In today's post I am going to host a special guest. Some people call him the European Matt Cutts and I am sure he deserved the title during his time ”on duty” while he’s been hunting spam.
You can love him or you can hate him (especially if you are a spammer), but one thing is sure – he knows what he is doing and he is good at it. That is the reason why I am so happy to ask Kaspar some questions. Some of you might be a little disappointed, but I am focusing on Kaspar in this interview, not on squeezing some ”Google leaks” out of him :)
There was some buzz among my friends when I told them I was working on some kickass questions to an ex-Googler. In our world it is like a thief interviewing an ex-cop.
I've always believed that when doing black hat you need to either accept the game with its high risk and high take, or look for an accounting job. Not all of my colleagues think the same, but I am going to cover this subject in my second question to Kaspar.
Kaspar Szymanski has been working on Google’s manual web spam team from to 2006 to 2013. During that time he gained visibility in the SEO industry through his Google blog contributions and conference talks. In 2012 and 2013 his teams work made national news, as announcements such as this http://goo.gl/KQQ8pe drew the attention of major industry verticals. Today Kaspar works as an independent SEO consultant operating from Berlin, together with Fili Wiese, who’s another former Google Search Quality Expert.
Interview with Kaspar Szymanski:
Bartosz Goralewicz: Hello Kaspar, it’s my pleasure to interview such a (in)famous guy. I am aware that some of the questions may make you feel uncomfortable because of your previous employee, so if you want to skip one, just say ”Penguin” :)
Kaspar Szymanski: Hi Bartek! Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to address your questions and share my thoughts with your readers.
Bartosz Goralewicz: I know that during your time at Google at the Search Quality Team from 2006 to 2013, there were a lot of people with penalized sites that weren't exactly wishing you well. Was it hard for you to be a Googler responsible for fighting with spam in one of the most spammed countries in the world?
Kaspar Szymanski: That is a refreshing question! In fact in all these years I’ve never ran into anyone who’s a real douche. Sure, there was the occasional slur aimed my way in a forum thread and especially when my team just happened to take out a popular spam link network, but at that job you never take these things personally. People are passionate about their websites and get upset if they do not live up to their expectations in SERPs. Some people are more likely to get angry and need to vent. But then you meet them at a conference and everybody behaves. I have had the privilege to talk to a ton of interesting people, webmasters, site owners and SEOs during my time at Google. I'm still in touch with many of them. In fact, some of them became great friends, like Marcus Tandler, who by the way is one of the most skilled SEOs I know.
Also, my grandpa taught me that you don't have to agree 100% on every matter in order to respect each other and learn from one another. So to answer your question it was never hard for me to spearhead webmaster outreach. On the contrary, it was a superb experience!
Bartosz Goralewicz: I am aware, that you've heard this question like a million times, but without it, this interview would just be incomplete. So let me be a worst interviewer ever and ask it again; why did you leave Google?
Kaspar Szymanski: LOL! Indeed that is a question former Google guys get to hear a lot. It was certainly a very tough decision. I liked the thrill of hunting web spam and I certainly enjoyed being in the spotlight and addressing Google Search issues publicly. Not to mention the great food and having my friends around me at work! What I probably have been missing was leaving my personal comfort zone. At some point I spoke with Jonas Weber and Fili Wiese, who you met at our SEO workshop in Warsaw in November. Both of the guys had previously left the Search Quality team. We had a chat and considered collaborating, something we’ve already been successfully doing during our time at Google. The more I thought about it, the more I got excited about the prospect.
Then a few personal things lined up nicely for me and Berlin became a very attractive location. I used the opportunity to scout the city over a longer Depeche Mode concert weekend and fell for it right away. About a month later I shared my farewell note via Google+.
Bartosz Goralewicz: What were your duties as Search Quality Team Manager?
Kaspar Szymanski: In fact that was not my role. I was the guy spearheading webmaster outreach, mostly for the Polish webmaster community and - if needed - contributing to other language markets. The POC, when it came to Google Search in my market if you will, getting all the attention and feeling the heat from the audience at times as you mentioned before. Doing so, I was in fact representing the efforts of a much larger team of extremely talented and dedicated people, within Product Quality Operation and beyond.
A significant chunk of my work included addressing search issues through a number of Google channels, building and maintaining the community around webmaster products which was great fun - especially with Polish Top Contributors! - speaking at conferences and managing events. A lot of these things I still do, although through different channels. And there was the core activity of detecting spam patterns and tackling them. It is an investigative activity that can give you quite a rush. In my opinion it’s a never ending competition between the web spam fighting team and spammers, each group trying to outsmart the other one. Very exciting stuff!
In my opinion it’s a never ending competition between the web spam fighting team and spammers
Bartosz Goralewicz: Did you have any specific ”targets” you had to reach every month or quarter?
Kaspar Szymanski: Of course! Google is a results driven organization. Everyone has to reach certain results in a given period of time and I was no exception there.
Bartosz Goralewicz: Knowing the infinite nature of Search Quality Team's mission – when do you know that you've done the right job? If I recall it correctly, Matt Cutts said that he knew he is doing something right, when everyone on black hat forums is threatening to kill him. Was it like that with you, too?
Kaspar Szymanski: Now you made me think! For all I know, no one has ever threatened to assassinate me ;-) On a more serious note, I have never heard Matt say that, but I agree with the general statement: if you roll out an anti-spam initiative and you see that a lot of people who chose to ignore Google Webmaster Guidelines complaining - that is a good signal. Measuring web spam rates that users get exposed to is another. There are a good few indicators but will leave the details to your imagination ;-)
Bartosz Goralewicz: I know that just after leaving Google, you spent some time just having fun and doing what you love the most (aviation and running). You moved to Berlin. It all looks like a part of a big plan. You must be full of creative energy now. You don't have any spammers to penalize now, so what are you planning to do with it? (laugh)
Kaspar Szymanski: Right after I left Google, I did spend some time traveling - one of my passions. I try to visit a handful of new places every year as part of a personal development plan. Traveling and getting to know people from other cultural circles can be a greatly rewarding experience. Upon arrival some energy went into settling down in Berlin, moving places can be an intense experience ;) Right now it’s all about choosing the right projects and exceeding clients’ expectations. I consider myself very fortunate to have this many exciting opportunities these days. And fantastic business partners who also happen to be my friends. And yes, there’s running and aviation, my lifelong companions. Although it took me forever to recover from the ToughMudder run I and a fellow ex-Googler friend Allard van Helbergen did recently ;) I remain actively managing a small, vibrant classic aircraft community on the side. Any fellow wings enthusiast who read this, you are most welcome to join!
Bartosz Goralewicz: I am sure there are going to be some black hats changing their ways after reading this. :) I think it's a great moment for you to give them a quick tip on ranking casino sites using white hat?
Kaspar Szymanski: This is the moment you expect me to pull the ”Penguin” card, huh? ;-) I know a bunch of black hats who turned white. And some guys who went exactly in the opposite direction. As far as I’m concerned it’s not my job to convince people to go one way or the other. At least not any more. These days I analyze sites, detect risks, compare them against Webmaster Guidelines, and draw alternative scenarios. It’s anyone’s personal choice to go white hat or black hat or anywhere in between. As long as it’s an educated decision, based on solid information, not industry gossip. In my experience, it’s possible to build a successful site in just about any niche. What many people fail to comprehend though is the fact that there is a stronger force at play than any search engine: users.
Bartosz Goralewicz: In my view, after leaving Google, your online presence is not as strong as it used to be. I strongly believe that what makes us (online marketers) unique, is being discoverable (there was an awesome post about that I read - also by ex-Googler btw). How can we follow your steps now apart from Twitter and +Google?
Kaspar Szymanski: You’re right, I’m less present online. I still do share professional and some personal stuff on Google+ and often Tweet the SEO bits, too. For anyone who wants to get in touch with me, Google Search is your best choice; it should not be a difficult query :)
Bartosz Goralewicz: I am not sure if I heard it right during our last meeting, are you using ahrefs for backlink profile check? What SEO tools are in your ”Must have SEO kit”?
Kaspar Szymanski: I use ahrefs all the time, it’s excellent! That one and a bunch of other tools like MajesticSEO, Deepcrawl, ScreamingFrog, Onpage.org and NetComber just to name a few. Also, there are some private tools that are not public (yet) which we have created in the first place to improve our workflow. Stay tuned if you’re curious about them :-)
Bartosz Goralewicz: One of the most common mistakes or disbelief I see within SEOs is that you or your friends from SQT know the algorithm of the Google search engine. In fact, from what I know, you can only observe sites you are working on and see how far the limit goes. Is that correct?
Kaspar Szymanski: The key thing to keep in mind is that the Internet is in constant flux. Obviously at Google there are different access levels depending on seniority, expertise, assignment etc. However, I cannot elaborate further on this.
Bartosz Goralewicz: During the largest Google Algorithm Update (I am talking about Penguin 2.1) you were not a Google employee. Since then, the algorithm changed completely. Do you think you can still understand recent changes and help webmasters solve their problems?
Kaspar Szymanski: Oh yes! Google has been increasing the pace of innovation to a level where on average two new updates are being rolled out every day. And that’s just the last time I checked, which was quite a while ago. A coherent, long-term SEO strategy requires little focus on individual updates. Looking ahead and exceeding users’ expectations, however; is one that can be won. My clients seem to agree on that approach.
Bartosz Goralewicz: This is quite a controversial question, but I think it is an elephant in the room, that I never saw anyone addressing yet. Whenever I talk about ex-Googlers doing SEO, I hear that you guys probably have no idea about that – why would you – in fact you got no experience doing it from our side? What is your opinion on that?
Kaspar Szymanski: Let me ask you a question: Why do you assume ex-Googlers have no previous SEO experience?
Bartosz Goralewicz: Recently I've been talking to famous Polish black hat - Robert Niechciał (you probably penalized hundreds of his sites :) ), I asked him – what is the most common mistake you see among SEOs. I think your point of view is going to be a little bit different, than Robert's, so what is a never ending problem, that you are sick of, and still everyone makes?
Kaspar Szymanski: There are some obvious classics like caring for PageRank etc. The one thing I personally found rather funny that at some black hat forums spammers kept on complaining about spam in Google SERP’s. I never understood the rationale behind that ambiguous position. My guess is in the end is that everyone wants to have clean, accurate results when it comes to their own search queries :)
Bartosz Goralewicz: A while ago I was talking with you about Polish SEO agencies working on 100+ customer's sites. Months have passed since they got hit really badly, yet I don't see many of them adapting well. What would you recommend them as a first step? Maybe something less drastic than what Fili said at SMW (more here) about creating content that addresses the problems of your users. Something that is a ”handshake” between what you think is white hat, and what they are doing with mostly link exchange, SEO directories or automatic submissions.
Kaspar Szymanski: First of all, I don’t think that creating actually useful, likable content for users is a dramatic step. There is no magic bullet to get a clean sheet start after years of link spamming without making an effort. Sometimes the solution can be as easy as “you made a mess, now go and clean it up.” Now, that of course can be a daunting task with no documentation at hand. Often a second opinion can help to open a site owners eyes. The only handshake as you call it that is realistic is to ruthlessly clean up link spam, abandon any link building activity and rethink the online marketing strategy. And if that is not an option rethinking the business model may be the only remaining way.
Bartosz Goralewicz: On the other hand, as a giveaway to people reading this interview – what would you recommend to average ”John Smith”, running a small accounting business? How can they promote their business? How to choose best SEO agency?
Kaspar Szymanski: Absolutely! Ask yourself two questions: what’s the unique business proposition and where are your clients? Accountant John Smith will likely not be able to grow his business from ranking number one for accountant, while his clients look for a local consultant. Actually knowing your users is the key! How they search and what makes them choose one accountant over another is what John needs to find out first. You might want to also read this article from Fili: http://www.filiwiese.com/succeeding-online-with-a-small-business-website/.
Bonus questions – questions from the black hat community
Let me make a clear statement here. This are questions from some of the black hats from polish community. They do not always reflect my view. This is a great opportunity for them to ask Kaspar some of their own concerns directly.
Black Hat SEO: Most webmasters I know think that evaluation of a site based on backlinks is the worst idea ever. Is that a mistake that you are gonna correct, or is it a purposeful action?
Kaspar: Ok, I need to point out I do not represent my previous employers opinion or policies at this point. I merely share my own thoughts. The assumption is a biased opinion, nothing founded on solid information and I don’t see the point in debating it. We need to keep in mind that search engines indexes are private property, not a public good that people have a say in.
However keep in mind, that evaluating the site based on backlinks is what made Google different and why they became so popular. Over time Google has also added a number of additional signals and keeps adding these to ensure the quality. It is not all about links anymore, would you agree?
Black Hat SEO: Is promoting large sites in search results instead of small company sites a side effect of the new algorithm, that is going to be corrected or is it a purposeful action?
Kaspar: Again, this is just someone's opinion not an actual fact. While some people see reality that way and complain about it, this is not an opinion I share. It is not about the size of a site. In fact I don’t think it’s ever been. And it’s certainly not about your site. It all comes down to how well a site serves its users.
Black Hat SEO: What is the origin of the idea that all links to the site must be natural? Search results are missing many sites that you can easily find in Bing. Don't you think that this successfully disables small companies from existing in Google?
Kaspar: Once more, this is a personal point of view on how SERPs might look better according to an individual's liking. The Google Index is private property; its mechanisms are not up for debate. It’s like discussing whether your neighbours should repaint their house just because you don’t like the color. It is not your call. And anyone who is not happy with the way Google Search works can demonstrate that and move to an alternative Search engine. It’s usually just one click away :-)
And if you still wonder how small sites can succeed, check out this post: http://www.filiwiese.com/succeeding-online-with-a-small-business-website/
Me: During your work, was there any black hats that you had marked as “high risk" and you were checking their actions?
Kaspar: No, what mattered to me was whether actual users were exposed to web spam. I took care of web spam; I never took the competition to a personal level.
Me: Is it true, that some of the SEOs automated Spam Reports in Google to report their competitors? Did you notice such actions in SQT?
Kaspar: It doesn’t really matter for a simple reason: a poor spam report remains a poor spam report. I never understood the reasoning for submitting spam reports for sites because someone simply did not like them, not because they actually were spammy.
There was, however; a clever shortcut for good, documented spam reports at my time at Google. Clever webmasters used to share their findings with me via Google+ or on the Google Webmaster Help Forum. As far as I remember, such quality reports did receive the appropriate attention ;)