Originally when we published this we were going to make it subscriber only content, but the change is so important that I thought we should share some of it with the entire SEO industry. This post starts off with a brief history of recent algorithm updates, and shows the enormous weight Google is placing on branded search results.
The Google Florida Update
I got started in the search field in 2003, and one of the things that helped get my name on the map was when I wrote about the November 14th Google Florida update in a cheeky article titled Google Sells Christmas . To this day many are not certain exactly what Google changed back then, but the algorithm update seemed to hit a lot of low level SEO techniques. Many pages that exhibited the following characteristics simply disappeared from the search results
- repetitive inbound anchor text with little diversity
- heavy repetition of the keyword phrase in the page title and on the page
- words is a phrase exhibiting close proximity with few occurrences of the keywords spread apart
- a lack of related/supporting vocabulary in the page copy
The Google Florida update was the first update that made SEO complicated enough to where most people could not figure out how to do it. Before that update all you needed to do was buy and/or trade links with your target keyword in the link anchor text, and after enough repetition you stood a good chance of ranking.
Google Austin, Other Filters/Penalties/Updates/etc.
In the years since Google has worked on creating other filters and penalties. At one point they tried to stop artificial anchor text manipulation so much that they accidentally filtered out some brands for their official names .
The algorithms have got so complex on some fronts that Google engineers do not even know about some of the filters/penalties/bugs (the difference between the 3 labels often being an issue of semantics). In December 2007, a lot of pages that ranked #1 suddenly ended up ranking no better than position #6  for their core target keyword (and many related keywords). When questioned about this, Matt Cutts denied the problem until after he said they had already fixed it. 
When Barry asked me about "position 6" in late December, I said that I didn't know of anything that would cause that. But about a week or so after that, my attention was brought to something that could exhibit that behavior. We're in the process of changing the behavior; I think the change is live at some datacenters already and will be live at most data centers in the next few weeks.
Recent Structural Changes to the Search Results
Google helped change the structure of the web in January 2005 when they proposed a link rel=nofollow tag . Originally it was said to stop blog spam, but by September of the same year, Matt Cutts changed his tune to where you were considered a spammer if you were buying links without using rel=nofollow on them. Matt Cutts documented some of his repeated warnings on the Google Webmaster Central blog. 
A bunch of allegedly "social" websites have adopted the use of the nofollow tag,  turning their users into digital share-croppers  and eroding the link value  that came as a part of being a well known publisher who created link-worthy content.
In May of 2007 Google rolled out Universal search , which mixes in select content from vertical search databases directly into the organic search results. This promoted
- Google News
- Youtube videos (and other video content)
- Google Product Search
- Google Maps/Local
- select other Google verticals, like Google Books
These 3 moves (rel=nofollow, social media, and universal search), coupled with over 10,000 remote quality raters , has made it much harder to manipulate the search results quickly and cheaply unless you have a legitimate well trusted site that many people vouch for. (And it does not hurt to have spent a couple hours reading their 2003, 2005, and 2007 remote quality guidelines that were leaked into the SEO industry. 
Tracking Users Limits Need for "Random" Walk
The PageRank model is an algorithm built on a random walk of links on the web graph. But if you have enough usage data, you may not need to base your view of the web on that perspective since you can use actual surfing data to help influence the search results. Microsoft has done research on this concept, under the name of BrowseRank.  In Internet Explorer 8 usage data is sent to Microsoft by default.
Google's Chrome browser phones home  and Google also has the ability to track people (and how they interact with content) through Google Accounts, Google Analytics, Google AdSense, DoubleClick, Google AdWords, Google Reader, iGoogle, Feedburner, and Youtube.
Yesterday we launched a well received linkbait, and the same day our rankings for our most valuable keywords were lifted in both Live and Google, part of that may have been the new links, but I would be willing to bet some of it was caused from 10,000's of users finding their way to our site.
Google's Eric Schmidt Offers Great SEO Advice
If you ask Matt Cutts what big SEO changes are coming up he will tell you "make great content" and so on...never wanting to reveal the weaknesses of their search algorithms. Eric Schmidt, on the other hand, is frequently talking to media and investors with intent of pushing Google's agendas and all the exciting stuff that is coming out. In the last 6 months Mr. Schmidt has made a couple quotes that smart SEOs should incorporate into their optimization strategies - one on brands , and another on word relationships .
Here is Mr. Schmidt's take on brands from last October
The internet is fast becoming a "cesspool" where false information thrives, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said yesterday. Speaking with an audience of magazine executives visiting the Google campus here as part of their annual industry conference, he said their brands were increasingly important signals that content can be trusted.
"Brands are the solution, not the problem," Mr. Schmidt said. "Brands are how you sort out the cesspool."
"Brand affinity is clearly hard wired," he said. "It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away. It must have a genetic component."
And here is his take on word relationships from the most recent earnings call
“Wouldn’t it be nice if Google understood the meaning of your phrase rather than just the words that are in that phrase? We have a lot of discoveries in that area that are going to roll out in the next little while.”
The January 18th Google Update Was Bigger Than Florida, but Few People Noticed it
Tools like RankPulse  allow you to track the day to day Google ranking changes for many keywords.
4 airlines recently began ranking for "airline tickets"
At least 90% of the first page of search results for auto insurance is owned by large national brands.
3 boot brands / manufacturers rose from nowhere to ranking at the top of the search results.
3 of the most well recognized diet programs began ranking for diets.
4 multi-billion dollar health insurance providers just began ranking, with Aetna bouncing between positions #1 and 2.
3 of the largest online education providers began ranking for online degree.
5 watch brands jumped onto the first page of search results for watches. To be honest I have never heard of Nixon Now.
The above images are just some examples. Radioshack.com recently started ranking for electronics and Hallmark.com just recently started ranking for gifts. The illustrations do not list all brands that are ranking, but brands that just started ranking. Add in other brands that were already ranking, and in some cases brands have 80% or 90% of the first page search results for some of the most valuable keywords. There are thousands of other such examples across all industries if you take the time to do the research, but the trend is clear - Google is promoting brands for big money core category keywords.
Want to read the rest of our analysis? If you are a subscriber you can access it here.
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