Lee Odden

Matt Cutts on Toolbar Data

At last week’s WebmasterWorld Pubcon conference in Boston, I had the opportunity to talk to Matt Cutts from Google a few times and when I posted my recollection of comments about Google and user or toolbar data for rankings he wanted to clarify. That presented an opportunity for a mini interview about Google’s position on toolbar data.

I started out by posing a few specific questions:

1. Does Google currently use toolbar data for rankings?
2. What do you see as the pros and cons of using such data for rankings?
3. Can you describe any scenario where information from a downloaded application from Google might be used in some way for ranking web pages?
4. If Google does not employ toolbar or other user data for rankings and another search engine does, could that provide the other search engine an advantage?

And Matt provided this reply:

Hey Lee, it was nice to meet you in person at Pubcon! I’ll answer this all in one chunk, if that’s okay. Personally, I think this issue is on SEO’s minds more because there was a speculative thread at
http://www.webmasterworld.com/forum30/33769.htm where WMW folks discussed toolbar data.

I read the story at SearchNewz and saw your conclusion from our conversation that “Google does not use toolbar data for rankings” and wanted to clarify that answer a little bit. In general, when someone asks me the question “Do you use signal X in rankings?” a good way to answer that question is usually to say that while we don’t comment specifically on most of the factors that we use in ranking, it’s wise not to rule something out absolutely.

Let’s take the example in a different context. Meta tags got a bad rap in the early days of search engines because a few people abused them heavily. As a result Google doesn’t use meta tags much in ranking documents. But I’ve learned not to say “We would never use meta tags” because it’s not wise to preclude using any particular signal; in the future, someone might work out a way to use that signal.

So I’m not going to say definitively that Google doesn’t/won’t use toolbar data (or other signals) in ranking. I think what you were picking up on was my long list of “cons” in data like that.

Regarding cons of using toolbar data, the main reason would be if people were to spoof toolbar data to make a page or domain look more visited than it was. For example, at SES New York, I pointed out that Alexa provides a “Related Links” feature for web sites, and that data had been spammed to show related sites being job sites, poker sites, etc. at (Matt’s blog Alexa URL)

That resonated with me, because it showed that people were thinking about spamming Alexa’s toolbar data. Given the attention that people have given to PageRank, which is in Google’s toolbar, you can see how I’d feel about using toolbar data. I’m not going to say whether Google uses a particular signal in our ranking; I just wanted to communicate some of the potential problems in using things like toolbar data.

Hope that helps,

Thanks Matt!

I know there a skeptical SEOs out there that won’t buy this. I also know there are many SEOs too busy getting results doing their thing to even notice. All I can say is that every time Google reaches out to clarify, it’s a very good thing for the search engine and search marketing community.

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About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on integrated content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely on a beach somewhere doing absolutely nothing.