Is Google Using Brands To Get to Content Producers?


Head to SEO Book.

Aaron Wall has written the best post on search I’ve read in a long time. The post deals with the new emphasis Google is placing on brands and the algorithm update that quietly took place on Jan. 18 without much attention at all.

In his post, Aaron shows pretty strong evidence that Google is awarding prominent brands with better rankings in the search engines, showing ranking changes for many different keywords.

When I read the post, one thing came to mind. Okay, fine, two things.

  1. Aaron Wall has a genius mind.
  2. This is how Google appeases content producers.

It was a couple of weeks ago now when John Battelle took the stage at SMX West and chatted with Danny Sullivan. One of the big themes I took away from their chat was the battle that’s continuing between Google and publishers.

If you’re a content producer, Google pretty much sucks. They make money off your work and don’t give you much respect. In fact, Google does a pretty good job of erasing brands altogether. When you search for a product, affiliate sites rank higher than the manufacturer. When you search for news, Joe’s Magazine is tightly bundled in with Reuters and the Wall Street Journal. If you’re a small guy, it’s great. It’s what the Internet was founded on. But I imagine if you’re the New York Times, part of you probably wants to flick Google in the face. You’re the freakin’ New York Times. I mean, we saw yesterday what happens when you don’t give brands like Robert Scoble the attention they think they deserve. They get mouthy. And then we have to kick them.

I’ve always gotten the feeling that Google thinks they’re bigger than brands. That they think they don’t need them and that they have some moral responsibility to humble them. And as a result of that, we’ve seen an epic battle break out between Google and the very groups that have made it immensely profitable.  As the war waged on, we’ve seen:

  • Google fight with video producers.
  • Google fight with newspapers and content owners.
  • Google get itself in trouble with Google Book Search.

And at the end of the day (and every blog post), we all conclude that the publishers need to suck it up. They need to go through, as John said, the 7 Stages of Grief and learn to live in a Google world. Google’s better than your brand or your one piece of content. They’re not going to bend to you, you have to bend to them.

But then that January 18th update happened.

As Aaron showed in his post, Google’s Eric Schmidt went on record back in October to say that the Internet had become a “cesspool” of false information and that brands were the answer to that. I don’t know that I agree that big brands are what we need to see a more factually correct Internet, however, I do think giving brands more prominence in the SERPs is something that could help Google heal some of its relationships. And, of course, make more money.

When Google gives brands the rankings they think they scoble-ly deserve, you appease some of your biggest critics. You show them some goodwill and hope they simmer down and drop their lawsuits. You put that content higher and encourage the people with the big budgets to spend more with you. You essentially shut them up.

I’m not saying the new update was released for the sole purpose of throwing one to content producers, but I think it’s going to be a very lucky byproduct. One of the biggest complaints that media companies had with Google was how fragmented it made their brands. And now, well, Google may have just taken its first few steps toward mending that. How smart for them.

Your Comments

  • Joe Hall

    I think you are right.

    I think Aaron Wall has a genius mind & I think this is an attempt to appease brands. Which I think is silly! I mean has anyone stopped to think that maybe bigger brands just don’t value SEO and internet marketing as much as the smaller guys? It has been my experience that smaller companies remain more flexible to SEO and Social Media. Sure, GM or Dell can spend gobs of more money on SEO, but until they make it a integrated process of their existence then the small companies and affiliate marketers that live and breath SEO/IM will rank hirer.

    Also, I think Google is constantly in a balancing act, in some ways they have to appease brands to continue to sell them ads, in the other way they have to appease users that support their products.

  • Vanessa Fox

    I read Aaron’s article, and I think it’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s proof that Google is now using “brand” as a signal in rankings. Any one of any number of signals could have been tweaked to cause this change. For instance, does site age have slightly more weight for certain classifications of queries than before?

    It’s even possible that big brands are finally starting to realize that SEO is important and are devoting more resources to it.

    I’m not even sure there’s been a change. I imagine there’s just as many examples of brands that aren’t ranking for expected queries and queries that have all non-brands ranking.

    I have heard lots of site owners talk about a change they noticed in mid-January, but it’s mixed experience. Lots of (non-brand) sites have had rankings improved. And many (see,ms to mostly be low-unique content sites, such as review sites that don’t yet have a lot of reviews) have had ranking declines.

    In any case, this is one of the primary reasons why I tend to sound like a broken record about fundamentals and not algorithm chasing. The exact weightings and signals will always change so optimizing for any particular thing will never be the best bet long term.

    But the real reason I wanted to comment (I know! I haven’t even gotten to the point yet! sheesh.) is that I find it highly unlikely that Google’s organic search is influenced in any way what happens on the ad side. Unless there’s been some radical change where Google has turned into an entirely different company since I worked there, that just doesn’t happen.

    AdWords revenue could dwindle to zero and it wouldn’t change how the organic side of things work. It just doesn’t make sense long term. If search results are influenced by anything other than the very best experience for users, then relevance and quality declines and searchers have a poor experience. That would cause Google to lose market share and hurt their attractiveness for advertisers. Advertisers want to advertise where the traffic is, not where they’re getting preferential treatment in the non-ad system.

    So, yes. Google’s #1 business goal is making money via AdWords. Which is why they wouldn’t risk losing search traffic by letting their organic results be influenced by anything other than what they think is most relevant and useful for searchers.

  • john andrews

    Vanessa I totally respect that your worked at Google, but in any corporation there are management agendas at work behind the scenes. Even in the most sincere meritocracy, many decisions flow from the top, and while of course they are not going to achieve traction if they don’t make sense to the troops (and support the mission), there is a ton of leeway for making a convincing case to the troops that specific changes DO support the mission.

    It’s relatively easy to make a case for brand preference improving a user experience, and probably easy to achieve it thru a combination of tweaks of other, already supported factors.

    A more interesting question would be how Google’s management views the suggestion that Google is favoring brands as Aaron suggests. I doubt a response is forthcoming. Even better would be some evidence of Google actually making claims (perhaps to advertisers) that this was an improvement made by Google to help users navigate the cesspool by finding brands more easily. That seems more likely, given the CEO’s promises.

  • fantomaster

    If we assume for a moment that Google IS actually giving preference to established brands, what would be their commercial rationale for doing so?

    It would actually make eminent sense: small and non-brands would be pushed into even more spending on AdWords to be seen at all in the SERps. Likewise, the big spender brands (who are, let’s not forget, big dogs not least because they’ve spent tons of resources on promotion and advertising in the first place) will be happy, seeing less of a “brand fragmentation”. They’ll also arguably spend more on AdWords if only to make for more “SERP Saturation”.

    But what about query space not dominated by commercial brands? That’s an easy one, too: results could always be tweaked in accord with available ad inventory.

    Obviously, that way organic search results would be demoted further to a mere background canvas for monetizable PPC – which again would only make sense commercially, no matter that it would essentially constitute a blatant corruption of organic results. (So what’s new?)

    Is this actually happening? It’s probably to early to tell. One way to find out might be extensively monitoring their AdWords display in relation to “organic” results.

  • Michael Martinez

    More smoke and mirrors from Aaron.

    Once again he has failed to make a convincing case.

    There are four reasons why search results change:
    1) You do something with your site
    2) Someone else does something with their site
    3) The search engines do something with their data
    4) People change their queries

    None of these “Google is favoring brands!” posts has dealt with the fact that a lot of link building is going on.

    None of these “Google is favoring brands!” posts has dealt with the fact that Google is devaluing a lot of links.

    None of these “Google is favoring brands!” posts has dealt with the fact that these are competitive queries and the times, they are hard for brand owners, too.

    More money is being thrown into the organic SEO arena right now — even at the expense of PPC in some cases.

    Chicken Little SEO analysis doesn’t provide us with any reason to assume some major brand is going to start knocking optimized sites out of top rankings.

    There is lot going on behind the scenes right now OUTSIDE the search engines.

  • Jon Payne

    The evidence does not seem all that convincing to me here. Perhaps for a handful of one-word search phrases this might be the case. For most “big-money” two-word phrases I follow we haven’t seen this.

    Instead, I do think the algo may have shifted a bit more towards trust, volume of links, type of links (discounting ones easier for to get for SEO and rewarding ones harder to get unless you have a brand), etc. Big brands naturally get the type of quantity and quality links that are very difficult for non-brand-name sites (i.e. content producers, etc.) to match.

    I see some of this in the SERPs lately, but I’m not sold that there was a major and definitive algorithm change specifically to address brands on January 18th. Instead I think it was a link-related algo change that simply happens to benefit brands b/c of the types of links they tend to attract without even trying.

    Check out Matt Cutts’ response here:

  • Jami Broom

    I was having a conversation about this with some people on twitter, and I guess what bothers me is if they (Google) are catering to bigger brands, (and that does make sense, they are a business; they want to make money, and yes, it would be lovely if they gave everyone a great user experience, but it’s not feasible without paying for it somehow) then what happens to the smaller businesses? They are already struggling and just now discovering this whole online concept (believe it or not) — how are small businesses going to ever compete if people only look at the first 3 search results? there will be little oligopolies in every industry. what do you peeps think of Google’s impact on the future of small business?

  • Devil’s Advocate

    Admit it…the results are better now. If it’s usage data, or if Google has some way of identifying “brands” and making it easier for branded sites to rank well, the simple fact remains…when the average user is searching for a general term, they are looking for one of these sites that have benefited from the January 18th change.

    Sure it sucks for SEOs, who have been able to game the system (and will undoubtedly find new ways to game the newly revised system), but are you really surprised? Google is going to continue to try to improve results for their users while SEOs continue to try to get traffic/revenue to their less…shall we say…branded site. In my opinion…chalk one up for 99.99% of people online, those who have no idea about anchor text, keyword use in various page elements, link popularity, age of domain, or any of that crap…those who just want to go to a site and get what they’re looking for. Ideally they’d go to a site from a reputable company, one where they might actually be able to contact someone in a call center or in a store if they have a problem, and, yes, one owned by a company that has invested in a lot more than SEO to serve their market/customers.

  • fantomaster

    It seems that Matt Cutts has actually confirmed Aaron’s findings at least partially and indirectly – as you won’t typically witness him being more explicit and less ambiguous in writing, it’s really anybody’s guess (again) whether it’s actually a full confirm or merely another “perhaps, perhaps not” ploy.