Sage Advice to Webmasters and SEOs from a Google Support Engineer

Many webmasters have just enough knowledge of SEO to be dangerous, but Google's Maile Ohye in this AMA podcast published today brings clarity to some of the key danger zones.

Stephan Spencer
Search engine optimization expert Stephan Spencer shares late-breaking SEO tools, tips, trends, resources, news and insights. Stephan is the founder and president of Netconcepts, a web agency specializing in search engine optimized ecommerce. Clients include Discovery Channel, AOL, Home Shopping Network, Verizon SuperPages.com, and REI, to name a few. Stephan is a frequent speaker at Internet conferences around the globe. He is also a Senior Contributor to MarketingProfs.com, a monthly columnist for Practical Ecommerce, and he's been a contributor to DM News, Multichannel Merchant, Catalog Success, Catalog Age, and others.
Stephan Spencer
3 min read

Photo of Maile Ohye, used with permission
Maile Ohye of Google Maile Ohye
Recently I had the chance to sit down with Maile Ohye from Google in this podcast interview (6 MB, 25 minutes). Maile is a Senior Support Engineer on Google's Webmaster Central team. I got to know her at the AMA Hot Topic: Search Engine Marketing conference, where we were both speakers. Maile not only supports webmasters and users, but also implements changes within Google's code based on feedback from newsgroups like Google Webmaster Help, forums like Webmaster World, and blogs like Google, I Suggest.

The recently revised and expanded Google Webmaster Guidelines was a hot topic in this interview. Many webmasters have just enough knowledge of SEO to be dangerous, and the expanded Guidelines will hopefully help them avoid shooting themselves in the foot. Maile commented that sometimes webmasters (and even some SEO firms) may not know that what they are doing is against Google's guidelines, which is why the feedback tools are so important for webmasters to get a better understanding of what Googlebot wants to see.

Some highlights from my interview with Maile include:

  • Cloaking: Sometimes even SEO firms don't "get" what cloaking actually is. Maile advised playing it safe and staying away from the "grey" area, and remember to serve the same content to both users and search engines.
  • Session IDs: If session IDs in your URLs are dragging down your rankings, Maile suggested that you could throw the session variable into a cookie and utilize some 301 redirects to ensure that your customer's experience is not interrupted while optimizing search engine visibility.
  • Flash: I had asked Maile about Flash, AJAX, and other "eye candy", because so many brand-centric retailers and manufacturers rely heavily on such technologies on their sites, and such approaches aren't typically search-friendly. Maile stated that the best option if you want to use Flash is to incorporate it as a complement to your text-based website. Even though some brands like to offer a Flash and a non-Flash site, Maile said that this approach is confusing to your customers and it's not ideal from an SEO standpoint. Your PageRank could be too spread too thin across both sites, so you end up diluting your link importance to the point that neither version has the opportunity to rank well. Furthermore, a Flash version that isn't bookmarkable actually discourages deep linking. "Progressive enhancement," which relies on "noscript" tags, is an approach to making Flash more search engine friendly. Maile confirmed that Google looks at the content within "noscript" tags, but be careful to mirror accurately the Flash-based content you include within the noscript tags or it will look like cloaking to Googlebot.
  • Sitemaps: Maile was enthusiastic about sitemaps as a powerful addition to your SEO arsenal. She advised that when using them, be sure to use the canonical URLs, scrubbed clean of superfluous variables. Sitemaps.org is a great resource if you have any questions, and it's something pretty amazing. MSN, Yahoo! and Google have all agreed to utilize the XML Sitemaps Protocol that Google pioneered.
  • Paid Links: Maile reaffirmed Matt Cutt's previously stated position that Google is against buying paid links for PageRank. She said that the reason why Google took its stance against "paid links" is because it is deceptive to users -- making it about the size of wallet rather than about merit.

Not only was Maile very accommodating to many of my tough questions, she also went a step further and took some notes on questions she felt Google needed to address. I had asked about Google's take on the appropriate uses for the rel=nofollow "link condom", as well as more targeted questions toward large ecommerce sites. She mentioned that more updates will be coming from Google soon, based on feedback she has received for their new guidelines.

After the interview, I caught up again with Maile at BlogHer in Chicago. With Google's aggressive conference schedule, they are actively trying to get more face time with webmasters and SEOs to answer any questions they might have, and to network within the SEO community. Kudos to Google and to Maile for that! Hopefully Maile gets enough breaks from all the traveling to recharge her batteries and to enjoy all the perks offered "on campus" at the Googleplex (like unlimited snacks!).