I’m surprised the SEO industry continues to perpetuate the assertion that Google prefers “brands.” The word “brand” is used as if it is a ranking factor, like PageRank. This thing that SEOs call “Brand” is a symptom of a site that has their ranking factors in order. Brand is not the ranking factor itself. If “brands” dominate the SERPs it’s because their ranking factors are in order and more importantly, because the competition is still thinking in terms of “200 ranking signals” and optimizing like it’s 2006.
That said, a good argument can be made that brands have an unfair advantage over sites with less deep pockets. Who is right? There are SEO concepts that are believed that should not be blindly accepted because there is little to no scientific basis or statement from the search engines to confirm them. The idea that being a brand is important for ranking is a major SEO myth that ironically began from a speech given by Google’s CEO at the time, Eric Schmidt. It’s time we took an honest look at what he said and most importantly put his words into the context in which they were spoken in order to find the truth about brands and their relation to ranking in Google.
In late 2008 AdAge reported on a speech Eric Schmidt gave at an industry conference of magazine executives.
“Brands are the solution, not the problem,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Brands are how you sort out the cesspool.”
Sounds like Google prefers brands, right? But let’s examine the context of that speech. It was given in the context of a speech meant to reassure magazine executives that Google wasn’t out to replace them. Here is what AdAge reported:
“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… magazines and other professional content creators are essential for Google’s efforts to help people find desirable content, he explained. “We don’t do content,” he said. “You all create content. It’s a natural partnership.”
Eric Schmidt was not speaking about the search algorithm at all. To take his words and put them into the context of Google’s algorithm is a mistake. The context was as far away from the algorithm as it could possibly be. There was a point however where Eric Schmidt was asked about the algorithm, a question about ranking better. His response was, “The fundamental way to increase your rank is to increase your relevance…” When the topic switched to one about the algorithm, Eric Schmidt told them to keep making good content. He didn’t wink and tell them to keep up the good work of being brands. He didn’t advise them to keep being brands. He said to keep making good content. It is a mistake to insist that Eric Schmidt’s statement about brands is Google’s smoking gun about favoring brands.
It is said that the news media functions like an echo chamber where something partially true is repeated from mouth to mouth, quoted and re-quoted until in time the statement is taken for fact. There is an SEO echo chamber, too. For example, when a patent was awarded to Google that was said to be related to Panda, there was mention of a concept called “implied links” and the reaction from the industry was “I knew it!” and the concept of “brand mentions” was linked to the concept of unlinked citations which was then folded into the overall myth of brand as a ranking factor.
There is truth to the idea that search queries that mention a site (or brand) may play a role in search algorithms. But the concept of “implied links” has never been a part of that concept. Those are two distinct concepts that are totally unrelated. There was nothing in the awarded patent or any research paper ever that implies a thing called “brand mentions” in the context of implied links. The concept of “brand mentions” is basically something that someone made up. But do a search for “Brand Mentions” and you will see numerous articles promoting the idea that brand mentions are a ranking factor, even though there is no research or patent or statement out of any search engine to confirm it. Zero. No evidence. But don’t take my word for it. You can hear it straight from Google. John Mueller confirmed that unlinked URLs (implied links) may be used for content discovery but not as a ranking factor. Back to brands.
What is brand?
Brand is just a marketing goal that allows a company to sell their product or service for a premium. That’s pretty much it. According to Brand expert Marty Neumeier’s (Google sponsored) Brand Dictionary, the definition of Brand is:
“A person’s perception of a product, service, experience, or organization; a commercial reputation.”
The process of building that positive “commercial reputation” involves creating perceptions such as authority, honesty or convenience, qualities that appeal to consumers. Think of Apple, eBay or Amazon. In some forum communities I belong to Amazon is one of the most linked to websites even though there are other sites that specialize in the topic of those forums. Yet those elements that make Amazon trusted created a situation where people prefer to link to them. Brand doesn’t happen by itself. It is built on awareness. It is built by standing out. People talk about this and then recommend that. Along the way the signals of authority such as links happen. Yes, so-called brands can rank well. But not because they are brands.
Now here is the simple but important idea to consider: Search algorithms have always aspired to identify important sites (authority) and relevance. Brands rank well because they built awareness and cultivated all the precursors of authority and relevance that lead to links. Brand is not a ranking signal. But building a brand can help cultivate the signals that help a site rank well. I discussed this phenomenon with search marketer Joe Hall and he offered:
“I do believe that Google prefers patterns that are typically associated with sites that have established brands.”
In the introduction to Marty Neumeier’s Dictionary of Brand, Suzie Reider, a former YouTube executive who is currently on Google’s Media Solutions Team wrote that the “skills of the Industrial Age are inadequate in a century that requires higher levels of empathy, thinking, imagination, design, and adaptability- in short, the very skills needed to build successful brands.”
I believe that describes our SEO industry well. There is too much focus on Industrial Age skills of mass production in the service of cranking out scaled content like a factory and not enough empathy for the site visitor, not enough thinking about delivering what site visitors aspire to or wish to accomplish, not enough imagination to differentiate a site, or good design (user experience) and most importantly an ability to change directions so as to adapt to the shifting winds of time and fashion.
A myth is like a door that opens to a brick wall. Breaking through the wall allows you to see things for what they are, to move forward toward a more profitable approach because ultimately that’s really why were in this, right?
Latest posts by Roger Montti (see all)
- Make Diversification a Major Part of All SEO Strategy - September 15, 2015
- Brand is Not a Ranking Factor - March 12, 2015
- Rethinking Outbound Linking - January 29, 2015
- TrustRank Teardown – Is Trust a Useful Metric? - January 7, 2015
Emory Rowland says
“The word “brand” is used as if it is a ranking factor, like PageRank.”
Any examples you can share?
I think one link is enough in this case http://www.seobook.com/learn-seo/infographics/brand-branding-brands.php
I used to live a short drive from Aaron Wall when I lived in California. He’s attended a few of my social activities many years ago. I have great respect and esteem for him. But even if I didn’t know or esteem him, I still would decline to deconstruct his infographic because I feel ideas should stand on their own merits and it’s up to the readers to make up their own minds. I do encourage you to read this article, particularly from the third paragraph onward, where I address the Eric Schmidt quote about Brands being the solution and make it clear to anyone with an open mind that the quote had a vastly different context.
Emory, I won’t out anyone specifically. However I’ll be happy to clarify the ideas in the article. Here’s the short answer:
Any time someone discusses “brand signals” they are treating brand as a ranking factor and it simply is not so.
Here’s the long answer:
1. Any time someone discusses “brand signals” or states that “Google prefers brands” they are starting from a position that it helps to be a brand, that Google is actively looking for brands and that in order to rank well you need to be a brand.
2. This notion begins with Eric Schmidt’s statement about brands being the answer, a statement that my article examines in context and reveals that
a. The statement is not about ranking and
b. To apply that statement in the context of ranking is in error. It might be said that it’s an indication of where Google’s head was when it created the latest algorithms but it’s important to not allow preconceived ideas to interfere with the factual context of that statement. I won’t restate the context, please read the article for what the “cesspool” statement really meant.
So the first point is that the “smoking gun” for the concept that Google prefers brands, Eric Schmidt’s statement, is not really smoking nor is it a gun. The second point is that yes, brands tend to rank well, but it’s not because they are brands. It is as Joe Hall opined, that Google (and other search engines) tend to prefer patterns that are typically associated with brands. Now here is a really good point that I failed to mention: As far as I know, there is no research study or granted patent that explicitly shows researchers stating that brands are what they are after. Consistently, from research paper to research paper they are looking for genuine authority and genuine relevance. Period. “Brand signals” are never discussed because Brand is not a signal.
Alan Bleiweiss says
This is an OUTSTANDING post on what it means to be a “brand” from an SEO perspective Roger. Well written, spot on and crucial for SEOs, developers, designers, managers and site owners to understand, accept and adapt to.
Chris Ainsworth says
Great post Roger and a great attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding branding as a ranking factor.
I agree branding itself is not a ranking signal and that Google intterprets the patterns that are typically associated with brands. One of those patterns is trust.
Well-known brands often naturally have a higher level of trust than smaller, lesser known brands which may contribute to what seems like big brand preference, but it’s the contribution of factors/patterns related to brand trust and integrity that’s the key.
The notion of trust as an influential factor was somewhat introduced through Vince back in 2009 so isn’t a new topic at all but again often confused with a “big brand push”. But what is trust? How do you build trust? How inflential is trust? And how is trust measured? That’s a whole different ball game entirely!
As you say I think the topic of brand and its relationship with the search algorithm has become somewhat clouded over the years, but no one will argue that building a strong, trustworthy and credible brand is essential on multiple levels way beyond the relms of Google! 🙂