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Big Brands, Google, Penalties & You

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Google Loves Big BrandsFor years there has been controversy about big brands and their special place in Google's heart. For the most part, Google's supposed brand bias is really an SEO myth told late night over beers in darkened corners at conferences and in forum postings.

Most sites that are big brands rank well because they meet so many points on Google algorithm – everything from authority, to quality score, to links, to social signals.

If you see Wikipedia everywhere, as annoying as it may be, it positions so well because it has tons of content and more links pointed at it than stars in a desert sky. This doesn't mean Google prefers brands; it means the site is algorithmically awesome.

OK, so "algorithmically awesome" isn't really an SEO term, but it might as well be. If you naturally meet more points on the algorithm than any of your competitors, then your gift from Google will be to occupy a higher position in the search results. It just kind of works that way.

Wait, What About Google's Vince Update?

Yes, there was an algorithmic update called Vince in 2009 that threw big brands some special algo points.

That same year, there was "brand affinity." This quote from Eric Schmidt, Google's CEO at the time, probably said it best:

"Brands are the solution, not the problem. Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it's not going away. It must have a genetic component."

So big brands were wired into the algorithm with Vince, then even more so with Panda. Yet, Google's Distinguished Engineer Matt Cutts said big brands "can't do whatever they want" and are subject to the algorithm just like regular sites. What is an SEO to believe? Which is it?

Well, it's really all of the above. You don't automatically get to the top by just being a big brand. If you have a poor website and are in general not doing well on the algorithm, you might do well for a few terms sure, but overall, no.

Big Brands and Search

Being a big brand naturally helps you with some algorithmic factors, including perceived site authority and quality. You also have the one thing most mom and pops don't: brand affinity.

One sentence of the Search Quality Rating Guidelines is telling: "Would you recognize this site as an authoritative source when mentioned by name?" Brands are more well known to users by simply being a brand, so the user intent is more likely to be Target the store then say target the bullseye.

Wikipedia ranks well everywherebecause, frankly it should. That said, you don't always position well just because you are a brand.

I once sat in a site clinic in which one of the largest ecommerce sites on the web didn't understand why it couldn't position for selling television sets. The problem? There were no signals from the site that it deserved to position to sell television sets. While the site did position well for things related to its core brand, it just didn't for things that weren't.

So where is the benefit for big brands outside of having a bit more ability to extract authority, quality, and large value points on links and social and rank for being a known brand?

Well mostly it seems limited to penalties.

Penalties and Big Brands

Many big brands have a direct connection at Google, which means someone at Google that will tell them when they crossed a line or at least one to Cutts to answer a question or two. And if you're really big, Cutts will warn you himself (see Mozilla)

Big brands also more likely to survive a Google penalty than a small- or medium-sized business (SMB) site, partially because they are stronger sites, partially because their penalties do seem to have much more limited damage.

Seriously, when was the last time you heard of a big brand being removed entirely from Google's index? Sure they get hit with penalties all the time, I know Cutts isn't misleading us about that. But the damage is much more focused and much more limited.

Remember JCPenney and Overstock? They lost keyword traffic, not their entire website.

Go to Google forums see how many SMBs can say the same.

Now some theorize that it is because Google gives these sites leniency – in the hey – they were at #1 they could not rank any higher, so those link buys didn't actually help them. Others believe it is just a strict brand preference.

Personally, my SEO brain has settled on it is a set of algorithmic factors, I like to term "the expectancy factor" or the "should be there factor" (this is just an easy way to say algorithmic factors combined with the fact that the sites are just stronger and the brands are given leniency and limited penalties).

'Should Be There' Status

Some sites should be in Google's index – not just because Google thinks it should be there, but because searches by end users have indicated to Google that they expect it to be there.

If one of these "should be there" sites didn't show up in Google's results, then the searcher might think Google has a pretty lousy product.

So Google protects its product by making sure to limit the effect of penalties on big brands by warning them directly and by helping certain ones recover quickly if a penalty is more damaging. Whichever it is, big brands are like a naval carrier in the middle of a penalty storm; your SMB is a Tiki raft.

Google Penalties – Big Brand Leniency

So how does it work in the real world when you have "should be there" status?

While a standard SMB site might receive one penalty and find itself without a homepage in the Google index (and many have), a big brand might look like this:

Manual Action Viewer

This is the manual action viewer of a big brand site.

Under each of these penalties, except for one, in the manual action viewer were approximately 1,000 pages (the maximum the viewer can handle). These penalties were on the subdomain, but the main domain was also penalized.

Both the main domain and the subdomain lost key terms in the search engine and key placements, but it did continue to position for new, highly trafficked terms though less relevant and longer tail, didn't cause enough damage that its core business functions were threatened.

Now what happens if you're a company that doesn't have "should be there" algorithmic triggers? And you receive even one of these manual actions on your site over a multitude of pages or even just a percentage of them?

You would have probably woken up to this:

Analytics OOPS

But this big brand site never saw this graph. This site hardly noticed the blip. Partially because it creates new pages all the time, which were positioning (well enough), which helped cover up the loss, but mostly because the penalties were isolated and not cross sectional.

Penalty Removal: Big Brand vs. SMB

These penalties were there for quite some time. So, if your site was not expected to be in the index, if you did not have site authority, site strength and your site was not a big brand, you would probably expect the road back would be pretty tough (noting that you would at most be dealing with one or two of these penalties as no small site would survive more than that without getting their homepage kicked out of the index along with the rest of their site).

Here's what the site looked like after one reconsideration request and one penalty removal.

2 million impressionsWithin a few days they regained 100 percent of their impressions, or 2 million (on average). This change shows that their site was repositioned into key terms and their new content was likely being shown highly in the search results.

We did a hand-check and yes, they regained key category terms and they were now positioning for relevant, highly competitive terms, even highly competitive phrases with short life expectancy (terms that would live only a few days).

If you aren't a big brand, you site isn't likely to work the same way. At the same time as this big brand site was recovering, we helped an SMB recover.

Instead of days, the SMB site took three months, three requests (one rewrite for depth and breadth), and a complete site rebuild. Only then did the homepage just start to show for their own name on the fifth page of Google.

This is more likely the outcome for an SMB. If you recover at all.

So Why do You Care About What Big Brands do?

Maybe that big brand corporation site is getting away with some black hat tactic, and your (clueless) boss, marketing team, board of advisors, or some other stakeholder knows about it.

"If they can do it, well we can, too!" they say.

No. You can't.

Unless you have algorithmic awesomeness, authority, and expectancy (and that expectancy is the key) you will much more likely end up losing your position, your pages or your homepage if you buy links or engage in other practices that violate Google's guidelines.

What Else Can You Learn From Big Brands?

Acting like a big brand is your best method for achieving success. Big brands send out strong signals to Google that tell Google there is a company and people behind them. These signals tell Google that the site is taken care of, that the company is awake at the helm, and that the site is going to be a good product.

Now not all big brands put out great websites, in fact a lot of them put out horrible websites, which is where expectancy (brand) can save them and where you can beat them.

Google has provided some guidance on building high-quality sites, in the form of these 23 questions. Follow these concepts, check your site. Does it meet the criteria of what Google (not you) considers a high-quality site? You don't have to hit every point, but the more signals you send Google the better.

Be a Big Brand in the Making

SEO times they are a' changing

Get your site to send out big brand signals. If you mimic all the good things a brand does well, Google will give you some of those authority and quality points:

  • Create content.
  • Build a natural link profile.
  • Use social.
  • Create more content (and more content).
  • Have a blog.
  • Make sure your site is technically sound, fast, visually appealing, and easy for users (and search engines to navigate).
  • Utilize experts in the industry to audit your site and tell you what you're not doing well, so you can do it better.

You aren't likely to get those valuable expectancy signals unless you have offline indicators as well, but that's OK. If you build a better site, with authority and meet more brand points on the algorithm, you don't need that to compete.

Brands do have leeway, but that is a much stronger case when it comes to penalties. Being a brand just means they need to be there and found, not found in the top position except for their name and a few core key terms.

Expectancy, being a brand, having authority doesn't get you automatic position; it just gets you some advantages in the game.


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