Is Google Judging You Based on a Template?

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Thinking in templates

We all judge people on first impressions. When we see someone for the first time, we’re quick to decide what type of person they are — based on the clothes they wear, how they style their hair, and anything else we notice that immediately puts them in a group.

It’s certainly not fair, but it’s human nature. And I’d like to keep my faith in humanity and argue that lots of us try NOT to prejudge others.

Google is judging you

Believe it or not, Google is the same. It judges, too. Some might disagree with this theory, but our internal research supports it, as you’ll see in the data below. Google pre-classifies every single search term into a group for later recall.

Is that fair?

Is Google fair about how it does this?

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re about to walk onto the stage of MozCon. You’ve spent months preparing and you have new and thought-provoking research to share. You are legend and you’re about to blow everyone’s mind. And as you make your way up… SPLAT! You fall right on your face. I mean, really wipe out.

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You’ll probably recover, because you’re dynamic and you’ll still nail your presentation. However, you’ll also be forever stamped as the one that fell on your face during the conference.

Is it fair that people treat us this way? Or how about Google? Is it fair that Google judges us like this, that we’re classified into select groups, or that Google may show years-old negative content about us or our clients?

I think most people would agree: it’s not. Something that’s truly not relevant to an individual’s or brand’s storyline shouldn’t be appearing prominently in a query for their name. An event that’s nothing more than a blip on the radar shouldn’t become the most important thing you see about them.

Yet, often it is. More often than you think. Some of the biggest brands in the world are dealing with this problem — having unfavorable content appearing for their name — and desperately try to get rid of it.

How does Google feel about ranking content?

On Google’s About page, Larry Page describes a perfect search engine as something that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

As an example, it states: “This means making search smarter and faster, so it can understand that when you type in [jaguar] you’re looking for the car, not photos of the animal.”

Well, first of all, they might want to find a different example, because queries without context can’t hint at intent, as you’ll see below.

Intent is really difficult

It’s a basic issue of not knowing what the context is for the query. And, arguably, some of the most important searches don’t have context. A brand? An individual? There’s nothing necessarily unique about these searches to give them context. For example, if I search for “Applebee’s” from my phone, there’s context behind it. I’m on my phone, I’m in the vicinity of a restaurant, I’m probably hungry. But a query for, say, a gentleman named “James Young” is useless, as it gives Google no context or basis for figuring out which results might be most relevant. Do I want to know where he lives? When he was born? What kind of work he’s in?

Arguably, these queries without context are the most important queries, and they’re where audiences form opinions about brands.

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So, is Google out to get you?

Sometimes, it can seem like it is when your search results don’t reflect who you are or the content you’re putting out into the world. Truth is, though, Google’s probably not out to get you — in reality, it’s an emotionless machine.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t believe it’s evil. I think it’s a machine controlled by an algorithm, with imperfections and flaws. Choices must be made based on the information available. Sometimes there isn’t enough to work with, or the right information that it’d like to show is missing, so it makes the wrong choices.

So… How do we change what Google wants to show?

Learning from Google’s templates

Google’s job is to show you what you’re looking for. This can only be done by finding patterns and trends. Behind all the search results are templates that every query needs to fit in to.

When you perform a search in Google, you’re effectively seeing whatever information it wants to show you on that day. It’s a ton of information — but it’s not data. If you’re able to collect all that information and trend it, an unbelievable amount can be learned.

For example, among the top 100 hedge funds:

  • 74% have their homepage at position 1
  • 72% have a knowledge graph
  • 38% have Wikipedia at average position 4.41
  • 74% have LinkedIn on page 1

Having this data, you start to uncover a deeper meaning behind the search results. You expose the template Google has created for this “type” of query. It should come as no surprise that these templates will change from industry to industry.

Understanding search result templates and trends by industry

The graph below gives a breakdown of what shows up in search results for these industries. (Note: the percentages are the percentage of Google page 1 results.)

Some notable observations:

  • Telecommunications companies have more results that are corporate on page 1 of Google than pharmaceutical companies do.
  • Pharmaceutical companies will have significantly more media content appearing in their search results than an engineering/construction company.
  • Food/drug stores don’t usually get stock quotes appearing in their results.

Using data to create the content Google wants to show

Armed with this information, you can now identify what kind of content Google wants to show for you or your brand.

While we’ve all heard a million times that “content is king” and we should create more content, the reality is that only the RIGHT content is what’s going to make the difference. Content is not churning out post after post after post of products and other junk. Rather, content is about creating an impression that enhances the brand in the viewer’s mind.

Practically, this idea of templates becomes extremely important in planning the right content for your brand. If you can use these templates to identify certain trends appearing for brands similar to your own, you can create the content Google wants to show.

Case studies and analysis

To help articulate this point, I want to share a few case studies.

Case study #1: The not-for-profit president that seems unfavorable

Take, for example, a client we had in the not-for-profit industry. He was the president of an organization and notable enough to have a Wikipedia profile, as did all of his competitors. His corporate site and social profiles were ranking relatively consistently with everyone else, and he authored content regularly. However, he had a disproportionate amount of media coverage about him compared to his competitors, causing negative content to rank prominently.

What became clear was that all the authored content was on his corporate sites, as opposed to a leading industry publication. Content creation was happening, but it was being put in the wrong place. According to the data, someone like this individual should be generating content on reputable industry publications.

Result: We worked to migrate some of his content to relevant publications. With a few relevant links, it began ranking within a few weeks.

Case study #2: The CEO gets all the news!

Another example was the CEO of an asset management company who had a disproportionate amount of news content appearing about them, some of which was negative. This caused frequent changes to the search results for the individual’s name and a lack of branding around their name.

When you examine the results closer, you notice that on average, the CEO of a company like this would have two non-owned, executive-style profiles on sites like Forbes, Bloomberg, or Fortune.

Result: This individual was missing from notable lists, specifically the Forbes billionaire list. Working with the communications team, he was included in the list, displacing some of the negative content.

Case study #3: The need for more ownership

The final example I’ll offer was of a client who had been trying to brand themselves through the use of content, blogging, press releases, and other similar information.

The biggest problem they had? They already had a nice amount of “ownership” within their search results. That means they had full and total control over half of the results appearing. Based on the peer analysis, it was going to be highly unlikely that they’d get more than that.

However, when we ran a frequency analysis, we noticed that every single one of their competitors has a GuideStar profile appearing.

The only differentiator between our client and their competitors was the level of their profile, which is earned by completing it. They were at silver, while everyone else had gold status (Note: there’s some speculation about the level of status).

Once we helped them build up their profile to gold, we added a few easily-attainable and relevant links pointing to the profile. Easy ones, like from their corporate website. It doesn’t get more legit than that.

Result: Within a matter of weeks, we saw the profile ranking at the bottom of page 1, displacing negative content about the brand.

Practically using this information

At the end of the day, Google is nothing more than an organized system. We sometimes give it too much credit because it happens to be REALLY good at understanding what we want and mean. But this is based on an organized understanding of how we (all humans that use Google) use the search engine.

Not all content can rank for all types of queries. Just because a certain result appears for one query doesn’t mean that another will; randomly creating a bunch of profiles is not going the solution. For example, if you happen to be one of the 200 richest Americans in the world, Pinterest is not likely to rank for you. (It appears for 3 of them on page 2: Randa Williams, Milane Frantz, and H. Ross Perot Sr).

Using historical and competitor analysis, understanding what type of content is frequently appearing will give you tremendous insight into the kind of content you should be building to fit into the template Google has built for your brand.

One final note

The only loose end in this process is the thought that you’re now “stuck” in a template. Once Google perceives you a certain way, is that it? Are you stuck? Can the CEO who loves arts and crafts convince Google that Pinterest should rank prominently for queries with their name?

There is some subjectivity to this, to be sure, but the entire process above is by far the path of least resistance. This is the content Google wants to show for queries about you or your brand, based on trends of others in your industry.

If you create an experience on that network that’s highly popular, engaging, and something in which you invest a lot of time and effort, I think it’s fair to say that it could change how search engines classify you. But convincing someone to blog or use social media when it’s not something they’ll do aggressively or passionately usually doesn’t end well. Most people have these profiles, but that doesn’t mean they actively use them.

These templates exist because of the type of information that typically shows for these queries. It’s low-hanging fruit. If you have info that doesn’t make sense for who you are, it likely won’t appear right away without really hard work.

Work with the algorithm and make sense of which content it’s clear that the search engine wants to show. If you create that content, it will rank.

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