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TikTok emerges as a political battleground in Navalny-stirred Russia



TikTok has crafted a number of policies over the years to distance itself from the often-messy political fray, but its users continue to have other agendas in mind.

In Russia, a tug-of-war has emerged on the social network.

On one side are young people using the app to create videos in support of free speech, rallying the public against the government and its treatment of Alexei Navalny, the anti-Putin, anti-corruption politician and activist.

On the other is a government that has quickly versed itself in the art of video messaging — tapping and allegedly paying influencers to dissuade the masses from joining them.

Navalny’s long-term battle with Putin’s government has included political run-ins, imprisonments and a poisoning (with an evacuation to Germany to heal), followed by a return to Russia, subsequent arrest and conviction for violating a previous parole.

Through all of that, Navalny has taken on the mantle of anti-authoritarian hero. With many already unhappy about how the government is handling a weak economy and COVID-19 — a situation that has shaken (but, apparently, not completely toppled) government approval ratings — Navalny’s call for mass protests has been met with a strong response.

And as those protests unfold, TikTok is shaping up to be the scrappy social media analogue of that activity — not unlike the prominent role that Twitter took on during the Arab Spring.

“Political content is not typical for Russian TikTok,’’ said food blogger Egor Khodasevich, whose @kushat_hochu account has 1.2 million followers on the app. “Before Navalny’s return, Russian TikTok was all about dancing, pranks and post-Soviet trash aesthetics. All of a sudden, political videos have started to appear across all categories — humour, beauty, sport.’’

Now, in a significant turnaround, Russian content on the app is being flooded with catchy videos of teenagers cutting their passports in half and throwing them away, pupils taking down portraits of Putin and swapping them with those of Navalny, and others creating how-to’s for would-be protestors — advising them to wear warm clothes, to equip themselves with water and power banks and, if arrested, to pretend they are foreign.

@almorozova#навальный #свободунавальному быть против власти – не значит быть против Родины♬ оригинальный звук – новый год кончился…

These are pooling around hashtags like #23января (January 23, the date of one of the biggest protests so far) and #занавального (“For Navalny”).

The wave of videos even got shout-outs from Navalny himself — fittingly, not on TikTok, but Instagram, where he praised the TikTok activists for helping get the word and the crowds out.

“Respect to the schoolchildren who, according to my lawyer, caused a frenzy on TikTok,” he noted on one post. Later he poked fun at how the TikTok protest videos were described as “fakes” planted by dastardly Americans.

Russia as a country has a small but fast-growing and vocal group of TikTok users.

Figures provided to us from SensorTower estimate that of the more than 2.66 billion times to date globally that TikTok has been downloaded (a figure that includes its Chinese version Douyin), it has been installed about 93.6 million times in Russia (figures that don’t count third-party Android stores, direct downloads or sideloads).

A report in the Moscow Times from the end of December estimates that there are around 20 million active users in the country, more than double the 8 million it had at the end of 2019. TikTok itself does not disclose current MAUs in Russia or globally, but analysts have projected that the company is on track to pass 1 billion MAUs sometime in the early part of this year.

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Even with those sub-100 million numbers, videos with the Navalny hashtag have passed 1 billion views on the platform (as of the time of publishing, the number of views has passed 1.6 billion).

The Empire Strikes Back…

But Russia is nothing if not persistent when it comes to being ahead of the game in tech, and it has been harnessing the media world in a couple of ways in aid of its own ends.

State television and other state media outlets strongly encouraged people to stay away from protests, citing issues like public safety, the spread of Covid-19, and the threat of arrest (one they followed through on: authorities have carried out controversial mass arrests of hundreds of people at these gatherings).

At the same time, attention turned to social media, and in particular TikTok.

Roskomnadzor first confirmed that it would fine all major social media platforms up to 4 million rubles ($54,000) over protest-related content, citing that “these Internet platforms failed to remove a total of 170 illegal appeals in a timely manner.”

It then followed that up with an order to the management teams of TikTok, Facebook, Telegram and Vkontakte to appear at the regulators’ offices to explain why they have not yet removed offending videos, reminding them that failure to comply will mean that fines will be increased to 10% of a company’s annual revenues, dangling the threat that non-compliance could mean services get blocked.

With TikTokers claiming they were being called in by the police after their videos were taken down, TikTok more directly started to get threatened with fines by the regulator in the wake of all this.

As with previous moves to censor online platforms, investigators explained their actions as a response to societal impact. In this case, regulators described protest videos as a coordinated criminal attempt to get minors to commit illegal acts that could endanger their safety.

In addition to all that, the state appeared to take on a guerilla approach, too.

Small accounts, newly created accounts and popular bloggers slowly all started posting videos persuading people away from the protests. These videos, in Russian, warn of the dangers of protesting.

It turns out that at least some of the people posting videos were quietly getting paid. Sums ranged from 2,000 rubles, or about $25, through to 5,000 rubles, according to one TikToker who declined the offer and posted the proposal on TikTok instead.

(Those figures may not sound very high, but they can still be welcome sums for young people in a country where the average salary as of 2019 is around $718 per month.)

It hasn’t taken long for the situation to get unmasked. Several videos criticizing protests have been removed in the last week. It’s unclear whether TikTok — which declined to comment for this article — or the original creators removed them.

But in one case, a TikToker who goes by the name @golyakov_ (741,000 followers) initially posted a stream of reasons why protesting was dangerous. He then later admitted to getting paid but claimed to believe in what he was saying (perhaps one reason why the video has stayed up?).

Startok, one of the agencies that represents social media influencers, confirmed to us that it has cut ties with two of the creators who had taken payments to make videos in support of the state.

TikTok’s immediate connection and current popularity with younger adults has made  it unique in the social media pantheon. However, it wasn’t the only social media platform seeing anti-Navalny activity — both in terms of messaging, and entities soliciting posts for payments.

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A Navalny assistant posted this thread on Twitter of Stories from Instagram casting doubt on Navalny’s decision to return to Russia as a publicity stunt, knowing he would be arrested.

Meanwhile, Boris Kantorovich, a sales director of social media agency Avtorskiye Media who has used Twitter to post about people getting detained, noted that he also came across briefs on Telegram chat, as well as in a Facebook group that required bloggers to create a video with one or two talking points. He said included “protesters provoked the police at the rally,” “we are tired of Navalny” and “we want peace and quiet.”

When Kantorovich posed as one of the TikTokers that he represents, he received a brief for a 15-second video. “After a quick negotiation I hiked the price up from 2,000 rubles to 3,500 rubles,” he said.

Further creative briefs came with the guidance that they needed to condemn protests on 31 January and 2 February, the second being the date of Navalny’s trial.

“Bloggers should say that ‘Navalny will go to jail 100%’, he is ‘funded from the West’ and ‘his recent imprisonment is legal,” Kantorovich said.

Kantorovich added that authorities didn’t reach out to his agency Avtorskiye Media to advertise with the bloggers it works with: “We clearly mark all ads but authorities don’t like it, because they are trying to create an illusion of a public opinion,” he said.

Similar information was shared by Anatoly Kapustin with the “Picture” advertising agency.

Kapustin, speaking in an interview on non-State-owned Russian TV station Rain, named the “public organization for youth affairs” as an advertiser.

“Talking points on offer were: ‘criminal charges could be brought against protesters,’ ‘you might end up in jail and then not find well-paid jobs,’ and ‘Navalny’s children are studying in America,’” he said in the interview.

In some cases, the virality tricks that TikTok is known for have been used by protestors to turn some of those pro-government campaigns around.

After a wave of people created videos based on the same clip of music that repeats in a deep voice that TikTok is not a place for politics, it’s a place for [fill in a fun and non-political activity/video here] — the audio and hashtag were hijacked by protestors seeking to encourage people to embrace free speech and not silence their voices.

TikTok declined to comment for this story, but in general the company has made it a policy not to wade into partisan politics, or to make a space for political advertising, turning its platform into a commercial opportunity to get political points across.

It declined to comment on whether it was taking down videos that might be reported as possible paid advertising by viewers, nor would it comment on whether it had responded to any government requests to remove videos. It periodically publishes transparency reports where some of that detail, and its subsequent actions, can be found, after the fact. (It judges each request individually.)

One thing that the Navalny situation has exposed is that there is a strong appetite among younger people to be more politically engaged, and for the moment, TikTok is emerging as their preferred place to do that.

Khodasevich, the food blogger, thinks TikTok can replace Twitter as a platform of choice for the opposition in Russia.

“Thanks to its clever algorithms, TikTok can show your video to a bigger audience than YouTube or Instagram, even if you don’t pay for promotion,” he said in an interview. “TikTok representatives told me political videos without direct calls for protests will not get banned.’’

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It means that, with a bit of creativity — and a very heavy dose of opportunism and cynicism — both sides might still be able push forward with their political agenda. Boris Kantorovitch agrees.

“Authorities will change their strategy and become more subtle,” he said. “They acted in haste. Probably they thought of TikTok as a good breeding ground for loyalists. Now, the only way to stop people talking about politics on TikTok is by banning access to this platform.’’

Or, if you can’t beat them, join them? The last few days have seen government organizations the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Emergency Situations joining the platform to give the public a glimpse into how they, too, can roll with it.

@mchs.russiaВы только посмотрите, что могут наши сотрудники! Отправляйте свою реакцию в комментариях!Спасибо за предоставленное видео @@anatoly.doletsky♬ оригинальный звук – МЧС России

Some of the content is not exactly subtle — the Foreign Affairs almost immediately used its new account to post a TikTok discrediting Navaly — but more generally, these are signs that the government is all too aware of the impact the platform is having to galvanize people against it, and it’s trying various things to fight that.

So did TikTok really manage to bring a considerable number of young people to rallies? Are we witnessing a birth of a new protest movement or yet another example of one click activism?

According to a poll conducted on 23 January by TV Rain in Moscow, 44% percent of protesters took to the streets for the first time ever. Only 10% of respondents were under the age of 18, with an average age of protesters hovering around 31 years old, showing an overlap with the audience using TikTok in the country.

Other major movements (such as last year’s run of BLM activism) point to 18-34 being the biggest age demographic among protestors (albeit, worth noting strong participation among other ages, too).

With that in mind, it seems that both authorities and opposition in Russia will try to use the social media platforms most popular among that age group to recruit their new foot soldiers.

Social media might even take on a bigger role in coming months, as the wave of physical, outdoor protests have died down amid the Russian winter weather and the police response, giving people a moment to regroup.

In the meantime, Navalny supporters are planning to stand outside their homes on Sunday evening, February 14, from 8.00 – 8.15 pm, holding up their telephone flashlights, taking photos and uploading them to social media using a new hashtag: #ЛюбовьСильнееСтраха (Love is Stronger than Fear).

The Kremlin may well oppose these, too. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday said that that “in the event of a violation of the law, all our law enforcement officers will bring those responsible to justice.”

Of course, as with everything on social media, it’s sometimes hard to figure out everyone’s actual agenda. As Khodasevich said, some political posts are genuine, some could be attributed to “news jacking.” But ultimately, they are sparking a lot of attention that the government is now mobilizing to counteract.

And with another critical Navalny hearing coming up on February 15th, as well as the September 2021 state Duma elections being only months away, the stakes are high for whatever political battles come next.



Google December Product Reviews Update Affects More Than English Language Sites? via @sejournal, @martinibuster



Google’s Product Reviews update was announced to be rolling out to the English language. No mention was made as to if or when it would roll out to other languages. Mueller answered a question as to whether it is rolling out to other languages.

Google December 2021 Product Reviews Update

On December 1, 2021, Google announced on Twitter that a Product Review update would be rolling out that would focus on English language web pages.

The focus of the update was for improving the quality of reviews shown in Google search, specifically targeting review sites.

A Googler tweeted a description of the kinds of sites that would be targeted for demotion in the search rankings:

“Mainly relevant to sites that post articles reviewing products.

Think of sites like “best TVs under $200″.com.

Goal is to improve the quality and usefulness of reviews we show users.”


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Google also published a blog post with more guidance on the product review update that introduced two new best practices that Google’s algorithm would be looking for.

The first best practice was a requirement of evidence that a product was actually handled and reviewed.

The second best practice was to provide links to more than one place that a user could purchase the product.

The Twitter announcement stated that it was rolling out to English language websites. The blog post did not mention what languages it was rolling out to nor did the blog post specify that the product review update was limited to the English language.

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Google’s Mueller Thinking About Product Reviews Update

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Screenshot of Google's John Mueller trying to recall if December Product Review Update affects more than the English language

Product Review Update Targets More Languages?

The person asking the question was rightly under the impression that the product review update only affected English language search results.


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But he asserted that he was seeing search volatility in the German language that appears to be related to Google’s December 2021 Product Review Update.

This is his question:

“I was seeing some movements in German search as well.

So I was wondering if there could also be an effect on websites in other languages by this product reviews update… because we had lots of movement and volatility in the last weeks.

…My question is, is it possible that the product reviews update affects other sites as well?”

John Mueller answered:

“I don’t know… like other languages?

My assumption was this was global and and across all languages.

But I don’t know what we announced in the blog post specifically.

But usually we try to push the engineering team to make a decision on that so that we can document it properly in the blog post.

I don’t know if that happened with the product reviews update. I don’t recall the complete blog post.

But it’s… from my point of view it seems like something that we could be doing in multiple languages and wouldn’t be tied to English.

And even if it were English initially, it feels like something that is relevant across the board, and we should try to find ways to roll that out to other languages over time as well.

So I’m not particularly surprised that you see changes in Germany.

But I also don’t know what we actually announced with regards to the locations and languages that are involved.”

Does Product Reviews Update Affect More Languages?

While the tweeted announcement specified that the product reviews update was limited to the English language the official blog post did not mention any such limitations.

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Google’s John Mueller offered his opinion that the product reviews update is something that Google could do in multiple languages.

One must wonder if the tweet was meant to communicate that the update was rolling out first in English and subsequently to other languages.

It’s unclear if the product reviews update was rolled out globally to more languages. Hopefully Google will clarify this soon.


Google Blog Post About Product Reviews Update

Product reviews update and your site

Google’s New Product Reviews Guidelines

Write high quality product reviews

John Mueller Discusses If Product Reviews Update Is Global

Watch Mueller answer the question at the 14:00 Minute Mark

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Survey says: Amazon, Google more trusted with your personal data than Apple is




MacRumors reveals that more people feel better with their personal data in the hands of Amazon and Google than Apple’s. Companies that the public really doesn’t trust when it comes to their personal data include Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram.

The survey asked over 1,000 internet users in the U.S. how much they trusted certain companies such as Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon to handle their user data and browsing activity responsibly.

Amazon and Google are considered by survey respondents to be more trustworthy than Apple

Those surveyed were asked whether they trusted these firms with their personal data “a great deal,” “a good amount,” “not much,” or “not at all.” Respondents could also answer that they had no opinion about a particular company. 18% of those polled said that they trust Apple “a great deal” which topped the 14% received by Google and Amazon.

However, 39% said that they trust Amazon  by “a good amount” with Google picking up 34% of the votes in that same category. Only 26% of those answering said that they trust Apple by “a good amount.” The first two responses, “a great deal” and “a good amount,” are considered positive replies for a company. “Not much” and “not at all” are considered negative responses.

By adding up the scores in the positive categories,

Apple tallied a score of 44% (18% said it trusted Apple with its personal data “a great deal” while 26% said it trusted Apple “a good amount”). But that placed the tech giant third after Amazon’s 53% and Google’s 48%. After Apple, Microsoft finished fourth with 43%, YouTube (which is owned by Google) was fifth with 35%, and Facebook was sixth at 20%.

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Rounding out the remainder of the nine firms in the survey, Instagram placed seventh with a positive score of 19%, WhatsApp was eighth with a score of 15%, and TikTok was last at 12%.

Looking at the scoring for the two negative responses (“not much,” or “not at all”), Facebook had a combined negative score of 72% making it the least trusted company in the survey. TikTok was next at 63% with Instagram following at 60%. WhatsApp and YouTube were both in the middle of the pact at 53% followed next by Google and Microsoft at 47% and 42% respectively. Apple and Amazon each had the lowest combined negative scores at 40% each.

74% of those surveyed called targeted online ads invasive

The survey also found that a whopping 82% of respondents found targeted online ads annoying and 74% called them invasive. Just 27% found such ads helpful. This response doesn’t exactly track the 62% of iOS users who have used Apple’s App Tracking Transparency feature to opt-out of being tracked while browsing websites and using apps. The tracking allows third-party firms to send users targeted ads online which is something that they cannot do to users who have opted out.

The 38% of iOS users who decided not to opt out of being tracked might have done so because they find it convenient to receive targeted ads about a certain product that they looked up online. But is ATT actually doing anything?

Marketing strategy consultant Eric Seufert said last summer, “Anyone opting out of tracking right now is basically having the same level of data collected as they were before. Apple hasn’t actually deterred the behavior that they have called out as being so reprehensible, so they are kind of complicit in it happening.”

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The Financial Times says that iPhone users are being lumped together by certain behaviors instead of unique ID numbers in order to send targeted ads. Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that the company is working to rebuild its ad infrastructure “using more aggregate or anonymized data.”

Aggregated data is a collection of individual data that is used to create high-level data. Anonymized data is data that removes any information that can be used to identify the people in a group.

When consumers were asked how often do they think that their phones or other tech devices are listening in to them in ways that they didn’t agree to, 72% answered “very often” or “somewhat often.” 28% responded by saying “rarely” or “never.”

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Google’s John Mueller on Brand Mentions via @sejournal, @martinibuster



Google’s John Mueller was asked if “brand mentions” helped with SEO and rankings. John Mueller explained, in detail, how brand mentions are not anything used at Google.

What’s A Brand Mention?

A brand mention is when one website mentions another website. There is an idea in the SEO community that when a website mentions another website’s domain name or URL that Google will see this and count it the same as a link.

Brand Mentions are also known as an implied link. Much was written about this ten years ago after a Google patent that mentions “implied links” surfaced.

There has never been a solid review of why the idea of “brand mentions” has nothing to do with this patent, but I’ll provide a shortened version later in this article.

John Mueller Discussing Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

John Mueller Brand Mentions

Do Brand Mentions Help With Rankings?

The person asking the question wanted to know about brand mentions for the purpose of ranking. The person asking the question has good reason to ask it because the idea of “brand mentions” has never been definitively reviewed.


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The person asked the question:

“Do brand mentions without a link help with SEO rankings?”

Google Does Not Use Brand Mentions

Google’s John Mueller answered that Google does not use the “brand mentions” for any link related purpose.

Mueller explained:

“From my point of view, I don’t think we use those at all for things like PageRank or understanding the link graph of a website.

And just a plain mention is sometimes kind of tricky to figure out anyway.”

That part about it being tricky is interesting.

He didn’t elaborate on why it’s tricky until later in the video where he says it’s hard to understand the subjective context of a website mentioning another website.

Brand Mentions Are Useful For Building Awareness

Mueller next says that brand mentions may be useful for helping to get the word out about a site, which is about building popularity.

Mueller continued:

“But it can be something that makes people aware of your brand, and from that point of view, could be something where indirectly you might have some kind of an effect from that in that they search for your brand and then …obviously, if they’re searching for your brand then hopefully they find you right away and then they can go to your website.

And if they like what they see there, then again, they can go off and recommend that to other people as well.”


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“Brand Mentions” Are Problematic

Later on at the 58 minute mark another person brings the topic back up and asks how Google could handle spam sites that are mentioning a brand in a negative way.

The person said that one can disavow links but one cannot disavow a “brand mention.”

Mueller agreed and said that’s one of things that makes brand mentions difficult to use for ranking purposes.

John Mueller explained:

“Kind of understanding the almost the subjective context of the mention is really hard.

Is it like a positive mention or a negative mention?

Is it a sarcastic positive mention or a sarcastic negative mention? How can you even tell?

And all of that, together with the fact that there are lots of spammy sites out there and sometimes they just spin content, sometimes they’re malicious with regards to the content that they create…

All of that, I think, makes it really hard to say we can just use that as the same as a link.

…It’s just, I think, too confusing to use as a clear signal.”

Where “Brand Mentions” Come From

The idea of “brand mentions” has bounced around for over ten years.

There were no research papers or patents to support it. “Brand mentions” is literally an idea that someone invented out of thin air.

However the “brand mention” idea took off in 2012 when a patent surfaced that seemed to confirm the idea of brand mentions.

There’s a whole long story to this so I’m just going to condense it.

There’s a patent from 2012 that was misinterpreted in several different ways because most people at the time, myself included, did not read the entire patent from beginning to end.

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The patent itself is about ranking web pages.

The structure of most Google patents consist of introductory paragraphs that discuss what the patent is about and those paragraphs are followed by pages of in-depth description of the details.

The introductory paragraphs that explain what it’s about states:

“Methods, systems, and apparatus, including computer programs… for ranking search results.”


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Pretty much nobody read that beginning part of the patent.

Everyone focused on a single paragraph in the middle of the patent (page 9 out of 16 pages).

In that paragraph there is a mention of something called “implied links.”

The word “implied” is only mentioned four times in the entire patent and all four times are contained within that single paragraph.

So when this patent was discovered, the SEO industry focused on that single paragraph as proof that Google uses brand mentions.

In order to understand what an “implied link” is, you have to scroll all the way back up to the opening paragraphs where the Google patent authors describe something called a “reference query” that is not a link but is nevertheless used for ranking purposes just like a link.

What Is A Reference Query?

A reference query is a search query that contains a reference to a URL or a domain name.

The patent states:

“A reference query for a particular group of resources can be a previously submitted search query that has been categorized as referring to a resource in the particular group of resources.”


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Elsewhere the patent provides a more specific explanation:

“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.

…search queries including the term “” can be classified as referring to that home page.”

The summary of the patent, which comes at the beginning of the document, states that it’s about establishing which links to a website are independent and also counting reference queries and with that information creating a “modification factor” which is used to rank web pages.

“…determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective count of reference queries; determining, for each of the plurality of groups of resources, a respective group-specific modification factor, wherein the group-specific modification factor for each group is based on the count of independent links and the count of reference queries for the group;”

The entire patent largely rests on those two very important factors, a count of independent inbound links and the count of reference queries. The phrases reference query and reference queries are used 39 times in the patent.

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As noted above, the reference query is used for ranking purposes like a link, but it’s not a link.

The patent states:

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

It’s clear that in this patent, when it mentions the implied link, it’s talking about reference queries, which as explained above simply means when people search using keywords and the domain name of a website.

Idea of Brand Mentions Is False

The whole idea of “brand mentions” became a part of SEO belief systems because of how that patent was misinterpreted.

But now you have the facts and know why “brand mentions” is not real thing.

Plus John Mueller confirmed it.

“Brand mentions” is something completely random that someone in the SEO community invented out of thin air.


Ranking Search Results Patent

Watch John Mueller discuss “brand mentions” at 44:10 Minute Mark and the brand Mentions second part begins at the 58:12 minute mark

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