’s something where we do try to use nofollow more as a signal.”
Mueller’s two explanations about nofollow links aren’t necessarily incompatible.
Google very well could have changed their treatment of nofollow links between posting these videos in August 2019 and April 2020.
But, if that were the case, why not come right out and say it?
Mueller’s choice to use qualifiers like “in general,” “I think,” and “we do try to…” does raise questions about Google’s consistency and how the company rolls out algorithmic changes.
As an SEO professional, what should you take away from Mueller’s insight?
That nofollow links may or may not, sometimes, “especially in some locations” pass PageRank?
If anything, an SEO pro can walk away with a reminder that Google search is always in flux – what works to improve rank today may no longer work next week.
Also, it’s not just Mueller’s statements that are hard to follow – it’s Google’s published guidelines as well.
In an interview with CNBC, Google’s Senior Vice President of Education, Ben Gomes, said,
“You can view the rater guidelines as where we want the search algorithm to go…They don’t tell you how the algorithm is ranking results, but they fundamentally show what the algorithm should do.”
100% Natural Links Aren’t Realistic
When asked about links and ranking, Mueller tends to give a quick, vague answer and then reiterate that having backlinks is just one of the hundreds of ranking factors.
The picture Mueller paints about link building isn’t just incomplete; it’s overly idealistic.
In a Webmaster Hangout, an SEO pro asked Mueller to give an example of what a “good” link looks like.
“A good link…so I mean the traditional good link is someone who comes across your website and thinks it’s a fantastic website and recommends it to other people with a link.”
He later qualified that statement and recognized that link building isn’t that simple, but his point remained:
Links should come naturally.
Mueller’s remarks raise an obvious question: how can an SEO professional naturally promote a website to earn a backlink?
Again, Mueller provides only vague explanations.
Later in the video, he said:
“It is sometimes useful to reach out to people and say like, ‘Hey, look at my website, it’s like you have a great website, I have a great website, take a look at my content, our content kind of aligns…maybe you’d be able to recommend my content if you like it as well.’”
But aside from that, he gave no concrete recommendations for struggling SEOs.
Google’s Goals May Not Align with Your Company Goals
Ultimately, all the work an SEO professional does fall under one objective: improving your company or client’s site’s ranking to increase traffic and sales.
Businesses invest in SEO efforts to increase revenue, plain and simple.
SEO professionals do whatever they can to attract visitors and convert them to customers.
But because Google has an undeniable claim over the search engine market, many SEO pros think they have to play by Google’s rules to hit their objectives.
But what end goal does Google have?
Google Search’s mission statement is pretty straightforward.
The company aims to deliver the most relevant and reliable information available, maximize access to information, and present information in the most useful way.
“[H]elp people, publishers, and businesses of all sizes succeed online and be found by others. We do this by sending visitors to websites small and large through our search results, and by providing tools and resources to help site owners be successful.”
The “tools” referenced here links out to the Google Webmasters homepage that contains a wide range of resources, including the Webmaster Guidelines that disavows any type of “link scheme.”
According to the guidelines:
“The best way to get other sites to create high-quality, relevant links to yours is to create unique, relevant content that can naturally gain popularity in the Internet community. Creating good content pays off: Links are usually editorial votes given by choice…”
So, what’s an SEO professional to do?
Should they create content, then stand back and wait for natural links, or get to work on an outreach strategy to earn them?
It doesn’t matter what Google wants – it’s what keeps the business afloat that matters.
For many SEO pros, that means link building tactics, such as embedding links to their site in guest posts or even paying for links on sites that will pass value.
Mueller, however, tweeted in June that guest posts should only include nofollow links.
His tweet was met by controversy, including comments from Dr. Pete Meyers, who created MozCast and charts Google’s history of algorithm changes for Moz.
“I think good, relevant guest posts that drive traffic are generally good. I think spammy, low-value guest posts that you make just for links are generally bad…Google’s recent statements about guest posts seem very broad (too broad, IMO), and it’s possible that could lead to some bad enforcement, but I personally have no fear of writing for other sites and linking appropriately when I’m writing good articles for good reasons.”
Moz founder and CEO of SparkToro, Rand Fishkin, also criticized Mueller’s stance on nofollow links in guest posts.
“Don’t let Google bully you into stopping practices that work for your business. Just because some people ‘guest blog’ abusively, doesn’t mean you can’t do it the right way & earn better ROI.”
Three months later, Fishkin gave a presentation urging SEO professionals to end their marketing reliance on the “Facebook and Google duopoly.”
When It Comes to Link Building, What Works?
Once you make the decision to serve your business and customers, not Google, creating a strategy for link building becomes a far simpler task.
However, that’s not to say that link building is easy.
Coming up with an efficient and effective strategy takes trial and error.
You have to experiment with a wide range of link building tactics, like guest posting, claiming unlinked brand mentions, and promoting linkable assets, then measure the results.
By diversifying your link acquisition strategy, testing news tactics, and using standardized metrics to assess the results, you’ll eventually find a system that works for your business.