Home Seattle24x7 A Conversation with Google’s Webmaster Central

A Conversation with Google’s Webmaster Central

Google’s Vanessa Fox and Amanda Camp are blazing a cyber-trail here in the Emerald Forest that connects Website owners from around the world with the Internet’s leading trailfinder — the Google search engine. The trailhead begins at Google’s Webmaster Central in Kirkland.

On a coastal map, it’s a long way between the Bay area of Northern California and Washington’s Puget Sound, a jagged line that traces hundreds of miles of rocky beaches, rolling hillsides and towering forests. But on a Google Sitemap, the digital cartography that signposts the navigable points of a Web site for an inquisitive Web spider, the distance between the two all but vanishes.

It’s the same way at the offices of Google, Inc. on the shores of Lake Washington in Kirkland. The flat screen videoconferencing displays that dot the walls of this suburban office park also collapse space and time, connecting Google engineers and product managers in Kirkland with the main office in Silicon Valley’s Mountain View, and to Google cultures in other time zones, from New York to Zurich, Switzerland. These virtual windows on the world of Google pose the question: does time and space even exist in the Googleverse?

Indeed, the notion of a small team of dedicated Google emissaries situated just downwind of volcanic Mount Microsoft is also something of a rip in the local computing fabric when you consider the relative productivity stemming from this small search engine laboratory. It’s not as if Google has raided Microsoft’s Web smarts. Or is it? Google’s Seattle engineering office has launched not only the Sitemaps tool that helps Webmasters analyze the links of their Website’s infrastructure on Google, but also GoogleTalk, the Instant Messaging client, the player elements for Google Video, the Google Firefox toolbar, Google SMS Mobile and a major chunk of Google Maps. The output has been nothing short of astounding.

For Webmasters, the culmination of all of this productivity was the birth of Google’s Webmaster Central just a few weeks ago, a brand new destination on the Web where site owners and builders can find a virtual meeting place or watering hole for Google refreshments. There’s a Webmaster Tools’ compound of statistical and diagnostic resources, including Sitemaps, for increasing a Website’s visibility online. Google’s Webmaster Blog is like the daily journal for news and announcements. Want to talk about it? There’s a Google Discussion Group for communing with others in the Web set. Newcomers will find a Webmaster Help Center and Site Status Wizard that answer questions like “Is my site even being indexed by Google?”

The voice of Webmaster Central, in addition to its ears and eyes belong to not one but two young Google stalwarts, product manager Vanessa Fox and software engineer Amanda Camp. Part community organizers, part trade show ambassadors, part evangelists, recruiters and documentarians, Vanessa and Amanda take on a myriad of roles, including their own special projects during the 20% of the time Google provides to employees to pursue their own work-related passion. We chatted with the two new keepers of the Google Webmaster Central flame to shed some light on Google’s Seattle engineering office and search engine technology at large.

Seattle24x7: When did the two of you first arrive at Google Northwest?
Amanda: At the time I started with Google the Seattle office was still very small. I began in California by working closely with the AdSense engineers in Mountain View who showed me the works, what the codebase was like, and that kind of stuff. In April of 2005, I moved up. Seattle is so very different than Tucson, Arizona, where I grew up and went to college. I love it here.

Vanessa: I actually showed Amanda snow for the first time. As for me, I also started in April of 2005. I’m from California originally and have worked several places, including a start-up here in Seattle’s Pioneer Square as well as the Seattle AOL office before joining up with Google.

Seattle24x7: How did Google Sitemaps get started in Seattle?
Vanessa: It actually traces its roots back to Zurich, Switzerland. Shiva Shivakumar, the director here, started the Zurich office. Sitemaps sort of began as his idea. So Zurich did a lot of the backend, behind the scenes work, and we did a lot of the Webmaster-facing issues. Once we had the the protocol, we started working with Matt Cutts and other engineers in Mountain View focusing on what Webmasters would want from us in terms of tools.

Seattle24x7: Today, Sitemaps has grown into an entire set of Webmaster tools?
Vanessa: We have rebranded Google Sitemaps as Google Webmaster Tools and we’ve launched Webmaster Central. Webmaster Central also features a Blog, a Discussion Group, a Help Center and a lot of other useful information. When we initially referred to all of it as Sitemaps, people didn’t recognize that there were these other resources available. Webmaster Central says it all.

Seattle24x7: What are the Webmaster Tools designed to do?
Amanda: There are a lot of diagnostic resources available so if we’re having any problems crawling a site at all, we can show the Webmaster the exact page, the exact error that is causing the problem. That really helps site owners, because a lot of times we aren’t able to index pages and the owners don’t necessarily know what’s wrong.

Vanessa: The Robots.txt analysis tool is another great resource. We have an analysis tool that Amanda wrote that tells you exactly what’s going on with your Robots.txt file. How we interpret it, and if you make a change, what that might mean. Webmasters can make sure they are effectively managing the way the robots scan and index their sites.

Amanda: There are also a great number of stats available. We show you the keyword queries that your site shows up for and the position that it shows up for those keywords in search results. You can view that data in terms of Web search or by Images or by Country. You can easily see the anchor text terms that people use when they link into your site. If you wonder why you are ranking for a particular word, a word that may not even appear on your site, this will show you why. If the anchor text that links to your site contains that word, you may be ranking for it.

Seattle24x7: What are some of the milestones in terms of products that have come out of Google Kirkland?
Vanessa: GoogleTalk came out of Kirkland, all of the player elements for Google Video. The Google Pack software bundle. The Firefox toolbar. A lot of Maps work is also done out of Kirkland. SMS Mobile.

Amanda: It’s a really productive office and it’s not all people who are brand new to Google. We have a lot of people here who are old-timers, people who used to work in Mountain View and elsewhere. The collaboration is really great.

Seattle24x7: Getting back to Sitemaps, you mentioned that these help Website owners to understand how Google is indexing their site, which pages are included, and if there are any obstacles to correct. What suggestions do you have on the best ways to organize these Sitemaps?
Vanessa: One way to organize a Sitemap is by including frequently updated pages in one Sitemap versus less frequently updates pages in another. That way, when you do make changes, you can easily modify just the Sitemap with changes.

Amanda: Some people organize it simply by directory. You can have a Sitemap listing all the Sitemaps in each sub-directory. For example, all my blog entries are found here.

Vanessa: It’s actually a good idea to organize your Website that way in general. Say you have a lot of personal information. It’s easier to block it out with a robots.txt file if it’s organized in a single directory. If your information is scattered, it becomes a lot harder to include it in a Sitemap or exclude it using robots.txt. Also, a lot of people with very large sites may not realize that you can have more manageable Sitemaps by having an index file that points to each one. In that case, you only have to submit the index file, you don’t have to submit each site map individually.

Amanda: We now even have even more detailed feedback like parsing errors for the individual Sitemaps even if you only submit the index file. So, for example, if you had one million pages on your site, you’d want to use this method since a single Sitemap can only include 50,000 URLs.

Seattle24x7: Are there any misconceptions about Google Sitemaps?
Vanessa: One misconception may be that having a Sitemap will help with ranking of pages in the index. It helps from the standpoint that we can’t index a page we don’t know about, but a Sitemap is just telling us that the page exists and helping us find it. You still need to take into account all of the other SEO factors as far as ranking is concerned.

Also, some people may think that they have to submit a Sitemap to use any of the other tools we have available, but all you actually need to do is provide the URL of your site. There was a post just this morning where someone said they had not yet posted a Sitemap and someone else responded that you have to submit the Sitemap to see all the crawl errors and all the stats. But, honestly, you don’t!

Seattle24x7: Another new tool you have brought out is the preferred domain tool for telling Google how a site should be listed, either with or without the www prefix. Was that created to prevent duplication of content?
Vanessa: What tends to happen is that Webmasters find that some of their pages are indexed using the www and others are indexed under the non-www. When our automated systems go to index the page and links to that page point to both versions, we don’t know whether the site owner wants it to be indexed with www or not. Some people have strong preference one way or another. If there’s a page with a ton of links pointing at it with the non-www and then another page on that site with a bunch of links pointing to it that have the www, the site may end up having some pages of the site indexed with the www and other pages indexed with the non-www. With preferred domain, the site owner can tell us, no, I want all my pages indexed with www.

Seattle24x7: We hear that working for Google allows you to devote 20% of your time to a special project or interest? What does that represent for you two?
Vanessa: I’ve done a variety of things. Mozilla has a Developer Wiki. When they released version 1.5, I wrote some of the developer docs on how to make your Website integrate well with some of the new features of Firefox. That was unrelated to anything I was working on at the time. I just thought it’d be interesting to work with the Mozilla Foundation. <developer.mozilla.com.>

I’ve also done a lot of translation work in-house. We are currently represented in over 18 languages. There is an automated process within Google that takes care of translations for all of our products. There’s actually a Website where, if you speak another language, you can sign up and we’ll show you how to be a volunteer translator. On the lighter side, our volunteers have even done translations into Pig-Latin, Klingon and Elmer Fudd, even Ork.

Amanda: And since Vanessa had to go through the process of having us translated into all those different languages, and she happens to be a very good writer, she documented a lot of the process. For instance, we encountered this problem and that’s how we fixed it. As part of her 20%, she did all that documentation and has helped discover ways to make it more efficient.

Another good example of a special interest is Romanche which is one of the official languages of Switzerland. In practice, there’s a very small number of people left in the world who still speak it. But a Sitemaps engineer thought that Google should be translated into Romanche to help keep the language alive. As part of his 20% , he personally organized a club of Romanche speakers in the Zurich office. They volunteered to help translate the Google.com homepage.

Seattle24x7: There’s a special connection between the Zurich, Swizerland office and Kirkland, considering that was where the Sitemaps protocol first originated?
Vanessa: I had a video meeting with Zurich this morning, although it was evening for them. On Webmaster Central, we have a Discussion Group for each language. Right now, I can only post in the English one. But we have native speakers who are giving us reports on what is being talked about worldwide so we can make sure the input is being heard. We don’t have people who can post at the same rate in each of those languages yet. But the Webmaster Tools, all the Help Center information, all of that is available in all of the languages.

Seattle24x7: And Amanda, how about your 20%?
Amanda: I haven’t done an official 20%. I do a lot of recruiting and a lot of outreach that I consider is part of my 20%. For example, a month ago we had a bunch of students who visited as part of the University of Montana (Western) Upward Bound Program, and I spoke to them about their studies and how much math has helped me. I’ve talked to the WICS at University of Washington’s Tacoma campus and spoken on a panel for University of Washington’s Women in CSE Seminar. I’ve also done recruiting at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and the University of British Columbia”

Seattle24x7: I noticed that you were both wearing Google logoware and Vanessa has a logo with the female gender symbol as part of the Google icon. Is their anything significant about that symbol as it relates to Google and women in particular?
Vanessa: We are very interested in recruiting women, to make sure they are included. In engineering, it is usually very easy to find men and while there are great engineers out there who are women, it can be harder to find women.

Amanda: We are seeing a lot of good people from the University of Washington.

Seattle24x7: Is there a target for the number of people you want to hire in Seattle?
Amanda: We don’t hire for positions. We basically look for good, no, great engineers. And when we find great engineers and great PMs and we realize, yes, we want these people, we then go figure out where they should be exactly.

Seattle24x7: I know Google has Certified AdWords Professionals. Will Google ever have Certified Webmaster professionals?
Vanessa: We definitely want Webmaster Central to be a one-stop shop for information about how we crawl and index sites for our index. We don’t have plans to offer a certification program, but we’d like to offer more and more step-by-step, detailed information, like tutorials.

Seattle24x7: Lastly, Vanessa was spotted at a recent trade show party dressed up as a Sumo wrestler. Rumor had it you went up against your counterpart at Yahoo! So it was Google vs. Yahoo again but this time in a bar brawl?

Vanessa: Yes, Laura from Yahoo was my adversary. And I won. 3 rounds to 1! [24×7]

Larry Sivitz is the Managing Editor of Seattle24x7.