Matt Cutts opened day two of SES San Francisco, detailing a Google quality process that’s familiar to content marketers (and all website owners) concerned with SEO. “Google rolls out 500 new algorithms every year, and we spend hour-long meetings deciding what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

Any brand site that’s ever lost (or gained) traffic through Penguin or Panda is familiar with the concept of Google as an arbiter of editorial quality. “Every search engine has an editorial voice,” said Cutts. For website owners, this means published content has to meet Google’s quality standards to rank in SERPs, although Google stands by the fact that the best thing you can do to meet its SEO and editorial standards is to create content for users. He and Patrick Thomas of the User Policy team shared insights on “tough-call” manual penalties – and offered some insights on how their editorial/UX ideals might influence future algorithms.

Blurred lines for manual penalties

“Our search results and features should be comprehensive and we keep manual removals to a minimum,” said Thomas. The company recently released a feature that clarifies manual penalties for webmasters. “We prefer algorithms over manual actions.”

 “I would love to be replaced by a program.” – a joking Matt Cutts

Still, some situations that involve potentially hateful, violent or dangerous content puts Google in a position to make a call on removing offensive material. Auto-complete and instant search heighten the debate over Google’s role in censoring content: For example, after the Boston bombing, auto-complete suggested pressure cooker bombs for users queries referencing the event. Google’s team stepped in to debate whether that should be removed.

The issue of whether or not to manually remove (potentially) offensive pages comes up more than people might think, unless they work at a search engine. Cutts and Thomas offered a list of some of the commonly debated content areas, asking the audience to weigh in:

  • Viruses and malware [audience seemed to agree this should be censored]
  • Leaked personal ID info (ie: credit card numbers) [audience seemed to agree this should be censored]
  • Porn [audience seemed to agree this should be censored]
  • Violent images [audience mixed: Is there a potential value in understanding consequences of certain actions?]
  • Hate content [audience mixed: Is it valid for research purposes to assay hateful conversations?]
  • Hacking instructions [audience seemed to agree this should be censored]
  • Bomb-making instructions [audience seemed to agree this should be censored]
  • Pro-anorexia sites “teaching” people to develop the eating disorder [audience mixed: Is this a helpful research tool, especially for doctors and parents?]
  • Satanism and wiccanism [audience seemed to agree this should remain online]
  • Necrophilia [audience mixed: Is this valuable for research of a cultural phenomenon?]
  • Content farms [audience mixed: It’s hard to make a call on whether a site is one, and Panda exists]
  • Blackhat SEO boards [audience mixed: Is this even helpful to see what spam tactics should be guarded against?]

Check out the video of Cutts and Thomas on this topic from last year’s SMX.  Cutts and Thomas, conscious of Google’s role in making content available, would prefer to have algorithms make the decisions. “I would love to be replaced by a program,” Cutts joked.

He was also quick to point out that even if Google removes something from its index, it still exists on the web. “People make the mistake of thinking it only matters if [content]’s on Google but there are lots of ways people discover.“ This is a valid reminder for companies that are myopic in their web marketing strategies, focusing too heavily on Google rankings at the cost of social marketing, email and similar initiatives that aim to share great content and information with users.

Google’s influence on content (and sites) by way of SEO standards

Even while Cutts asserted there are ways for questionable (and all) content to be discovered beyond Google, he suggested Google makes algorithm decisions that can impact the direction of digital media behavior. It’s a “chicken-or-the-egg” effect on web content quality, and Cutts offered a couple of examples.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon take mobile page speed into account for SEO.” – Matt Cutts

Panda: The search engine was making an effort to promote good content, and aware of Google’s influence, Panda was a means to demand that content marketing efforts step it up.

Page speed: The company announced page speed as a ranking factor in order to give users access to fast-loading sites. The change also made site owners more conscious of site speed to encourage better practices.

What’s next for “chicken-or-the-egg” SEO/ editorial standards?

Neither of the Google reps confirmed “SEO essentials” for the future, but here are two areas discussed:

Mobile site speed: “Mobile is probably growing faster than anyone in the room expects. Mobile traffic to Google will surpass desktop traffic to Google pretty soon – not in weeks or a few months… but soon,” Cutts said.

He went on to hint, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we soon take mobile page speed into account for SEO.”

Authorship: Cutts also referenced Google’s rising interest in authority. “[As a Google user,] I would want to be able to prioritize content from experts.” He clarified: “I’m not saying Authorship will give users a direct ranking boost, but it certainly helps click-through rates.”

Google’s interest in getting businesses to use Authorship is clear: The feature has recently gotten a lot of air time from Google reps. In the past month, the company:

An overview of chronological Authorship developments and set up steps can be found in Brafton’s latest guide book: Content Marketing, Meet Authorship.

Cutts and Thomas ended the session by reminding everyone of Google’s most iterated adage: What’s best for the user is best for SEO.

Check out more insights from Cutts on the future of SEO from SMX West in this related post.