For a long time, businesses have been pushing to include brand mentions in incoming content. It was always a beneficial practice to expand your brand recognition; users are more likely to convert if they recognize the company they’re investigating. Brand mentions have had a nebulous impact on SEO, however. Until now.
In the last few days, Google has stirred up certain segments of the content marketing world by filing a new patent. This patent includes a number of references that, in plain English, don’t look like much. When read through the lens of Google’s SEO regulation, however, the whole thing begins to look like an algorithm update. In fact, it begins to look like a fairly major algorithm update.
Links have had quite a bit of power in the past. It’s why the importance of followed links has risen in the last few years, while links that aren’t followed have been avoided. The link game has been done to death, an as such, it’s one vector for shady, potentially black-hat techniques in SEO. Google has been making a powerful push over the last few years to get away from engine-first thinking; that is, sites putting more focus on ranking in the search engines than on providing value to their customers. The move to a lower value for followed links has been coming for a while.
This is all reminiscent of the power – and power vacuum – of keywords, in their rise and fall. Keywords began as a powerful tool to use to understand the intention of a site and its value to a user. Google used keywords to rank a site, and webmasters began paying careful attention to keywords to the exclusion of value. Google penalized keyword misuse in as many ways as possible, and downgraded their value significantly in the grand scheme of SEO. Since then, keywords have become at risk of being supplanted entirely by value-based semantic search.
Downgrading the importance of links, increasing the value of semantic search and dealing with the concept of industries and brands rather than keywords and categories is an interesting move for Google to make. The two key factors in categorizing a site were always the network of incoming and outgoing links and the keywords crawled through the site. Of course, Google has a decade of data and dozens of ranking factors to consider, so there won’t be a huge paradigm shift.
The point of everything, and the focus of Google’s patent, is the unlinked mention. That is, a mention of a brand on one site not owned by that brand. This tells us that Google is looking for ways to pass value from one site to another without the value being tied to a link. In a way, it almost comes back around to the importance of keywords. The keywords in question, of course, being the common references to a given brand.
Unlinked mentions are specifically mentioned in this patent as a vector for passing authority from one site to another, as long as those sites are not part of the same brand. This signifies that Google is on the cusp of downgrading the value of followed links and adding a more semantic analysis of the content and brand mentions on a site.
Upon catching wind of this, Moz performed some tests to see if any brand mentions passed value already. The results were hard to quantify for a number of reasons, including the existing value of followed links. After all, most cases where a link is involved a mention exists as well. It’s hard to separate the data from one side and another. Further testing will be necessary to come to any true conclusions, but for now, one interesting issue has come up.
What happens to a brand with a relatively generic name? A brand like Next, as cited in the Moz article, has a name that is also a common word in Internet writing. Thousands of companies exist with generic names. Google has their work cut out for them, when it comes to identifying the difference between a use of the generic word and a mention of the brand.
Context is everything, of course, and Google will certainly make use of the hundreds of other factors they consider when ranking a website for a given query. Generic brands may find it more difficult to obtain the value from an unlinked brand mention, or it may prove to be no trouble at all.
As with everything Google does these days, their core driving principle is to provide value to the user. Sites need to take this to heart. SEO is no longer an industry about gaming the system to force a site to rank highly on the results pages. It’s all about marketing in a way that attracts users organically through the building of value. Bring in users with value, and Google will recognize that fact. Now, shoehorning in a link just to get the followed link juice is going to be less effective than mentioning a site organically in the content of that blog post or article.
In the future, links will continue to hold value. They might not hold as much value as they do now, but they won’t drop off entirely. They are still valuable to users to link to the pieces of content they want to find. They will remain valuable to search engines as one of many factors of value. They, like keywords, will drop off in exact value and will instead remain as general guidelines. Link density will be no more powerful than keyword density, and anchor text will not necessarily need to involve the brand name.
To start with, many companies are already using good habits when it comes to brand mentions. When you write a guest blog, you already mention your company and include a link. The upcoming algorithm changes will likely just make it more important to mention your company organically, and less crucial to include a specific link.
The two pillars to consider building over the next few months are nofollowed links and brand mentions. Nofollowed links have been avoided traditionally due to their inability to pass link juice and authority from one site to another. In the future, they may hold a position alongside brand mentions as a value indicator not tied to a link. Brand mentions, as well, will be potent. Encourage others to mention your brand in posts, with or without links.
Another thing to be aware of are the common terms that people use to seek out your brand. They may not use your entire brand name, and may instead use variations, acronyms, slang and related terms. Emphasizing these terms may have the potential to associate them with your brand inside your industry, which gives you additional fodder for brand mentions. Of course, chances are other sites are already using some of those terms when they mention you, so some brand mention power is already out there.
Essentially, strive to provide value to your users. Make every piece of content on your site geared towards that goal. Guides, tutorials, reference pieces, commentary on current events; anything that has an emphasis on being useful to the reader, rather than being written specifically for the purpose of ranking on the searches, building links or including keywords. Strive to create content that has the potential to go viral, and it will be rewarded.