Random thoughts about ‘brand’ in the online space

In one of his regular broadcasts, Matt Cutts mused on the problems of ‘real world’ companies competing in the online space in response to a question posed by one of his viewers. It’s a problem as old as the commercial web – and something of a philosophical conundrum for Google and marketers alike: if a big, household name exists in a market, should it ‘naturally’ get traffic from Google, even if its online presence is poorly built, optimised and/or marketed?

Most obviously, this is reflected in the nature of what search marketers like to call ‘brand signal’. If a company receives hundreds of thousands of searches for its brand name then surely that site should do well for the products it sells, almost regardless of how well the site is built from a technical perspective?

I’ve seen this in effect myself in a previous role. The company we were doing work for had around 2 million searches for their brand name every month. The site itself was appallingly built – with duplicate content issues, constantly spiralling redirects and broken internal links and riddled with empty pagination and search filters. Despite that, we could rank the site for hugely competitive two and three word head phrases with a relatively small amount of spadework. The conclusion? Branding works in Google, with sufficient volume.

Tangled up in this is the whole, quasi-religious debate about exact match domains: if someone searches for ‘cheap car insurance’ are they looking for cheap car insurance, a company called cheap car insurance or cheapcarinsurance.com? The vagaries inherent in this line of thought lies behind a lot of zig-zagging debate and attendant strategising.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you also have companies (such as my own) which don’t actually have any ‘real world’ presence but are online-only brands. One such brand that I am aware of is motors.co.uk – which is a used car listings site, owned in the past by the Daily Mail Group and currently under the auspices of Manheim – mainly of note to me as a bellweather for the industry as it has always been a huge online brand.

I am not privy to what promotional work Motors have been engaged in but I do know that they spent millions in the past on radio, local advertising, offline promotion and print work – as well as untold sums in content production and website development. For the past couple of weeks however, they have ceased to rank for their own brand name.

motors.co.uk

In SEO terms, this is a colossal slap. I don’t know what it is that Motors have ‘done’ in Google’s eyes to deserve this – most likely some ancient linkbuilding campaign has come back to bite them (a recurring problem I have alluded to here before in relation to our own site). Doubtless there is a huge disavowal exercise going on behind the scenes now to recover what they’ve lost. Hopefully for them they will extricate themselves from that particular hole.

This illustrates the flipside of the ‘big company with poor web presence’ paradigm, namely: ‘a company with nothing but a web presence’.

Assuming that this evident penalty has struck motors.co.uk across the board in relation to their SEO, I can only assume they’re suffering from a big drop in traffic and thus revenue. Luckily, they are backed by Manheim, so will have resources to weather the storm  – but many companies aren’t so lucky. Such are the complications of Google’s algorithm (and the competing internal imperatives of Google as a business in and of itself) these days that I’m no longer sure that anyone can really claim to understand the market any more – regardless of the noise, fog and general sturm-und-drang of the SEO community. In the same market – and I will not name names – I know for absolute fact that some of the big players are spending £5-10,000 a month on aggressive link buying and haven’t (as yet) seen any penalisation.

The truth is that being wholly reliant on ‘natural’ search traffic is actually a dangerous place to be in. If your only focus is SEO I would strongly advise starting to siphon some of your revenues into other channels as a bulwark against potential penalisation – either in terms of building up a ‘fighting fund’ for a rainy day, or spend on social/offline channels to build up “brand traffic” as best you can.

None of these options is cheap.

Any way you look at it, the days when you could truly view the web as ‘a level playing field’ seem laughably distant today.

Oops.

Google unnatural links warning

 

When Trusted Dealers was founded, an agency was chosen to ‘do SEO’ on the basis of work they had previously done in the industry  – effectively for a competitor. When I took over the running of the site, it took me all of 4 weeks to decide that the work was of highly questionable worth.

When I finally extracted from them a list of links they had “built” it was clear that they had been fishing in the very bottom of the pool and we parted ways. In fact, apart from honouring a few pre-existing deals, we effectively stopped ‘linkbuilding’ as a discreet activity.

Despite that, I’ve known for a long time that we have a batch of bad historical links and have been waiting for notification from Google that they were “onto” us. Today we finally got the dread warning through Google Webmaster Tools.

Interestingly, it took a form I personally haven’t seen before – including this passage:

“We do realize that some links may be outside of your control. As a result, for this specific incident we are taking very targeted action to reduce trust in the unnatural links.”

I’m pleased about that. I’m 95% certain which links they’re referring to (there is no coincidence in timing) and also believe I’ll be able to get them removed.

What does it spell for an industry where I know for a FACT that several ‘top ranking sites’ are engaged in massive linkbuilding programs right this minute? Big change, I suspect. Having been courted by several companies offering their ‘expertise’ in this particular vertical, I expect to see some big smack-downs being delivered to people. All of which reminds me that I have a draft post about a typical industry experience, which I will finish soon so you can see under the hood of what actually happens.

Interesting times.

Another Google+ feature? Images on Brand Search

In my recent vein of doing the one thing I don’t want to have to do (namely: keep a G+ page up to date) I noticed this happen today for a brand search – showing images we posted to the G+ stream directly into the search results.

gplus

Nothing more than you’d expect, but it’s probably something you could misuse if you were so minded ;)

Google Plus Profiles: Muddying the Waters

As the administrator of Trusted Dealers’ Google+ page, I’ve been trained like one of Pavlov’s famous dogs to update it fairly regularly for branding reasons, despite my inherent dislike of G+ as a medium for, well, anything.

Despite my craven acceptance of the necessity of keeping it up to date, I’ve also noticed that Google are now making a correlation between my G+ profile and my ownership of the G+ page and the website itself. Here’s what I see when I search for ‘site:trusteddealers.co.uk’ right now – without being logged in or anything else.

td-plus

It’s interesting in a minor way, as there are no rel author tags in the blog or other connections between it and my Google account – but buried away in my G+ profile is this, which I don’t even remember setting up:

contributor

Despite that, Google maintain that they won’t give you credit for a link between content and profile without you going round the houses and tagging up web properties.

must

This is something that patently I have never done. Instead, Google is inferring a connection between my profile and content because of other signals, such as my use of Webmaster Tools or the aforementioned ownership of the G+ page. In fact, the Google account I use for maintaining Trusted Dealers’ web properties is basically an empty shell and not even my ‘real’ Google profile anyway – just another login to maintain that allows me to keep my personal and ‘professional’ stuff in separate spheres.

I haven’t explored this is in any way, but if they’re being loose with it then it opens up scope for interesting things which you might fairly consider to be errors – like this example below, which credits David Whitehouse with authorship of Dave Naylor’s blog:

naylor

I know that Whitehouse works at Bronco with Dave and has probably been involved with setting up Webmaster Tools or G+ on his behalf, but it smacks a little of sloppiness for Google to then attribute Dave’s entire blog to Whitehouse!

As I said, I’ve not had chance to experiment further, but next up: can you claim credit for someone else’s work?

Using Google+ to promote your content

I’m still not a fan of Google+. Aside from a lack of ‘real people’ on there – by which I mean people who aren’t SEOs, marketers, scammers etc – it feels disjointed, purposeless and almost completely free of real organic interest.

Nonetheless, it still gets brought up as an area of interest in the trade press and Matt Cutts keeps mentioning it in his podcasts so it seems that it is another thing to add to the roster of things website owners will have to pay attention to in some form or other.

Anyway, it’s a small thing, but I noticed a little update to it today. Until recently, if you had a brand page and you searched for the brand, you’d get a big fat logo parked on the right hand side of the SERPs. As a demo to people it had a certain cachet for the sort of people who like to see their logo.

BUT, if you didn’t update your G+ page for a week or two (and I never pinned down the exact length of time) this would be removed. Google wants you to respond like one of Pavlov’s dogs when you don’t see your logo in the SERPs, so this is another way they’re trying to force your hand to “use” your G+ page. If your boss searches for your brand and the G+ stuff doesn’t appear, you’ll cop some flack – so make sure you’re “doing Google Plus” for brownie points.

When you did so, the results were hardly striking. If you posted a ‘status update’ or a link into your G+ page, that appeared as a badly formatted plain text bit in your G+ box. As of today, that’s changed slightly: if you post a link on G+ it now actually appears as a link:

gplus1

Still got the ugly full URL on display, but it’s a step forward to have a link. It responds quite quickly to new additions too:

gplus2

As you can see, it correctly notes that the page was updated “1 minute ago”, which is a pretty rapid turnaround.

This is actually a decent way to use G+ (at last!) If you have something time sensitive you want to promote, you normally have to rely on PPC or try and frig your site architecture to get it to appear within your extended organic SERP listing as a sitelink.

Using your G+ page, you can now put something on your site and give it priority listing in the search results (albeit only for your brand). For sales, company news and – as mentioned – any other time-sensitive issue, this is a relatively neat way to put it in front of people who are searching for your brand. I guess Google are still treading carefully around this to avoid it becoming a spammer’s paradise and it’s still pretty basic but it’s the most promising branding aspect I’ve yet seen from G+.

Still, another baby step towards G+ becoming a proper part of the SEO/marketing ecosphere.

Can you escape the past?

Interesting post by my ex colleagues at Bronco on Dave Naylor’s blog today – worth a read.

It’s the story of a domain that Bronco came in to help escape from an apparent Google penalty that they’d gained on the basis of past SEO activity – specifically linkbuilding. I won’t rehash the whole post, but I’ll add this: Google are moving into dangerous waters.

Effectively, they could be punishing sites for things that happened in the distance past (in internet/SEO terms). Picture this:

  1. 2007: Company launches
  2. 2007: company hires SEO company
  3. 2007: mass link building begins – site starts to rank.
  4. 2009: SEO company is fired as part of general cost cutting
  5. 2009: company hires an in-house SEO to carry on work at a lower rate
  6. 2009-2010: the company continues to buy a few links here and there but focus on onsite issues
  7. 2010: the company is taken over by someone entirely new. All SEO activity is suspended because the new MD doesn’t even know what SEO stands for
  8. 2012: the site is penalised by Google for linkbuilding and loses all organic traffic

Doesn’t that seem a trifle uneven? And how – if the Bronco example is typical – can you possibly go about rectifying the problem? I could point my browser right this second at 3 or 4 sites in the car market that would fit a fairly similar profile. Maybe they’re just sat in the dark waiting for a hammer to fall.

If Google are really looking years back into the past for infractions, then it’s very hard to see who’s safe: after all, the game even in just 2010 was very different to the game today.

I speak from a position of sympathy. When I took up my current role, the site had been boosted into reasonable positions on the back of a quick, relatively massive linkbuilding campaign. Uneasy about this, I stopped the campaign within a couple of months and went so far as to submit a reinclusion request (which was actually more of a link building mea culpa) in an attempt to pre-empt what I thought would be problems down the line. In effect, I submitted a link disavowal before there was such a thing.

Nonetheless, the progress that had been gained was largely wiped out by Panda and Penguin and it is only thanks to some diligent, detailed work that the site is getting anywhere near where it once was (and that still has some way yet to go).

While we never experienced a massive collapse in traffic, that was mainly due to the fact that the site had never reached the upper echelons of the rankings anyway. Had the business model been dependent on organic traffic, I suspect that we would have had extreme problems.

Today, looking around our vertical, I see several sites who are huge presences in the SERPs who really only rank because of historical old-skook linkbuilding efforts.  To some degree they are quasi ‘brands’ who have become so on the back of legacy SEO tactics. The question is now: when Google bring the guillotine down, who is safe?

Spam Commenting in 2012

Even the most obscure and indigent of bloggers will find themselves deleting ‘comments’ from the commentors with names such as  “ugg boots cheap ugg boots ugg boots wakefield”, “Commitex Wireless-Unlimited 4G,Talk,Text,Data,Mo – Home”, “cataract eye drops” and many more.

Generally, these comments are automated tosh anyway – just a poorly-spun, mangled slew of English with some keywords in that is just enough to defeat a few unhappy souls (like these) and that Akismet will just bin without a thought.

That’s quite stupid, but often the programs behind them will have been running for years and may well run for all eternity. More stupid still though – and the subject of today’s quick post – are those who seemingly take the time to actually write a real, relevant comment and then give their ‘name’ as a keyword link. Things such as this:

spam

That’s actually a quite relevant response (even though it’s just been lifted and slightly rewritten from this source). I’m dropping it in the bin because no-one is called ‘silver price’. Moreoever, in 2012, no-one is going to rank for ‘silver price’ by leaving comments on blogs anyway:

  1. The links are most likely no-followed
  2. Google can identify comment links and could ignore them if they choose to (and, indeed, probably are)
  3. Anchor text links look suspicious as hell – who has ever unwittingly, in the real, non-SEO world, linked to a site using anchor text?
  4. Anchor text ‘names’ more often than not end up caught in a spam filter as per this example.
  5. The comment is scraped from somewhere anyway, so even if it gets through, it’s a black mark against the site that you’re trying to get a link from: i.e., being ‘successful’ at this stuff is a pyrrhic victory at best because you are putting chunks of duplicate content on that page.

It is 2012. Get over this stuff!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 83 other followers