Listening to Google is a bit like listening to your parents when you’re 17 – there’s some wisdom in their words (or so they keep telling you) but their ideas on what’s right and wrong and how to get the job done don’t necessarily match up with your own.
To reinforce the similarity, Google generally presents the best version of themselves and how they want you to see them and then asks you to live up to that standard with total disregard to reality.
So how do you know when to trust their advice?
Google communicates with SEOs and digital marketers in many ways, each with its own biases, pros, and cons.
Rather than trying to provide some global truth to a variable scenario, let’s look at some of the major locations we hear from Google and assess when (and how) to approach the information they give.
Before we dive in, let me start by answering the first question in our title
When Should You Listen to Google?
The answer is, any time they speak on a subject relevant to you.
There is almost always something to be taken from what Google tells you.
This is not to say you necessarily need to follow their advice every time or that they’re speaking in your best interest as we’ll see below, but knowing what they’re saying (and not saying) can be invaluable.
Where to Listen to Google?
Google Webmaster Help (YouTube Edition)
One of my personal favorite places to hear from Google is on their Google Webmaster Help channel on YouTube. While they occasionally put out helpful general videos, it’s better known for their various office-hours Hangouts.
The English version is generally hosted by Google Webmaster Trends Analyst John Mueller, who also hosts the German version. In these Hangouts, you’ll find Mueller (or his counterparts for different languages) answering questions they’ve been sent and taking questions from those attending the Hangout live.
You’ll find out when they’re happening on the Google Webmasters Page on Google+ (you just knew there had to be a reason to be there right?).
Now the question is, how do you listen to Mueller? When Mueller speaks I honestly believe he is saying what he thinks to be true.
Many veteran SEOs often compare Mueller with Google’s former Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts, who also used to answer questions in video format. While Cutts was an excellent and knowledgeable rep, he never did live Hangouts so his answers were often prepared and polished.
On the other hand, Mueller fields questions in real time and therein is the value and the problem. Anyone answering questions in real time faces their own limitations in knowledge and the inability to research.
On the other side of the coin, he’s answering real-world questions in rapid-fire so attendees get a lot of information covering a wide array of areas in about an hour. So tune in, but understand that Mueller is only providing the answers he believes to be true off-the-cuff.
Google on Twitter
While there are a ton of Google Twitter personalities and profiles one can follow there are a few on my “this one’s crucial” list. They are:
- Google Webmasters – If you don’t want to follow Google Webmasters on Google+ they post their updates on Twitter here.
- AdWords – Learn about new AdWords features, get tips and access research and tutorials on AdWords.
- John Mueller – John covers an array of technical (and not-so-technical) subjects and chimes in with answers to questions on his Twitter profile.
- Gary Illyes – Gary is also a Webmaster Trends Analyst for Google and self-proclaimed ‘Chief Of Sunshine and Happiness’. He answers a lot of questions on Twitter, though often cryptically.
How to Listen to Google…
There are often extremely important announcements BUT one needs to remember (especially with the AdWords information) that Google is putting out, in a controlled and polished way, what they want you to know and what’s in their best interest.
Therein is the critical bit to remember – this information, while it may help you, is not being put out in your best interest but rather theirs.
AdWords, for example, is not a system designed to make businesses money. As a pleasantry, it happens to be required on a larger scale for AdWords to be sustainable but that’s not its primary function. Its key role is to generate revenue for Google and any information put out must be viewed in this light.
You’ll learn of new features and research but all of it is for Google’s own benefit.
Keep this in mind and be critical when you read what they put out.
About Webmaster Guidelines
Their webmaster information can be viewed in a similar light. When they make recommendations, it’s important to know what they are or you may miss major technical enhancements, understanding algorithms, and a lot more. That said, it’s also important to remember that the information they’re putting out is meant to clarify what they’re looking at and wanting you to do, not necessarily what’s best for your site.
I would guesstimate that a good 90% or even more of the information given to webmasters in this channel is accurate and universally applicable without question to a specific sector. Take for example their recent jobs search initiative.
There is other information, however, such as changes to their Webmaster Guidelines, that needs to be viewed in the context of your business interests. If you have a tolerance for risk and want to simply rank as quickly as possible, then how you approach this information will be very different than if your website goal is to rank long term. Both people should read the guidelines to understand the risks and rules but the actions they will take thereafter need to conform to their individual business strategy.
The profiles of Google employees, such as Mueller and Illyes, are more interesting to follow. While both tend to give short-and-sweet answers to easy questions (not to be confused with useless), it’s more interesting to see their answers to questions related to updates or specific strategies.
When asked on an update, for example, I’ve seen them clarify that a sizeable one did or didn’t happen.
So when we see the more generic (Yep! We make updates all the time), that’s when it’s time to put on your analytical hat.
If they do confirm some and deny others, then the refusal to give a clear answer means one of three things:
- They don’t know (it’s a big algorithm after all).
- It’s just one of the routine smaller tweaks and happens to have impacted some sites enough to be noticeable.
- You need to put on your Sherlock Holmes cap and dig into it.
Pay attention not just to what you’re being told but also what isn’t being said. While it may not always provide answers, it can lead us down the road to the right questions.
I’m a big fan of patents. They help us see directly what products Google researches to a degree that they find it worth investing in patents to protect.
That said, there are a number of limitations one needs to keep in mind regarding patents.
- A patent can be filed not just to do something but to stop others from doing it. I may patent a system or method that is similar to another that I use simply to stop another company from using said system or method to accomplish a similar task.
- When a patent is published it can be up to 2 years old. Take, for example, their recently published patent “Auto-completion of widely shared search queries”. It was published on July 6, 2017, but was filed over a year ago on June 8, 2016. So really you’re getting a glimpse into what they did, not what they’re doing. The lag between filing the patent and building the technology is about the same as the time to approve the patent itself.
- A patent may be completely abandoned. Just because something seemed like a good idea at the time does not mean it will make the cut during development. Let’s take for example this gem:
An Apparatus for simulating a “high five”, while not Google’s patent, definitely illustrates the point. While I don’t know of a Google patent that fully embraces this level of uselessness not all of them are pursued or used and one needs to keep this in mind to understand that a patent isn’t a rock-solid guide but can certainly provide insight into what they’re working on.
Google files too many patents to read them all and, quite honestly, a good deal of them don’t really apply to anything most of us would care about. In fact, many folks would have difficulty reading them (like Shakespeare it can take a bit to get used to the way they’re written).
At the very least, visit the FreshPatents Google page (or similar patent site) periodically. Scan the patent titles and read the occasional Abstract or background. This will keep your finger on the pulse of at least what general areas they’re looking at.
If you don’t feel like reading the patents, then follow Search Engine Journal as you’ll find me here writing about the ones I feel folks might find interesting and actionable. Also, Bill Slawski writes about patents frequently on SEO By the Sea.
While patents aren’t Google communicating with you directly, it is them communicating to the world the technologies they’re interested in. As long as you keep in mind what we’ve discussed above, they can shed a lot of light on what’s going on.
It’s important to listen to almost everything Google says – not because they’re always telling you something you can apply (though a lot of it is), but because you never know what gem you might take away or pattern you might pick up on.
Keep in mind that Google is generally speaking to their own best interests, which can often align with yours – but not always.
Make the right decision for yourself or your clients, not Google’s.
Finally, pay attention to the new functionalities Google adds, interface changes they apply, and patterns within. You’ll find that they tend to make a number of changes in individual areas in rapid succession.
Understanding which area are undergoing changes at any given time can, like patents, provide great insight into what Google is focused on improving right now. All leading you to the question “Why?”
And, hopefully, an answer to the better question, “How can I use that?”
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