Danny Sullivan (Founding Editor, Search Engine Land), Matt Cutts (Distinguished Engineer, aka Head of Web Spam, Google), and Duane Forrester (Senior Project Manager, Bing) held an entertaining and informational "Meet the Search Engines" session at SMX West. The PowerPoint-less open forum format allowed for 90 minutes of solid conversation and question answering. The three gentleman had a great rapport and there was a lot of friendly banter between them.
Danny, Matt, and Duane pause for a selfie before their session
Here are some of the topics discussed:
Matt discussed that Google is working on the next generation of Panda. It'll be softer. It's still a ways away, but it's in process.
If you're doing something shady in regard to mobile SEO, you're likely to be dinged. Make sure everything you're doing well with mobile is fixed if/when there are issues.
Google will continue to crack down on link networks
Don't be alarmed if it looks like traffic coming from Google relative to IE 8 drops in the near future. As IE 10 comes out, traffic data will be focused on IE 9 and 10, so IE 8 traffic may appear poor, but it's just part of the transition process and will be amended shortly.
When asked about if the interaction of the knowledge graph changed how they do stuff, Matt noted the carousel is often handy because explore more. When a tool works well, people use it more. When you make search engines faster, people make more searches. All this data is useful.
"Would a penalty from an old site follow you to a new one?" In an ideal world, you shouldn't allow spammers to avoid detection. Whether someone is using redirects, Google wants to know what the duplicate sites and are and whether they're a duplicate of a spammy site or whether they're legit.
In regard to gTLDs (generic top-level domains – these would be domains that feature words other than "com" after the dot in the URL. i.e. .biz, .com, .info, .name, .net, .org, etc.) and the notion that having one can automatically help with SEO, Duane explained that that is not the case. They are useful when they're useful – if you do it right and build a business, sure, you'll be fine. But if you get them just to do the wrong things with them, the search engines take action. If you think because you have seo.guru you're going to rank well, you're not. It doesn't suddenly make you more relevant.
On the other side of that, monitor your own brand and be sure someone doesn't utilize it with an unfavorable gTLD. For example, .sucks is a viable option, so someone could easily procure yourcompany.sucks if they get angry. It's worth it to spend the small annual fee to own those kinds of domains.
Duane recommends starting down the right path from the very beginning of developing a site. Ask yourself how you're thinking about what you're doing – you shouldn't be asking yourself about shortcuts or what tools you can use to better manage your site. Start down the right path from launch – sit down with engineering and make sure everything is properly set up from the get-go so you don't have to go back to them later and need them to make numerous changes.
Danny inquired about embeddable content with a link back scheme, such as the recently-available Getty images. Matt said they look at these instances on a case-by-case basis and are able to easily discern if the links are spam or not. This means, for Getty, the images are perceived more like a widget. They're trying to be useful. So, the widget link might not count as much, but Getty won't be penalized in any way for having all these new links back to their site.
Bing has email support and they actually do read all inquiries, although sometimes it takes a few days based on what else is going on. Visit bing.com/webmaster and reach out via the "customer support" link. If you reach out and don't hear back in a few days, shoot Duane a tweet!
For mobile sites, Matt notes that both mobile friendly and responsive design sites are fine, but there are bad practices. If there are many redirects to the homepage, for example, that would raise a red flag.
Google doesn't relay all the signals involved with identifying spam sites since then the spammers would know how to play the system. They can provide guidance, but not specifics, for this reason.
A focus shouldn't be directly on link building for SEO: it should be to put up consistently valuable content. Google's goal is to show and reflect things they already deem high quality. Really, ask yourself how to make something compelling or excellent over how to merely acquire a link. Doing the opposite is putting the cart before the horse.
For example, sites that provide original research and thoughts on a topic naturally do really well. Providing a unique service and doing things better than anyone else are effective ways to gain traction. Think about how to be addictive. "Great content" is the tag word but there are lots of ways to do that. If you provide information of value, it'll come back to you.
Know which words matter and which don't. The word "the" doesn't necessarily matter, but "of" does since it usually specifically relates two things.