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Google treating brand names in search terms as site: searches?

August 18, 2010 54 Comments

This is the sort of SEO issue that I'm always a bit worried about blogging - in case it's been going on for ages and I look really stupid. But here goes.

It looks to me that if you do a search for some term (EG football) and the name of certain big brands/sites, Google has started to treat most of the first page as if you had searched for that term and done a site:bigbrand.com search (the site: operator will make google show results only from that site).

So before, if you searched for Guardian football I'm fairly sure you only saw a couple of results from the Guardian. Now if I do that search, all 10 of the first page of results are Guardian pages (click any of these pics to see them bigger, though most are only the first 7 results or so so they're not too big):

Guardian football results

Guardian football results

And if I search for Sky Sports, I see 9 web results for the skysports.com site (even though BT and Virgin offer Sky Sports channels) plus 3 skysports.com news results, one for wikipedia and none for anyone else:

Sky Sports results

Sky Sports results

If you search for Apple help, I'm seeing the first 9 results for the Apple website, then one page from mactricksandtips in at 10th:

Apple help results

Apple help results

Likewise, if you search for Amazon TV, the first 7 results are all from the Amazon site:

Amazon TV results

Amazon TV results

I'm sure it didn't use to be like this - I'd expect these searches to return two results from the obvious site, and then the rest of the page be other sites (or occasionally subdomains of the main site).

If it is a change, and not just a glitch, it is surely a massive boost to certain brands ... (if you likes this post, you might like this one on the google keywords tool and its (lack of) effectiveness as a keyword research tool).

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54 Comments »

  • SERPs are changing, clearly. Perhaps it's different if you turn off personalised search though. I don't know how often you frequent the Guardian site.

    The engine clearly seems to consider the search term evidence enough that the user is searching for Guardian, the newspaper, rather than guardian, as in parent, minder, etc.

    If you ask me, it's Latent Semantic Optimisation.

  • Sorry, the SERP could be an example of Latent Semantic Indexing (LSI) and not Latent Semantic Optimisation (LSO). A badly written comment by me there - but it IS late.

    Guardian do football. We know. However, 'guardian' as in the protector of dependent, etc, isn't necessarily connected to football, and so, because the string is guardian and football, Google can assume that the user refers to the newspaper, and is not looking for somebody to look after something.

    I'm going to bed.

  • I think this HAS to be a massive error i the algo. This is essentially allowing a brand with multiple subdomains to control the SERP. It's just WRONG. No matter how I look at it, I can not accept that someone would consciously allow this pollution of the results.

  • I've tried it for "bbc football" and a few of our blue chip clients and seeing the same behaviour - about seven site listings and then a couple of other sites (or in some cases, other web properties owned by the same brand).

    I've not seen this before so I think it is a very new thing - going to be some big click through improvements for some sites!

  • Dave says:

    I'm seeing the change too - you're right, it could be a glitch, or it could be a test. If it is about brands (which I'm not so sure of) then it might be Google's way of caving in to their complaining about negative articles about them appearing for a search of their brand name.

    I'm not sure how Google are choosing which sites to allow it for, though. I'd imagine it's sites that have enough authority (and maybe that are searched for enough). Weirdly, one of my affiliate sites has it - which isn't massively authoritative - but search terms like "Sphinn" or "econsultancy" don't have it.

  • Jonathan says:

    Nice one on spotting this Malcolm. I don't think this is old, as I started seeing similar behaviour to this at the weekend (very different results for branded queries), but couldn't quite put my finger on what was happpening.

  • Hmm, very interesting indeed!

    Strange if it's a test by Google - as it only appears to be a limited query set that is bringing up similar examples as those that you posted. Terms like 'sony tv' and 'nike trainers' aren't treated the same as above, so it's certainly an interesting one.

  • Peter Young says:

    Funny this came out last night, Andy Beard highlighted during the Dojo chats last night - and provisionally termed in 'pseudo site search' (Thought it was a good name).

    Can't help thinking its a good idea -however it is hugely dependant on competition and how generic the 'brand' is from the tests we were doing on it last night (Guardian / Skysports etc for example have very little for example and are very specific)

    • Peter - I'm seeing if for Guardian and Telegraph - but not for Mirror / Sun or for Daily Mail. Which is odd as Daily Mail is the biggest site (traffic wise). Maybe there's something about search volumes, or clickthroughs, or something ...

      Even if it's a glitch, grab the data while you can - must surely give some insight into Google's views of different brands / sites ...

  • James Taylor says:

    A few of my colleagues and I tested this the other day and found it only happening for a few of us. We're all browsing from the same IP. It could be something that's being tested or something that's being rolled out slowly. Speaking as a user, I don't really like it.

  • Jon Hudghton says:

    Interesting stuff as always. It doesn't seem to apply to all terms though I've noticed. A thought a good example would be "Amazon review" as if you search:

    site:amazon.co.uk review

    there are 14 million results; enough to fill a top 10! But a search for:

    amazon review

    shows just 2/10 results point to Amazon, and they're not even the top 2 when I look.

    What I think might be happening is the traditional "2 results in top 10 per site" limit being dropped for authority sites; so now for "Amazon TV" those 7 results are the "best" according to Google's algo and are now all shown instead of being limited to 2, but for "Amazon Review" there is already a lot more competition from other authority sites, so the results are unaffected.

    It's all pure speculation on my part of course! :)

  • Bill Slawski says:

    Nice catch, Malcolm.

    This looks like the process described in Google's patent "Query rewriting with entity detection" (US Patent 7,536,382). which was granted in May of last year.

    For example, the process might identify Apple as a specific entity that is associated with a specific web site, and rewrite the original query to provide results from the Apple site. From the patent:

    Some entity names are unambiguous and uniquely identify particular entities. A large number of names, however, are somewhat ambiguous or generic, making it more difficult to identify the entities to which they are intended to correspond when included in users' search queries.

    Systems and methods consistent with the principles of the invention provide mechanisms for determining the entities to which entity names correspond and selectively rewriting users' search queries based on the entity names. Accordingly, a user's search query may be restricted to a search of document(s) associated with the entity that the user intended in the search.

    • Bill,

      Your reply is exactly why I love patent watchers so much. it seems to be exactly what the patent spells out. Which means it's not a bug, but an actual intended result thanks to the crack addicts at Google.

      And that, in turn, means a lot more of what Eric Schmidt has talked about in terms of marching toward the day where Google determines what the searcher wants so the searcher doesn't have to think for themselves.

      Except that's the exact opposite of what I personally believe should be done.

      • Things like sky sports, apple help, t-mobile are all searches (UK ones) where lots of people may not want the site. Sky Sports is sold by big resellers like the cable company Virgin. T mobile by retailers. Apple help - I'd have thought there are lots of sites more useful than Apple's and its refusal to acknowledge issues sometimes.

        It does look exactly as Bill says - but I'm not sure it's being done in the best way and could do with tweaking if nothing else ...

      • Rob Green says:

        Alan - I agree that Bill has probably found exactly what is causing this, but I don't necessarily think this is a bad move. For a query as specific as "guardian football", there is little need to show results from any other domain.

        Could be just a slight shift towards cutting out the affiliate/reseller/voucher code results....

        • I beg to differ Rob.

          I did a simple search for Apple 1 word. What if I am a 10 year old child? What good would it do me? The ENTIRE first page of results came up with Corporate content. That's completely unacceptable.

        • Rob: I agree with Guardian football. But retailers who sell brands with direct sale operations must be crapping themselves (as will affiliiates).

          Also, where are the reviews etc - letting one brand dominate the first page of results isn't a great experience, surely, where the term is a brand one (sky sports, t mobile)?

        • Bill Slawski says:

          Thanks, Alan, Malcolm, and Rob

          I think we're definitely moving more towards a time when search engines attempt to identify entities in queries, and rewrite those queries based upon that identification.

          This could mean associating an entity with a website, and showing "site" search type results, or it could mean assigning a label to an entity, as found in a query that might restrict results. For example, when I search for "The Matrix" in Google, my results are about the movie rather than matrices.

          A number of Google and Yahoo patent filings within the past few years explore how that kind of entity detection might be used to influence what you see in search results, including a Yahoo patent filing that I wrote about yesterday.

          Google's acquisition of Metaweb, which has developed an approach for what is in effect a canonicalization for named entities foreshadows the possibility that we may see more from the search engines based upon entity identification in queries.

          Types of entities described in the Google patent can include:

          * News sources,
          * Online stores,
          * Product categories,
          * Brands or manufacturers,
          * Specific product models,
          * Condition (such as new, used, refurbished, etc.),
          * Authors,
          * Artists,
          * People,
          * Places, and;
          * Organizations.

          I'm not sure that every approach we may see to using entities to rewrite queries, and influence search results may be ideal - should Google assume that we really wanted to perform a site search when we type in something like "Apple help?" I'm not sure.

  • supaswag says:

    The Nestle SERPs haven't changed. Same for Primark. Hmm..

  • Dave says:

    It looks like it's only in the UK too, at the moment - or at least, isn't in the US yet, from searching on Google.com with &gl=US added to the URL.

  • Neil Jackson says:

    Back in 2007 MC talked about 'host crowding' and turning off this functionality, that is returing multiple results from one site.

    http://www.mattcutts.com/blog/subdomains-and-subdirectories/

  • [...] this on Tuesday, however like with Malcolm Coles -  who has been the first person I have seen  mention this change - I was also unsure whether this has been around for a  for a while . However it would appear [...]

  • Funny enough I first noticed this on Tuesday but at the time thought nothing of it and just blogged about it now.

    I feel that brands have a right to hold more positions in the search engines for branded queries (so long as they are not generic words i.e. Apple as mentioned above) and will help rid the annoynace that is reputation managment and wasting time and resources on tatcis such as de-optimisation that are better used elsewhere.

  • FYI guys, some changes appear to have been made to Google maps.

    http://bit.ly/ag15rL

    Might I suggest that we might get to the bottom of this is we tried examples that weren't brand names?

  • If this is a new direction for Google, I for one think it is a sad day for the Internet. Isn't this just a mild case of censoring the results?

    Again, using Apple as an example. Totally wrong that a child can search for Apple and get ONLY corporate rubbish fed to them. Ridiculous. What's the next step? Does it stop with big brands, or do they then decide what you "really" wanted to search for in other areas too? There's a brand for our interpretation of that search! Maybe then on to the news results too?

    They've just taken what was left of a level(ish) playing field (already surrounded by shops) and stuck a massive shopping mall in the centre.

    Hope I'm wrong, but we might find out sometime soon that the brands "featured" are the ones who've paid for the "service". Wrong Wrong Wrong. And...off my soapbox.

  • supaswag says:

    Brand search 'Shopstyle' in France [http://www.google.fr/search?q=shopstyle&pws=0&gl=FR]: Finally [since yesterday] after a year Shopstyle.fr ranks on the front page, still behind Shopstyle.com.

    Brand search 'Shopstyle' in Germany [http://www.google.de/search?q=shopstyle&pws=0&gl=DE]: Shopstyle.de #24!, sitting there on page 3, waiting for what??

    Brand search 'Shopstyle' in the UK [http://www.google.co.uk/#hl=en&source=hp&q=shopstyle&aq=f&aqi=g10&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=&fp=f6b2e49aa873898c]: Shopstyle.co.uk #3 after 2 .com results

    This is bugging me since months. Any clever suggestions? I know that the actual main pages don't have a lot of country specific copy/content but shouldn't Google show the relevant local brand URL for a brand search first?

  • Adrian says:

    Nice spot and good post, as always Malcolm. I can only imagine this is another 'live test' they're running and would hope that if it goes live, it will be as an option rather than mandatory.

  • Carly says:

    Here's an interesting thought: what is the type of product IS the brands name too. Would that knock off all the competition for that key term? Powerful.

    E.g. if I named my hypothetical dog food brand 'Dog food' and got big in the pet food world, would I then knock everybody else outta Google for the term 'dog food'...

    Or is this just for the big players, like Apple, Sony etc?

    • That's effectively what's happening with Sky Sports. You can buy Sky Sports channels off Sky direct. Or you can buy them off BT or Virgin.

      Sky have a website called Sky Sports.

      If you try to search for Sky Sports, it's just showing skysports.com - so there's no sign of the other brands selling Sky Sports channels.

  • Buzz says:

    I think its becoming obvious for many who have been in the SEO industry for awhile that Google could care less about providing the users with good content and allowing the small guys to rank. Now its provide big brands with advantages and maximize ad revenue by forcing people to go with PPC instead of using SEO for many keywords. Welcome to the corporate internet.

  • There's some Google corporate conspiracy theories going on in the comments but I don't think that's the case. As with most algorithmic changes this will be scalable and triggered by particular thresholds. As i mentioned earlier I think one such threshold will be CTR, i.e. if Google is seeing high click through rates to a brand's site for a branded search then it's more likely that many results from that site ARE what the consumer is looking for. it's not the same for all brands e.g. "Lyle and Scott polos" returns the official site in the first two spots then a selection of retailers.

  • [...] sleuthing by Malcolm Coles found that Google are treating brand names in search terms as site: searches. True enough, they really are. This might sound like good news, but unless you’re a major [...]

  • [...] question arose this morning on Malcolm Coles’ blog, in his post Google treating brand names in search terms as site: searches? after Malcolm very astutely discovered certain sets of search results showing more that 2 results [...]

  • SEO Doctor says:

    I imagine this is the start of a big rollout, otherwise there is going to lots of complaining by the brands that are not getting these dominant SERPs. But where will the cut off be?

    e.g. 'Yahoo news' gets full page 'bing news' doesn't
    'seomoz' does, 'seobook' doesn't

    Oh and they aint showing any such results for Facebook.

  • [...] answered our questions about it yet. What’s “it”? As Malcolm Coles describes in a blog post today, Google is allowing a single domain — from a well-known brand — to dominate the first [...]

  • [...] from a particular resource.Meanwhile Malcolm got the jump on me and posted something before me.Google treating brand names in search terms as site: searches?Bill Slawski chimed in in Malcolm’s comments with thisThis looks like the process described in [...]

  • Gail says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. I do my best to use independent alternative search engines as much as possible and only go to G when I want to see what they are showing.

    This is part of what Google has clearly announced they plan to do: favor big brands over all others. SEOBook published a post February 25, 2009 with the now famous Google CEO Internet Cesspool quote. You can read that post and my comment at that link.

    It is time we all woke up. G controls 60-90% of all paid and organic traffic to almost every site. They have the power to decide what businesses survive and which do not.

    Internet users gave them that power and only Internet users can take it back - by using alternatives: other INDEPENDENT search engines (i.e., not Yahoo or Bing - think DuckDuckGo and others).

    We will increasingly find what we want through recommendations from bloggers or trusted peers in communities. Once again - think INDEPENDENT - small bloggers and niche and local Social Networking sites rather than Facebook or Twitter.

    Our choices are destroying our economy and eliminating a decent standard of living for most. We can change all that by voting with our time and money by spending it on small local and online businesses instead of with multi-national corporations.

    The statistics included in my Word of Mouth Marketing (WOMM) post linked to this comment are eye-opening. I hope to collaborate with all who can see what is going on so we can create a better economy for all and not just the few.

  • Quail says:

    I just did a quick test to see if my results have changed. Searching the name of my site (the keyword phrase I'm targeting), I now have the first 6 results on the first page. A few weeks ago I'd only have the first 2 or 3. Competitors targeting the same keywords will be losing out on traffic. My key words aren't too competitive, but scaling up the results to highly competitive keywords, a lot of smaller sites will be missing out on huge traffic.

  • [...] phrases that are producing these results, as pointed out first by Malcolm Coles in Google treating brand names in search terms as site: searches?, are largely generic brand terms. They aren’t your usual ‘Black & Decker [...]

  • [...] first covered by Malcolm Coles and later confirmed by Google, for search queries that include a specific domain Google is now [...]

  • [...] Coles pointed out a new feature in Google SERPs and posed some interesting questions last week. I don’t think Google is treating “brand names” as site operator [...]

  • [...] almost a full page of results from one “brand”, which first came to my attention in this piece by Malcolm Coles. Shortly thereafter I read with interest a follow-up from Bill Slawski, who posits that such SERPS [...]

  • Great article on how Google is treating brand names!

    "Milo" is one brand name that dominates the SERP. But Wikipedia's entry for Milo is still at the top instead of Milo's official website.

    What about celebrities? Why for some celebs, Wikipedia or IMDB entries ranked higher than the official website of the celebrity?

  • [...] Malcolm Coles first discovered the update there was some conversation surrounding how these results were being [...]

  • [...] happens because 10 results view will show 10 unique domains (well, most of the time anyway) whereas in 100 results view Google group domains that have a listing later in the results and [...]

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