Does Google Have a Brand Bias?
Google has a bias toward brands? So says Aaron Wall in his infographic he wants you all to share:
Many people will believe this because of Aaron Wall’s personal brand, as he was one of the first to expose the closely guarded secrets of SEO to the masses with his SEO book web site, and he writes detailed posts that are sometimes thoughtful even if they’re misguided, which have gained him a reputation and the nickname “The Professor”. He has a loyal following of SEO geeks who are probably upset that I’m even asking this question, but is it true? Does Google search have a bias toward brands?
I work with businesses large and small doing white hat SEO, and some of these engagements over the last ten years were with the biggest brands on the planet: FedEx, Apple, Lowe’s, Groupon, Gatorade, etc. I know the challenges that small businesses face when trying to appear for relevant queries in Google, and I’ve worked with enough large brands in my career to know that large brands have challenges too.
Affiliates Dominate the Organic Listings
If Google favored brands, brands would come up in the search results ahead of affiliate sites a large percentage of the time, no? But have you used Google lately? The results are often filled with small businesses and affiliate sites. Take, for example, the query [deal of the day] or [daily deals]. These are high volume queries that brands large and small would love to rank for, and a lot of them have content that is relevant to the query, but only one large brand appears in the search results for [deal of the day] (Amazon), and only two well-known brands appear for the query [daily deals] (Target, eBay). Groupon or LivingSocial are some of the hottest brands in the daily deal space, but they don’t show up for the terms. Who does? Affiliates, mostly; and small businesses with exact match domains and content that’s highly targeted to that query.
How about Black Friday? It’s coming up in a few days, and Walmart and Target are spending millions to get people in the stores and online to entice consumers to buy with them. Yet, most searches for black Friday terms are dominated by affiliates, and Walmart and Target are nowhere to be found. If trends are any indication, it looks to be bigger this year in the US than ever before, and many brands with Black Friday sales would love to appear for this query. But Google doesn’t show brands at all.
Thanksgiving is in a few days, and cranberry sauce is currently number 20 on Google’s Hot Trends at the time of writing. When you look at the results, SEMRush shows that the first result is not a major brand, but SimplyRecipes.com, which is owned by one woman in California.
The first five results, in fact, are not large brands, but advertising-driven publishers: simplyrecipes.com and allrecipes.com.
Searchers won’t generally look past the first five results, but if we do we see that smaller brands make up 60% of the top 20 listings, according to SEMRush.
Another of the hot trends queries this week, [green bean casserole], has a branded website as the first result– CampbellKitchen.com, a site owned by Campbell’s Soup Company that showcases related brands. But if we look at that site compared to SimplyRecipes.com, it’s clear that SimplyRecipes.com– the affiliate site– is the more powerful domain:
You can see Simply Recipes is clearly the smaller of the two brands, as the search volume for its brand terms is a little over 21,000 searches per month, while Campbell’s Kitchen brand terms get over 790,000 searches per month. In spite of that, Simply Recipes shows on more than twice as many non-brand keywords with 15x the search volume. According to comScore, this gives Simply Recipes (the affiliate site) about 13x the organic traffic of the brand site Campbell’s Kitchen.
Tell me again how Google loves brands?
What is a Brand, Exactly?
One problem with the Google loves brands theory is that one’s definition of brand could include these smaller brands like Simply Recipes. They’re definitely not a large brand, as they’re not listed in lists of the top 100 global brands, and it’s unlikely that most searchers are aware of Simply Recipes before their first visit to the site. In terms of navigational search volume, which is how search engines can determine brand strength, Campbell’s brands are much stronger than Simply Recipes in terms of brand recognition and search volume, but Simply Recipes still has 21,000 searches per month, and it could be argued is still a brand. However, where do you draw the line? How would Google, in Aaron Wall’s theory, determine what a brand is in order to give it preferential treatment? It would almost have to be in terms of navigational search volume, and in this case the opposite of Wall’s theory occurs: lesser brands get more traffic from Google. Does it matter if it is a brand with search volume if the search volume is so much less than a brand that it’s trouncing in the search results? At some point it becomes impossible to prove or disprove the theory, as any web site with a name could constitute a “brand”; and of course that includes just about all of them.
Still, I keep running into situations in the search results where large brands are getting trounced by affiliate sites for high volume competitive informational, non-brand keywords, and I wonder how many instances like these I can demonstrate before it’s clear to everyone that Google doesn’t give brands more visibility in search results than affiliate sites.
Google as Democratic Enabler
In the comments of the post Aaron Wall says that this theory isn’t about brands appearing in the organic search results 100% of the time, but appearing in the six other places on the SERP he mentions at the close of the infographic. But really, anyone with a local business, a paid search budget (however small) or a shopping feed can appear in any of these slots. What do these have to do with brands?
And visibility in search suggest and on the search results query refinements is about search volume, not about brands, per se. People search for brands because brands spend millions promoting their wares, and create demand. Google sees the search volume around brands and common keywords and wants to give people what they’re asking for faster. That’s why they also list types and stores in the search refinements. People search by stores, types and brands for certain general queries, and Google includes quick links to these queries to get users to the results they’re looking for faster. It’s not a conspiracy against affiliates. It’s a search engine creating a better product that serves its users better.
There’s a reason Google released the Panda on the SEO community: because they were getting killed in the press for providing low quality results. When sites come up that don’t match a searcher’s intent, and don’t solve that searcher’s problem, Google fails at its job and runs the risk of having its users defect to Bing, Blekko, Facebook, Twitter, or some other source of relevant information. Users search for brands, and Google is giving them what they’re searching for. It’s really as simple as that.
Enterprise SEO Challenges
What Wall’s infographic doesn’t get into is how difficult it is for brands to appear in search results because they’re frequently shooting themselves in the foot. Affiliates often have an advantage over large brands because they can move faster and implement at will. In large organizations promoting large brands it can often take months to change website copy because it has to go through multiple departments and stakeholders in order to get implemented, and sometimes positive change on a website is overridden because of turnover or another department with another initiative and no knowledge of the positive change that has occurred. I once had a client with more than 100,000 authoritative links being prevented from passing link equity because of a temporary redirect and no one to care. Small brands don’t have these problems. It’s common in enterprise SEO to have to come in after a redesign in which the entire site was designed in Flash or AJAX and go through months of education and project management in order to get the site indexed again, let alone returned in search results for relevant keywords. Affiliates may have problems with Panda or generating link equity, but large brands have issues of their own. Even if Google wanted to move every large brand to the front of the search results (which they obviously don’t, given the results I’m seeing), many big brands would be making it difficult for them to do that by splitting their link equity a thousand different ways and accidentally removing their sites from the index.
If you don’t represent a large brand and you want search visibility, don’t cry about it with infographics about how evil Google is for doing their jobs. Do what Wall did back in 2004 and align your brand with something people are searching for that you sell. I’ve been doing SEO long enough where I remember seeing Aaron Wall do his own branding by buying paid search ads for queries he wasn’t ranking on in 2004 when no one really knew who he was. But because SEO was new and one of the top queries at the time related to SEO was [seo book], Wall was savvy enough to make it his brand. Large brands spend millions on advertising to create or stimulate demand, but if you align your brand with a keyword that already has demand, the playing field is leveled.
Bottom line is, brands have problems, just as affiliates do. They’re just different problems. If you’re an affiliate marketer, stop wasting your time complaining and move quickly and experiment, because many large brands, for whatever advantages they may or may not have in search, will almost always be at a disadvantage there.