Google SiteClinic London 2011

6 Apr

Last night, I attended the first London Google site clinic at TechHub in London. Tickets were limited to the first 175 people to sign up, so when I arrived with 15 minutes to spare, the air was thick with with excitement. Californian accents floated through the air mingled with the sounds of furious keyboard tapping and iPhone alerts.

The geeks will inherit the earth, or so they say. We were all thinking the same thing: All we need for world dominance is right here in this room: Real, actual Google employees are here with PowerPoint presentations and they will answer our questions and show us how to make our sites better. We have the Golden Tickets, we are the lucky ones.

The evening didn’t quite pan out quite the way we had hoped…

The Venue

Techhub bills itself as “a new and exciting space in London for tech companies“, which I suppose is true if ‘new‘ means ‘newly distressed‘ and tech companies are excited by rooms the size of a tennis court that look like a student bar. However, this is just the bitter voice of disappointment speaking. I was imagining something more like this:

Looks aside, the venue seemed well managed, with lots of A4 sheets sellotaped to the wall with Twitter hashtags – #siteclinic and #techhub – plus access details to their WiFi, both of which I thought were a nice touch.

The Audience

As you would expect, 90% of the audience were men. (That’s not a knuckle-scraping-misogynistic-chauvinistic-throwaway comment, but a reflection on how the geeky world I inhabit is predominantly patriarchal.) It seems that most of us were pretty tech savvy and had found the even through following @mattcutts, who posted the following back in March:

The Warm Up Act

So at 7:30pm sharp, up step Lucyna Janas and Chris Hiltermann, who kick off by telling us that Google SERPs have paid for content and organic listings. It’s at this point that, @555 posted this:

Personally, I quite liked the warm up. Sure, it was a bit basic, but that was presumably to bring everyone up to speed. Lucyna and Chris were affable and fairly confident and their PowerPoint presentation was the kind of thing I would mock up for a presentation to Account Managers, clients and Junior Developers alike.

One key point that was very quickly skipped through was from Lucyna’s PPT: “Users type words to find your site. Make sure those words are in your site“, which I found brilliant in its simplicity. Having listened patiently to many clients expecting to be #1 in SERPs for “jam sandwiches” or “global warming” when their sites’ content is all about bridge building or dentistry, there were times in the past when I could have done with such succinct sagacity.

The rest of the half hour was filled with introductions to Google Webmaster Tools, Google Webmaster Guidelines, Google Teaching Grandma To Suck Eggs and so on. In fact, if this section could have had a strapline, it would have been “Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for one day, give him a browser, a computer science degree and all these amazing Google tools, why, he’ll be Captain Birdseye quicker than you can say Sergey Brin”

The audience was getting restless, though, and the main event was tantalisingly close. So it was that we were introduced to…

The Panel

The panel of experts (all from the Google Search Team, most based in Dublin) comprised:

  • Pierre Far (who seems to have a nice sideline in Ekstreme SEO tools)
  • Kaspar Szymanski (who seemed completely wasted as the microphone transporter)
  • Jonas Voss (who, as the only person on the panel wearing an afghan scarf, won the night’s award for best dressed expert)
  • Sven Naumann (who, despite first impressions, ended up as the most chirpy of the group with his constant praise of people and willing attitude to answering questions)

Let The Games Commence

When we all applied for tickets to the event, we had had to nominate one of our sites that we wanted the Google team to comment on. With 174 other people vying for attention here, the chances of our site making it onto the whiteboard of death were slim, but this is why we came – for Google to offer advice, even if it was going to be a bitter pill to swallow.

It was disappointing that the first two or three users’ sites that were to be hauled over the coals were not present. Most people present thought that the panel should probably have skipped over this. However, they didn’t and talked at length to nobody in particular about issues which, for the most part, most people in the room knew.

It was a pattern which was to continue for most of the night, with only three or four site owners being present from the ten or so sites chosen for public examination. It seemed that most of the sites were chosen as a good-bad example of X, with X being bad 302 redirects, poor HTML, too many CSS/JS files etc etc.

We Have A Victor had warm praise from the panel, falling down on just one thing – their rather excellent 404 page. The criticism was that although it purported to being a 404 page, it actually sent back a 200 response. Having looked at the page today, it is actually a bit more involved than that, in that it is first a 302 redirect to the ‘404’ page.

Now this isn’t really all that bad. You’re not going to get ‘marked down’ for this. After all, Google have ways of detecting this and it will appear as if you have more pages in your site than you really do, right? Wrong. What the panel hinted at, and what is probably the strongest message I can give to anyone reading is that Google cares more about the end user than your stupid site.

Google has consistently found ways of interpreting lazy coders’ sloppy code, in fact this is what separated Google from the pack. They were one of the first companies to realise that the amount of people linking to your site was a better indicator of probable quality than any almost any other part of their famous algorithm. What they care about is the quality of their search results – if a user sees a listing on a SERP and they get redirect to a 404 page this is a really bad thing for them. You, you don’t give a monkeys unless Google slap you about a bit with a penalty, but Google has to care about this. And they care a lot.

Therefore, they have realised that the meta description tag is really only useful for the excerpt that appears on Google’s SERPs, rather than in any way influencing the relevancy of a site for a search query. They want to eliminate rogue 301/302 redirects from www. and non-www. which lead users to dead end pages as this is not good user experience. If there was one thing to take away from the evening, it would probably be this, but there were a few other diamonds in the rough:

What We Learned

  • Drupal is bad – 20% of the sites that were flamed were built using Drupal. This could be coincidence, of course.
  • It’s all about the user – Will Google penalise you for certain things? Probably not, but if the user suffers, your site suffers and Google suffers. Everybody loses.
  • Duplicate Content is a non issue – As many had suspected, duplicate content is not the albatross that people have been led to believe. Google does find it difficult to detect duplicate content and when faced between two pages that have similar/identical content it will choose the one that came first (or presumably that was indexed first). But if we take on board the previous point – ie will the user be confused/agitated/tearful about the duplicate content – then we should all, as responsible web developers, use the canonical tag.
  • Use The Cache, Luke – If you google cache: followed by any internet address, google will automatically serve its last cache for that page. If you then click “text-only version” you will probably get a good feel for what it’s like to walk in the shoes of GoogleBot.
  • Dub Dub Dub –It’s peculiar that we, in English, abbreviate “world wide web” as “www” when “www” is nine syllables long and “world wide web” is only three.‘ – Stephen Fry. Nice to hear the alternative to www of Dub Dub Dub by the Google team, although it brings back strange memories of the cubs, which I would probably rather forget.
  • Read The F@#*ing Blogs, Dip5#!t – Although members of the panel did not quite use this terminology, I think they were a hair’s breadth away from it. We were all of a high level of expertise in the room, and if we had read all the blogs/videos/forum posts that they drilled into us, we would all have found the site clinic a lot less useful than we actually did. That said, Google do give a lot of this information away for free on their various sites. If you are going to pick one, I would choose the Google WebmasterHelp YouTube channel. Although if Pierre asks me what I read, I’m going to say everything in case he shouts at me.

What We Didn’t Learn

  • Sitespeed – will using a cache manifest help google rank the page as speedier? Although there was some talk of speed being a part of the algorithm (1st rule of Google Site Club is you don’t talk about the algorithm…), and although there is talk of e-tags and long expire headers, I would liked to have asked the panel about cache manifest.
  • Google Base – Why does google base sometimes intermingle with organic search results? How are these results decided? Is there a way of SEO-ing your google base product feed?
  • HTML5 – we hear a lot about the semantic web and how it will help search engines decypher websites. Is this something Google would encourage developers to do? Is google ready for the changes?
  • Social Media – Social Media was not covered at all. There have been hints that links from facebook and twitter to your site may help, but how can this be so if all links from FB and twitter have nofollow tags?

In Summary

I don’t think I would recommend the Google Site Clinic to anyone out there in the development community. For the most part, you can get the same advice from the excellent Google suite of tools without traipsing cross country. Perhaps if the audience were allowed to submit questions in advance, as well as sites, it would have made the evening better.

The Cold Light Of Day

So, now yesterday is today and really, what on earth was I expecting? Ideally, the panel was going to pick my site out and either say “This is freaking awesome, please come and join us” or “This is awful, here are some magic beans – plant these and soon your site will have its feathery tendrils throughout the world“, but that was never going to happen.

I expected more from the Google panel, but why should I have? Probably because Matt Cutt’s posts, videos and tweets are so damned informative and helpful both to the novice and the expert, that somehow I expected everyone at Google to be the same. Completely ludicrous. I’m a grown man. I no longer believe in Father Christmas, or that Steve Martin will ever make a funny film again, but I somehow still want to believe in real world fairy tales.

I think there’s a lot that could be learned from the site clinics both by the audience and by Google if they change the perspective and structure slightly. As it stands though, my feeling was that they were pretty much a waste of time for everyone concerned, which is a shame for the user and for Google.


Further Reading

@domeheid‘s review of the clinic:

@joncombe‘s write up of the same event:

SEOmoz’s guide to SEO: A great place for beginners. Why are they giving this away? Because their SEO tools are stupendously expensive.

1 Response to Google SiteClinic London 2011


» SEO Basics – what every client needs to know (and a bunch of stuff they probably don’t…) Eagerterrier's Blog

October 17th, 2011 at 6:35 pm

[…] won’t for the most part index you for content or keywords that do not appear on your site. In the words of one Google employee “Users type words to find your site. Make sure those words are in your […]

Comment Form