When Sullivan announced his appointment, the search marketing industry drew comparisons to Matt Cutts, an outspoken engineer who used to run Google’s webspam team. Before Cutts took a leave from Google in 2014, he was both revered and slammed for his updates about the search engine’s ever-changing algorithms. (Cutts left permanently in 2016.)
The parallel isn’t exact: Cutts had a technical background, focused closely on search engine optimization issues, and corresponded more with industry experts than the general public.
Still, Sullivan says he hopes to bring the same kind of human touch and calm voice that Cutts was known for; a salve for people who are used to dealing with attribution-less statements or faceless forums.
“The saying I like to use is, it’s easy to hate a faceless monolith, but it’s harder to hate a person,” Cutts told CNBC. “And putting a human face on search — someone that you can talk to, complain to, ask questions of — I think that is critical.”
Cutts and Sullivan have known each other for years — Sullivan actually made Cutts’ Twitter account for him in 2007 as part of an April Fools’ joke about a fictitious conference celebrating “Mattness” called CuttsCon. Cutts, who permanently left Google in late 2016, is now hopeful that Sullivan’s hire is a signal of Google’s willingness to take feedback and listen to users.
Paul Edmondson, CEO of HubPages, echoes that idea. HubPages, which sold to another content company earlier this year, was something of a poster child for how tweaks to Google’s search rankings could tank a business. Edmondson says he respected Sullivan’s work as a journalist and hopes to see him help shape Google’s future policies.
“I think Danny always wanted to hold Google accountable in the right ways,” Edmonson said. “I would gladly trade a journalist covering search for someone inside of Google who has empathy for people creating content for the web and who has the greater good of the ecosystem in mind.”
After all, as publishers cede power to tech platforms, Google gains it. The search engine has 90 percent worldwide search engine market share, according to StatCounter. Increasingly, its algorithms decide what news we get, businesses we visit and people we vote for. There’s been a growing call for “algorithmic accountability” as people demand more transparency about the “black box” systems shape their lives.
To Sullivan, one of the biggest issues ahead may be trying to ensure that people understand Google’s strengths, but also its weaknesses.
“We’re not a truth engine. One of the big issues that we’re pondering is how to explain that our role is to get you authoritative, good information, but that ultimately people have to process that information themselves,” he said. “We can give you information, but we can’t tell you the truth of a thing.”
Sullivan will probably write a post about that someday. But if he does, the trick will be getting people to believe it.