How Brands Became Hardwired/coded in Google's SERPs

May 8th

In October of 2008 Eric Schmidt announced that SEO was about to get really ugly for anyone who doesn't own a brand. He didn't word it that way though. Rather, he stated

"Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away. It must have a genetic component." - Eric Schmidt

In response to that comment (& some of Google's pro-brand algorithmic updates) I created the following video.

Google's Brand Promotion History

Ultimately Google promotes brands for the same reason they promote Wikipedia: it is (generally) safe & easy.

Here is a history of how brand promotion became part of "the algorithm"

  • In 2003 Google did the infamous Florida update & ever since then they have generally trended toward placing more weight on domain authority (about the only big counter point to this would be Google's recent localization push)
  • Google's sandbox took it one step further by making it harder for new smaller sites to break through & giving them what amounts to a purgatory period
  • in 2006 BMW was caught spamming (after years of increased search traffic from spamming) they got a couple day slap on the wrist from Google. Smaller webmasters who were caught doing similar were penalized for far longer periods of time.
  • in 2005, shortly after announcing rel=nofollow, Google stepped up a campaign promoting FUD against link buying & promoting snitching (when combined with preferential treatment toward brands, this further favored big business at the expense of smaller webmasters)
  • over the years Google built increasingly sophisticated algorithmic filters to detect & demote aggressive link strategies (which, when coupled with brand promotion algorithms, further made it harder for small businesses to compete online)
  • in April of 2007 Google bought DoubleClick, highlighting Google's aspirations to move from demand fulfillment direct marketing ads into the lucrative brand advertising market
  • when the Google Vince update happened Google started placing more weight on search query chains, which would naturally favor large brands (due to their AdWords ad exposure on broader industry keywords & their large offline ad budgets - both of which aid recall by searchers)
  • when the Google Panda update happened Matt Cutts stated "we actually came up with a classifier to say, okay, IRS or Wikipedia or New York Times is over on this side, and the low-quality sites are over on this side." That algorithm allowed doorway pages & scraper sites to rank while killing off lots of smaller legitimate websites.

Sleazy Outing for Self-Promotion

In the later half of 2010 & the first few months of 2011 Google was getting beat up in the press about content farm spam (created by a combination of loose AdSense standards & Google putting too much weight on domain authority). To help deflect some of the bad press & show "who is boss" Google penalized both J.C Penny & Overstock.com for using manipulative links.

This past week the folks from Digital Due Diligence tipped of a NYT reporter for another hit piece. A lot of the top flower sites increase their ad budget around their busiest times of year, so coinciding with Mother's Day the New York Times highlighted how sites like ProFlowers, 1800Flowers, Teleflora & FTD were buying seedy links. I won't link at the NYT article because doing so would only promote more sleazy pageview journalism.

A Googler named Jake Hubert was quoted in the above mentioned article as saying the following:

"None of the links shared by The New York Times had a significant impact on our rankings, due to automated systems we have in place to assess the relevance of links. As always, we investigate spam reports and take corrective action where appropriate."

(Even Big Brands) Can't Rank Higher than #1

What is hilarious about that official Google comment is that sometimes Google has whacked websites based on perceived intent rather than results, & when I searched Google those 4 sites owned 6 first page results for that search query (along with the NYT article being listed as a 7th result (and 8th if you count the Google News result).

Google hard coded the algorithm to favor big brands (not once, but twice), promoted the big brands to the top of the search results, watches those brands violate their guidelines (in spite of said promotion) and then claimed that there is no corrective action needed for the violation since they already rank #1.

Well of course the paid links can't further improve a #1 ranking. You can't get any better than first place.

The good news for brands is that Googlers feel the sleazy outing angle is getting tired after J.C. Penny & Overstock.com & Google changed webmaster perception of their results with Panda (by making the common smaller webmaster pay for eHow's sins). Soon reporters won't justify wasting ink or bits on another sleazy SEO outing article because the pageviews won't be there.

At this point it is safe to say that Googlers don't really need to think of brands. All they have to do is search for *any* commercial keyword and click on the first result. The brand takes care of itself. :D

It looks like Eric Schmidt was right. Humans are hardwired for brands!

Indeed it is genetic.

Genetic algorithms that Google engineers code, with express intent of promoting brands! ;)

Published: May 8, 2011

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Comments

May 8, 2011 - 2:25pm

...you have Google saying that they do not manipulate the SERP or manually adjust it. Moreover it seems that if their algorithm is skewed towards brands they are just taking down innovation, new ideas and entrepreneurship. In other words they are creating a new bureaucracy were the established big guys can do whatever they want, while no matter how good you are in your niche for Google it is not enough. No wonders why even their employees are moving out of the company to Facebook and they had to give an across the board bonus pay (to buy their own employees which is disgusting).

May 8, 2011 - 5:39pm

You made a good point Leonel about Google employees moving out. It makes sense when they are killing the system so badly with their own scammy/spammy business. Torching small business sites like ours.

May 9, 2011 - 2:01am

their algorithm is skewed towards brands they are just taking down innovation, new ideas and entrepreneurship. In other words they are creating a new bureaucracy were the established big guys can do whatever they want, while no matter how good you are in your niche for Google it is not enough.

They claim & brand themselves as being pro-innovation, and yet their business strategy is precisely the opposite when it comes to the search results.

I think the brand reliance was created for the following reasons:

  • brand (much like Wikipedia) is a boring result of marginal utility, but safe & easy signal to put weight on. In the short run almost nobody (in terms of searchers, rather than webmasters) will complain about brands (at least until brands react to Google's strategy & aggressively produce doorway pages of less and less utility).
  • they have tapped out much of the direct response ad value & want to keep increasing yield by taking a slice of the brand ad market
  • a lot of the most valuable & highest volume keywords are brands (or keywords which contain a brand in them)
  • Google's AdSense program literally destroyed a lot of relevancy signals by encouraging the creation of a nearly unlimited pool of content that nobody would ever read unless they were sent there by a search engine.
  • as Google replaces webmaster content with scrapes of their own content hosted on a Google property Google can provide some of the more on-topic results simply by displaying more Google vertical search results (eg: places pages, maps stuff, user reviews, Youtube videos, etc.)
May 8, 2011 - 5:23pm

Someone needs to get trading standards involved. It's unfair, Google are not treating people equally. Adwords policies are a joke, they are clearly not transparent, and a lot of the time, aim to dampen the sales pitch.

May 8, 2011 - 9:15pm

...I can say that the Adwords program policies are pure BS. I have reported several websites without terms of services, privacy policies or contact which is against the TOS. At the same time the sites has been stealing even our scripts, content and rank #3. The website I have worked for in the SEO ranks #10. Google's response NONE. They keep serving ads and getting paid. So in a short I can say personally that there is no such a thing as Google policies when it is a matter of making money for Google.

May 9, 2011 - 1:54am

...that reporting anything will help you. Ultimately you are just trying to do Google's work for free by reporting websites & they will likely blow you off anyway. Why work for free for a company that doesn't respect the value of your work?

May 9, 2011 - 5:41pm

For the same reason I've pulled Google analytics off of all my sites last year. I realize that's probably not going to be a popular opinion here, but there are many great alternatives out there for very low cost or free (Clicky for example).

Why give Google my business data for free and allow them to track my customers? In addition, they can use those accounts to tie together everything else you do. I've seen Adwords advertisers get banned because they used G analytics on a "flagged" site that wasn't even being advertised but Google tied it to their Adwords account and gave them an "associated account" ban.

Google doesn't get my data anymore. In fact, I go to great lengths to avoid letting them know anything I do because it just gives them more rope to hang me with later.

May 9, 2011 - 5:58pm

...Not only we should not report anything to them anymore, we must stop providing our information to their advertisement network which controls everything from organic search to android market. It has been my experience during the last year on all the sites I have worked out that removing the Google analytics has resulted in a positive SERPs even over competitors using it. I plugged out the Analytics switch about 14 months ago. I am being tempted to delete my webmaster account soon!

May 9, 2011 - 11:43pm

...as some of their sleazy business dealings go public and nobody (with any sense) trusts them it will make it hard for Google to expand into new markets.

In the Skyhook wireless case Google used "compliance" to bludgeon partners into acting in anti-competitive ways to promote Google's various services in their alleged "open" operating system.

As quotes like this leak public:

In an e-mail on Aug. 6, 2010, Dan Morrill, a manager in the Android group, noted in passing that it was obvious to the phone makers that “we are using compatibility as a club to make them do things we want.”

people are starting to see Google as the sleazy organization they have become.

May 8, 2011 - 8:12pm

The minute you have them publicly admitting they "whitelist" certain properties while leaving others to the fate of an algorithm I think there at antitrust issues at play.

I can also guarantee that many of the big agencies that run Adwords campaigns for brands also have run them for large advertisers in the direct marketing world and as such, should be subject to the same bans others have seen. They are not.

May 9, 2011 - 1:52am

they have already admitted to using whitelisting

May 9, 2011 - 2:48pm

Part of Google's dilemma comes down to this: there are a few companies that are big enough to sue Google for perceived wrongs and a many more companies that aren't.

If a search for "BMW" turns up anything other than the official page of the Bavarian Motor Werks, BMW can claim that Google is infringing their trademark, damaging their brand, yada yada yada. BMW may or may not win, but could survive an extended court battle with Google that would put Google in a bad light and cause other big brands to "circle their wagons" around BMW.

On the other hand if there is some small or even decent-sized business (say $2M a year in revenue) that depends heavily on search traffic to make revenue, a business like that can't possibly sustain a battle in court against Google, particularly if Google makes their revenue go away.

What's funny about it is that many (but not all) large organizations are so bad at SEO that they'd have a hard time keeping the #1 spot being stolen away from them if Google wasn't working hard to make sure they come out on top.

May 9, 2011 - 4:56pm

When your mission statement is a 'Robin Hoodian' - To organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful - and you have so much power that you can start making big favours but just to the status quo big brands... well something is not consistent and it will start to break.

May 9, 2011 - 6:21pm

This video was really spot on and had me on the floor laughing. Although it was made for fun, it does bring up some serious issues with Google. The results are becoming more and more about brand and authority and a lot less about quality of content.

Matts kung-fu moves about 2/3 through were awesome. I wonder if he can move like that in real life. Maybe someone should suggest that as a segment during the upcoming Cuttscon.

May 9, 2011 - 9:46pm

... but it looks like Overstock was forgiven:

[vacuum cleaners]

One of the exact phrases they were outted for in the WSJ article. So, 2 1/2 months is enough of a penalty if you are a big brand, apparently, if your incentivized links were for discounts instead of cash (which iirc correctly Penney's were straight up paid links).

May 9, 2011 - 11:36pm

...have now been hit for more than 2.5 months. So, in essence, the penalty for being caught in the cross fire is now more drastic than the penalty for more overtly violating Google's guidelines to the point that it gets covered in the media.

Good job Google! ;)

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