Brands vs Query Refinement: Is Google Using The Second Search?

Patrick Altoft highlighted how Matthew Trewhella (from Google) may have tipped Google's hand a bit about what was known as the Vince / brand update:

Matthew [said] the brand update is about Google minimising the number of times people have to search to find the products or information they are looking for. Every time a user has to perform a second search Google regards it as their failure for not bring up the right result the first time.

So what Google is doing is testing which results are going to give the least number of secondary searches and displaying those. In the past somebody might have searched for “travel insurance” and found a few good sites before remembering that the Post Office does travel insurance too and searched for them to get a comparison. For Google this is regarded as a bit of a failure because they didn’t bring up the Post Office in the first place.

Understanding the bold part above also highlights why Google dislikes many affiliate based business models. Google views itself as the affiliate, and if Google sends the searcher through an affiliate page which does not add significant value (ie: no coupon, no in depth original editorial review, no value add comparisons, etc.) then they feel the extra click was a failure.

Microsoft's ad lab offers a search funnels tool which allows you to view what searches occurred prior to or after a search for a particular keyword.

If you look at some of the above branded keywords associated with credit cards you will see those brands ranking in Google's search results for credit cards.

About 3 weeks ago Dave Peiris highlighted a similar set of theories about the Google update, noting how some of the related searches seemed to be driven in some cases by the next search query. If user satisfaction remains constant or increases slightly (as one might expect it to, since brand is in part driven by exposure, and we tend to like & trust things that we are aware of more) with such algorithmic changes then you can expect Google to keep pushing them on more and more keywords (at least until it starts to harm relevancy slightly). Why?

  • Google would prefer to police a few thousand companies rather than policing millions of individuals (this is equally true for organic search and AdWords)
  • AdWords is approaching a natural price ceiling in many markets based on direct advertiser ROI (and perhaps some related measures like lifetime customer value)
  • as Google's display ad network grows they will get more taste of the branding ad dollars (from when you try to advertise to build a brand right on through when they are cashing in on your branding efforts by selling ads against it)
  • promoting brands helps promote irrational and wasteful and abstract advertising campaigns that can only attempt to be justified when thinking about (and guesstimating) the broader branding impacts of the additional exposure
  • advertising creates search volume. with fewer and fewer people clicking traditional display ads (8% of the Internet user base accounts for 85% of all clicks) Google needs to find a way to ensure that publishers are still getting some credit AND as Google plasters ads over 75% of the web they want to can claim such ads indeed did help drive conversions to further help justify the ad spend (hence the recent view-through conversion AdWords data-point)

Many thin website models (unremarkable thin affiliate, AdSense publisher with thin keyword-targeted content, etc.) will slowly get chipped away at by such algorithms if Google moves this down the query stream (though they can't go too deep into the longtail with it or they would start impacting relevancy in a negative way).

As an SEO, this query recycling concept (if expanded) means that you not only want to rank, but you want to deliver ***an experience*** remarkable enough that people actively search it out by name. And you want to be one of the first couple brands that people think of for your core target keyword.

Search is already heavily influenced by a rich get richer effect and the concept of cumulative advantage. And with search engines potentially feeding search query chains back into the relevancy algorithms, it gets that much harder to come from behind in saturated markets unless you change the model or target different keywords. If you are late to the game and a #10 player it might make sense to brand yourself against the second largest keyword rather than being an after-thought in a more saturated keyword market.

Published: October 16, 2009 by Aaron Wall in google


d marks
October 16, 2009 - 4:24pm

Great recap of the changes that are taking place and the upcoming caffeine update. It certainly appears their goal is to pressure the affiliate/lead gen model..

I am not sure if the new algo has vastly improved the spam functionality, for example, I dont think placing more empasis on the domain name, as it appears this update does is really in the best long term interest of searchers.. it would be nice if there was more concrete pr from google on this, but obviously this is wishful thinking..

October 17, 2009 - 1:44am

Google is completely ignoring the fact that sometimes people search beyond the first query EXACTLY BECAUSE it was the first results they've looked at and they believe they 'haven't seen everything there is yet'.

How many people buy the first thing that's put in front of them, even if it's the perfect item for their needs?

Most will continue to 'shop around' even just to satisfy the feeling that they're safe buying the first item they looked at and aren't missing out on something better.

Google isn't "failing" simply because users want to 'shop around' a bit more in the SERPs. This is a retarded assumption on the part of G.

Add to that too, that sometimes people don't even know what they want exactly until they see a list of things they don't want i.e. the first serp results.

All of this brand crap is a cop out because it makes it so much easier just to throw up a brand and go 'I have no idea what you want, take this'. It's probably why wikipedia shows up everywhere.

October 17, 2009 - 1:35pm

Agree with Geordie. IF it's true that Google sees a second search as their "failure", then they're overlooking a fundamental area of search : comparitive searching.

People LIKE to search more than once because sometimes one set of search results isn't enough to make an evaluation on something.

Also people like to search for generic keywords like "credit cards" or "website templates" or "running shoes" because they WANT to compare various brands/websites.

I think if it's true that Google will push brands higher and higher, then their results will start to become very stale, and people will move to Bing as a search engine that lists "alternative" results.

October 17, 2009 - 6:50pm

Great comment Geordie! I really think that promoting brands is more about making the job of engineers easier + consolidating markets + giving a bit of a back door benefit to the largest ad buyers.

I also think of the brand promotion this way: these companies have spent cumulatively billions (perhaps trillions?) of Dollars advertising. IF I am still searching for a generic keyword (rather than a brand) in spite of the big ad spend, well then maybe I am looking for something else?

Dan Murray
October 19, 2009 - 4:55pm

Its just over 60 trillion that is being spent on advertising and promotion for main brand on and off the internet. When you know that you may think, how can I compete with that!

But that where Niche marketing has always comes in, letting anyone with a passion to make a great living/income online.

It seems to me that Google is selling out. Taking niche marketing out of the game. "The Rich get richer, and the poor stay poor".

Googles walking on thin ice here.

October 20, 2009 - 7:54pm

Hi Aaron, great post. I think it's fair logic on Google's part. Assuming of course the SEOs at Visa, Mastercard etc don't read this and get any ideas:

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