Every now and then there is a post about search which should make every SEO consultant stand up and take notice. Recently, Distilled’s Will Critchlow created one such piece of content when he created a Whiteboard Friday for Moz, about the lessons he learned from interviewing Google’s John Mueller.
The Whiteboard Friday covers a range of topics including Domain Authority, subdomains vs subfolders and a take on using noindex/nofollow. Here’s my roundup and thoughts based on the piece:
John Mueller is the Senior Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google and he’s always prepared to be super helpful when it comes to questions about how Google is treating things differently from a technical SEO perspective.
As with any feedback from a Google employee about SEO we should always be cautious and understand that we’re probably not always getting the full story, however, Mueller is respected and I get the impression he wants to help.
What does Google think about Domain Authority?
Domain Authority has so long been standard terminology in the SEO industry that it’s hard to remember that this is an industry term created by Moz and not a industry term created by Google. Of course, back in the day, we used to talk about PageRank – and it’s a similar metric and concept – but those days have long gone. So does Google even use a concept like Domain Authority?
The great news is Mueller confirmed that Google does have a metric that operates at the domain level that’s similar to Moz’s proprietary metric. Critchlow managed to qualify this further in getting Mueller to confirm this is based on “things like link authority” and is used as a metric to “rank content across an entire domain.”
I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by this one but it is good to have the confirmation. Every time we set a piece of content live it automatically ranks so it must be getting some trust signals from somewhere in order to outrank some content. Discussing this, Critchlow said: “John confirmed that until they have some of those metrics developed, when they’ve seen a bit of content for long enough, and it can have its own link metrics and usage metrics, in the intervening time up until that point it can inherit some of this stuff from the domain.”
Interestingly though, Mueller went on to say that this isn’t simply a link-based metric like PageRank was, so we should expect things like sitewide and probably root user metrics also come into play when Google ranks a new piece of content. I still feel far too many marketers and SEO consultants ignore the impact of user metrics on rankings.
What does Google think about subdomains vs Subfolders?
I can’t even think how many times I’ve had to deal with this headache. I’ve had countless conversations about the need for a new part of a site to go on a subdomain vs the benefits of putting it in a subfolder. Personally, I’m a subfolder kind of guy, but I recognise there are some times when that’s not always feasible. I’ve seen the benefits of migrating content from a subdomain to a subfolder in the past as well and there are plenty of case studies out there to show similar things.
Although Google has consistently said they don’t treat things differently, Mueller confirmed that Google has seen the case studies out there and went on to clarify that Google attempts to ascertain “what belongs to this site.” Interestingly, he went on to link it back to his earlier Domain Authority answer by saying they try to work if it’s part of the same website as the root domain or if it’s a completely different website.
I suppose the most obvious way to think about this is websites built on a subdomain of WordPress.com, there are probably millions of those kinds of websites but hardly any of them will relate back to WordPress – other than the fact they’re built in that CMS.
So if Google thinks the content is part of the same website, they will treat it in the same way they treat the website as a whole. But, perhaps crucially Mueller wouldn’t say how an SEO consultant could tell if the content on a subdomain was being treated any differently than content in a subfolder. Clearly, the best advice is to put your content in a subfolder whenever possible.
Why does noindex have a nofollow impact?
A while ago Mueller said that if you noindex a page eventually Google would treat the links in that content as a nofollow. I’m not sure that I would have asked this question if I had John Mueller in front of me, but I’m glad Critchlow did because it provides an interesting perspective on the way Google treats content.
It’s not hugely technical SEO, but it’s probably something a lot of SEO consultancies wouldn’t think about. Noindex is an HTML directive that suggests that Google shouldn’t include the page of content in its index, but used alone – or with a follow directive – doesn’t stop Google from following the links on that page. It can be used in conjunction with the nofollow directive which would stop the page passing link juice. Nofollow can also be used on individual links, which is handy if you trying to prevent it from looking like you’re building a network of interlinked content.
About 5 or 6 years ago I was all about ‘PageRank sculpting’. I’d be creating websites and content and putting a lot of those noindexed pages in place and then nofollowing various links in order to maximise the importance of the follow links on a page. It was all a bit spammy really looking back at it. We were doing it to benefit the search engines without impacting the user experience which is never a good way of doing things. Times change.
Apparently, it’s been this way for a long time. As much as Critchlow was surprised we didn’t know about it, Mueller was said to be surprised it would be considered a big deal – after all no one had noticed it so who would care?
You can learn more from the write up of the conversation here at Distilled.