Google collects a lot of information on individuals & can have some level of confidence if the person is a real person or not based on things like their history of email usage, if they have a credit card on file, how they interact with other high confidence real accounts, how many people are friends with them on Google+, usage of an Android cell phone, their search history, etc.
Google doesn't need all those signals on any individual, just some blend of them.
From there they can create a lot of usage-based brand signals.
Query Volume + Click Distribution
For any keyword Google can see the search volume & the click distribution on the search results.
If a lot of people click on the top result & very few people click on the second or third result there is a strong chance the keyword is a brand. If the click distribution is spread more evenly across the search results then it is less likely to be a brand keyword.
The above was a hypothetical example, but the following image shows how lower volume branded navigational keywords can drive far more traffic than broader industry keywords. We get twice as much traffic for seobook & seo book as we do for seo.
When people search for a generic keyword they may (immediately or later) modify their search query to search for related keywords. In the past Microsoft offered a search funnels tool that would show common searches before & after a keyword. If someone searched for credit cards they might soon search for visa or mastercard.
Of course getting the user to click is just the first step. From there you must satisfy them. ;)
If you visit a page quickly & then jump right back to the search results Google asks users for an explicit vote against that site.
And if you visit a page for a significant period of time Google asks users for an explicit vote for that site.
That Google is measuring the time until return the search results to determine which explicit vote to request also implies that they can use the same aggregate data to create an implicit signal.
Where this measurement can get a bit fuzzy is that Panda can create a self-reinforcing impact (good or bad).
Self-Reinforcing Positive Impacts
Let's say your site got a ranking boost by Panda. It will rank higher across broader industry keywords, to where people may enter your site at the category level (say shoes or Nike shoes) and then surf around your site quite a bit. This equates to a longer time on site & a better user experience.
2 more factors on this front are branded navigation & familiarity.
On some search results Google shows branded search options.
If clicking those brand & store links feeds into the Vince relevancy signal, then any brand featured there has a huge wind at their back, building further brand signals. Eventually such suggestions can work their way into Google Instant keyword suggestions as well. Even if people do not click on those particular options, the various highlights in the search results act as advertisements for the brands, which drive incremental demand and search volume for those brands.
Amazon.com is responsible for roughly 1/3 of ecommerce spend in the United States (outside of travel), so many people might go and research product options generally & then conclude those search sessions by seeing if they can buy it off Amazon.com (due to getting free shipping & the high level of user trust Amazon has). As this becomes part of search relevancy algorithms this is the online equivalent of going to your local Borders store to find something to buy & then buying it on Amazon. In the short run you save a few Dollars, but in the long run stores like Borders go out of business.
Self-Reinforcing Negative Impacts
There are 2 bad ways a business can be impacted by Panda. One is missing out on the above promotional options that a large competitor may enjoy, which over time build more brand signals for them & leave your site stranded in no man's land until it is finally clipped by Panda for lacking "quality."
A second issue is a self-reinforcing issue with Panda. On WMW a user nicknamed Walkman described it as the "size 13 shoe problem." After you have been hit by Panda you are not likely to rank for broader category level searches. However you might still rank for some really obscure longtail keyword that is uneconomic to address directly (and thus only have a glancing mention of the user's intent). Your page might say we do not carry size 13 or size 13 out of stock and your Panda-hit site ranks for "Nike Carmelo Anthony size 13." Thus the user bounces, creating a self-reinforcing negative user experience signal.
The above examples of +1 votes and blocks can be used (along with the time on site & repeat visits) to gauge user satisfaction, however if they can't get enough engagement then it will be very easy for big brands to buy that signal for pennies on the Dollar, as some social signals are easily bought by brands.
Not only does Amazon directly integrate promoting your wishlist on social media ...
... but they also have done interesting promotions like a "Tweet & get" ...
Imagine if/when a new local Wal-Mart store launches offering a free $10 coupon to everyone who Tweets their savings at the checkout counter!
One big issue I have with the +1 votes & blocks is that they apply across the board. I may dislike some craptastic videos hosted on YouTube, but there is also a lot of great content there. I love eBay for vintage video games, but it does not mean I love them for books.
Likewise some of the friend of friend stuff can be a bit off.
At some point Google should make +1 votes & blocks more granular.
Near the end of this article I will also further discuss some issues with ad votes.
Does Google measure repeat visitors? Yes.
They use that user interaction to ask for an explicit vote...
...and they can use it as an implicit vote as well.
They not only track how many times you visit a page or site, but also when you last visited it.
Once it is obvious Google is counting certain types of user metrics (just like they count links) there will be a race to the bottom to provide those said signals. That race to the bottom will lead to such signals being sold by accounts that either have sketchy trust metrics associated with them (if done through automation) and/or in markets with lower living costs.
And they can also track where the votes come from.
If your domain name matches your keyword that may be a brand signal. However, Google may also look at some other signals (like user engagement, repeat visits, relative CTR, etc.) as confirmation signals on this front.
Sometimes when a spammer builds links they trap themselves by using the same anchor text too much. Whereas when a branded website pulls in organic citations the anchor text tends to be mixed up, like...
Diversity in any sense (anchor text, linking sources, pages being linked to, links built across time, etc.) is generally considered a good thing.
Other types of links might also be seen as potential brand signals. For instance, frequent exposure in trusted news sites, other trusted seed sites, or other known brand sites could pass additional karma. Some link spikes that are also associated with strong direct traffic spikes, strong referral traffic from the links, and strong brand searches might also boost the weight given to links.
In local search Google has long used the sites they displaced in the organic results as citations (even if they were in some cases unlinked).
In addition to offering branded filters in their internal navigation, many merchants submitting their products to Google product search may also be giving Google signals about which brands matter.
Google will be able to lean into Zagat ratings for business & other data sources (Google Wallet, Google Offers, etc.) will provide additional signals to Google.
Any type of non-search distribution you have (RSS subscribers, email newsletters, mobile applications, physical stores, membership loyalty programs, etc.) makes it easier to influence search engines.
If advertising with Google had a negative impact on search relevancy you can be sure that the relevancy algorithms would change. Whereas if there is a convenient positive spill over then Google won't complain. In fact, they will even go out of their way to advertise that spill over. Any sort of advertising you do increases brand awareness. And that leads to additional incremental brand searches (and thus brand signal)
More exposure also leads to more user experiences, which in turn leads to more opportunities for people to leave signals behind (be it links, social mentions, additional brand searches, and/or repeat visits). Here is State Farm buying *irrelevant* brand signal for pennies on the Dollar.
And of course there are all sorts of corporate advocacy ads as well.
Even if those votes don't influence rank directly, they still influence user perception. And what is so bad about that is that users are only voting of the content of the ad. This basically is the equivalent of cloaking.
If the landing page doesn't match the ad (free iPad anyone???) then people are going to see their friends vouching for scams & get duped by Google.
That is worse that a press release being advertised as though it was news
You can also be certain that some clever spammers are integrating +1 buttons in display ads on other ad networks in ways that may automatically collect user clicks & so on, or have users pay for viewing their next porn video by clicking a +1 button (much like some old school email spammers used porn viewers as manual captcha breakers).
Google does offer the ability to vote against an ad as well, but if an ad looks great upfront & its the landing page that scams you then how exactly do you vote against it if you don't see the site until after you click the ad?
If you read any of Google's older guidelines that leaked over the years you would see a consistent disdain toward affiliate sites. This was also reflected in official advice at search engine conferences & whatnot.
A friend of mine went to Google's campus & Google offered to "optimize" their AdWords account. As soon as the word affiliate came up it was like spoiled meat. Replacing the word "affiliate" with some other idiotic made up phrase (I think it was "regional online distributor") suddenly made everything O.K. again. Other friends had similar stories.
Note that the difference between "affiliate" and "regional online distributor" is for all intents and purposes linguistic crap, however it can be the difference between life and death for an online business.
To be fair, the ready availability of feeds to quickly generate sites means that most affiliate sites will be garbage. At some point Google gets sick of fighting the same battles over and over again. Then again, most websites are garbage & only the top x% of anything is going to be great.
It is worth noting that Google doesn't consider itself "just an unnecessary step in the sales funnel" when they insert themselves as an affiliate.
Should information empires be allowed to discriminate based on nothing more than the business model of competitors?
Spam vs Not Spam
The most recently leaked Google rater document stated
Spammers create spam pages to make money. Sometimes, they make money directly, by placing moneymaking links on the spam page. Here are two types of moneymaking links:
Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads: Spammers get paid each time ads are clicked on their webpages. Another term for PPC ads is “sponsored links”.
Thin Affiliates: Spammers make money when a transaction is completed after the user has clicked through to the merchant’s site from their webpages
PPC ads appear on many, many webpages. Some pages with PPC ads are spam, but many pages with PPC ads are not. Pages should not be assigned a Spam flag if they are created to provide information or help to users. Pages are spam if they exist only to make money and not to help users.
Sometimes, spam pages do not have moneymaking links. These spam pages are created to change search engine rankings or even to do harm to users’ computers with sneaky downloads.
So in essence, the difference between spam & not spam is if the page is helpful to users.
The rating document takes 130 pages to clearly articulate the difference between what is spam and what is not spam.
But the core ethos in categorization is if it is original & helpful it is not spam unless it is doing something deceptive.
A Minor Exception*
Google's rater guides also arbitrarily sneaked in the "what the hell, if it is affiliate, it is spam" card:
Note: Major cosmopolitan cities are preferred targets for spammers, especially hotel affiliates. Such results should be flagged as Spam, even if they are related to the query and helpful to users. For example, a hotel affiliate page with a list of Chicago hotels may be assigned a rating Relevant, but also receive a Spam flag.
Google is directly going out of its way to attack competing business models.
Even if the site is quality - any way you slice it - they still tell raters to label it as spam if it is a hotel affiliate.
Once again it is worth pointing out that the label "affiliate" is just an arbitrary label. It could just as well be a "commissioned salesperson."
An Example Market: Books
In our forums one of our members quoted a brilliant book by Karl Polanyi from 1944 which was full of gems like "A so-called self-regulating market economy may evolve into Mafia capitalism — and a Mafia political system"
I searched for that quote & guess what ranked #1?
Google Books of course.
Google's owned & operated affiliate offering in the niche.
The stolen version hosted on Google.com ranks #1...everything else is either spam, unneeded duplication in the marketplace, and/or conjecture that can float up and down as they tweak the algorithms.
To say that the book publishing industry is undergoing pains would be an understatement. But maybe in some weird way Google promoting Google helps the book industry by giving it more avenues to be seen? Maybe they are trying to help out book authors?
The structure of the book industry prevents the book author from getting anything but a small slice of the book's revenues (unless the author is well known and/or they self publish). Markets being what they are, most authors live in obscurity on the long tail. To help supplement their low cut of the revenue pie, some book authors use affiliate links to link to Amazon.com as a purchasing option on their official book websites.
Recently in our forums a member created a thread about a client site being blocked from AdWords because there was an affiliate link on the page for their own book!
Google is The Biggest Online Affiliate
So the author is not allowed to advertise his own work to give you multiple buying options & highlight options which offer her additional compensation, however...
Google is free to steal the copyright work & promote their looted version first
The word affiliate is arbitrarily tarnished in the same way that SEO is.
Use another label & if you do the exact same thing it is clean. Craigslist or eBay are not affiliates as they are marketplaces. Wal-Mart & Amazon.com might do drop shipping & have some affiliate promotions on their sites, but they are retailers.
These arbitrary label differences make a big difference to the stability of an online business.
Machine Learning vs a Small Business Killing Machine
Google can claim that they use artificial intelligence and machine learning and are unbiased, but their ranking systems need training sets. And if upon this alleged independent rating affiliates come up as "spam" then how can an affiliate build a sustainable business model?
I know what you are thinking: "Well, Aaron, they can stop being affiliates and move up the value chain."
The problem with that is that as an affiliate I can compare a lot of products in a condensed space, but if I accept payments for products then I likely need to have a page for each product. The issue there is that if you do not have a strong brand and you have lots of pages on your site there is a great chance that the Panda algorithm will torch your website.
The new items on the website will mostly get to consumers through third-party sellers, which means B&N won’t have to carry the expense of inventory. The bookseller will just take a sales commission of 8% to 15% on each item.
What's worse, when brands come under review for spamming, Google says that they already ranked #1 so there is no reason to penalize them. Which is precisely why you can now buy rugs on Barnes & Noble. And it is precisely why you can find dating offers, education offers, jobs, and automotive sections on Excite.com. There is no SEO risk in brand extension for large brands that can do no wrong.
Google puts weight on domain names then suggests that domains can be a spam tool. So in a sense, if you invest in whatever Google trusts and are small you are a spammer. Whereas if you invest in whatever Google trusts and are large you deserve the benefit of the doubt & further promotion.
Google put the +1 button in display ads & claims that if you click on it you are recommending the site in the search results (in spite of having only seen an ad & not actually having seen the landing page yet! how hard is it to advertise "free money" and then offer up a landing page which says "oh, but there's a catch"?)
So if you have brand & money you can just flat out buy the "relevancy" signals. Yet if you try to create similar signals without paying Google & without owning a billion Dollar brand you are shunned & labeled as a spammer.
This subjective circular nonsense is getting a bit out of hand.
In summary, we are not SEOs and we are not affiliates.
We are a brand & we will buy retargeting AdWords ads + up our AdWords budget appropriately.
If we rebrand to remove "SEO" from the domain name can we please be added to Google's whitelist? ;)
So today Google announced that they have turned on SSL by default for logged in users, a feature that has been available for a while on encrypted.google.com. The way they set it up, as explained in this post, means that your search query will not be forwarded to the website you're visiting and that they can only see that you've come from an organic Google result. If you're buying AdWords however, you still get the query data.
This is what I call hypocrisy at work. Google cares about your privacy, unless they make money on you, then they don't. The fact is that due to this change, AdWords gets favored over organic results. Once again, Google gets to claim that it cares about your privacy and pulls a major public "stunt". The issue is, they don't care about your privacy enough to not give that data to their advertisers.
That might also enlighten you to the real issue: Google still has all your search data. It's just not allowing website owners to see it anymore. It's giving website owners aggregated data through Google Webmaster Tools, which would be nice if it hadn't shown to be so incredibly useless and inaccurate.
If Google really cared about your privacy, (delayed) retargeting wouldn't be available for advertisers. They wouldn't use your query data to serve you AdSense ads on pages, but I doubt they'll stop doing that, if they did they would have probably said so and made a big fuzz out of it.
If Google really cared, the keyword data that site owners now no longer receive from organic queries would no longer be available for advertisers either. But that would hit their bottom line, because it makes it harder to show ROI from AdWords, so they won't do that.
The Real Reason for killing organic referral data
So I think "privacy" is just a mere pretext. A "convenient" side effect that's used for PR. The real reason that Google might have decided to stop sending referral data is different. I think it is that its competitors in the online advertising space like Chitika and Chango are using search referral data to refine their (retargeted) ads and they're getting some astonishing results. In some ways, you could therefor describe this as mostly an anti-competitive move.
In my eyes, there's only one way out. We've now determined that your search data is private information. If Google truly believes that, it will stop sharing it with everyone, including their advertisers. Not sharing vital data like that with third parties but using it solely for your own profit is evil and anti-competitive. In a country such as the Netherlands where I live, where Google has a 99%+ market share, in other words: a monopoly, I'm hoping that'll result in a bit of action from the European Union.
Joost is a freelance SEO consultant and WordPress developer. He blogs on yoast.com about both topics and maintains some of the most popular WordPress plugins for SEO and Google Analytics in existence.
Google would spin Performics out of DoubleClick, and sell it to holding firm Publicis. Only one major force inside of Google hated the plan. Guess who? Larry Page.
According to our source, Larry tried to sell the rest of Google's executive team on keeping Performics. "He wanted to see how those things work. He wanted to experiment."
A search engine selling SEO services? Yep.
And now they are aggressively entering the make money online niche. Both Prizes.org & YouTube are in the top 3 ad slots for "make money online"
And I am seeing some of those across portions of the content/display network as well. I just saw this in Gmail today.
How does this align with the Google AdWords TOS?
To protect the value and diversity of the ads running on Google, we don't generally permit advertisers to manage multiple accounts featuring the same business or keywords except in certain limited exceptions. Furthermore, Google doesn't permit multiple ads from the same or an affiliated company or person to appear on the same results page. We've found that pages with multiple text ads from the same company provide less relevant results and a lower quality experience for users. Over time, multiple ads from the same source also reduce overall advertiser performance and lower their return on investment.
Google doesn't allow advertisers or affiliates to have any of the following:
Ads across multiple accounts for the same or similar businesses
Ads across multiple accounts triggered by the same or similar keywords
Google has recently began refining search queries far more aggressively. In the past they would refine search queries if they thought there was a misspelling, but new refinements have taken to changing keywords that are spelled correctly to align them with more common (and thus profitable) keywords.
disclosure: in the past refinement disclosures appeared at the top of the search results, but now it often ends up at the bottom
awful errors: a couple months after I was born my wife was born in Manila. When I was doing some searches about visiting & things like that, sometimes Google would take the word "Manila" out of the search query. (My guess is because the word "Manila" is also a type of envelope?)
Here is an example of an "awful error" in action. Let's say while traveling you find a great gift & want to send it to extended family. Search for [shipping from las vegas to manila] and you get the following
The search results contain irrelevant garbage like an Urban Spoon page for Las Vegas delivery restaurants.
How USELESS is that?
And now, with disclosure of changes at the bottom of the search results, there isn't even a strong & clean signal to let end users tell Google "hey you are screwing this up badly."
In some ways I am inspired by Google's willingness to test and tweak, but in others I wonder if their new model for search is to care less about testing and hope that SEOs will highlight where Google is punting it bad. In that case, they just roped me into offering free advice. ;)
It doesn't matter what "signals" Google chooses to use when Google also gets to score themselves however they like. And even if Google were not trying to bias the promotion of their own content then any signals they do collect on Google properties will be over-represented by regular Google users.
Google can put out something fairly average, promote it, then iterate to improve it as they collect end user data. Publishers as big as MotorTrend can't have that business model though. And smaller publishers simply get effectively removed from the web when something like Panda or a hand penalty hits them. Worse yet, upon "review" search engineers may choose to review an older version of the site rather than the current site!
With that level of uncertainty, how do you aggressively invest in improving your website?
Over a half-year after Panda launched there are few case studies of recoveries & worse yet, some of the few sites that recovered just relapsed!
If you look at search using a pragmatic & holistic view, then this year the only thing that really changed with "content" farms is you can now insert the word video for content & almost all that video is hosted on Youtube.
To highlight the absurdity, I created another XtraNormal video. :)
Compete.com's Google downstream search traffic stats are available with a premium membership to their site, & they do a good job of showing the actual traffic impact of the aggregate algorithmic changes. YouTube's growth is also well reflected in numbers from firms like SearchMetrics
Then more ads below it. Then a single organic listing with huge sublinks too. And unless you have a huge monitor at that point you are "below the fold."
Negative advertising in AdWords is not allowed. So long as you build enough brand signals & pay the Google toll booth, public relations issues & reputation issues won't be accessible to searchers unless they learn to skip over the first screen of search results.
While it is generally against Google's TOS for advertisers to double dip in AdWords (outside of the official prescribed oversize ad units highlighted above), Google is doing exactly that with their multitude of brands.
Another friend sent me a message today: "just got a whole swathe of non-interlinked microsites torched today. Bastard! Just watching the rank reports coming in..."
I haven't seen his sites, but based on how he described them "whole swathe" I wouldn't guess the quality to be super high. One thing you could say for them was that they were unique.
Where putting in the effort to create original content falls flat on its face is when search engines chose to outrank aggregators (or later copies) over the original source. The issue has got so out of hand that Google has come right out & asked for help with it.
Some Google+ SEO factors now trump linking as prime algo ingredient. Google+ is already and clearly influencing rankings. I watched a presentation last night that definitely showed that rankings can occur from Google+ postings and photo's with no other means of support.
As Google+ grows - so will Google's understanding of how to use it as rankings signals.
We are not playing Google+ because we want too - we are playing Google+ because we have to.
I read that sorta half hoping he was wrong, but know he rarely is.
And then today Google hit me across the head with a 2x4, proving he was right again.
I recently got put in a test bucket for Google's new layout with a "search results" bar near the top of the page. Generally this impacts the search results in a couple ways:
First off, it is a much better looking design. In the past when the search results would move up and down with Google Instant it really felt like a hack rather than something you would see on the leading internet company's main website. Now with the results fixed it feels much cleaner & much more well put together.
The more stable basic layout of the SERP will allow Google to integrate yet more vertical data into it while making it still look & feel decent. Google may have localized search suggestions & the organic results for a significant period of time, but the combination of them with this new layout where the search results don't move feels much more cohesive.
To get the white space right on the new layout Google shifted from offering 5 Instant suggestion to 4. The Google Instant results don't disappear unless you hit enter, but because the interface doesn't change & move there isn't as much need to click enter. The search experience feels more fluid.
The horizontal line above the search results and the word "Search" in red in the upper left of the page is likely to pull some additional attention toward Google's vertical search features, helping Google to collect more feedback on them (and further use that user behavior to create a signal to drive further integration of the verticals into the regular organic search results).
On the flip side of this, in the past the center column would move up & down while the right column would remain stationary, so I would expect this to slightly diminish right column ad clicks (that appeared at the top even when the organic results moved downward) while boosting center column clicks to offset that.
In the past, when Google Instant would disappear from view, that would pull the center column organic results up a bit.
This always-on bar shifts the pixels above the first search result from about 123 to 184...so roughly 60 pixels downward.
As a baseline, a standard organic listing with no extensions is about 90 pixels tall, so this moves the search results down roughly 2/3 of a listing, which should drive more traffic to the top paid search ads & less to the organic results below them (offset by any diminished clicks on the right column ads).
I tried to line up the results pretty closely on the new test results to show what they look like with Google Instant results showing & after you hit enter. Scroll over the below image to see how the result layout doesn't really change with Google Instant hidden or extended.
And here is an example image showing how the location is sometimes inserted directly into both the organic search results and the search suggestions.
Here is an image using Google's browser size tool to show how end users see the new search results. Note that in this example I used a keyword where Google has comparison/advisor ads, so in markets where they do not yet have those you would move all the organic results one spot up from what is shown below.