Google’s pursuit of quality: why brands are a perfect fit

Anthony Kenny
By Anthony KennyHead of Digital Strategy
10 minutes to read

Over time, Google has evolved to focus on providing users with high quality search results. This has benefited brands which now have increased visibility for a vast number of competitive terms.

We’re by no means the first to cover this topic. Moz first educated us in 2015, SEMRush followed suit in 2017, and Malcolm Slade recently presented on the topic at Brighton SEO last year. But in this post I’ll tell you why it makes sense for Google (and other search engines) to rank brands higher up the search results. The answer lies in the way search engines have evolved, not only in terms of algorithms but as business models too.

 

Looking back

Over the past few years, it’s become common to see the first pages of search engines dominated by well-known brands, particularly for competitive “head” based keywords. For SEO practitioners and business owners, this has caused frustration; especially if you’ve experienced the days of quick improvements in rankings, traffic and conversions. Gone are the days of basic SEO improvements for quick fixes, now many feel as if there is a glass ceiling.

It’s even more frustrating when you begin to analyse the sites of brands that outrank you. In a bid to understand what it is that makes a difference and how to influence your own strategies, you may find that your competitors are going against everything you know. For example they may have:

  • Poor content – There might not be a great deal of content on the site, sometimes there’s no content at all or the content could be so poor or “over-optimised” that you wouldn’t want to replicate the technique. This doesn’t follow any of the advice or guides that have been seared into our brains over the years.

Overall, there isn’t an obvious gap that you can exploit and you may begin to question whether adding category copy, for example, is the right thing to do. It might not have any impact on the visibility of the site but it could benefit users and conversion rates.

  • Technical Issues – You would expect sites that rank highly in search engines to be, from an SEO perspective, technically superior to the competition. But we’ve seen many instances where even the basics are missing from websites with a recognisable brand. Elements such as page mark-up, XML sitemaps, meta tags, 301s, canonicals, robots.txt files and various other best practices simply aren’t there. Sometimes, even the things we’ve recently been told influence rankings are missing from highly ranking sites; page speed, HTTPS and much more aren’t present.

And yet despite this, brands still rank highly. So we can only assume their high level of visibility is down to their backlink profiles.

Links are, of course, a major factor in a site’s visibility on a domain level. However for websites operating in a specific niche with contextually relevant backlink profiles, brands still tend to rank better despite their most relevant pages or sections of their sites having no links at all.

 

So, what’s happening?

Well from Google’s inception, and we’re talking exclusively about Google, there has been a constant pursuit for quality results. Every algorithm update and patent, big or small, have all been created to provide users with the best solution to a problem they have. There’s a reason why Google are the market leader and it’s due to this, a constant strive to perfect all results to your query.

So, when you think about providing users with the best results, what better way to do this than providing people with brands that are trusted, transparent, popular and already established? As consumers we’re comfortable with brands, we trust them, and ultimately, we know them.

 

 

Does this mean brand is a ranking factor?

The short answer is no, at least not directly. However, the signals that are attached to brands are all things that Google uses to influence how they rank websites, and quality is the consistent theme across much of it. Although brands ranking highly has been something that has crept in over time, if you look at how Google has evolved it’s really not that surprising that this would eventually be the norm. Let’s take a look at some of Google’s developments over the years:

PageRank

The very nature of PageRank is that before this, other search engines relied on keyword mentions and metadata like keyword tags. Brands naturally possessed a link profile before link building and the way we think of it became a ranking factor due to referrals and citations from trusted sources as well as many other sites. So, from the outset brands already had the advantage. However, the algorithm didn’t hold the quality of results (or links) as highly as it does today. So despite PageRank, the impact of brands on the SERPs was nowhere near as keenly felt as it is today.

There are a number of reasons brands weren’t as prevalent then; Google relied heavily on other factors such as keyword mentions, anchor text of external links and page mark-up to name a few. These were factors that SEO professionals exploited but many brands didn’t.

 

Florida update

This was the first major update from Google that rolled out way back in November 2003 which helped to put SEO on the map. Before this update the web was a bit like the Wild West. Keyword stuffing and spammy link tactics were increasingly exploited and allowed webmasters to build rankings for many terms with high search volumes. Florida (quickly followed by Jagger) marked the beginning of many updated filters that served to tackle this problem that we still see today.

With any update that downranks websites that use spammy practices, there will always be websites that benefit. More often than not, it’s brands that have had less need to utilise spammy practices or have enough of the “good stuff” to only see minimal impact, if any.

 

Nofollow attribute

The nofollow attribute was announced in early 2005 as a way to pass control back to webmasters from link spam. Prior to this, comment spam was rife and the only way webmasters could keep on top of this was to remove links they weren’t technically vouching for.

The nofollow attribute changed this as webmasters can blanket nofollow comment links which means that the host website isn’t vouching for the site it’s linked to and so it does not impact the PageRank of the host site. Whilst this has nothing to do with brands directly, it did mark the end of a link building tactic that would have propped up rankings for many lesser brands with small budgets. Larger brands who drive high numbers of natural links did not feel the effects of this in the same way.

 

Vince

Google’s Vince update rolled out in February 2009 and is perhaps the biggest update in the context of brand as it directly benefited larger brands due to Google prioritising trust signals. Before this update, it was not uncommon for well-known brands to not rank prominently due to technical SEO issues. Essentially, they were expected to follow the same rules as every other site in the index. This naturally caused a problem for Google as people expected to see certain brands for certain queries. For example you would expect to see Canon when looking for digital cameras or Interflora when looking for flowers.

The Vince update rectified this issue and the results users expected to see appeared. But in order to do this, previously unused signals had to be given more weighting when it came to rankings. Although never confirmed, these signals likely involved elements like query chaining. This is when a non-brand search is performed (e.g. “digital cameras”) and then a search for a brand is performed immediately after (e.g. “Canon”), as well as brand + keyword searches (e.g. “canon digital cameras”). Suddenly brands started to rank well for commercial-based terms where they hadn’t been visible before and the landscape has never been the quite the same since.

 

Panda

Panda sought to downrank websites with poor content. Introduced in February 2011, Panda made shock waves as it impacted a high number of search queries. Panda targeted websites with thin content, duplicated content, and/or low-quality content. A large portion of websites that suffered were affiliate websites with a history of building visibility by churning out content. Whilst brands could suffer from this, there are typically enough quality signals surrounding brands that keep them ranking. So once more, the types of websites that historically built a presence through spammy tactics were dropped and brands took their place.

 

Penguin

First rolled out in April 2012, Penguin is one of the most well-known updates due to the flux it caused in the SERPs. Whilst Panda focused on cleaning search results by tackling low-quality content, Penguin down-ranked websites that used manipulative link practises such as buying links in combination with things like keyword stuffing.

Up until recently, websites that were impacted by Penguin saw significant ranking losses which took  months or years to recover from, if they recovered at all. Smaller brands that used such practices suffered, as they simply didn’t have a high enough percentage of quality links to outweigh the spam. Take huge brands like Argos for instance. It may have had a high number of poor quality links to its site but if the links were to pass no value, Argos still have a large enough quantity of quality backlinks from respected sources for poor quality links not to impact it. This would not be the case for smaller brands which were reliant on easy-to-acquire low-quality links and had little or no good-quality links in the eyes of Google. For this reason, once more brands benefited in visibility and pushed down lesser brands competing for the same search queries.

 

Reasonable Surfer

The ‘Reasonable Surfer’ model is an interesting one as it’s a patent and not an update. We mentioned earlier about the role of links and how Google tackled web spam; well at the same time, Google has put a lot of effort into understanding what makes a good link. Of course, the authority of a page/site the link is coming from is a strong factor (PageRank), however Google’s Reasonable Surfer model started to assess the likelihood of a link being clicked.  In a nutshell, the Reasonable Surfer model deals with the fact that not all of the links associated with a document are equally likely to be followed. So, having a link within the main content of an editorial piece on a popular press website is more likely be clicked on than a link placed at the bottom of a blog.

So it’s no longer enough to have a link on a high authority website, Google now uses criteria as part of the patent to work out if the link will drive clicks. Theoretically this can benefit every website. However well-known brands are always more likely to be cited within editorials and so have a natural advantage. Anyone who has worked in PR or undertaken link building will know it’s not easy to earn mentions or get links.

This, alongside Penguin, has been key to changing the way SEOs look at acquiring links – they need to be earned and not built. This is why SEO became much more reliant on PR practices to get links from the sites they needed in order to impact visibility.

 

 

Are there any other factors that impact brands?

We can see how the evolution of Google has had a big impact on brands. But none of the algorithm updates have been created to specifically benefit brands. Instead, algorithms champion quality and trustworthy websites. There are though some examples where it’s likely Google uses the data it has to benefit brands:

  • Brand Searches – We already mentioned this as part of the Vince update, but brand + keyword searches provide significant signals that your brand is associated with a niche subject. It’s reasonable to expect Google to recognise this and respond accordingly with the results you see in the index.

 

  • Click-Through Rates (CTRs) – This has been talked about for years (see here and here for examples) but nothing has ever been confirmed. It is highly likely though that Google use CTR data to judge if a page is worthy of ranking. Essentially, Google could see the CTR for a page in a certain ranking position and see how it fares with the listing above it. As users are familiar with brands, these listings are always likely to get a better CTR against non-brand terms.

 

  • Android – Acquired by Google in 2005, Android is the most popular mobile operating system. So theoretically, Google could get a sense of a brand’s app downloads or usage to gauge importance. Android devices can also track your movement so Google can understand the places you visit, including a brand’s bricks and mortar business.

 

  • Gmail – Gmail is one of the most popular free email platforms. We already know that Google use the contents of emails to push adverts so it’s quite likely they also gather data on brand mentions too.

 

  • YouTube – Thanks to YouTube, Google has access to more data than ever. YouTube videos help Google build a picture of brands people are looking for and which brands generate engagement too.

 

  • Chrome – Chrome has a 50% market share in the UK and is the most-used browser. Google could use things like direct visits and bookmarking to gauge a brand’s popularity. Before Chrome, Google probably used its Google Toolbar to get this same information and it still can if people use it on other browsers.

 

  • Google Ads (Formerly AdWords) – Search ads don’t just display on Google but can also be served on Google partner sites which gives the search engine even more data.

 

 

What does this mean for businesses that are not yet considered a brand?

The answer to this question is to start building a brand or at least start acting more like brands in the way they go about things. There is no real way to avoid working towards this as an overall objective for your business. Ultimately you need to practice good, effective marketing to do well in organic search.

SEO is no longer a short cut to revenue and nor is it an effective marketing channel if done in isolation.  Here’s some advice on how you can work towards building your brand:

 

Make your website the best it can be

By this we mean that you should do everything you can to make sure your website is fully in line with technical best practice. You should also make your content in your niche the best it can be. Take time to fully understand your audience and the problems they have and solve them in a way that engages directly with them.

Also consider formats, think about aesthetics and making your content visually better than what your competitors offer.  Be sure to read and understand Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines to give you even more of an idea on Google’s criteria for quality content. You can’t go wrong reading Jennifer Slegg’s latest post on this or, if you want, you can read it from the source.

 

Build a solid content strategy that spans the whole conversion journey

Gather insights and brainstorm what a typical purchase journey looks like for your different customers. You can then compile a content strategy based on keyword research that taps into this. Search journeys can be complex so reaching your customers across the whole journey can have a massive impact on your business objectives.

 

Focus your outreach on your target audience and stop thinking of it as “link building”

Links are still important but earning links should be a consequence of a very-well-thought-out campaign/strategy that is focused on providing exceptional content. You should gather insights to discover where your audience lives online and build this into your strategies which should aim to drive demand. You ultimately need to make your target customers aware of what you do, which in turn will lead to driving brand searches with an increasing chance of generating conversions.

 

Integrate other channels

The idea is to amplify your content and reach your audience through other means. Don’t stop at one channel but really think about how all channels can play a part. Also take your SEO hat off, yes blog reviews are cannon fodder for link-based penalties however for genuine brand awareness, these influencers can be key to driving further awareness.

 

Think about driving brand awareness as a KPI and use channels to do this

Yes, revenue is important, and yes attributing revenue to a channel is important, however brand awareness is just as important. Think about using display, traditional PR, print media and broadcast media to reach your audiences but use digital as the bit that binds it altogether.

 

Start to understand your data more

Using multiple channels does become costly and unfortunately what tends to happen is that budgets are trimmed in areas that are “under performing”. However, without an understanding on wider attribution you could be cutting budgets to the wrong areas.

 

It goes without saying there are many other factors that are playing a part when Google ranks pages and we’ve only just scratched the surface. Ultimately, the updates Google are implementing make the search engine results better for the user. So whilst businesses may have been negatively impacted in the organic listings (this also includes organic results being pushed further down the page due to changes to paid which is another subject altogether), the user is getting a much better experience. As Google is a business, it needs to keep its user base to make money, so it needs to prioritise its users.

“Doing SEO” is about so much more than technical, content, and links, it’s about marketing and its time we all start thinking about it in this way.

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Articles by Anthony Kenny