AMA with Google’s Gary Illyes: 15 quick SEO takeaways


Google’s Gary Illyes fielded several questions during an AMA at Pubcon Pro in Austin this afternoon from moderator Jennifer Slegg. Here are some of the highlights of the interview.

1. Does Google use user click data in ranking?

“Technically, yes,” Illyes said. This is because historical search data is part of RankBrain. 

2. Unlaunches happen ‘a lot’

Things change a lot (emphasis his) in search ranking at Google, Illyes said. What is true for ranking today could be wrong in two weeks. 

Google is known for experimenting with Search – and noted that it’s very hard to keep track of launches and “unlaunches,” adding that these unlaunches happen “a lot.” 

This makes sense when you consider Google rolled out 5,000 changes to Search in 2021 and ran a total of 800,000 experiments. 

3. Factors vs. signals vs. systems

The main difference between factors and signals is just language, Illyes said. At one point, they wanted people to differentiate between them. 

Ranking systems are more complex – this is when Google takes multiple signals (e.g., from crawling and indexing data) and ranks them. Ranking systems are also more “stable than signals,” Illyes said. 

4. Why Google doesn’t index everything

In short, the Internet is “insanely big,” Illyes said. There are probably hundreds of trillions of webpages that Google has sight of – but there are even more than that Google can’t access (e.g., content behind a login page).

  • “There is virtually no storage you can use to index all of them. It’s not possible to index it in a way you can serve it,” Illyes said. 

5. You don’t have to label AI content for Google

Labeling AI content is not necessary for Google search – “I don’t think we care” – Illyes said. But he suggested labeling it if your users would appreciate it. 

Humans can cause more trouble than AI on certain topics, Illyes noted. He reiterated once again that Google doesn’t care how content is created – by AI, human or both.

“As long as I will learn from it, learn correct information, why would it matter?” Illyes said. 

6. AI content = no typos

One thing Illyes noticed while analyzing the output of ChatGPT and generative AI tools is that it doesn’t have typos.

  • “Computers don’t make mistakes unless they were instructed to,” he said.

7. Why niche sites were impacted by helpful content update

When it comes to helpful content, niche sites often don’t fall into a category Google is looking to promote. To be clear, here Illyes was not referring to all types of niche sites, he was mostly talking about affiliate-type of niche sites that are heavily money-driven.

8. You can see gains between core updates

If your site is impacted by a Google core update, you should start working on things that could help your site improve and get pushed back up in Search results.

  • “Maybe the next core update will help you more. Don’t think of updates in isolation. We’re using hundreds of signals to rank pages,” Illyes said.

He said waiting and holding your breath between core updates would be bad for your website’s health. 

While many websites removed comment sections and forums in the past 10 years, Illyes said that comments can be good. 

  • “Especially if I know the site has a strict rule about how users can behave on the site, then I would trust info from those users more,” Illyes said.

Illyes didn’t say comments are a ranking signal. He was more saying this from his own perspective. And it was an interesting insights, especially considering how moderated user-generated sites like Reddit and Quora have seen gains following recent Google updates.

10. Google will keep launching updates in December

Google will continue to release updates during the holidays – Google used to avoid doing this, but Illyes called that an “old thing.” 

  • “The problem is around that time, everyone tries to manipulate search results. With these updates we’re trying to course correct. I don’t think we should stop releasing updates in that period of time. Honestly I would hope that the updates will actually help you rank better if you were not trying do manipulate search results.”

11. Core Web Vitals = low priority

Short but sweet: 

  • “If you don’t have anything better to do on your site, go do Core Web Vitals. Most sites won’t see benefit playing around with it,” Illyes said.

12. No voice data in GSC

Illyes said it was too difficult to get voice search data and doesn’t see a reason to add it to Google Search Console. He said it would take a “considerable amount of engineering time” to expose that data. 

13. Expired domain signals are not inherited

If a domain expires, and somebody buys that domain, any signals the site had accumulated will not be transferred to the new domain owner. Google knows when a domain expires. 

So if you bought an expired domain and tried to rebuild it (e.g., by getting all the content from Wayback Machine), you would be building the site from scratch, as if it were a new domain. 

From Google’s perspective, it would be “pretty stupid” to rely on H1-6 tags for understanding order and hierarchy of content, Illyes said. 

He suggested using a screen reader on your site to make sure the content doesn’t “read wrong.” Use H tags where you need to use them, where it makes sense, Illyes said.

Links are not a “top 3” ranking signal and hasn’t been “for some time,” Illyes said, adding that there really isn’t a universal top 3. 

It’s absolutely possible to rank without links, Illyes said, citing an example of a page with zero internal or external links that he knew of that was ranking Position 1 on Porsche cars – and Google had only found the page via a sitemap.

Content continues to be the number one ranking signal.

  • “Without content it literally is not possible to rank. If you don’t have words on page you’re not going to rank for it. Every site will have something different as the top 2 or 3 ranking factors,” Illyes said.

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