SMX West 2012: Does Google Favor Brands? An In-Depth Look

Moderator: Danny Sullivan, Editor-in-Chief, Search Engine Land (@dannysullivan)


Bryson Meunier, Director, Content Solutions, Resolution Media (@brysonmeunier)
Mark Munroe, Senior Director, SEO, Reply!, Inc (@markemunroe)
Aaron Wall, Author, SEO Book (@seobook)
Tony Wright, CEO, WrightIMC (@tonynwright)

SMX West logoSetting aside whether Google loves brands or hates brands or whatever, what should webmasters and marketers do about it? Our hashtags for this session are #smx #13B. Aaron’s up first.

Brands: The Question

It’s not if a small site can succeed against all odds, it’s what are the trends and biases.

  • Classical relevancy signals: domain name, anchor text, link diversity, keyword
  • Search Behavior: search volume and CTR, few back button clicks, repeat visits, query chains
  • Passive User Monitoring

In 2008 it was clear that small sites and big brands were treated differently, with small sites being more suspect. The Vince update in 2009 showed that big brands could rank better for generic terms.

Yahoo! Clues Beta shows searches people perform before and after other queries. Query strings influence how sites rank.

There are multiple areas where we can observe different treatment by Google:

  • Paid links: Some webmasters get emails that Google has detected abnormal links into a site so please clean it up. Other sites just get penalized, no warning.
  • Doorway pages
  • Content farms: Google’s explained different reasons for how they penalize or remove penalties. Seems like it’s not equal treatment.
  • Affiliates: In general, sites that directly profit from traffic may need to provide more evidence of good faith before they are reconsidered.

No business starts as a big brand – everyone starts from scratch.

Pricing risk: was hit by Panda. Profit declined by 2/3. Shut down due to Panda. When they were for sale, Google bid on it. Started by an SEO. Purchased an old site. Funded by Google Ventures. Googlers helped with the project.

Google Leans Into Brand:

  • legal risk
  • minimize duplication
  • better user experience
  • business partnerships
  • more complete ad cycle
  • Attention, interest, desire, action

Google as a Content Host: YouTube, Google+, Google Books, Google Places, etc.

Bryson steps up next. There’s not a big brand bias happening at Google, will be his standpoint.
The arguments for:

  • Google admits it.
  • Brands rank above non-big brands.

This is a hasty generalization. Don’t rush to conclusions without a full view point. Traffic is a better measure of Google bias than ranking. SEMRush gives a ranking to every site on the Web.

We’re all looking for brands, so Google’s trying to give them to us. Google doesn’t favor brands – people do. Matt Cutts explained that quality and authority focus is the reason brands are performing well, not “brands” as they are.


  • Don’t believe the hype. There’s no Google brand bias.
  • Move quickly – that’s an advantage you have that big brands don’t.
  • Build your brand but focus on trust, authority and quality.
  • Make your brand something searchers are already looking for.
  • Use ranking factors that large brands won’t.
  • Work on your business model.
  • Don’t get complacent.
  • Staff appropriately.
  • Use words people are searching for.
  • Don’t handicap your site.
  • Make SEO a priority from the CEO.
  • Kill your SEO idols. Not literally. Argument from authoirty is a logical fallacy.
  • Give Google a break. They are a large company with many stakeholders and still manage to focus on user experience in search results.

Mark Munroe takes it away. He agrees with both standpoints taken above. He doesn’t believe anything has been hard-coded into the algorithm that lists brands to favor. They like diversity but want to make sure big brands are represented.

Marketing advantage > behavior advantage > link/citation advantage > and around

How to offset the brand advantage?

Non-branded sites need to work harder to offset the inherent advantage. They need to be obsessive about improving the search experience. Your SEO strategy should not just be rankings, but to get results listed that fulfill the promise. Fulfilling the promise will result in better user metrics on the SERP and for you. Focus on Title and description that ensures your result doesn’t show up for queries that aren’t relevant. Don’t put “reviews” in Title if you don’t have reviews.

The search experience starts on your page. The info architecture is extremely important, and can draw on SEO visitors and promote interaction. Amazon is a good example doing this. Every link on the page is relevant.

Pay close attention to your metrics from search, like bounce rate, user engagement, pages per visit, what is and isn’t getting clicked.

Tony finishes it off. He’ll be looking at things happening offline that tie in here. He wants to start off nbeing explaining we’re talking about brand awareness in talking about “brand.”

Chicken or the Egg

Fact: comp[anies with high brand awareness tend to rank for more kewyord terms and get more traffic from Google.

Google may or may not favor brands intentionally. Frankly, he doesn’t care. What matters is does the searcher favor the brand, and are you where the searcher is looking.

Why do consumers love brands? The average consumer mentions specific brands over 90x per week in convos with friends, family and co-workers.

Companies with brand awareness actually think differently than those without:

  • The bigger the brand, the more problems  they have on paper. SEO is usually not a priority.
  • Most have backlink profiles others would kill for
  • On-page changes are extremely slow to occur.
  • It’s not the decision makers money, most most cases.

Brand Aware vs. Not so Aware: Almost every time, perceived brand with most awareness had higher domain authority. Why? Brands are using offline branding to create more links.

Radio, TV, Print, Display + Content Marketing

Are you promoting something linkable in your radio advertising? Specials page that doesn’t charge them. Push them to an interesting article. Use a static landing page that can be linked to.

Don’t be a logo police. Understand the difference between protecting the brand and alienating your online audience.

Who are your influencers? The move to customer service based social media is strong and will have SEO dividends. Even the most jaded influencer loves to hear from the perceived brand leader. Influencers can make or break rankings for a single term, sometimes single handedly.

Virginia Nussey is the director of content marketing at MobileMonkey. Prior to joining this startup in 2018, Virginia was the operations and content manager at Bruce Clay Inc., having joined the company in 2008 as a writer and blogger.

See Virginia's author page for links to connect on social media.

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2 Replies to “SMX West 2012: Does Google Favor Brands? An In-Depth Look”

Of course big brands are treated differently from small and unknown ones, and probably it’s normal and nothing is wrong with it. I work mostly for big brands but I had the opportunity to work for smaller start-ups too. I can confirm that usually a big website would get a warning before getting penalised… differently from smaller and unknow brands that get penalised with no warning at all!

Lovely article, thanks for sharing.


A couple of my websites, in spite of having original content, have been hit hard by the recent panda update! In your opinion, can a website recover from a panda update merely by adding more content to the affected website, or is it more complicated than that? Thanks in advance for your help and advice! :)


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