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)
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