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Google’s John Mueller at his session at PubCon Virtual 2023 offered his thoughts on where SEO is or should be going for the future, beginning with diversity in SEO hiring practices.

On Diversity in SEO

John Mueller’s first point was encouragement for more diversity. It didn’t really emphasize race but rather just diversity in general.

Here’s what Mueller said:

“I think the first one is something that’s really dear on my heart, is all about diversity in SEO. And this is something that from my point of view is something that you should be thinking about not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because it can really positively affect your business.”

What wasn’t emphasized in his keynote was that diversity makes sense because hiring people on merit rather than because they “fit in” results in a better workforce.

This theme of diversity in hiring isn’t about giving preference based on race, age, sex, sexual orientation, and so on.

Diversity is about removing the biases that prevent a company from hiring the best qualified people: It’s about truly hiring on merit. 

I personally know of a highly experienced individual with decades of programming experience for big brand companies who could not find a programming job because of his age.

He told me that the hiring process would proceed all the way to the in-person interview that’s where it would grind to a stop.

None of the organizations he applied to wanted to hire a person in their late fifties.

Here are Mueller’s talking points:

“More diversity doesn’t mean less for you.

More diversity is critical because…

you will hear new & different insights

your sites will work better for everyone

…last but not least: it’s the right thing.


In my opinion, it’s more than the “right thing” to hire a diverse workforce because this isn’t about ethics or morality. It’s the right thing to do because it’s smart to hire experienced and smart people based on merit.

John Mueller recommended:

“…make sure that you get different viewpoints, you get a little bit different backgrounds of people who are looking at your site and really making sure that what you’re building is something that is a little bit more stable because you’re kind of covering all the different angles there.

So my recommendation there would be to really actively work on this.”

Diversity in SEO

When I started in SEO, the web conferences were dominated by white males with some women in the mix. Today conferences seem to be evenly split between the sexes and I see more diversity in the ages and so on, which is a good thing because it means that people are being hired on merit.

In my opinion, hiring diversity is about removing unconscious biases in order to be be open to hiring people on merit, hiring people who are truly prepared, worthy and well qualified.


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Google’s John Mueller On Penalty Recovery

Two Kinds of Manual Actions

John Mueller describes two kinds of manual actions, one more severe than the other.

Complete removal of a site from search and from indexing

Partial removal from search

John Mueller’s description helps clarify that manual actions differ.

Complete Removal From Google

The first kind of penalty that John Mueller discussed is the harshest. It results in the complete removal from the search results and also a removal from indexing. This kind of penalty results in a situation where the site does not exist at all for Google.

History of Google Penalties and PageRank

When Google’s PageRank Toolbar functioned, the toolbar would show green in the bar-style meter to indicate the level of PageRank it had accrued. The meter was arranged on a score of 1 – 10.

If a web page had zero PageRank assigned to it, then the PageRank meter would show a white bar. This was referred to as being White Barred. Being White Barred meant either that you didn’t have enough links to register any PageRank or that your PageRank had been reset to zero.

The worst sign that the PageRank toolbar could show you is a gray bar. A gray bar meant that your site did not exist at Google, that you were completely banned from Google’s index.

This meant that Google no longer crawled the website. This also meant that Google no longer showed the banned site in the search results if you searched with the name of the site or with random snippets from the site.

This type of manual penalty was called being “Gray Barred.” It was the absolute worst penalty.

Gray Barred: Google’s Worst Manual Penalty

Being gray barred was the worst situation to be in. A webmaster would remove all links to a web page should they discover it was gray barred.

The search community would treat your site as if it had a communicable disease. Right or wrong, it was taken as a given that any site that linked to multiple gray barred sites would soon see it’s own PageRank meter go gray.

John Mueller on a Severe Manual Penalty

The historical experience about being gray barred matches what John Mueller described when he discussed Google’s most severe manual penalty.

Here is how Google’s John Mueller described a severe penalty:

“On the one hand, we only remove pages completely from search with a manual action if there’s really something problematic on those pages.

And in cases like that… it’s really a strong sign across the board where we look at that website and think there’s really very little value in us investing any resources in indexing content from this website, because it looks like a complete copy from somewhere else, or it’s just scraping or spun content… then we’ll usually completely remove it from search.

And when that happens we… stop showing it in the search results, which is kind of the visible part. And… we stop indexing it in search.

So essentially over time we don’t have this website in our index at all.”

Recovery from a Severe Manual Penalty

Once that manual penalty is removed, in my experience from almost twenty years of doing penalty recoveries, the first indication is that the site can be found in Google for their domain name.

One of the most rewarding feelings I experienced as a consultant was from one of my firsty clients I helped in a penalty recovery. They emailed to tell me that everyone in the office was shouting in joy because they saw their site return in Google’s search results for their domain name.

That experience, of a site’s presence returning to Google’s search results matches how John Mueller described when discussing what happens after a penalty is lifted.

Google on what happens after a penalty is removed:

“If that manual action is removed, so for instance if you take over a domain that has a manual action like this and you clean it up or you start fresh with new content and you submit a reconsideration request then what will happen is first we’ll have to start indexing this website again; and that can take a bit of time.

So that can easily take… a couple of weeks for us to start picking up content from this website and saying… this is actually good content, we’ll start indexing this again. We’ll start showing it in the search results.”

The White Bar Penalty

The White Bar penalty is a situation where a site isn’t completely removed from the search results or the index. Google’s PageRank toolbar showed zero PageRank and this was expressed on the PageRank meter with the color white. This situation was called being White Barred.

The white color meant that a site is indexed but does not have PageRank assigned to it. This was a bad situation. Not as bad as being gray barred, but still bad.

It was bad because it meant the site lost rankings for all meaningful keyword phrases. It wouldn’t necessarily lose all rankings, but it would lose rankings for the most important phrases.

The white bar was also treated as a communicable disease. A webmaster would immediately remove any link to another site if that site started showing a white bar.

The idea was that there was something wrong with a white bar site and that any site that linked to it would eventually become untrusted and also acquire a white bar and lose rankings.

John Mueller on the Less Severe Penalty

Here is how John Mueller describes recovery from a less severe penalty:

“On the other hand, if this is a manual action that doesn’t result in the page or the site being removed completely from search, then usually that’s something that’s just a matter of us recrawling, reprocessing those pages so that we understand that things are ok now.

We can rank it normally after the reconsideration request has been… processed properly.

So usually those are the types of changes that are a little bit faster to be seen than the changes where we remove a website completely from search.”

Do Sites Remain Untrusted After a Penalty is Lifted?

There are some who feel that a site will be in a sandboxed state after the penalty is lifted.

Here is how John Mueller describes it:

“It’s not the case that our algorithms would hold a grudge or that they would say well this website had a manual action a year ago therefore I’m never going to trust it again.

When these manual actions are cleaned up we will treat the website as it is.”

Sometimes a site’s rankings return after the penalty is lifted. Sometimes the rankings do not return and the site is essentially starting from day one, like a brand new website. Why does this happen?

As far as I know, Google has not issued an explanation about these two types of recovery. My opinion, based on my almost two decades of experience in helping sites recover, is that once a manual penalty has been removed, a site is ranking where it’s supposed to rank based on the content and/or links.

For example, if the problem was due to bad links, a site would continue to rank well if it had enough quality links remaining after the bad links were removed.

If the problem was content, then the site would return if the low quality content or doorway pages were removed and the remaining content had enough links and was of a good quality.

It’s not the case that our algorithms would hold a grudge or that they would say well this website had a manual action a year ago therefore I’m never going to trust it again.

When these manual actions are cleaned up we will treat the website as it is.”

Takeaway: Penalty Recoveries Differ

It’s important to understand the differences between manual penalties. It’s also important to understand the difference between a manual penalty and a change in the algorithm that results a ranking demotion. The solution required to help a site recover depends on an accurate diagnosis.

Watch the Google Hangout here.

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Images by Shutterstock, Modified by Author

Google’s John Mueller On Featured Snippets Ranking Factors

What is a Featured Snippet?

A featured snippet is a summary that answers a search engine user’s query. It’s particularly useful for users on a mobile device as well as those using voice search. One can grumble about these kinds of results not sending traffic but they do send some traffic. The pragmatic approach is that someone’s going to benefit from that traffic so it may as well be you.

When Does Google Show a Featured Snippet?

Google shows a featured snippet when their algorithm recognizes that a search query is a question. Here’s what Google’s featured snippet support page says:

“When we recognize that a query asks a question, we programmatically detect pages that answer the user’s question, and display a top result as a featured snippet in the search results.”

That is an important clue for ranking in the featured snippets. If you want to be shown as a featured snippet, think about what problem your content is solving then create at least a paragraph of content that answers a specific question. Be sure to add images and mark them up with structured data in order to fully communicate what that image is about and how it relates to the content.

What Ranking Factors are Used for Featured Snippets?

The question asked if the E-A-T factors described in Google’s Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines played a role in ranking a page for featured snippets. E-A-T means Expertise, Authority, and Trustworthiness. This is what E-A-Te means according to Google’s Search Quality Evaluators Guidelines:

MC quality and amount, website information, and website reputation all inform the E­A­T of a website.”

John Mueller at first appeared to not understand the reference to “eat” when he heard it and said so. But during the course of answering the question appeared to have figured it out and said this about a website’s authority:

“Generally speaking it’s not the case because you have an important website that we’re automatically including everything that you write as a featured snippet.”

It’s not clear if John Mueller is specifically addressing the E-A-T portion of the question. But his answer does address the issue of Expertise, Authority and Trustworthiness in that he specifically says that a website’s importance does not automatically make it’s content eligible for ranking in the featured snippets.

What Makes a Site Rank in Featured Snippets

Authority of a site is not a ranking factor. Now we know what does not make a site rank. John Mueller goes on to discuss what factor does plays a role. Here is what he said:

“We look at a number of factors when it comes to featured snippets. Part of that is… relevance to understand what makes sense to show to users for individual queries.”

John Mueller said there are a number of factors for ranking in featured snippets. Among those factors is relevance to a user’s question. The first step toward ranking in a featured snippets is understanding if a statement or paragraph answers a users search query.

It’s important to note that answering a search query question is not the only ranking factor. And it’s useful to understand that a site’s “importance” does not play a role.

What Other Factors Help a Page Rank for Featured Snippets?

John Mueller doesn’t say what the other factors are. We can only surmise by examining featured snippets and identifying similarities between featured snippets. Whie it may seem that an image may help a site rank a featured snippet, particularly step by step images, sometimes Google ranks the content from one page while ranking the images from another page.

Takeaway for Featured Snippets Rankings

The first important takeaway is that the importance of a site does not make it more eligible for ranking in the featured snippets. The second takeaway is that the content must answer a search query. When creating content, I ask myself what problem is this content solving and how would a user formulate a search query to solve this problem.  Watch this segment of the Webmaster Hangout here.

More resources

Images by Shutterstock, Modified by Author

Google’s John Mueller On Affiliate Links In Ymyl Topics

In a Google Webmaster Hangout, Google’s John Mueller was asked if affiliate links in websites dealing with sensitive topics were being targeted. John Mueller answered the question then expanded his answer to address how Google handles all affiliate sites in general.

Does Google Target Affiliate Sites?

This has been a topic of discussion since the early days of SEO. As far back as the early 2000’s affiliates suspected that Google had a bias against affiliate sites.

There is a long history of a belief in a Google bias against affiliate sites.

Background on Google Targeting Affiliate Site Theory: Affiliates Hid their Affiliate Links

SEOs responded to this rumor by hiding their affiliate links. The idea was that if Google didn’t see the affiliate links then the site wouldn’t be penalized.

SEOs Hid Affiliate Links with JavaScript

One method of hiding links was to mask them via JavaScript then robot text block the folder where the JavaScript was being called from. That way Google couldn’t see the link.

Affiliates Hid Affiliate Links with Redirects

Another way was to pass the affiliate link through a redirect that was also blocked to Google.

Rumor that Affiliate Algorithm Applied to AdSense Sites

It was also rumored that the same algorithm that targeted affiliate sites was later used by Google to target low quality websites known as Made for AdSense (MFA) sites.

Matt Cutts Confirms Google Identifies Affiliate Links

In a 2012 interview, within the context of a question about nofollow and affiliate links, Matt Cutts confirmed that Google can identify affiliate links and “handles” them. By handling them, he presumably means that Google is able to prevent them from passing PageRank.

He states that Google knows the big networks and can handle them on their side (watch video here).

That was not an admission that Google was targeting affiliate sites. It was only an admission that Google was targeting the affiliate links themselves in order to prevent them from passing PageRank.

Sensitive Topics and Affiliate Links

The question asked of John Mueller was about sites focused on sensitive topics that also contained affiliate links. This may be a reference to Your Money or Your Life (YMYL) topics.

Affiliate Links on YMYL Topics

YMYL topics are those that can impact a person’s life. These are topics in finance, medical, legal, banking and so on.

The question asked:

“What’s the impact of affiliate links when mixed with content targeting sensitive topics?”

John Mueller Affirms the Importance of Site Quality

John Mueller responded that it was not about how the transaction occurs. It’s all about the quality of the site.

“As far as I know we don’t explicitly go into the site and say well there are links that look like affiliate links therefore we will treat this website as being lower quality.

In general, the main issues that I see with regards to affiliate websites is that they tend to just be lower quality websites.

So it’s not so much a matter of where the check out flow is but rather that overall the content is often kind of low quality and because of the low quality content that’s something that our algorithms might pick up on and say this is probably not the most relevant result to show in the search results.”

John Mueller affirmed that it’s possible for an affiliate site to rank well if it is the best result for a query.

“And there can be really high quality affiliate websites as well which are good to show in the search results.

So it’s not so much a matter of is there an affiliate link or not but rather like what about the rest of the website? Is this something that would be relevant to show to users or is there something perhaps problematic there?”

Affiliate Links and YMYL Topics

John Mueller then confirmed that this approach to affiliate sites was across the board:

“I think at least as far as I know that would apply across the board so it wouldn’t really matter what the specific topic area is of the website.

But in general there are some really good affiliate sites and there are some really really terrible affiliate sites. So it’s more a matter of is a site good or is a site terrible?”

John Mueller made it clear that Google does not target sites because they have affiliate links regardless of the topic. Although John Mueller did not specifically mention YMYL topics, he said this applies across the board, which obviously includes YMYL topics.

Google’s Official Policy on Affiliate Sites

Google has a developer page about affiliate sites. John Mueller’s statement agrees with what is stated there:

Good affiliates add value, for example by offering original product reviews, ratings, navigation of products or categories, and product comparisons. If you participate in an affiliate program, there are a number of steps you can take to help your site stand out and differentiate your site…

It’s clear that Google does not target affiliate sites, regardless of the topic. Affiliate sites are judged using the same criteria as any other site.

Watch the Google  Hangout here:

Google’s Mueller On Ranking Impact Of Poor Html, Spelling And Grammar

Google’s John Mueller answered a question about the impact of poor HTML, spelling and grammar on search rankings. He gave two answers because HTML is a technical issue and spelling and grammar are quality issues that can impact the user experience.

The question:

“Do Google’s search algos check the broken HTML or spelling mistakes or grammatical mistakes, taking into account the search ranking?”

Some questions have a clear answer and John Mueller will typically answer right away.

For this question John Mueller paused to think a moment before answering.

Impact of Broken HTML on Search Rankings

He answered first about broken HTML, explaining that HTML has to be so broken that Google can’t make sense of it.


“Those are kind of different situations. Uh… for the most part we don’t care about HTML if it’s broken or not.

Most of the web does not have valid HTML and we have to live with it.

The main exceptions that I know of with regard broken HTML is if it’s really broken in a very bad way in the sense that if we can’t recognize that a page is mobile friendly.

Or if we can’t recognize that this is a title or a heading then obviously we can’t do a lot of things with the HTML.

That’s …kind of the one case there and usually those kinds of broken pages are very broken in the browser too.

So if you look at the page and they don’t even load properly then probably you need to fix that.

However if you look at the page and it looks normally in the browser, then even if there’s broken HTML probably that’s okay.”

Poor Spelling and Grammar are Quality Issues

Next John Mueller answered the second part of the question that dealt with poor spelling and grammar in the context of search performance.

He notes that poor spelling grammar is something that users see and thus becomes a quality issue.


“With regard to spelling errors, grammatical errors, I think that’s something that’s a bit more of almost like a gray zone in that on the one hand we have to be able to recognize what a page is about.

And if we can’t recognize that because there’s so many errors on the page in the text, then that makes it harder.

The other aspect is also that we try to find really high quality content on the web and sometimes it can appear that a page is lower quality content because it has a lot of …kind of… grammatical and technical mistakes in the text.

So that’s something where from my point of view if you’re aware of these kinds of issues I would just fix that.

I would almost say …like… spelling and grammar is probably for most websites a higher priority than broken HTML.

But it’s …I mean…it’s really hard to compare because they’re very different things in that one is more of a technical issue (the HTML side) and the other is more almost like a quality issue and something that users tend to see so it’s like kind of different things.”

Ranking Impact of Broken HTML, Bad Spelling and Poor Grammar

HTML has to be very bad before it impacts rankings because it makes it difficult for Google to make sense of the web page because it can’t identify page elements like titles and headings or even to identify where the content is.

HTML that doesn’t conform to web standards is normal and Google (and web browsers) can make sense of that.

John Mueller provided a rule of thumb test that if a web page can’t be rendered well in a web browser then it’s probably needs fixing.

Next Mueller explained that bad spelling and poor grammar can impact rankings because it impacts users and is thus a quality issue.

That’s kind of similar to his answer in another Office Hours hangout about auto-translated content that results in awkward grammar and would probably have a tough time ranking because of quality issues.


Watch John Mueller answer question about broken HTML, bad spelling and poor grammar at about the 15 minute mark

Are You On An Seo Honeymoon?

I don’t know whether you ever get this thought when touring the web, but there are some sites that I think ‘I wish I could get my hands on it!’…where you can see that SEO hasn’t even been given a second thought, but where great gains could be made from a few simple improvements! 

This would be the honeymoon period: simple changes and fast results.

Honeymoon: Fast Results

I know I have seen and worked on a number of sites where I can see that a couple of relatively straight-forward changes would make a huge difference…

Simple changes and fast results can be from things like:

Title tag optimisation

Semantically structuring the text on each page

Dropping images for CSS and floating text

Internal linking structures and anchor text optimisation

Installing an analytics package (and analysing the results of course).

Keyword research and analysis – site-wide and page-by-page

Including a clear call-to-action

…the simplicity of implementing these examples naturally varies, and might quite obviously depend on the CMS’s versatility, for instance but these are examples of items to look out for.

Honeymoon: An Untapped Resource

So, OK, you take on a new project…what happens next?  Some sites have a whole host of resources and a genuine USP that nobody knows about…whereby the owners have followed the principle ‘build-it and they will come’!  Well, it’s not always as simple as that, so a little bit of promo and improved onsite management could go a long way.  The results from this might be impressive but how are you going to sustain them and naturally manage this client relationship.  The SEO honeymoon period could have a sting in the tail.  So what can you do about it?

The honeymoon is over

You’ve made the site more accessible, you’ve tackled some duplicate content issues, the site is developing a clearer landing page strategy, the keyword research is paying off and the results have been tremendous in such little time…now the real work begins! 

You now need to ensure that you can maintain a return on investment that warrants keeping you in a job. 

Educate the client in the process

How does SEO, social media, link-building, online PR etc  work together for longevity of results?  How will the results look in 6, 12, 24 months…can you even begin to lay down targets here?

Expectations management –some quick wins but these should not be devalued just because they were quick.  The long-term results will be where the real profits (for both parties) are made.

What you are reporting on and how this can feed in to planning decisions.

Transparency in Result Aspirations: Good and Bad

Talk them through the initial quick-wins.  Be honest.  Maintaining credible and justified results through transparent planning is a great way to develop your client relationship. 

Budgetary management

Following the honeymoon period, results may slow and as a result reducing CPA’s (cost per account / purchase / sign-up) may stall.  It’s worth being mindful of this early-on because it will help work out where your budgets are best aligned to maintain some of this growth.  Ploughing all your budgets in to front-end activity, without planning for when and where longer-term results will come from could be disastrous for longer-term CPA’s and end the honeymoon period with a thump, as you’re kicked out of bed.  This naturally depends on a regular review of which account metrics are the short-term and long-term priority.

Importantly though, be proactive. 

You can work to build more momentum with this growth and extend your honeymoon period.  Just because you see some easy results coming your way, you can quite easily maintain this growth in results (if the niche has the volume), if you remember one thing…visibility breeds visibility. 

So, ask yourself, how are you going to capitalise on this increased exposure?

An increase in the volumes and frequency of the people that see you in the SERPs means a greater brand awareness, the more people that talk about your brand, and the more people that cite your website.  Easy.  Both traditional and digital forms of marketing work on this cumulative, multiplier principle.

Oh, but in reality…

Even the fast results don’t come easily.  Taking on a new client, involves a great deal of work for both a freelance SEO consultant and a team of SEO’s working on behalf of corporate clients.  At the very least you need to put time into:

Aligning, integrating and understanding each other’s data, management systems and analysis techniques.

Agreeing on targets, strategy and tactics.

And merging two (often) very different cultural worlds.

…so this whole SEO Honeymoon period is over-rated right?  Well, no, not really…great results are of course very achievable quite quickly, but they’re even greater if you can put a plan in place to maintain their growth, that’s all.

Are you suffering from a honeymoon hangover?  Put yourself down as an ‘Anon’ and share your thoughts below…

Ben McKay is a SEO Manager for Mediaedge:cia / WPP,  and writes about managing SEO and social media projects over at his blog, Just Me and My.  Say hello to Ben on Twitter.

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