Matt Cutts, Google's Celebrity Engineer

My suspicion is that Matt Cutts, senior Google engineer, leads a pretty normal existence most times. Matt can probably walk through most rooms without attracting too much attention. But twice a year, when Matt's in a room, Paris Hilton could walk through in a thong and not get a second glance. Every spring and fall, Matt holds court with his people. They are the Webmasters of the world, and to them, Matt's a rock star.

Up until 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 in Las Vegas, 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 everyone attending 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," he said.

What was even more amusing was what happened after the session. I had retreated to the lunch hall to answer some e-mails. I was one of the few 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 a while." For over an hour, he held court, patiently answering questions and sharing insights.

As Brett had said in his introduction for Matt, 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 movie "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 him. There were three sessions going on at the same time, and I suspect that all together, they had fewer attendees than Matt's impromptu site clinic.

On behalf of the Webmasters and SEOs 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 show attendees, and 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 lunchroom session, as someone mentioned a few sites, taking out a laptop and saying, "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 voodoo doll. Somewhere in the world, an 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 is 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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