This article is a response to a private meeting I had with Matt Cutts, Head of Web Spam and a Distinguished Engineer at Google, at SMX West March 13th 2014, about Google's Ethics, their search algorithms, and his role in the disenfranchising of thousands of small businesses
For years I have been commenting and critiquing, if not ranting, even screaming at Google in general and yourself in particular regarding Google's various positions, the most significant of which being your moral position (or decided lack thereof) and potential (if not growingly obvious) hypocrisy.
The reason for my outbursts is quite simple: some idiot allowed me access to Twitter. And so, give this two-year-old a megaphone to make noise, and I will make such sweet tweets as: "dear @mattcutts you are not in any way obeying your don't be evil motto" or regarding Google's recent unethical disenfranchising of thousands of small businesses, "see if you can find the "grain of truth" in that and whether you [all at google] should be sleeping so well at night."
(or tweets along those lines)
This all culminated with Amit Singhal's strikingly elitist keynote at the March 2014 SMX West conference, to which I was in attendance:
Now many people have critiqued Matt, justifiably or not, especially since this conference. Few get a response. However, not two minutes after my remark about Singhal, curiously, this one time the "Godot" I had been waiting so long for finally responded:
Feeling nervous (imagining the laser scope drawing a bead on the back of my head) I responded sardonically:
To his final response:
And so, fate had spoken. The date was set. And on that Thursday (March 13th), feeling like the hapless Galileo summoned to the Vatican to answer for his heresy, fighting my way past the throng of fan-boys and rats (clambering to rat out their competitor’s backlinks, to which I was a little surprised how gleefully Matt scribbled their URLs in a notebook he materialized from his back pocket) I presented myself to the second-in-command at Google Search holding his hallowed court in the otherwise deserted conference hallway.
Matt’s magnetic eyes immediately fell upon me and with arms wide he proclaimed, “Ah the sceptic! We should chat” (which in itself was a very telling choice of words on his part: “sceptic.” Not “critic” as I might have imagined. Or preferred. Declaring I am a “sceptic” implies the truth of his irrefutable moral position to which I am not justifiably critical, merely agnostic). I introduced myself formally and tried to offer, in explanation for my “heretical” criticality, that I have an Honours Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s Degree, and (half) a PhD specializing in Ethics and Rational Decision Theory from some of the finest universities in Canada, which is why I take that darn “ethics” thing so seriously.
In fact, I informed him that I was even passionately writing a book about morality. Or our tragic lack thereof. Actually, how pretty much the entirety of our species was disastrously and woefully misconfigured. Infected by a Trojan virus. The oldest one, in fact. Running on the oldest computers in the universe. Namely our brains.
Taking the bait, he wanted me to expatiate my ethical critiques about Google. So, bathed in the shocked looks of conference presenters jealous that a nobody such as myself gets to have a private conference with “the Cutts”, joking and chatting amiably we wandered the back halls together until we finally found a deserted outside balcony (the “East Terrace”, which was right behind the SMX “Clinics” conference room). Slipping outside into the gorgeous San Jose air, we found the stained chairs and discarded butts where the staff must conduct their cigarette breaks. We sat down to conduct a meeting of our own.
The foreplay over, Cutts pinned me with a serious eye and abruptly asked what my “primary” philosophical critiques of Google were. It looked to me like he was eager to refute whatever subversive nonsense I had to say. Somewhat mortified, I proceeded to stammer the best argument I could off the top of my head.
I said my primary argument against Google could be broken down into three main parts:
First I argued that Google does not have the moral authority or justification to be so harmful in their punishing site owners, specifically with the Penguin algorithm. Cutts and Mueller (another well-known Google spokesperson) have specifically said they want Penguin to be “punitive” not only in how long it takes to run (thus keeping the “guilty” under demotion for longer), but in the effect it has on a site (giving the pages hit by it “negative” link juice like a boat anchor, weighing that page down and, seemingly, any other internal page it links to, as opposed to merely ignoring the suspect link, or allowing the penalty to be removed right away once the “bad” link is removed). They wanted to mark the page. Like the scarlet letter. And make the site owner pay for it, figuratively and ostensibly even literally, for a long time. They do something similar with sites targeted by their manual team.
Further, I argued they were in danger of being unethical thieves. For example, what would you do if someone took your content and put it on their site without compensating you? Or without even asking? Well this is exactly what Google does with the “Knowledge Panel” which, at the conference, Singhal was all-too proud to defiantly defend.
I explained to Matt that if someone had stolen my content like that I would file a DMCA request, with Google of all things, as this robs me of the chance to monetize the traffic I worked so hard and paid money to acquire.
How can they be so against stealing content in one instance, and yet do it themselves in another?
Finally, along those lines, I mentioned their growingly infamous hypocrisy. There are many examples of this that Matt has recently taken flak over (the recent hardware links debacle on Twitter – where Matt posted “spammy” looking links to some of the hardware he likes to use). I will not use these examples as they are small-time examples, and somewhat subjective.
Instead, I chose a bigger example. Google widely claims that all of their decisions are guided by science, which Matt admitted in our talk he fully endorses. If that is the case then, I challenged what science he had referenced specifically when choosing this new punitive “negative punishment” style approach when seriously penalizing webmasters. He says that this will stop spammers from just continuously spamming their index.
However, the science on Skinnerian psychology shows that positive reinforcement works much better over time in manipulating the subject’s behaviour. And so, to use the Big Bang Theory example, a clear and obvious “good Penny!” reward to site owners for doing what Google clearly wants, would achieve their goals far better over time than their current “bad Leonard!” water-spray-in the-face of ranking penalties/demotions for undesired actions. Cutts didn’t use any science here. He just decided to be punitive. The result is worse spam and more negative SEO from more determined and annoyed spammers.
Further, because of all these new punitive algos that can destroy your business, Google claims they want to be “transparent” with site owners; as to how these penalties work and what we can do to fix them.
But they are the furthest thing from “transparent.” For example, Cutts said numerous times, most recently at this very conference, that Panda (their “quality” algo) has, more or less, a simple list of “bad” or low quality signals it looks for. But, just to be extra maddening, they don’t release what that list is! If there was a simple list of “bad” things that the Panda quality algorithm looks for, then they should be able to simply publish a specific “don’t do” list. The only result would be that people would make better fracking websites.
Unless of course Panda is entirely user metrics based which, then, could be gamed by making fake users take the actions of seemingly satisfied browsers. But, officially, they have directly said it’s not. Mueller has said again and again, “We do not use anything like the Analytics bounce rate in our rankings.” He has also stated they don’t use our private surfing data (from Chrome or Android), or ISP data in that way.
So either they are lying to us again, either about being transparent in the data they use, or in their supposed desire to be transparent. Likely both.
Now, although some others have said some of this before, yet when Matt noticed I had half a brain and (given my academic background) I could deliver said arguments formally and in detail, his demeanour changed and he realized he was not in for your standard whine-fest from an indignant search marketer that he could placate with his propaganda. Instead, he had a substantial debate on his hands with a rather critical “sceptic” who could bring science against him, and who was analyzing (or trying to analyze) the logic underlying Matt’s corporate position. Not merely whining about the result.
Yet, being the ever-charming and self-effacing pubic relations guru, likely trying to avoid a moral debate he may not win, he immediately conceded to much of my argument. In short, he told me that regarding point 1, his hands were tied by technology, and the admittedly excessive delays were also (perhaps even mostly) in just trying to keep up with spammers while still protecting site owners against their numerous negative SEO attempts.
On point 2 he personally agreed that their taking content for the knowledge panel might seem unfair and they had already internally debated ways to ex post facto compensate site owners, possibly even monetarily.
And on point 3 he disagreed “mostly”, but again his hands were tied. He had limitations both technical and legal that prevented him from doing any better.
In fact, still quite surprisingly to me, he proceeded to emotionally open up to me a bit and explain in much more detail than ever publicly announced, the technical ways some of these algos work, and thus why it takes so long, how the signals they currently use force them to have “edge cases” otherwise known in military parlance as “collateral damage.” Also some of the behind the scenes political and legal issues they have been plagued with recently, and thus why their stance has to be the way it is. They have limitations both technical and legal.
Much of these details I will not reveal, because I promised I wouldn’t.
But there was one problem, Matt, a big problem, that I cannot help but reveal. And it is this: Those are just excuses. All excuses. And they hide the real issue. You say edge cases are unavoidable? You say you have technical limitations? Tough. When a webmaster argues to Google that he/she has their own limitations, that they simply cannot afford the $5k per month ridiculous marketing budget to buy advertising and magazine level content for their plumbing business, and instead had to go the $500 per month buying links route to compete in their chosen niche because that’s the money they had, and that’s what everyone else had done, these limitations do not morally indemnify the “black hatter” in Google’s eyes.
But when Google supposedly has limitations blocking them from doing the “right thing”, we are supposed to just forgive them? We are the ones who are supposed to be forgiving?
And this is ultimately the biggest problem with Google, that through Cutt’s charismatic spell I became bewildered and forgot to press at the time. That yes they are hypocritical, not in the links they post in their own personal articles (who cares?), but in the most fundamental and dangerous way: that they don’t take morality seriously. That, quite simply, they have become nothing but a money-hungry, grubby, capitalistic monopoly that, even worse, like all fascist tyrannies before it, wishes (of course) to claim they are not. That they are not evil. Not hypocrites. And not seeking to usurp ever increasing portions of whatever revenue exists in *their* chosen niche (namely, all of ours).
And, never forget, they want to do this, of all fucking things, both off of the backs, and from the mouths, of the website owners who fucking made them what they are in the first place.
This is my confession. I should have pressed this more fundamental argument. In our chat I should have been the philosopher I was trained to be, not the SEO fan-boy eager (and arrogant enough) to think that I could actually come up with a technical suggestion to solve Google’s technological issues. As opposed to eagerly getting sucked into a brain-storm with the Cutts and offering, “Maybe you can show demotions like Panda in Webmaster Tools? Maybe you can show a screen indicating Google is “unsure” what this page is about, and / or / then, once googlebot is pretty sure what that page is about because they set the schema, that “Google detects users are not completing the appropriate “task” on that page” thus implying, but not in any way saying, it is a crappy page and needs to be fixed and thus we avoid any legal issues you mentioned (and moral issues too) in declaring they are a “low quality” site. Etc.”
Or, instead of laughing with him near the end of our talk, and saying, “No, that’s okay Matt when you say to me, jokingly(?), that you ‘want to put SEOs out of business’. We can do marketing anyways”, I should have offered Matt this instead: “No. Sorry. Joking or not (and personally I don’t think you really were), those are all just excuses. Google’s recent stance on site owners is fundamentally and completely immoral. You are equally immoral for proffering it. That is the issue.”
Why is Google’s position on site owners fundamentally immoral? If I may employ a metaphor. Imagine a major multi-national sets up a dam in an undeveloped tropical wilderness. The dam creates a lake from nothingness. And after some time, a fertile new ecosystem springs up around it. Native tribes, thousands of them, that did not exist there before make the lake their home. And not only survive but in fact thrive off of its lucrative shores, which are admittedly, completely caused by the large multi-national who can, at will, stop the backup of water, or change the flow of water, and completely destroy (whether intentional or not) either the entirety, or just a small handful (the minor, so-called, “edge cases”), of the otherwise unsuspecting and hapless native tribespeople who, however foolishly, however short-sightedly, are now completely relying on the lake for their existence.
Yes, you made the lake. But now they rely on it.
This is the exact relation between Google and site owners. And SEOs for that matter. It doesn’t matter if you think Google has the supposed “rights” to change their front page, or prune their index, or disenfranchise “bad” site owners. Never forget they are demolishing people. They cause harm to other human beings by doing this! Just because you do not have any legality restricting you, doesn’t make it the morally right thing, or a good thing, to do. Purposefully going out of your way to disenfranchise others never is.
And here’s the kicker: It is not bad enough that they choose to disenfranchise others, but they actually go so far as to think they are morally justified in doing so. They are arrogant enough to think they are the good-guys in this movie! They say they are not evil. They literally think they are saving the world. They talk about sleeping “pretty well” at night, that human existence would literally be worse if they did not make Google (Singhal, SMX West 2014), and that they wilfully and gladly de-index site owners’ work on the basis of whether or not, to use their own words, they judge it “belongs on the Internet.”
I have one small question: Who the fuck are they to decide what site belongs on the Internet?! I don’t remember having a referendum to vote Google in as “Kings of teh InterWebs.” I am curious, how long does their political term last? What checks and balances are established to protect us from their rulings? I ask, what senate must they pass their edicts through?
This one. The senate of nobodies such as myself. And you too. The senate of all website owners who, like in ancient Rome, own the very resources the rulers use to make their empire richer, while quite obviously sacrificing our interests for theirs.
So I say, yes Matt, indeed, stick a fork right up in it. It’s done. I am blowing the whistle. We don’t give a shit if the NSA is now prevented from reading our Gmail, as if I believed you this was actually the case. Or cared. We care about how we, the website owners you monopolize upon, are treated. Your end users, the searchers, are not those people you should be so proud to serve. And you don’t fucking serve your end users anyway. Stop lying to us. You serve only yourselves. And you know that.
So do not insult our intelligence that you are “transparent” or “not evil.”
The irony is that you are quite transparent. And not in the way you wish.
And so, I apologize. As I said, this is my confession. The confession of one who has been forced to complain unheard on the dim twitter fringes. In the shadows. The questionable “black hat”, like a Snowden, or an Assange, forced to play now the even more unsavoury whistle blower’s role. And the one time you deign to bring me out into the light either to school me, or even worse, to sooth your sinking suspicion that there is indeed that “grain” of truth in my “scepticism”, I then #FAIL. I am sorry Matt, it’s not a technical problem. And the growing hypocrisy others have hammered you on, is but a mere symptom. Your moral elitism is the real issue. This is all what I should have said to you. But I was so enamoured by your easy charm, that I failed both you, and myself, and everyone else.
In actuality, when finally challenged by the man, I found that I liked him. He is ten times more endearing in person than he is on those videos. As he took off his glasses, rubbed the bridge of his nose as he does, even wrung his hair and ardently tried to convince me the lengths he goes to in order to be as good as he can to SEOs, how he confessed how and on what battles he fought those now increasingly unpopular “not provided” decisions, that he claimed he fought tooth and nail but got vetoed on, by either legal or Larry, I found that I pitied him.
But that does not excuse him.
In our talk Matt seemed to think his ethical position was safe because of his purported efforts to reduce collateral damage when disenfranchising site owners to just the “bad” ones. However, even if he had the moral authority to declare what was morally good or bad, or right or wrong on the Internet, which he does not, still, to essentially use “Utilitarian moral theory” (an antiquated moral philosophy from the 18th century) and say that he is morally justified to hurt the minority because he is serving the majority, is sadly not morally justified either.
Why? Because he still hurts somebody! To make that omelette, you still have to break, those, eggs. And those eggs, site owners, broke bad. To quote the Bard, “You take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live.” Google purposefully demolished businesses that they deemed “spammy.” This means Google got people got laid off. Google got people fired. People were completely disenfranchised. Check the forums. Due to their penalties that site owners either could not get enough info on to fix, or were designed in such a way as to not be fixable under a certain (rather long) time period, people simply could not get their sites back in time. People lost their livelihoods and some their homes. Google did this, in some cases, on purpose. Because those sites “did not belong on the Internet.”
If, dear reader, you think that didn’t harm people, or that they deserved being disenfranchised because they were “[INSERT YOUR COMPLETELY SUBJECTIVE MEANINGLESS LABEL HERE]”, or that collateral damage doesn’t matter, then you are a cruel, immoral, idiot.
Choosing the lesser of evils, is still choosing evil. So Google has committed no sin against God or the State. Fine. But they have still sinned against man.
And, I will further point out, the utilitarian moral argument Matt tries to use is not even accurate. Never forget, Google does not serve any site owners, neither the majority nor minority. Like any business, they serve themselves only. And clearly, as I showed above, they are willing to make any “search improvements” to their front page that serves their agenda. If anyone else marginally benefits from their actions, like any other mundane business, it is merely a happy PR coincidence they will pounce upon to make themselves look better.
So, fine. Say you are a greedy monopoly practicing duplicitous and self-serving Bernaysian public relations tactics. Do not try to pretend you are fucking moral.
And so, my main argument side-tracked into a technical quagmire, Cutts then abruptly declaring our talk done, much like the Coyote and the Watch Dog from Bugs Bunny cartoons, the two amiable debaters left the balcony, joked some more, shook hands, and parted ways. Will the Coyote and Watch Dog ever meet again? Likely not. I had my chance to convince him. I failed. (And there really is no point going to those conferences which are little more than a Google PR exercise and a white hat cult meeting - I asked them for actionable tips - it was like pulling teeth getting any from them. All I received was ridicule, I suppose, for trying to be business oriented and not cult oriented).
Yet, I wonder, regarding my Coyote and the Watch dog reference, in our talk, who was who? Which one truly was the watch dog? And the other, the sneaky manipulator. The “black hat”? Which one is truly doing the spamming, spamming us with their propaganda? Which one is truly abusing ethics? And the other, in the actually righteous moral position, calling him on it?
Can't be me. Can't be us. Like some kind of sand-people, we are just the nobodies with only "grains" of truth in our arguments that Matt doesn't have to listen to because he is the "good guy".
And that is the problem (that others, the “rustybrick”, does not even see). Yes, Barry, it may be in poor taste to call someone a hypocrite. Yes, I agree, it is surface level and irrelevant. But not all critiques of Matt are. And my moral critiques of Google are not. To which, even if Matt does not come up with the immoral and hurtful plan, he still carries it out. And like some revolutionaries who stood up against a larger power, we can and should always critique those who are doing immoral things. No matter how powerful. No matter how “uncool” his fan-boys may say it is to do so now.
Do you see how dangerous the white hat cult becomes if we do not stand up to their moral elitism? “White hat?” If you read Google’s TC forums lately and the abuse so-called “spammy” websites get, “white hate” is the more accurate descriptor.
So, I’m sorry Matt, but you are misconfigured. You (and your moral elitist cult) have a computational virus installed in your brain telling you some conduct is moral that is not (and if you want to understand exactly what I mean by that, I will gladly email you, or anyone, my book). I like you a lot. You are a nice guy. And in our talk this is the most secret and interesting SEO leak you gave me: you actually seem to be trying to be a moral guy too. You do have a conscience.
But as long as you have to tow the line for legal or Larry, you’re not the good guy I think you truly wish to be.
And I should have had the balls to say this all to your face.
A mistake I am glad the Internet is still (barely) free enough for me to remedy. (Although, I can’t make any promises as to how well this document will rank).
What’s the solution about your recent immoral position? Simple. Change it. Be forgiving. Don’t go out of your way and make algos to punish site owners thinking they might be “black hats.” And don’t go out of your way to punish black hats either. They are just trying to make money, same as you. You have no moral justification to purposefully, or accidentally, disenfranchise or punish anyone. I repeat: You’re not the moral police. This is not the Inquisition. You are not the kings of the internet. And you’re not the Pope. You have absolutely no moral justification to purposefully, or accidentally, disenfranchise or punish anyone. And the science shows it is not the best way to achieve your goals anyway. Over time, a clear reward for good action works far better than punishment.
How can you do this technically? I don’t know. And that’s not the point. I am not going to make the same mistake twice and get drawn into a technical debate here the way I was in person. You are smart folks. You could figure it out, if you wanted to, how you can prune the content in your index while also not adding punishment. Without shackling them down with an “action” they have no way to feasibly get out of. Not even announcing when your demotions run (as Mueller recently said in March and April you want to eventually do with penguin) so victims cannot know what to do to fix it! You have no justification for these tactics you know will harm others.
And so, this is the real problem. Forget the whining. What someone needs to finally make perfectly clear to you is your punitive moral elitist position that a) exists and b) is not justified. This is the real problem. This is what your cult is adopting. This is what needs to change first.
You think you are morally justified in hurting those people who break your almighty guidelines.
You’re not. You can do better.
And now, much more importantly, I hope you realize that you should.
PS: Please don’t let the haters with their irrelevant critiques, or the sycophants with their irrelevant kudos, make you less receptive to the real underlying philosophical problems such as this. (If it is not already too late).
So, as I once tweeted you, see if you can find the “grain” of truth in this, and whether or not you should be sleeping so well at night.
I promise you Godot, I have laid out for you a boulder.