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Are Brand Mentions Important to Google’s Algorithm?

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Are Brand Mentions Important to Google's Algorithm?


Google’s John Mueller was asked if “unlinked brand mentions” were important in Google’s algorithm. It was apparent from John’s response that “brand mentions” is probably not a real thing in Google’s algorithm, but he also said that there may be value to site visitors who encounter them.

Brand Mentions

There is a longstanding idea in the SEO community that Google uses mentions of a website as a form of link.

One version of the idea is that if someone publishes a URL like this, https://www.example.com but without making it a link, that Google probably counts it as a link. This is the unlinked URL idea, that a published URL can be used as a link by Google.

The unlinked URL idea subsequently evolved into the idea that if a website mentions another site’s brand name,  that Google will also count that as a link. This is the “brand mentions” idea.

But there was never any evidence of that until around 2012 when Google published a patent called Ranking Search Results.

The patent was several pages long and buried deep in the middle of it was the mention of an “implied link” being used as a type of link, which was different from an “express link” which is described as a traditional hyperlink.

The phrase “implied links” only occurs a couple times in this one paragraph.

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Google’s John Mueller Discussing Unlinked Brand Mentions

Two Main Ranking Factors Discussed in the Patent

To understand what the authors meant by an implied link you have to scroll up the page back to a section labeled “Background” where the authors explain what all the patent is about.

These are the two most important factors discussed in the patent:

  • The authors explain they are using independent links to a website as  part of the ranking process. They call the site being linked to a”target resource.”
  • The authors also say that they are ranking search results by using search queries that contain a reference to a website, what they again call a “target resource.”

The patent explains without ambiguity that this second type of link is a search query that uses a brand name, what the SEO industry calls Branded Search Queries.

Where the patent makes a reference to a “group of resources,” it is referring to a group of web pages.

A resource is a web page or a website.

A group of resources is a group of web pages or websites.

One more time:

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When the patent mentions a “resource” it’s talking about web pages or websites.

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The patent states:

“A query can be classified as referring to a particular resource if the query includes a term that is recognized by the system as referring to the particular resource.

For example, a term that refers to a resource may be all of or a portion of a resource identifier, e.g., the URL, for the resource.

For example, the term “example.com” may be a term that is recognized as referring to the home page of that domain, e.g., the resource whose URL is “http://www.example.com”.

Thus, search queries including the term “example.com” can be classified as referring to that home page.

As another example, if the system has data indicating that the terms “example sf” and “esf” are commonly used by users to refer to the resource whose URL is “http://www.sf.example.com,” queries that contain the terms “example sf” or “esf”, e.g., the queries “example sf news” and “esf restaurant reviews,” can be counted as reference queries for the group that includes the resource whose URL is “http://www.sf.example.com.” “

The above explanation defines what the authors call “reference queries.”

A reference query is what the SEO community refers to as branded search queries.

A branded search query is a search someone performs on Google using a keyword plus the brand name, the domain of a website or even a URL, which is exactly what the patent defines as reference queries.

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What the algorithm described in the patent does with those “reference queries” (branded search queries) is to use them like links.

The algorithm generates what’s called a “modification factor” which modifies (re-ranks) the search results according to this additional data.

The additional data is:

1. A re-count of inbound links using only “independent” links (links not associated with the site being ranked.)

2. Reference queries (branded search queries) are used as a type of link.

Here is what the patent states:

“The system generates a modification factor for the group of resources from the count of independent links and the count of reference queries…”

What the patent is doing is it is filtering out some hyperlinks in order to only use independent links and also to use branded search queries as another type of link,  what can be defined as an implied link.

How the Idea of Brand Mentions Was Born

Some in the SEO community took one paragraph out of context in order to build their “brand mentions” idea.

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The paragraph begins by talking about using independent links for ranking search results, just as is described in the background section of the patent.

“The system determines a count of independent links for the group (step 302).

A link for a group of resources is an incoming link to a resource in the group, i.e., a link having a resource in the group as its target.”

The above statement matches exactly what the entire patent talks about, independent links.

The next section is the part about “implied links” that has confused the search industry for the past ten years.

Two things to note in order to more easily understand what is written:

  1.  A “source resource” is the source of a link, the page that is linking out.
  2. A “target resource” is what is being linked to (and ranked).

This is what the patent says:

“Links for the group can include express links, implied links, or both.

An express link, e.g., a hyperlink, is a link that is included in a source resource that a user can follow to navigate to a target resource.

An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g., a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource.

Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link.”

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The key to what an “implied link” is contained in the very first mention of the phrase, implied link.

Here it is again, with my emphasis:

“An implied link is a reference to a target resource…”

Clearly, the use of the words “reference” is the second part of what the patent talks about, reference queries.

The patent talks about reference queries (aka branded search queries) from the beginning to the end.

In retrospect it was a mistake for some in the SEO industry to build an entire theory about brand mentions from a single paragraph that was removed from the context of the entire patent.

It’s clear that “implied links” are not about brand mentions.

But that’s background information on how “brand mentions” was popularized.

John Mueller on Unlinked Brand Mentions and Google’s Algorithm

John Mueller discussing unlinked brand mentions

Question About Unlinked Brand Mentions

The question about brand mentions had a lot of background information to unpack. So thanks for sticking around for that because knowing it is helpful to understanding the question and John Mueller’s answer.

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Here is the question that was asked:

“In some articles I see people are speaking about unlinked brand mention.

I want to know your opinion in this case.

Do you think it’s also important for algorithm, unlinked brand mention?”

Are Brand Mentions Important to Google’s Algorithm?

The concept of “brand mentions” appeared to be  unclear to John Mueller.

So Mueller, asked a follow up question:

“How do you mean, “brand mentions?”

The person asking the question elaborated on what he meant:

“It’s like another website and article speaking about my website brand, but it doesn’t link to me.”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know.

I think that’s kind of tricky because we don’t really know what the context is there.

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I mean, I don’t think it’s a bad thing, just for users.

Because if they can find your website through that mention, then that’s always a good thing.

But I wouldn’t assume that there’s like some… I don’t know… SEO factor that is trying to figure out where someone is mentioning your website name.”

Brand Mentions Are Not an SEO Factor

John Mueller confirmed that brand mentions are not a search engine optimization factor.

Given that the foundation of the “brand mentions” idea is built on one paragraph of a patent that’s taken out of context, I would hope the SEO community will set the idea that “brand mentions” are an SEO factor.

Mueller did say that brand mentions can be useful for helping users become aware of a website. And I agree that’s a good way to think about brand mentions as a way to get the word out about a website.

But brand mentions are not an SEO factor.

Just Because it’s in a Patent Doesn’t Mean it’s in Use

One last note about the patent that mentions “reference queries.”

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It’s important to understand that something isn’t necessarily in use by Google just because it appears in a patent or a research paper.

Google could be using it or maybe not. Another consideration is that this is an older patent and Google’s search algorithm is constantly changing.

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Watch Google’s John Mueller Answer About Brand Mentions

Watch at 12:01 minute mark:

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SEO

SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

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SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

The SEO industry will be forever changed with the loss of Bill Slawski, owner of SEO By The Sea, Director of Search at Go Fish Digital, educator, mentor, and friend.

Bill was a great many things to a lot of people. He has been a contributor here at Search Engine Journal since 2019, and a friend and mentor to many of us for decades more.

It’s not often you can say that someone has influenced and shaped an entire industry. But this is one of those times.

On May 19, 2022, the SEO industry learned that Bill Slawski had passed away.

The loss and sadness across our community were palpable.

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend
Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

Remembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & FriendRemembering Bill Slawski: SEO Legend, Mentor & Friend

A search patent expert, colleague and mentor to many, and a friend to many more, Bill influenced the lives of everyone in the search industry.

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If you hadn’t read one of the thousands of articles he wrote or contributed to, watched one of his interviews, attended one of his talks, or listened to a podcast he was a guest on – I guarantee that someone you work with, learn from, or work for has.

This was due in no small part to Bill’s vast knowledge and expertise, combined with an unequaled passion for the nuances and technological advances that make search engines tick.

I spoke with Bill a few weeks ago as we were planning a feature article on the patents he felt are most impactful for search marketers.

In that interview, he explained his love for patents.

“One thing I always say about patents is they’re the best place to find assumptions about searchers, about search, and about the web. These are search engineers sharing their opinions in addition to solving problems,” he said.

He loved getting to see what engineers were thinking, and what they had to say when it comes to different problems on the web.

“One of my favorite types of patents to look up is when they repeat a patent and file a continuation,” Bill explained. “I like to look at these continuation patents and see how they’ve changed, because they don’t tell you, ‘This is what we’re doing.’”

That innate curiosity and true passion for unraveling the complexities of the search algorithms we work with each day made talking with Bill and reading his work a real joy.

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to Bill or referenced his work in mine over the years, as have so many others.

He had a real talent for making complex concepts more accessible for readers and marketers of all stripes. As a result, his contributions to our collective understanding of how search works are unrivaled.

Bill Slawski’s work and knowledge are foundational to the practice of SEO as we know it today.

I speak for all of us at SEJ in saying we’re incredibly grateful for what he generously shared with each of us.

He was a close friend and respected colleague to our founder, Loren Baker, as well.

“Bill Slawski was a true friend of mine in more ways than one. First of all, he was a surprising mentor who helped me out quite a bit early on in my career, even before the days of social media or Search Engine Journal. He was my buddy and workmate,” Loren said.

Loren Baker and Bill Slawski

Loren Baker and Bill Slawski

Bill and Loren worked together for a couple of years and spent a lot of time out in the parking lot in Havre de Grace, Maryland, smoking cigarettes and talking about Google patents.

“If anything, I would say that Bill taught me that there was much more to SEO than just ranking alone,” Loren explained, adding that Bill taught him the importance of incorporating a narrative into all of the work that you do.

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“He taught me the ethics and workmanship behind creating a piece of digital art that people will want to read, will want to share, and will ultimately search for and click on–touching their lives,” he said. “I will miss Bill deeply. It’s very difficult losing friends.”

Having started in 1996 and launching SEO By The Sea in 2005, Bill was the go-to source when you wanted to understand how search engines work or how they change the way we search or live our lives.

But it was so much more than that.

Bill was generous with his time and eager to share his knowledge of search, information retrieval, NLP, and other information technology with any and all.

He had a gift for taking complex patents, algorithms, concepts, real-world behavior, and search engines and explaining how the world of search and information retrieval worked in a way that everyone could understand.

Bill seemed to have an instinct for understanding what you knew and didn’t know or where you were confused. He could fill in the gaps without making you feel silly for having asked. Even if it was the millionth time he’d answered that question.

You didn’t have to be an SEO rockstar or an experienced professional, either.

If you didn’t understand something or had questions, he would happily spend hours explaining the concepts and offering (or creating) resources to help. And as many in the industry who encountered Braggadocio can attest to, you always felt like a long-lost friend, even if you had just “met” him in text.

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“It’s like when you go to a conference and you’re one of the first people there. And all the seats are still empty and there’s not a lot of discussion going on. That’s what the SEO world was like back then…I remember happening upon an SEO forum and just being a lurker. Just looking at what everybody was talking about and thinking, ‘this is a strange career. I’m not sure I can do this.’ In the end, I did it.

I started out working and promoting a website for a couple friends who started a business. And so helping them succeed in business was a pretty good motivation.” Bill Slawski, cognitiveSEO Talks interview, April 5, 2018

Bill’s wealth of knowledge extended far beyond search, too.

With a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Delaware and a Juris Doctor Degree from Widener University School of Law, Bill spent 14 years as a court manager, administrator, technologist, and management analyst with the Superior Court of Deleware.

He loved nature and plants, and the ocean. He loved traveling and search conferences, but he ultimately found peace in nature and took advantage of it often. And he shared it with us all.

Bill pushed everyone to look beyond the headlines and keywords.

He was quick to add words of support and congratulations when someone shared an achievement. He encouraged everyone to explore the possible, to not be intimidated by new things, and to better understand the search ecosystem, not just the technology, so we could better serve our families, communities, colleagues, and clients.

His kindness, generosity, loyalty, and love of the industry knew no bounds.

The King of Podcasts on Twitter

The King of Podcasts on Twitter

Marshall Simmonds on Twitter

Marshall Simmonds on Twitter

Here at Search Engine Journal, Bill was a familiar face on social media and a VIP contributor, but he was much more than that.

Matt Southern, News Writer

One of the things I’ll miss most about Bill Slawski is the outdoor photography he shared on Twitter.

As deeply entrenched as he was in SEO and online marketing, he always took time to step back from the keyboard and admire life’s beauty.

I think that’s something we could all benefit from doing more of.

Roger Montti, News Writer

I knew Bill Slawski for almost 20 years, from the forums and search marketing conferences. He created a stir with all the things he discovered in the patents, which went a long way toward demystifying what search engines did.

What impressed me the most was his generosity with his time and how encouraging he was to me and to everyone. I feel privileged and honored to have been able to call him a friend.

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He will be profoundly missed.

Brent Csutoras, Advisor and Owner

So much of our marketing journey has been in understanding not only how something works with Google but what they are trying to accomplish over the coming years so we can be prepared and ready to pivot when needed.

Bill’s work with patents provided valuable insight very few individuals were capable of distilling and yet everyone benefited from.

He was instrumental in getting us to where we are as SEOs and digital marketers today.

Bill Slawski Was A Man Of Quiet Impact

“My first interaction with Bill Slawski was on Kim Krause Berg’s Cre8asite forum. I was trying to learn what SEO was all about, so I just lurked, soaking up knowledge from bragadocchio, Black Knight, Grumpus, Barry Welford, and others. I know that Bill started more 10,000 threads there during his time as one of the admins and one of the first things that struck me was his willingness to patiently share his knowledge. At the time, I had no idea who he was, but it quickly became obvious that he was someone who was worth listening to. ”

~ Doc Sheldon, Facebook

That he was.

Atul Gawande once wrote that life is meaningful because it has a story–one driven by a deep need to identify purposes outside of ourselves and a transcendent desire to see and help others achieve their potential.

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This was the very essence of Bill’s life.

Not just in the wealth of unparalleled knowledge and resources he has gifted to us, but in the inspiration, guidance, and encouragement he has instilled in us all. That is his legacy and one that will live on.

It’s been difficult to hit Publish on this piece as I don’t feel anything we share could do that legacy justice.

Search Engine Journal will leave Bill’s library of content here untouched in perpetuity, and we’ve left comments open below for all to share your contributions to this memorial for Bill.

Thank you, Bill, for sharing your intelligence, passion, and knowledge with the SEO community.

You will be sorely missed.

Written in collaboration with Angie Nikoleychuk.

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