In 1999, Matt Cutts had a decision to make. He could stay at UNC, working towards his PhD, or he could quit school and fly to California, to become one of the first employees of a new company called “Google.”
January 15, 2015
Meet Google’s Webspam Man
Lessons from Google spam fighter Matt Cutts, a former UNC student who spoke last week in Chapel Hill
Cutts knew he could alway go back to school, but he might not get another shot to make a difference like one could in Silicon Valley.
He was right.
Cutts spoke in Chapel Hill last Thursday night as part of UNC’s Distinguished Alumni Speaker series. Since leaving for California 15 years ago, he has become the head of Google’s webspam team, which more or less means he is one of the most powerful men on the Internet today.
Cutt’s main work at Google has been to stop spammers from manipulating Google’s rankings, rankings which determine what Google’s 75% share of three billion global internet users see when they search for ‘women’s shoes’ or ‘what restaurant in Charlotte I should spend my money?’. Long story short, the end result of what he does can redirect millions in traffic and revenue from website A to website B without so much as a warning Tweet before it’s too late.
That kind of power is staggering, and it gives a clue as to why a Google employee you’ve probably never heard of has 400,000 followers on Twitter, and was invited back to school as a “distinguished” alumni when he still hasn’t graduated.
Cutts’ job is particularly interesting because how and why Google fights webspam essentially explains how the entire web works, at least in terms of how the public finds the websites they consume.
Back in the mid 90s, Larry Page’s first draft of PageRank—Google’s backbone algorithm that measures the importance of a website — essentially mimicked how the academic community measured the success of the papers they published. (Page’s parents were both professors, this is likely not a coincidence.) The idea is, the more people that cite your paper in their papers, the more important your paper must be. Page applied this to webpages, and it still dominates 90% of rankings you see today. Google has determined that if a million websites link to CNN.com, CNN.com must be important, and therefore you’re much more likely to see those pages when you search for things in Google. It’s a bit more complex than that, but that’s mostly how it works.
Now, think of the enormous amount of traffic and revenue a site will devour if it ranks well for just about anything in Google. It doesn’t take much imagination to predict web owners paying for links and doing everything they can to stay on top of the search rankings—at the expense of giving users the best returns for their search queries. Google naturally doesn’t like this, and they’ve employed Matt Cutts for over a decade to stop it. Cutts’ day-to-day job is to develop ways of finding webspam and paid links, and cutting them (no pun intended) out of Google’s search results.
This is a tremendous task, and you could argue he’s done a fabulous job, which is no doubt why he was invited to speak in Chapel Hill last week. During his talk, Cutts actually stayed clear of the minutia of his work, instead discussing humorous anecdotes while developing Google’s Safety Mode, regrets in not taking more pictures in the early days of the company, and how one develops the nickname “porn cookie guy.”
His stories seemed like those of any young, techie web startup, with the only distinction of course being that Google might be pound-for-pound the most powerful company on the planet, virtually unregulated and able to make or break anyone or any thing that depends on its search tools for business or information. (And for those who might disagree that Google is the world’s most powerful company, where would one go to look up an alternative?)
This was the surreal context to all of Cutts’ stories, how such a relatively small and new company could become so fantastically powerful, dealing with international governments, Right to be Forgotten laws and Chinese Firewalls. When asked what was keeping him at Google, Cutts naturally pointed to these issues—the “making a difference” everyone always talks about but rarely get a chance to act on.
Only on the web would this be possible, and in a way, Cutts’ talk was a microcosm of the atmosphere and energy around the tech hubs in RTP, Durham and Raleigh right now, areas where so much of what’s happening on the internet today is being driven. This obviously had a hand in why Cutts was part of the local series at UNC; it wasn’t necessarily his individual story, but the fact that the web — so much of which is pouring out of the Triangle—allows for stories like his at all in the first place.
The internet has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget how insanely pervasive and powerful of a tool it is, how we haven’t even scratched its surface, how small its origins were just a few years ago.
That is, it’s easy to forget until you talk to someone from Google.