The Big Brand Lie

By Bryson Meunier, Natural Search Associate Director, Content Solutions

The blogosphere seems to be falling over Aaron Wall’s latest theory that big brands are being helped in the Google search results, but frankly I’m perplexed by its popularity. I understand that Google is our industry’s best frienemy and that everyone loves a conspiracy, but to me his theory fails on two fronts: 1) it isn’t supported by the search results, and 2) it fails to recognize the efforts by big brands to improve their organic traffic in search.

At Resolution Media we work with large and small clients and with our client base we’re often in a good position to recognize large scale search trends when they happen; but for our clients Wall’s observation doesn’t ring true. We have quite a few clients who aren’t household names who are ranking for extremely competitive keywords and have been for years. We have also worked with a few big brands who haven’t implemented recommendations who still suffer in the results. And there are still small businesses in the SERPs (even in Wall’s examples (read: ehealthinsurance beating Aetna for health insurance)) who are ranking higher than big brands or with big brands because they have the luxury of using keywords in domain or controlling some other factor that big brands typically can’t.

I think what Aaron Wall is reacting to is probably more a gradual change in the SEO industry than it is a change in Google’s ranking algorithm. Since Florida many big brands have started to recognize SEO as a legitimate practice with clear benefits and hired companies like ours to fix their SEO problems. Big brands then follow white hat SEO best practices, and the engines reward them for it. Long term ranking and traffic typically results from this change. In this context, smaller businesses who go it alone or hire discount consultants to get them fast, disposable traffic sometimes can’t compete as well as they used to. But this probably isn’t a result of Google fixing the results so that household names show up in the results. It’s less direct than that. By introducing tools and standards big brands can use to fix a lot of their natural search problems legitimately (e.g. Webmaster Tools, rel=canonical, rel=nofollow, etc.), the engines made it easier for big brands to compete with their smaller, faster-moving counterparts, and some big brands have benefitted as a result.

Google might still have tweaked the algorithm to allow brands to rank more easily, through site metrics, search frequency, type-in traffic or some other method. I also think Wall’s observation about semantic search is right on, though not revelatory given Yahoo! has been experimenting with it for a while and Microsoft bought Powerset before Eric Schmidt or Vint Cerf mentioned the meaning behind queries. But if brands are starting to rank, the first place to look for an explanation is not necessarily Google. It’s the brands themselves.

This, however, assumes that the seven examples that Wall gives are representative of what’s going on on every SERP in Google. As I said, I don’t believe the evidence supports this. Take the games SERP, for example, which is favorable to online-only brands and lists only one national brand, PBS. If brands were in such a great position, this would be filled with Electronic Arts, Xbox, Nintendo and the like. Or maybe toy stores or toy makers who create games that can’t be played online. Instead it’s dominated by small brands. How does Wall explain this? Is it an outlier? After finding many such examples it seems to me that it’s something else.

There are also examples where Google helps smaller brands on a regular basis by interpreting some queries as geographical in nature. Take “appliances”, for example, which in Chicago lists optimized pages of big brands in the first three listings and then lists a ten-pack of local listings for brands even locals haven’t heard of. After the ten-pack there’s a shopping result that has three product listings from brands not many would know. This is favorable to big brands how?

I’m sure there are many examples to counteract Wall’s overgeneralization, but I don’t really think that’s necessary. To me his post reflects not so much on Google as it represents a sea change for digital. Brands are starting to work with SEOs and are working their way into the SERPs as a result. But not all brands, and not because of a Google conspiracy. Wall’s reaction is an “us vs them” reaction that’s a relic of another time for SEO and symptomatic of why he can’t see the real reason for this change. Legitimate businesses are working with Google to play by their rules, and the playing field is somewhat leveled as a result. Some small brands are going to be displaced as a result of this. No tin foil hat required to understand this change.

If he’s looking for a smoking gun to explain the change (which, again, I’m not sure is supported by the evidence), what about rel=canonical? Big brands are notorious for dynamic websites with duplicate content, and the rel=canonical announcement theoretically would have helped big brands consolidate their wasted link popularity and make them more competitive in the search results. It wouldn’t have been a boon to small businesses, but the big brands would have benefitted considerably. And it happened right before Aaron Wall made this discovery.

There may be other explanations to this phenomenon, but to me Aaron Wall hasn’t clearly demonstrated the evidence or the explanation for his theory. In the meantime, we’ll continue to focus on proven, white hat techniques for brands of all shapes and sizes to continue to improve our clients’ presence on Google and the other search engines.


Anonymous said...

It's fine to disagree with a big dog in the industry to try and gain some attention for yourself, but when you do, you really should make sure you're right.

The changes he documented happened well before the rel=canonical change.

Also, Matt Cutts admitted that they did indeed make some changes to their algo.

But hey, don't worry about it. Wipe the egg off your face and get back up on that horse.

Bryson said...

Thanks for your comments, Mr. Skitzzo. The canonical link change still could have contributed to the long-term success of some larger brands in the past two weeks. But my point was that Aaron Wall focused entirely on the engines and not on the fact that large brands are optimizing their sites. Long-term white hat optimization of a large brand site is going to make it difficult for smaller brands to compete in the search results. Since more large brands are optimizing their sites, more large brands are going to start ranking. We don't need the engines to understand that. And, as I said in the Sphinn comments, I wasn't arguing that it wasn't due to an algorithm change, just that it wasn't a large scale update. As I said, you missed this part when you quoted Matt Cutts. I'm sorry that you feel I have egg on my face, but I think I made my point. No one's reputation is bigger than the truth, and the theory that everyone is blindly accepting is not supported by the examples I mentioned, the examples that Danny Sullivan mentioned, and other examples that no doubt exist. To me, Aaron Wall has not shown that this is a large-scale algo update as he claimed, and he focused entirely on algo changes without acknowledging that large brands are optimizing their sites. I know this is an unpopular statement, but it doesn't make it an incorrect one.

Anonymous said...

Would you like more proof? I document the Google changes utilizing screenshots. The transition took place the week of February 16th.

Anonymous said...

Let me get this straight. You're saying that since some big brands are using SEO that this set magically all managed to gain rankings on the exact same day?

If you think that's a coincidence and just due to their optimizing efforts, you must not have been around this industry long because that's not how things work.

In all honesty, by clinging to your argument despite the clear evidence to the contrary as well as Matt Cutts' comments that they did in fact change their algo, you're just making yourself look pathetic.

You're reduced to arguing that it's not "as big of a change" as Aaron believes and that certainly doesn't fit with your sensationalist use of "lie" in the title.

Bryson said...

Thanks for your comments, Tom, but the only thing this proves is that brand websites started showing up for geo-modified brand terms for five queries. The algorithm might have been tweaked for this to happen, but it hardly qualifies as an update larger than Florida, as Wall is claiming. Let me ask you this: how do you explain the evidence I presented that doesn't fit this theory? Because what you and Wall have shown is that the algorithm changes for certain queries, which is not under debate. We all know that Google changes the ranking algorithm from time to time to make queries more relevant. This may have happened here. The issue is whether or not this was an update. Matt Cutts denied that, and the evidence doesn't support it. So yes, I would like more proof. What you've provided doesn't go far enough for me, but I appreciate the examples.

Bryson said...

Also, Tom, these changes that are under discussion happened over a month ago according to Wall and his supporters. If your changes occurred the week of February 16, it would seem as though the two of you are actually proving different theories.

Resolution Media said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bryson said...

@Skitzzo, I’ve been working professionally in internet marketing since 2000 and in SEO since 2001, which is longer than Aaron Wall has been in this industry by two years and longer than your 15 months. That said, I’m not saying anything happened magically. While Wall stated there was one large update responsible for brand sites ranking, I am arguing that what he’s seeing has more than one cause.There was a change to the ranking algorithm for some queries, which is a non-sequitur because the ranking algorithm changes all the time, but the increased ranking of “brand” sites (whatever that actually means, as a brand could be anything from a mom and pop to a fortune 50) was likely also due to the fact that brands optimize their sites for long term ranking, and that long term strategy may be starting to pay off. It’s not an overnight thing, but if brands are starting to edge out non-brands, it’s likely due in part to the fact that brands (big and small) optimize their sites. Vanessa Fox apparently mentioned this on the Outspoken Media blog two days before my post here, so I don't honestly know why this point is all that controversial.

In my original post I said that an algorithm change may have happened, because they happen all the time. That was never the point. Aaron Wall called it an update bigger than Florida, which was ludicrous given the evidence against it, and focused only on the engines rather than acknowledging that brands are increasingly optimizing their digital content. Yet many like you in the blogosphere (with a few notable exceptions in Danny Sullivan, Matt Cutts and Vanessa Fox) didn’t question the theory.
The issue is and always has been whether this was an update, and whether that was primarily the cause of the phenomenon that Aaron Wall observed. If you read my post, you’ll see that I haven’t changed that position at any point.

The title of the post may be a little too subtle for some, as it’s a play on a definition of the Big Lie from George Orwell’s 1984:
“To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed...”.

To me Wall was being irresponsible by propagating this theory of a large update that wasn’t supported by the evidence, even though he seemed to genuinely believe in what he was saying. There was no update. Your authority source Matt Cutts said this. And to argue there was in spite of the evidence is something like a lie.

I’m sorry if you think my position is pathetic, but at this point I don’t know what I could do or say to help you understand what I feel has already been communicated fairly clearly. Unless you want to address the outliers that I’ve mentioned (or that Danny Sullivan and Vanessa Fox have mentioned) and start to address specific points in my post instead of misrepresenting my position, I’m afraid we’re going to have to agree to disagree.

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