Friday, February 03, 2006

Lies, damned lies, and Matt Cutts

Matt Cutts is a very prominent software engineer who works for Google. He helps police their index by chasing down Web sites and removing them. He works in other mysterious ways behind the scenes, but also serves as a very active, very vocal public relations representative for Google. Matt has given many interviews and sat on numerous technical conference panels through the years.

I've been in a similar position myself, years ago, when I worked for a much smaller, less successful software company that nonetheless achieved dominance in its industry for a few years. All too often, I found I had to take the company position and defend it against extremely hostile customer feedback (which is pretty much why I no longer work for that company -- I just couldn't pretend to believe the company line any longer).

I'm not saying that Matt is trying to sell people on ideas he doesn't believe in. In fact, he seems quite passionate about working for Google and trusting in the power of their technology and the corporate integrity (at least as far as his experience with Google goes). What's the real picture? I don't know. But I feel some sympathy for Matt because hardly a day goes by where someone in the search engine optimization industry doesn't say or imply that he is a liar.

While I don't know much about the inner workings of Google, and don't care to spend my money attending SEO conferences, I've never seen anyone catch Matt in a lie. Not even the people who attend these conferences and supposedly have private conversations with Sergey Brin and Larry Page and know more than they feel comfortable revealing.

So, I was a bit disturbed the other day to see even the good-hearted Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz post a blog entry where he indicated that Matt had lied in a recent interview. Rand has since modified the entry to back off from that position. But the damage has been done, in my opinion. Yet more people have now seen someone accuse Matt of lying, deliberately misleading people on a particular point (and in this case it was an extremely obscure, esoteric point which had virtually nothing to do with the way Google maintains its search engine).

Matt uses his personal blog to share information about upcoming events. He recently announced he would be interviewed on Webmaster radio. While I didn't have time to tune in and listen (I do like the show), I knew other people would write it up. Imagine my surprise and disappointment to see most people talking about the alleged lie and skimping on the details of a 70-minute discussion.

In the aftermath, it's apparent that Matt didn't lie about anything. It may be that Google has been alerted to a possible deficiency in one of the tools it makes available to people who want to remove their own URLs from the index (there are good reasons to do this on occasion). If there is a problem with the tool, let's hope that Google finds and fixes it quickly. But I certainly feel a strong empathy for Matt for having been wrongly and baldly accused of outright lying.

Matt, I suspect you will eventually be subjected to much more subtle and far-reaching character assassination. There is a powerful love-hate relationship between Google and the search engine optimization community. Many of the people who are most active on the SEO blogs and forums are very hostile, toxic people. They instantly ridicule anyone who shows up and asks questions or make statements they don't like. To a lesser degree, many other people in the SEO communities express their exasperation with newcomers (who obviously haven't paid attention to oft-repeated questions and answers) very quickly.

No one with my personal history of involvement in flame wars is in any position to be criticizing others for being rude on the Internet -- if they are defending themselves. Matt, to his credit, doesn't engage in reciprocal rudeness. Of course, he hasn't been subjected to 8 years of lies, character assassination, and cyberstalking. I hope for his sake he never has to endure that kind of harassment and abuse.

Although the Michael Martinez Wars seem to have died down somewhat, there are still a few people out there who have axes to grind. One in particular, Larry Swain (known in some places as Forkbeard), who teaches Old English literature, devoted two years to following me from forum to forum, hoping to shave points off my reputation. As recently as a few months ago he was still telling people at one popular Tolkien forum that I don't carefully distinguish between my personal opinions and the facts in my essays.

Of course, every time I have asked Larry to provide an example of an essay where I blur my opinions with the facts, he falls unaccusingly silent.

This is the type of gradual character assassination that some people pursue against you. They resort to ambiguous innuendo and never back up their facts. And a lot of people are swayed by this kind of nonsense. It is basic human nature to believe allegations more than to believe denials. We instinctively reward aggression with approval or acceptance, and we instinctively ostracize people who are put on the defensive.

The assumption of credibility favors character assassins. Why? Because people are gullible? Most people are not generally gullible, but they are generally unwilling to concede points to others. And when you see two people arguing in an online forum, having only limited knowledge of the history of the two individuals, you are statistically more likely to favor the one who resorts to the first personal attack than the other.

Taking all this back to Matt Cutts, what I am saying is that through no fault of his own, his credibility has been intangibly harmed by these baseless allegations of falsehood. No one has ever caught Matt Cutts in a lie with respect to his public statements about Google. I think Matt realizes very well that the respect he has earned in the search optimization community owes a great deal to his personal integrity. Unfortunately, there are people out there who, while quite knowledgable about the technical stuff, don't know enough to always be right (none of us do) and they immediately fall into knee-jerk reactionary modes when they see or hear something they don't like.

The level of toxicity varies from individual to individual. But every online community I have participated in has included people who allowed their toxic feelings to fester and grow, and they became more and more toxic and alienated large numbers of people who no longer venture into those communities. While I share some of the blame for what happened to the Tolkien news groups, I was not the person who actively conducted a poison pen campaign, who knowingly and intentionally lied about another person, who followed someone around from forum to forum (and in this case I am not singling Larry Swain out -- there have been at least two others whom I know of who did this to me).

In other words, the people who ran the scholars out of the Tolkien groups have never taken responsibility for their actions.

This will inevitably happen in the SEO world. In fact, there was a time when all the SEOs were part of a single online community. There was no place else to go. The forum operator, however, was an unsavory individual who openly lied about other people (I should have realized what would happen to me when I first saw him do this, but I was still willing to give him the benefit of the doubt). Not only did he lie about other people in his forums, he indirectly spawned several rival forums by attacking and banning people whom he didn't like. When my turn came, I got fed up with the slime and withdrew from the SEO community for a year.

J.K. Bowman, the founder of Spider-Food's forums, persuaded me to come back into the community a few years ago. But except for my participation at Spider-food, I maintained a mostly low profile because I have really had enough of dealing with toxic people on the Internet.

Nonetheless, last year, because of major changes at Google, I began branching out into other forums where some of the people knew who I was. Once again I ran into toxic people, in the case of two forums where people abused their positions as moderators to win disagreements and stifle fair and open discussion. One forum admin put me on pre-moderated status because his moderators said I wasn't providing enough information to back up what I say (the number of citations I provided to off-site references such as academic papers and official search engine documents to this day outnumbers their off-site citations). I told the admin that no one in their right mind would agree to an arrangement like that.

But this is what happens on the Internet. People carve out philosophical niches where they pontificate ad nauseum, and when someone demands that they back up what they say, or -- worse -- shows there are authoritative references which contradict what they say, some of these folks launch campaigns to destroy the credibility of the people who don't side with them. The campaigns may not be conscious, intentional attacks. Or they may be. You never know until you step back and look at what the toxic people are actually doing.

The SEO community is now large enough and divided enough that there seems to be room for all points of view. But Matt Cutts is in a very unique position because he is the one voice of authority on Google's behalf that everyone can appeal to. He doesn't lay all his cards on the table. That can never happen because Google has to protect itself against the exploitive tactics employed by many SEOs. Nonetheless, until someone catches Matt in a lie, anything he says has instant credibility with many, many people. There are some naysayers who dig their feet in and point out that Matt isn't telling us everything, but when it comes down to believing Matt or believing an SEO, I'll take Matt.

Until someone proves he has lied to us. And then he'll no longer speak with authority.

In reality, however, no one actually has to ever prove that Matt Cutts lies to the search optimization community. As time passes, and as more people whisper in the corners that not everything Matt says can be trusted, his credibility will erode for no good reason, and eventually many people will assume he is a liar simply because they see the poison pen campaign.

It's an extremely devastating effect and it works well. So, if you go in for that kind of techno-geeky stuff, enjoy reading Matt Cutts while you can. There will come a day when he'll say to himself, "I don't need this," and he'll walk away.

Hopefully, no one will follow after him with a bloody knife in their hand. Or a power tool. Someone did once break into my gated community and carve "Mikey" into a brick outside my kitchen door.

That is the power of insane hatred or contemptible stupidity and immaturity. On the Internet, where you cannot read body language, you have no idea of knowing which is which when other people become toxic for no good reason other than their own selfish pride.


Anonymous yuri said...

Matt has been doing a pretty good job at saying general stuff and avoiding precise information. Partly, because saying too much would hurt the SE and partly because the facts will sooner or later change. So it is a good idea to speak in general terms of developing for the people and focusing on the value, anyway.

As for pen campaigns, Matt will be able to leave only when there are other people, who will be able to talk with the outside world. Until then, he can't just say "I quit" and go.

11:43 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home