Does Google Favor Brands? An In-Depth Look

February 28, 2012
By Lisa Barone in Internet Marketing Conferences

Welcome back from lunch! Or…maybe from your afternoon coffee break if you’re checking us out from the East Coast where time moves just a little faster. This should be a good one.  Up on stage we have Bryson Meunier, Mark Munroe, Aaron Wall, and Tony Wright. Here’s hopin’ this gets heated.  I could use a little dessert. ;)

Danny is moderating. It’s my first time seeing him this conference and he looks decidedly relaxed.  Just as I type that, Danny says the hashtag for this session is #lisabarone.  He’s kidding. I won’t tell you what it really is because the session is now over. So it doesn’t really matter.

This session is going to answer some questions for us:

  • Is there this issue of being a big brand helping you out?
  • Are there things you can do to tap into it?
  • If you’re a brand do you get to get away with stuff that non-brands don’t get away with?
  • Is Santa Claus real?

Okay, maybe I added one of those. I’m not telling you which one.

Up first is Aaron Wall.

He doesn’t think there’s a problem with Google liking brands, but he thinks they definitely do.

Potential Brand Signals

1. Classical Relevancy Signals

  • domain name
  • anchor text
  • link diversity
  • keyword co-citation

2. Search Behavior

  • search volume
  • few clicks back

3. Passive User Monitoring

If you do something, depending on who you are, the perception of what’s being done is different. If you’re a small guy, people assume the worst. If you’re a big guy, it’s just a business relationship.  You get the benefit of the doubt.

In 2009 we had the Vince Update. It used search query strings to influence ranking. He mentions Yahoo Clues – will show search flow after a keyword. Knowing that the search engines use search query streams to influence what they rank, if Google is putting brands highly in the search results, that’s given a signal that the Bass Pro Web site is relevant for fishing gear.

Some examples of Google favoring big brands over smaller ones.

Paid Links

Aaron talks Google’s hypocrisy over paid links. When big brands do it, it’s cleaned up nicely. The penalty is lesser and they’re able to recover fast. When smaller sites do it, they’re not to be trusted. They’re banished from the search results.


He shows Singapore’s Groupon Web site and how you can’t do anything until you give them your email.  You’re just trapped there. You couldn’t do that if you were smaller.

Doorway Pages

The Huffington Post and IKEA are playing with doorway pages but Google doesn’t yell. If they were smaller, they would.

Content Farming

Google pre-pays eHow to upload content to YouTube.

Mahalo. ’nuff said.


Amit Singhal said that people were judging Google+ prematurely. But as an SEO, you can’t use that excuse with Google, pumping your pages with links and then “adding quality” later.

Business Cycle

  • raise funds
  • build exposure
  • monetize attention
  • reinvest in increased quality
  • build a brand
  • build further exposure
  • monetize more attention
  • reinvest in increased quality

Pricing Risk profit declined 2/3 after Panda. It was eventually shut down. Started by an SEO. Purchased an old site funded by Google Ventures.

Penalties: How Hard were they hit?

Chrome? Single page

Small sites: sitewide demotion

Exceptions: JCPenney, Overstock.

Why Googles Leans Into Brands

  • Legal risks
  • minimize duplications
  • better user experience
  • business partnerships: media streaming device, CPA-based product
  • more complete ad cycle

The biggest issue with this is it created a lack of diversity in the search engines. It may be a different logo, but it’s not that difference of an experience.

As long as brands are trusted, use them.  The next big trend after brands will be Google as a content host

  • YouTube
  • Google+
  • Google Books
  • Google Places

Branding & The Cycle

Algorithmically, brand emphasis peaks soon. Once Google is the merchant of record, almost everyone is just an affiliate.

dun, dun, duuuun.

Next up is Bryson.

He thinks there are too few brands ranking to show that there is a brand bias.

[Note: Much of Bryson’s talk involved him breaking apart Aaron’s Google Loves Brands infographic and other data he’s published. If you haven’t the infographic, you might want to check it out before going forward. I wish Bryson would have went over it a bit before he started speaking, because he may have lost some people who weren’t aware.]

The Arguments For:

  • Google admits it
  • Brands rank about non-brands routinely in Google
  • There are many places for brands in the search results.

He thinks all of this is a hasty generalization. We’re looking at one piece of the elephant, not the whole elephant. As a result we’re making assumptions that are not true.

The Evidence Against:

Results are atypical. What Aaron showed were 7 polarities where brands are outranking small brands. But there are actually a number of queries where big brands are being beat by smaller brands. Apple iTunes gets outranked by a smaller site for [music downloads].  He shows a bunch more examples of this being true…but I’m blind and the print is too small for me to read.  Sorry. I’m getting old.

Results can’t be duplicated: He couldn’t duplicate any of Aaron Wall’s findings from a survey he did in 2009.

No clear brand bias in data presented: If you look only at OEMs vs store brands, only 40 percent of the domains in Aaron’s query study are brands.

Analysis of top sites show otherwise:

  • 61 percent of top 100 SEMRush domains are NOT companies in the Fortune 500. 91 percent of top domains are NOT top 100 global brands.
  • 89 percent are NOT associated with the top 10 AdWords advertisers.
  • Only 9 percent of the top 100 brands were also listed in SEMRush’s top 100 domains.  Only 36 percent of the top 100 brands were within the first 1000 domains.

Enterprise SEOs have unique challenges

  • Legal
  • Conflicting departmental standards/politics
  • Lost knowledge due to turnover
  • Design and development teams with no knowledge about SEO
  • Executives with no understanding of SEO and no buy in

Small brands can move faster and have an advantage as a result. Even if Google was favoring large brands, the large brands may not be able to take advantage of that favoritism because of all the internal BS.

Bryson DOES agree with Aaron that related links and suggestions are user driven, but he thinks that’s just Google giving users what they want.

Don’t believe the hype. There is no Google brand bias. Small businesses are succeeding in search, but you have to move quickly because that’s your primary advantage.

None of us would be here without Google. They made our industry. We should stop trying to make them out to be evil.

Next up is Mark Munroe.

Google loves big brands.

Does this code exist in the bowels of Google’s algo ranking source code say that if domain = Amazon [or insert other big brand] then …  NO.   Never the less, things are getting more and more difficult for a startup SEO Initiative. Google knows how their changes are going to play out. They know how Best Buy will be affected by what they do. They’re aware of that.

SEO Startup Advantages – 2003

Startup SEO Strategies 2003

  • Reciprocal Linking
  • Link Buying

Smarter about keyword and targeted content

Brands were not very saffy about SEO and neither were their ad agances

Expansive data-based content explosion targeting long-tail

  • Search pages
  • tag pages
  • filter pages
  • acquired content

What does Google want?

  • relevant content
  • show results that users want to see
  • users want to see results that answers their qestins
  • Users want answers they trust
  • Google wants evidence that users are getting what they want

What is Brand Behavior?

Users interact with a brand in a manner which sends positive signals to Google.  Users will click more on sites they know. Higher clickthrough rates and/or repeat visits are signals to Google that users like the SERP.   Visits to a brand are also less likely to G-Bounce (go back to Google) because users know where they are going when they click on a brand and what the site offers. There’s built in trust and knowledge; brands don’t have to prove themselves to win over the user.

How to offset the brand advantage

  • non-branded sites need to work harder to offest the inherent advantage
  • They need to be obsessive about providing a quality search experience

Every search is a question and every SERP is a promise to answer that question [I kind of love that]. Brands are going to have a much better experience answering that question for all the reasons listed above. If you’re not a brand, you have to be that much better. Your SEO strategy should not just be rankings, but to get results listed that fulfill promise! Fulfilling the promise will result in better user metrics.

Searcher User Experience

Remember that the searcher starts on your SEO page. Make sure the content that draws the user in from search can be easily found. Don’t make it obscured by ads.

Next up is Tony Wright. He apologizes that his slides are just black text on a white background. His designer just had a baby. Hee! We forgive you.

Chicken or the Egg

Fact: Companies with high brand awareness tend to rank for more keyword terms and get more traffic from Google. Google may or may not favor brands unintentionally. He doesn’t give a damn. Brand awareness doesn’t automatically equal Google success, but algorithmically it should.

Why do we love brands?

The average consumer mentions specific brands more than 90 times a week in conversations with family, friends and coworkers. It’s a comfortableness thing. We’re creating citations without even realizing it.

Companies with brand awareness think differently than those without brand awareness.  SEO is usually not a priority. Most have backlink profiles others would kill for. On-page changes are extremely slow to occur. It’s not the decision makers money, in most cases.

Radio, TV, Print, Display + Content Marketing

Are you promoting something linkble in your radio advertising?

  • Specials page that doesn’t change
  • Push them to an interesting article

Think of all your marketing like a PPC campaign. You need a landing page.

Who are your influencers?

  • The move to customer service based social media is strong and will have SEO dividents.
  • Even the most jaded influencer loves to hear from the perceived brand leaders
  • Influencers can make or break rankings for a single term, sometimes single-handedly

Don’t be the logo police

  • Understand the difference between protecting your brand and alienating your online audience
  • Never let a good logo or copyright get in the way of a good viral experience.

And that’s it. Whaddya think? IS Google favoring brands or are we all just too making assumptions due to our part of the elephant?

Read the rest of our SMX West 2012 liveblogging coverage for more insight.


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