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Why Google Seems To Favor Big Brands & Low-Quality Content

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Why Google Seems To Favor Big Brands & Low-Quality Content

Many people are convinced that Google shows a preference for big brands and ranking low quality content, something that many feel has become progressively worse. This may not be a matter of perception, something is going on, nearly everyone has an anecdote of poor quality search results. The possible reasons for it are actually quite surprising.

Google Has Shown Favoritism In The Past

This isn’t the first time that Google’s search engine results pages (SERPs) have shown a bias that favored big brand websites. During the early years of Google’s algorithm it was obvious that sites with a lot of PageRank ranked for virtually anything they wanted.

For example, I remember a web design company that built a lot of websites, creating a network of backlinks, raising their PageRank to a remarkable level normally seen only in big corporate sites like IBM. As a consequence they ranked for the two-word keyword phrase, Web Design and virtually every other variant like Web Design + [any state in the USA].

Everyone knew that websites with a PageRank of 10, the highest level shown on Google’s toolbar, practically had a free pass in the SERPs, resulting in big brand sites outranking more relevant webpages. It didn’t go unnoticed when Google eventually adjusted their algorithm to fix this issue.

The point of this anecdote is to point out an instance of where Google’s algorithm unintentionally created a bias that favored big brands.

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Here are are other  algorithm biases that publishers exploited:

  • Top 10 posts
  • Longtail “how-to” articles
  • Misspellings
  • Free Widgets in footer that contained links (always free to universities!)

Big Brands And Low Quality Content

There are two things that have been a constant for all of Google’s history:

  • Low quality content
  • Big brands crowding out small independent publishers

Anyone that’s ever searched for a recipe knows that the more general the recipe the lower the quality of recipe that gets ranked. Search for something like cream of chicken soup and the main ingredient for nearly every recipe is two cans of chicken soup.

A search for Authentic Mexican Tacos results in recipes with these ingredients:

  • Soy sauce
  • Ground beef
  • “Cooked chicken”
  • Taco shells (from the store!)
  • Beer

Not all recipe SERPs are bad. But some of the more general recipes Google ranks are so basic that a hobo can cook them on a hotplate.

Robin Donovan (Instagram), a cookbook author and online recipe blogger observed:

“I think the problem with google search rankings for recipes these days (post HCU) are much bigger than them being too simple.

The biggest problem is that you get a bunch of Reddit threads or sites with untested user-generated recipes, or scraper sites that are stealing recipes from hardworking bloggers.

In other words, content that is anything but “helpful” if what you want is a tested and well written recipe that you can use to make something delicious.”

Explanations For Why Google’s SERPs Are Broken

It’s hard not to get away from the perception that Google’s rankings for a variety of topics always seem to default to big brand websites and low quality webpages.

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Small sites grow to become big brands that dominate the SERPs, it happens. But that’s the thing, even when a small site gets big, it’s now another big brand dominating the SERPs.

Typical explanations for poor SERPs:

  • It’s a conspiracy to increase ad clicks
  • Content itself these days are low quality across the board
  • Google doesn’t have anything else to rank
  • It’s the fault of SEOs
  • Affiliates
  • Poor SERPs is Google’s scheme to drive more ad clicks
  • Google promotes big brands because [insert your conspiracy]

So what’s going on?

People Love Big Brands & Garbage Content

The recent Google anti-trust lawsuit exposed the importance of the Navboost algorithm signals as a major ranking factor. Navboost is an algorithm that interprets user engagement signals to understand what topics a webpage is relevant for, among other things.

The idea of using engagement signals as an indicator of what users expect to see makes sense. After all, Google is user-centric and who better to decide what’s best for users than the users themselves, right?

Well, consider that arguably the the biggest and most important song of 1991, Smells Like Teen Spirt by Nirvana, didn’t make the Billboard top 100 for that year. Michael Bolton and Rod Stewart made the list twice, with Rod Stewart top ranked for a song called “The Motown Song” (anyone remember that one?)

Nirvana didn’t make the charts until the next year…

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My opinion, given that we know that user interactions are a strong ranking signal, is that Google’s search rankings follow a similar pattern related to users’ biases.

People tend to choose what they know. It’s called a Familiarity Bias.

Consumers have a habit of choosing things that are familiar over those that are unfamiliar. This preference shows up in product choices that prefer brands, for example.

Behavioral scientist, Jason Hreha, defines Familiarity Bias like this:

“The familiarity bias is a phenomenon in which people tend to prefer familiar options over unfamiliar ones, even when the unfamiliar options may be better. This bias is often explained in terms of cognitive ease, which is the feeling of fluency or ease that people experience when they are processing familiar information. When people encounter familiar options, they are more likely to experience cognitive ease, which can make those options seem more appealing.”

Except for certain queries (like those related to health), I don’t think Google makes an editorial decision to certain kinds of websites, like brands.

Google uses many signals for ranking. But Google is strongly user focused.

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I believe it’s possible that strong user preferences can carry a more substantial weight than Reviews System signals. How else to explain why Google seemingly has a bias for big brand websites with fake reviews rank better than honest independent review sites?

It’s not like Google’s algorithms haven’t created poor search results in the past.

  • Google’s Panda algorithm was designed to get rid of a bias for cookie cutter content.
  • The Reviews System is a patch to fix Google’s bias for content that’s about reviews but aren’t necessarily reviews.

If Google has systems for catching low quality sites that their core algorithm would otherwise rank, why do big brands and poor quality content still rank?

I believe the answer is that is what users prefer to see those sites, as indicated by user interaction signals.

The big question to ask is whether Google will continue to rank what users biases and inexperience trigger user satisfaction signals.  Or will Google continue serving the sugar-frosted bon-bons that users crave?

Should Google make the choice to rank quality content at the risk that users find it too hard to understand?

Or should publishers give up and focus on creating for the lowest common denominator like the biggest popstars do?

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Google Limits News Links In California Over Proposed ‘Link Tax’ Law

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A brown cardboard price tag with a twine string and a black dollar sign symbol, influenced by the Link Tax Law, set against a dark gray background.

Google announced that it plans to reduce access to California news websites for a portion of users in the state.

The decision comes as Google prepares for the potential passage of the California Journalism Preservation Act (CJPA), a bill requiring online platforms like Google to pay news publishers for linking to their content.

What Is The California Journalism Preservation Act?

The CJPA, introduced in the California State Legislature, aims to support local journalism by creating what Google refers to as a “link tax.”

If passed, the Act would force companies like Google to pay media outlets when sending readers to news articles.

However, Google believes this approach needs to be revised and could harm rather than help the news industry.

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Jaffer Zaidi, Google’s VP of Global News Partnerships, stated in a blog post:

“It would favor media conglomerates and hedge funds—who’ve been lobbying for this bill—and could use funds from CJPA to continue to buy up local California newspapers, strip them of journalists, and create more ghost papers that operate with a skeleton crew to produce only low-cost, and often low-quality, content.”

Google’s Response

To assess the potential impact of the CJPA on its services, Google is running a test with a percentage of California users.

During this test, Google will remove links to California news websites that the proposed legislation could cover.

Zaidi states:

“To prepare for possible CJPA implications, we are beginning a short-term test for a small percentage of California users. The testing process involves removing links to California news websites, potentially covered by CJPA, to measure the impact of the legislation on our product experience.”

Google Claims Only 2% of Search Queries Are News-Related

Zaidi highlighted peoples’ changing news consumption habits and its effect on Google search queries (emphasis mine):

“It’s well known that people are getting news from sources like short-form videos, topical newsletters, social media, and curated podcasts, and many are avoiding the news entirely. In line with those trends, just 2% of queries on Google Search are news-related.”

Despite the low percentage of news queries, Google wants to continue helping news publishers gain visibility on its platforms.

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However, the “CJPA as currently constructed would end these investments,” Zaidi says.

A Call For A Different Approach

In its current form, Google maintains that the CJPA undermines news in California and could leave all parties worse off.

The company urges lawmakers to consider alternative approaches supporting the news industry without harming smaller local outlets.

Google argues that, over the past two decades, it’s done plenty to help news publishers innovate:

“We’ve rolled out Google News Showcase, which operates in 26 countries, including the U.S., and has more than 2,500 participating publications. Through the Google News Initiative we’ve partnered with more than 7,000 news publishers around the world, including 200 news organizations and 6,000 journalists in California alone.”

Zaidi suggested that a healthy news industry in California requires support from the state government and a broad base of private companies.

As the legislative process continues, Google is willing to cooperate with California publishers and lawmakers to explore alternative paths that would allow it to continue linking to news.

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Featured Image:Ismael Juan/Shutterstock

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The Best of Ahrefs’ Digest: March 2024

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The Best of Ahrefs’ Digest: March 2024

Every week, we share hot SEO news, interesting reads, and new posts in our newsletter, Ahrefs’ Digest.

If you’re not one of our 280,000 subscribers, you’ve missed out on some great reads!

Here’s a quick summary of my personal favorites from the last month:

Best of March 2024

How 16 Companies are Dominating the World’s Google Search Results

Author: Glen Allsopp

tl;dr

Glen’s research reveals that just 16 companies representing 588 brands get 3.5 billion (yes, billion!) monthly clicks from Google.

My takeaway

Glen pointed out some really actionable ideas in this report, such as the fact that many of the brands dominating search are adding mini-author bios.

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Example of mini-author bios on The VergeExample of mini-author bios on The Verge

This idea makes so much sense in terms of both UX and E-E-A-T. I’ve already pitched it to the team and we’re going to implement it on our blog.

How Google is Killing Independent Sites Like Ours

Authors: Gisele Navarro, Danny Ashton

tl;dr

Big publications have gotten into the affiliate game, publishing “best of” lists about everything under the sun. And despite often not testing products thoroughly, they’re dominating Google rankings. The result, Gisele and Danny argue, is that genuine review sites suffer and Google is fast losing content diversity.

My takeaway

I have a lot of sympathy for independent sites. Some of them are trying their best, but unfortunately, they’re lumped in with thousands of others who are more than happy to spam.

Estimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele's site fell off a cliff after Google's March updatesEstimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele's site fell off a cliff after Google's March updates
Estimated search traffic to Danny and Gisele’s site fell off a cliff after Google’s March updates 🙁 

I know it’s hard to hear, but the truth is Google benefits more from having big sites in the SERPs than from having diversity. That’s because results from big brands are likely what users actually want. By and large, people would rather shop at Walmart or ALDI than at a local store or farmer’s market.

That said, I agree with most people that Forbes (with its dubious contributor model contributing to scams and poor journalism) should not be rewarded so handsomely.

The Discussion Forums Dominating 10,000 Product Review Search Results

Author: Glen Allsopp

Tl;dr

Glen analyzed 10,000 “product review” keywords and found that:

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My takeaway

After Google’s heavy promotion of Reddit from last year’s Core Update, to no one’s surprise, unscrupulous SEOs and marketers have already started spamming Reddit. And as you may know, Reddit’s moderation is done by volunteers, and obviously, they can’t keep up.

I’m not sure how this second-order effect completely escaped the smart minds at Google, but from the outside, it feels like Google has capitulated to some extent.

John Mueller seemingly having too much faith in Reddit...John Mueller seemingly having too much faith in Reddit...

I’m not one to make predictions and I have no idea what will happen next, but I agree with Glen: Google’s results are the worst I’ve seen them. We can only hope Google sorts itself out.

Who Sends Traffic on the Web and How Much? New Research from Datos & SparkToro

Author: Rand Fishkin

tl;dr

63.41% of all U.S. web traffic referrals from the top 170 sites are initiated on Google.com.

Data from SparktoroData from Sparktoro

My takeaway

Despite all of our complaints, Google is still the main platform to acquire traffic from. That’s why we all want Google to sort itself out and do well.

But it would also be a mistake to look at this post and think Google is the only channel you should drive traffic from. As Rand’s later blog post clarifies, “be careful not to ascribe attribution or credit to Google when other investments drove the real value.”

I think many affiliate marketers learned this lesson well from the past few Core Updates: Relying on one single channel to drive all of your traffic is not a good idea. You should be using other platforms to build brand awareness, interest, and demand.

Want more?

Each week, our team handpicks the best SEO and marketing content from around the web for our newsletter. Sign up to get them directly in your inbox.

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Google Unplugs “Notes on Search” Experiment

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Google unplugs Notes On Search Experiment

Google is shutting down it’s Google Notes Search Labs experiment that allowed users to see and leave notes on Google’s search results and many in the search community aren’t too surprised.

Google Search Notes

Availability of the feature was limited to Android and Apple devices and there was never a clearly defined practical purpose or usefulness of the Notes experiment. Search marketers reaction throughout has consistently been that would become a spam-magnet.

The Search Labs page for the experiment touts it as mode of self-expression, to help other users and as a way for users to collect their own notes within their Google profiles.

The official Notes page in Search Labs has a simple notice:

Notes on Search Ends May 2024

That’s it.

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Screenshot Of Notice

Reaction From Search Community

Kevin Indig tweeted his thoughts that anything Google makes with a user generated content aspect was doomed to attract spam.

He tweeted:

“I’m gonna assume Google retires notes because of spam.

It’s crazy how spammy the web has become. Google can’t launch anything UGC without being bombarded.”

Cindy Krum (@Suzzicks) tweeted that it was author Purna Virji (LinkedIn profile) who predicted that it would be shut down once Google received enough data.

She shared:

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“It was actually @purnavirji who predicted it when we were at @BarbadosSeo – while I was talking. Everyone agreed that it would be spammed, but she said it would just be a test to collect a certain type of information until they got what they needed, and then it would be retired.”

Purna herself responded with a tweet:

“My personal (non-employer) opinion is that everyone wants all the UGC to train the AI models. Eg Reddit deal also could potentially help with that.”

Google’s Notes for Search seemed destined to never take off, it was met with skepticism and a shrug when it came out and nobody’s really mourning that it’s on the way out, either.

Featured Image by Shutterstock/Jamesbin



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