Clickbait headlines have infiltrated our society in a negative fashion and has become quite pervasive and unfortunately persuasive. What is worse is when those headlines aren’t clicked upon and read, but instead scrolled past with the headline taken as fact without reading the entire article.
For example, we’ll get tidbits from Googlers like John Mueller such as a recent comment about how W3C validation doesn’t impact search results. Had you just read the headline, “Google’s John Mueller: We Do Not Use W3C Validation in Search Results,” you would have thought that was the end of the conversation.
Without clicking on the article and reading it myself, I immediately recognized what was going on here. Just because Mueller stated that W3C validation doesn’t impact search results, doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact the result of crawling your website or how well your website’s structure is developed. Someone who doesn’t read between the lines isn’t going to pick that up.
This article will look at a few times John has provided more information about whether a topic or factor is or is not considered in search results or how to approach a situation. The goal is to investigate the language being used within the clickbait headlines and how it is reported on by third-parties such as SEO news websites.
The goal is to hopefully get others to understand how important it is to read articles and dissect the information to make better conclusions. Generally, this is a return to mid-level high school contextual critical thinking by looking at four different articles that have cited responses with John Mueller of Google.
What are Clickbait Headlines?
Clickbait is a form of false advertisement or misleading headlines which influence the user to click on the headlines to visit the page. This is done so with deceptive and over-sensationalized headlines.
Article #1: “Google’s John Mueller: We Do Not Use W3C Validation in Search Results”
The first article and comment is reported on by Search Engine Journal. This clickbait headline is very clear: “W3C Validation is not used as a factor in search results.” That seems simple enough.
If you do not know what W3C validation is, it is a tool that helps validate HTML code to help uncover potential warnings and errors that might make it more difficult to render a web page. Having valid HTML code on your website can help your website load more consistently across different browsers and devices.
Beyond the Headline
If you click on the article, you’ll learn that the original question posed to Mueller was “whether W3C validation errors could slow down the time it takes to download a page.”
Initially, this question stated to have nothing to do with whether W3C Validation mattered to search results. The question asked if HTML errors took more time to download a page. The assumption here is not if the page took longer to download in a browser, but with Googlebot.
It just so happens that Mueller decided to elaborate more fully:
“In general, the W3C validation is something that we do not use when it comes to search. So you don’t need to worry if your pages kind of meet the validation bar or not. However, using the validation is a great way to double check that you’re not doing anything broken on your site.” (Source)
The “broken-ness” referred to here is meant to help the admin understand if the website has the capability to load properly, which can impact how well the site is crawled. Meaning: if there are obstacles in Googlebot’s way when it crawls a page, it can hinder how well it crawls your site or how often. Therefore, the key meaning in this article is not truly laid-out: Understanding the difference between when a Google employee says that a factor doesn’t impact search results doesn’t mean it doesn’t impact the crawl.
Furthermore, it’s important to understand that W3C validation can the website load properly for the user first and foremost. Lastly, W3C Validation also has ADA Compliance and AIRA factors which may assist those who need additional assistance to interact with websites and applications.
Article #2: “When John Mueller Of Google Is Frustrated A Site Not Ranking Well”
First, this clickbait headline is grammatically incorrect. It’s missing an “is” between “site” and “not.” Double-whammy.
However, this article is from Search Engine Roundtable and is mostly a quote from John referring to a question by James Bradley from a Hangout where he asked about how to recover from a drop in rankings nearly one year prior.
Beyond the Headline
What to make of this: even a seasoned Google employee with insider information can be stumped by their own algorithm. This makes me feel better about being in the SEO industry.
We’re all humans dealing with the results of machines and software developed by humans. Ideally something is going to go wrong or we’re not going to understand the results and factors that make up the results.
John is showing that he needs another set of eyes to get help on something he can’t seem to figure out. This is sign of a truly mature adult who takes his craft seriously and is asking for help when something is beyond his own understanding.
Article #3: “Google Says Don’t Focus on how it Defines Content Quality”
This article is from Edgy.app and the clickbait headline insinuates for website administrators to not focus on how Google defines quality.
The problem with this headline is how it uses “Google” instead of John Mueller. It is true that John Mueller is a subject matter expert who is speaking on behalf of Google, but this is not Google speaking.
Generally, this headline is stating that Google’s definition of quality has no factor on search rankings.
Beyond the Headline
A user asked:
“What is quality content in Google’s eyes? If two people are writing on the same content, it’s possible they have a different opinion on the same thing. Then how does Google decide which one is better?”
This is a fantastic question! How does Google determine which article is of more quality, even if they come to different conclusions? John’s response:
So instead of trying to work back how Google’s algorithms might be working, I would recommend trying to figure out what your users are actually thinking and doing things like user studies…
Google has discussed the importance of authority through the initialism of EAT in the past. However, that initialism doesn’t tell you how to express experience, authority, and trust. Essentially, the author can assume their content is relevant and provides value to the user, but only the user will be able to make that determination.
For years there has been an assumed correlation between quality content and word length. But a thousand word article doesn’t prove that the article is of high quality. That’s just an example of how even known correlations do not exactly equate to quality.
Then again, even if your article is more relevant it may not necessarily mean that is resonates with the user or solves the problem they might be experiencing. That is why John recommends user testing to understand what it is the user attempt to solve.
But that still doesn’t answer the question which even John doesn’t respond to exactly: what if two articles about the same thing have different findings or results? I truly believe that this isn’t something that should be left for Google to answer because it’s subjective. Instead, having a diverse set of ideas that are well researched and backed by evidence is valuable to the user and society. This is a situation where Google is merely a tool to the user to find options and it is up to the user to decide what is and isn’t important to their search.
Article #4: “Google’s John Mueller: ~2/3rds Of What He Says Is Taken Out Of Context”
I saved the best for last.
This clickbait headline from Search Engine Roundtable states that 2/3rds of what John Mueller says is taken out of context. On the surface, especially after writing about the first three examples, I could say this is accurate. Since we’re discussing how the culture of clickbait headlines may be a detrimental form of communication, I think this quite a meta way of concluding this investigation.
Beyond the Headline
Jason Barnard of kalicube.pro published an podcast interview with John Mueller where Jason asked if John’s comments are taken out of context to drive traffic through clickbait headlines. John’s response:
“It is hard to say like a number but I’d guess that about 2/3rds of the content out there is kind of taken out of context and presented in a way that doesn’t really to those cases that they are talking about. And that is within the SEO space and I assume that is kind of similar within all other technical spaces or maybe even general with news.”
What John is saying is that users are not clicking on the article to learn what is really going on, nor are they attempting to understand the context of the user’s question (user research and intent) and the context of John’s responses. This means that John’s responses might be specific to a site or specific situation and the user only absorbing clickbait headlines are potentially harming their understanding of the industry.
Clickbait Headlines Conclusion on what John Muller Says
Don’t just read clickbait headlines and believe you’ve got quality information that has improved your position as an SEO.
I’ll be honest, I do this with non-SEO related news. I think we all do. We’re all humans who are much more susceptible to manipulation that we aware of or will admit.
In general, there are a few take away from the above articles:
- Don’t assume the clickbait headline is the whole story. User behavior has been studied to manipulate our lack of time and anxieties.
- We’re all humans. We don’t always understand the things we create. Quite an existential concept really.
- Even experts aren’t going to have all the answers. However, experts do ask other experts. That’s a sign of a true expert.
- Try to understand your users and audience. This is a basic marketing practice (see first bullet point)
- Learn about the context of something to truly understand it. New information should pose new questions.
- Clickbait headlines are damaging to journalistic integrity, but everyone is susceptible to it.
- Don’t believe everything you read.