6 Lessons You Can (and Should) Learn from Matt Cutts’s Boss, Amit Singhal

Amit Singhal is senior vice president at Google, a Google Fellow, Matt Cutts’s boss, Star Trek’s biggest fan, and if something such as a “right brain” exists, he wants Google to have one.

Amit Singhal speaking at SXSW 2013.
Amit Singhal talks shop with Guy Kawasaki as the SXSW 2013 keynote speaker.

He has been working in the search industry for two decades; in 2001 he led a dramatic rewrite of Google’s algorithm building the framework for the ranking system we know (and love?) today; and he, naturally, was the spokesperson chosen to announce the biggest algorithm change in Google’s history since… well, since he joined Google in 2001 — Hummingbird.

Amit Singhal is funny, he loves his life, he loves his job, he’s a founding father of the modern search industry, and to say he’s kind of a big deal is a grave understatement.

In March 2014 Danny Sullivan will lead a keynote chat with Amit at SMX West in San Jose.

In anticipation of this SMX hour of power (how else could I refer to an hour-long conversation between the editor-in-chief of Search Engine Land and the proverbial editor-in-chief of Google’s search algorithm?), I took some time to review the last keynote interview Mr. Singhal had with Internet marketing mogul Guy Kawasaki at SXSW 2013.

Below are six lessons I learned from listening to Amit Singhal talk shop for an hour; all of which will help you do your job better, and two of which (the first and the last) may even make you a better person.

6 Lessons You Can Learn from Amit Singhal

1. Follow your heart, and do what you love because happiness is worth much more than any amount of money.

As of 2014, Amit Singhal had been in the search industry for 20-plus years, and with Google for 13 of those years. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in computer science from IIT Roorkee, a MS in computer science from the University of Minnesota Duluth, and a Ph.D. in information retrieval from Cornell University.

Between his Master’s and Ph.D studies, there was a time in the early ’90s when Amit’s studies were on hold and he was working full-time. When he began considering leaving his job to go pursue his Ph.D., he told Guy Kawasaki at SXSW 2013, most people encouraged him to keep working, telling him it was crazy to quit his job to go back to school and barely scrape by on an $800 per month graduate stipend. His family could not financially support him; how would he make it?

Despite the pushback, he packed up with his wife, quit his job and went back to school. Why? Because “my heart said ‘I want to do this. I want to get a Ph.D. in search.’” “I loved every moment of it,” he says, “And here I am sitting in front of you some 20 years later because I loved it. And that’s what it’s all about.”

When Guy asks him what career advice, if any, he has to offer people aspiring to make it in the technology business, Amit shares the advice he offers his own children: “Follow your heart, and do what it says. Because if you do, you will sleep happy and happiness is worth much more than any amount of money you can make.

2. User experience should always be your number one concern. If it’s not good for your user, don’t do it.

Amit loves to tell the story of start-up Google turning down millions of dollars and refusing to place “dancing monkey ads” on its home page because Larry Page and the team all agreed that the ads would be a bad user experience.

In Amit’s book – and Google’s book – user experience should always be the number one priority. Care about your users, do it for them, and you will succeed, he tells Guy Kawasaki and his SXSW audience more than once in his keynote interview. “Users come first, we need to give them our services at an amazing speed, and nothing should compromise user experience. It is that belief that has helped Google in times when it could have made wrong decisions.”

When asked about voice search, Amit describes Google’s vision saying “I think moving forward the entire ecosystem will evolve to actually support that type of search – that future Star Trek computer – because that’s what users want.

When probed about whether we’re truly supposed to “buy” the “romantic” tale of Google’s quest to save humanity one search at a time, Amit says: “Absolutely. What other way is there? Going forward, we collectively, as the Web community, are working for our users, which is the entire humanity. And we need to improve their lives, otherwise why are we here? Why are we doing this?

When a SXSW audience member asks him what action a small business with limited budget should take to stand out from the crowd, Amit’s words of wisdom are to: “Work for your customers; do the right thing for your customers. That’s the way to stand out. No business is built over night and you shouldn’t expect your business to be huge over night. You acquire customers by working for them for years.”

The moral of the story? If it’s not good for your user, don’t do it. Millions of dollars are short-lived; happy customers can last a lifetime.

3. Mobile and wearable technology will be the way of the future.

Amit truly wants the Internet to serve people when they need it, how they need it. And for him, that means “designing search for the future, where it is everywhere” and creating “technology [that] should fade into the background so it can give you what you need as you’re doing what you love doing.”

If you glossed over them, there are three very important parts to Amit’s above statements: “it is everywhere,“fades into the background,” and “give[s] you what you need as you’re doing what you love doing.”

What Amit is describing is a world where search is a part of your daily routine – not a disruption. He’s describing the voice-activated Star Trek computer that tells you things you need to know before you even ask for the information; a search engine that works fluidly with you so that you can use it while you are doing whatever it is you love. That means hands-free when you’re flying a kite with your daughter or mobile when you’re out of town looking for somewhere to eat.

In his SXSW interview, Amit brings up the cartoon we’ve all seen where the Neanderthal evolves into a walking Homo sapiens just to devolve into a slumped over tech guy in a computer chair. According to Amit we’re entering a “second wave” of this evolution where people begin to start standing up and start walking around again.

4. “You should think of good SEO as marketing to the Web search engine.”

What does the the man who is considered the founding father of Google’s contemporary search algorithm say when Guy Kawasaki asks him if he thinks “SEO is bull—”? He says “no, that would be like saying marketing is bull—.”

“You should think of good SEO as marketing to the Web search engine,” he says. Optimizing for search is “basically telling website owners what to do and what not to do so that search engines can actually index your site. […] There’s a lot of value that SEO adds to content because it’s marketing that content to a search engine which is an important aspect of this ecosystem.”

In other words, implant the definition of “marketing” into this next sentence to set this point home – SEO is the process of creating, communicating, and delivering [to Google] offerings [content and web pages] that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

Well said, Amit!

5. Want to rank on page one? Content and speed matter.

According to Amit, “A perfect search engine should know exactly what you mean and give you exactly what you want. And to build that perfect search engine we have to be comprehensive, relevant, and fast.”

This quote happens within the first three minutes of Amit’s SXSW interview with Guy Kawasaki and really establishes a theme for the rest of the keynote: relevant content and speed are important – not only to Google as a service provider, but to anyone wanting to rank well with the search engine.

When asked the most SEO question of all SEO questions – how can one go about improving their ranking in the search engines – Amit doesn’t recommend link building or authorship, or schema to his SXSW audience. Rather, he says “Overall, its all about high quality content and catering to your audience in a speedy website.”

“We at Google have time and time again said, and seen it happen, that if you build high quality content that adds value and your users, your readers, seek you out then really you don’t need to worry about anything else. You build high quality content that is adding value on top of what is already there, and […] your site will automatically work. When it comes to companies, if they build fast websites that cater to their user’s needs, then, really, they can make a bunch of SEO mistakes and it wouldn’t hurt them.”

6. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

The first thing out of Amit Singhal’s mouth when he walked on the stage for his SXSW keynote interview was “Hi everyone! I am Andy Rubin. I’ve been working on my tan.”

Throughout the interview he banters with Guy Kawasaki, and tells him at one point that it will take more than 20 years for him (Guy) to become funny.

He uses technical terms like “dancing monkeys.”

He says the effects that he sees search having on the world make him so happy that he sometimes comes into work feeling like jumping up and down.

As mentioned in the intro, he’s kind of a big deal. But what makes him really kind of a big deal is that he doesn’t think he’s “kind of a big deal.” Sometimes attitude is everything, and Amit Singhal has a great one.

See Amit Singhal Speak in Real-time at SMX West 2014

I feel pretty comfortable saying that Amit Singhal is among the smartest men working in the 21st century – and that he might be able to beat a computer at chess. He’s a built from the ground-up American success story; the true embodiment of what can happen if you follow your passion, work really hard, and make yourself a lifelong learner.

If you won’t be doing any traveling this year, I recommend you pencil in an hour to watch all of the 2013 SXSW keynote interview with Amit Singhal referenced in this post. If you do have time to travel, I highly recommend you take the opportunity to see him speak live, and possibly meet him, at SMX West in San Jose. Tell them Bruce sent you by using this discount code: BRUCECLAYSMXW14.

Chelsea Adams Brooks is a long-distance cyclist, aspiring cob house builder, schema/analytics/algorithm obsessor, and a former senior content writer at Bruce Clay Inc.

See Chelsea's author page for links to connect on social media.

Comments (3)
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3 Replies to “6 Lessons You Can (and Should) Learn from Matt Cutts’s Boss, Amit Singhal”


Informative and awesome article.Thank you so much for sharing.

Anoop Srivastava

Chelsea Adams, Thanks for this post. i live each and every points of Mr. Amit and i have never think that he is like that. I am working in internet marketing from last 4 years and i like point that “Work for your customers; do the right thing for your customers.

Chelsea Adams

Hi, Anoop! Yeah… Amit Singhal is a really amazing person. Incredibly smart and really overshadowed by señor Cutts (who I also admire, but… Amit Singhal is undeniably the Übermensch). Really glad I got to share some of Amit’s philosophies with Bruce Clay, Inc. followers.

(And sorry I used so many languages in this post. It was not intentional. ;))


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