Up to this past week, I had never met Matt. I'd heard about him, of course. One of the early hires at Google. The man who fights the never ending battle of the Spammer. The man who reached out to the webmaster community to try to shed some light into the dark corners of Google's ranking algorithm. When I did meet him at Webmaster World, I was surprised. For a man who literally holds the power of online life and death for many webmasters, Matt's just a really nice guy. He's affable, approachable, self effacing and pretty damn funny. This is not the dark Sith overlord of the Googleplex. This is the kind of guy you'd like to grab a beer with.

I couldn't help but watch with bemusement the phenomenon I'll call the Cult of Cutts at Webmaster World. Matt started by sharing a stage with show organizer Brett Tabke and answered some questions, both from Brett and the audience. The session was packed. I think every single attendee of the show was jammed into the room. The audience's questions tended to be more about life at Google post IPO than about SEO, and this was with the latest effects of the Jagger update still lingering in the air. But what the crowd really wanted to know was what's it like to be a Googlite, and specifically, what's it like to be Matt Cutts. Matt was clearly not on his home turf here. "Ask me anything you want about spam and SEO, but let's steer away from the IPO questions".

What was even more amusing was what happened after the session. I had retreated to the lunch hall to answer some emails. I was one of the few ones in the hall when suddenly a large crowd entered. At the head was Matt. The crowd followed, mesmerized. There were probably 50 people following him. I don't think Matt realized how many were there until he turned around. Then he laughed, rolled up his sleeves and said "I guess we're settling in for awhile." For over an hour, he held court, patiently answered questions and shared insights that were pure gold for the attendant webmasters. As Brett had said in his introduction, next to Larry and Sergey, there's probably no man alive who knows more about the Google algorithm than Matt Cutts. This is the most valuable corporate secret in existence today, and it rests with a man who dressed up as Inigo Montoya for Halloween (Inigo was the Mandy Patinkin character in the Princess Bride). As Matt spoke, the crowd grew, pulling up chairs and hanging on every word. At one point, there were over a hundred people gathered around Matt. There were three sessions going on at the same time, and I suspect they had fewer attendees than Matt's impromptu site clinic.

On behalf of the webmasters and SEO's of the world, I do have to thank Matt. I've talked to other Google employees who have said how much they hate walking around a show like Webmaster World or Search Engine Strategies with Google on their name badge. I don't blame them, they're constantly accosted by webmasters and other attendees and the tones of the conversation can range from sycophantic to downright surly. But Matt seems to relish the contact. He invited all attendees to come up and introduce themselves. He never seemed to get tired of answering questions. He spends a lot of time reaching out to the online community, in person and on his blog. Frankly, Google could use a lot more people like Matt Cutts.

As I sat and pondered what I had seen on the flight home, I realized that this was a demonstration of the immense importance of Google in the online world. A top organic ranking can be worth thousands, or even millions of dollars in business. Power is intoxicating, and few people are as powerful as the ones that are the gatekeepers to Google's index. This was demonstrated during the lunch room session, as an available laptop was offered and a few sites were brought up. "You've gotta look at this one. You're not going to believe it." Soon Matt was peering at the source code. There, all the secrets of a spammer were revealed: 50 title tags, keywords stuffed in comment tags, hidden text. It was a clumsy black hat attempt. As Matt said, "Yes, it's spam, but worse than that, it's stupid". The offending URL was jotted down in a little notebook. A little later I saw him tucked into a quiet corner, hammering away on a laptop. I suspect the site in question was being yanked from the Google index. It was like sticking pins in a kewpie doll. Somewhere in the world, a unsuspecting webmaster was soon to feel a sharp pain in his wallet.

This was a strange new culture. In Webmaster World, anyone who is privy to Google's secrets is a hot commodity. In this ecosystem, Matt Cutts is a brand new oxymoron, the celebrity engineer. Picture it. Matt on stage under the blazing lights, while in the front row, adoring webmasters tear off their Firefox t-shirts, throwing them on stage. With images like this going through my head, it's probably a good thing I'm on a plane right now, heading for home. It's time to leave Webmaster World behind and return to the real world.

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November 29, 2005

Gord Hotchkiss is President and CEO of Enquiro, Canada's leading search engine marketing firm and one of the top firms in North America. His articles are regularly published in both on and off line newsletters, including Marketing Monitor, SEOToday, Marketing and many other trade journals. Enquiro's own information portal is www.searchengineposition.com.

With an extensive 20 year background in the marketing and advertising business, Gord has been working to increase client's search engine visibility since 1996 and has specialized in search engine marketing since 1999.

Search Engine Guide > Gord Hotchkiss > Matt Cutts: Celebrity Google Engineer