Google’s new Brand Bidding Algorithm?

During the 2nd weekend of January 2016, there was a core Google algorithm update confirmed by Googlers. Rankings of thousands of websites were affected. I will try to shed some light onto what happened and share some really interesting facts that can help you understand the nature of this algorithm a little bit better.

Looking at the biggest losers from January 10th 2016, we can see that most of the websites hit are news websites. This led some of the SEO specialists to form a theory that this algorithm change was news related. This diagnosis is definitely wrong though. There is a larger pattern behind all the drops and it clearly points to the conclusion that this algorithm change was actually related to how Google ranks brand-related queries. 

Evidence

First of all, let’s have a look at the biggest January 10th losers from SearchMetrics.

Biggest losers - january 2016

Looking at the domain names above, we can see quite a lot of news websites like:

  • newyorker.com 
  • theatlantic.com 
  • vanityfairl.com
  • economist.com
  • gutenberg.com
  • newsweek.com

and the list goes on.

Some of the websites belong to a completely different category though. Let me show you a few examples:

  • ultimate-guitar.com
  • theblackfriday.com
  • bfads.net
  • outletsheet.com
  • grantland.com
  • organsociety.org

Now it is quite interesting that all the websites mentioned above dropped at the same time. It seems then there is no clear pattern if we only take these sites’ category into account. Fortunately, we have a lot of detailed data from SearchMetrics that lets us go through each drop and see lost keywords. I did it and I came up with a very strong thesis that whatever Google did on January 9th & 10th 2016 was clearly related to how they handle brand rankings. 

Thesis

Google is now showing different results when we search for brands. Therefore now, when you search for “YouTube”, you will be presented with results that better (in Googler’s eyes) respond to your search query. 

Examples of Losers

Let me show you the drops for a few of the websites. 

Theatlantic.com

Theatlantic-searchmetrics visibility

#1 loser in SearchMetrics this weekend. 

Theatlantic.com loser keywords

Theatlantic.com loser keywords - brand queries are marked purple. 

Newyorker.com

Newyorker - searchmetrics visibility

#2 SearchMetrics loser this weekend. 

Newyorker - loser keywords

What is interesting, “calendar” and “dictionary” keywords are among top losers, just as it was in the case of theatlantic.com. A bug in the algo, coincidence or some other reasons we are missing here.

Vanityfair.com

Vanityfair - searchmetrics visibility

Now let’s have a look at the loser keywords.

Vanityfair - loser keywords

And again, we can see mostly branded keywords dropping. Also 1 common non-branded keyword with top #1 loser theatlantic.com - “restaurants”. 

Before jumping to conclusions, I will share one more interesting example - one of the top losers, but not a news website. 

Cashstar.com

Cashstar - searchmetrics visibility

How did they lose their visibility?

Cashstar - loser keywords

Again, almost all of the lost traffic were brand keywords. 

The nature of the algorithm

Depending on the kind of algorithm, some of the Google algorithms can only decrease your rankings or make you recover from your previous drop (e.g. Google Panda,  Google Penguin) after fixing the issues with a link audit (Google Penguin) or on page SEO (Google Panda). This means that they work on a domain or page level. 

The core algorithm changes, e.g. Rank Brain or Knowledge Graph will modify how Google understands your query or ranks a website for a given query. We can still see our website going up or down in rankings, but only if it ranks for the keywords that were affected by the algo change. 

In this case, we can safely say that this algorithm wasn’t page or domain related. What we see is more of a keyword related shake-up than any specific kind of websites dropping. Unfortunately, that means that there isn’t much you can do if you’ve already got affected by this change. 

Thesis 

Whatever the nature of this algorithm is, it is not targeting specific domain, but rather queries or query groups. 

To prove this thesis, let’s analyse winner keywords for the websites with the biggest visibility drops. If my thesis is right, the websites dropping for brand keywords will at the same time gain new rankings for other brand keywords.

Winner & Loser keywords

Did all websites lose visibility for brand related queries?

This is actually extremely interesting. Most of the “winner keywords” were also brand queries for exactly the same websites that lost visibility due to… lost brand keywords. 

Winner keywords - examples

theatlantic.com

Let’s start with the website that was our #1 loser. 

Theatlantic - winner keywords

The pattern for the winner keywords above is identical to the one we saw for losers. You can see that most of the winner keywords are up by 90 or more positions, which basically means that those are brand new rankings. 

This pattern looks identical for the other websites we analyzed earlier. 

newyorker.com

Newyorker - winner keywords

After looking at the examples presented here and many more which I analyzed, it is certain that whatever Google was cooking this weekend was related to brand keywords. 

Shake-up pattern

Why was all those brand related keywords going up and down like crazy? I think that I came to the right conclusion after looking at some of the queries with most significant changes. 

Take a look at some of the keywords. 

“Google” keyword

Rankings from January 10th 2016

10 January - google keyword
10 January - google keyword 2

If you take a closer look at the screenshot above, all URLs are quite short, often with /google/ directory at the end. In general, all the URLs you see are very broad fits for “Google” query. It wasn’t like that a week ago.

Rankings from January 3rd 2016

3 January - google keyword

Looking at the screenshot above, all the queries that don’t reply to “Google” query directly (i.e. very specific pages that don’t match the query very well) are not ranking anymore. It is usually the case that such pages are published within news pages. 

The pattern we saw last weekend didn’t remove all the news queries though. If we go deeper, we can see that Google engineers assumed that content publication date correlates with news content, which means content got either demoted in rankings (older content) or promoted in rankings (fresh content).

Let me show you an example. 

“Target” keyword

Rankings from January 10th 2016

10 January - target keyword

As you can see above, in the case of this query, “Brand Bidding Algorithm” rewarded news pages. Techcrunch and Washington post gained #7 & #6 rankings even though both pages didn’t rank for “target” the week before. 

Both pages were fresh and relevant. I can imagine them being useful to some people looking for “Target”.

Which pages lost rankings then?

Rankings from January 3rd 2016

3 January - target keyword

Two pages that lost rankings were “Why do people hate Lilly Pulitzer” article published in 2012 at theatlantic.com (our top loser) and “How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did” from forbes.com.

Both results were definitely a poor fit for the query and after “Brand Bidding Algorithm” rollout were replaced with a much better and broader fit. 

Lost visibility with an increased number of ranking keywords

During my analysis I’ve found an interesting example which proves that this algorithm change wasn’t targeting any specific pages. Washingtonpost lost 13% of the visibility due to the “Brand Bidding Algorithm”, even though they gained 5% more ranking keywords.

Washingtonpost - SEO visibility

Other drops

To be 100% fair in this analysis, I need to show you a few drops that doesn’t fit this “brand algo” pattern fully.

Ultimate-guitar.com

Ultimateguitar - drop

This was definitely a huge drop, close to a full nuke of ultimate-guitar.com from Google.

UltimateGuitar - searchmetrics visibility

I chose to ignore this domain in my analysis though, because 

  • it looks like a manual penalty against ultimate-guitar.com
  • dropped results were replaced by almost identical ones. 

Whatever hit Ultimate-guitar.com seems like a unique situation that only affected their website. There are loosers and winners each week and most probably, the presence of Ultimate-guitar.com in the losers category this week is a coincidence.
There is one more group of websites that dropped this week. I mentioned a few of them in my Penguin 4.0 article already, but they seem to be a pattern as well. 

Whatever happened this weekend also took down a lot of new websites, potentially spammy ones. Due to their very short life span, and in some cases, clear black hat strategy. I think it is also a part of a regular weekly drop pattern. Let me show you a few examples.

mp3skull.la

mp3skull.la-seovisibility

onlinecreditcenter2.com

Onlinecreditcenter-seo visibility

This website is not working anymore by the way. 

Onlinecreditcenter is not working

As you can see above, there is a good reason not to take those websites into consideration.

All you need to know about this update

If you just scrolled through the data above, or you just want to know the key points about this last update, here it goes:

  • it definitely wasn’t Google Penguin 4.0 :)
  • it wasn’t link oriented
  • it was keyword, not domain oriented, if your website got hit, it was most probably not because of the issues with your domain
  • most of the keywords affected were brands 
  • if your website lost ranking for a brand related query, most probably it was replaced with a better, broader fit

Possible solutions

I definitely don’t want to claim here that I have a magic solution to recover your rankings lost during this “Brand Bidding Algorithm”, but logically there are things you could do to make it happen. 

  1. Try to write fresh content that clearly targets lost keywords. 
  2. Don’t make it too specific
  3. Create a valuable category page about the brand 
  4. Focus on the universal value for users that search for the brand
  5. Provide a lot of useful data or a large report about the brand that you are targeting
  6. Refresh and improve the content that dropped

This is a shame that Googlers didn’t give us some more information about such a massive algorithm change, but fortunately enough, the data gathered here is can be the point of departure for your own investigation into this “core algorithm update”.

Is it over?

I already finished this article when I checked http://serp.watch/ as I do daily and let me show you one of the daily winners from Serp Watch. 

Daily winner-losers

It seems that news websites are still being affected with Google tweaking this algorithm so it may not the last word about “Brand Bidding Algorithm”.

Know more about it?

If you have your own experience or findings about this weekend shake-up, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I am more than happy to write about it to our SEO community and, needless to say, mention you as the source. 

 

Bartosz Góralewicz

Bartosz Góralewicz is the CEO at Elephate, an SEO agency that specializes in preventing and curing technical SEO issues for businesses of all sizes, including renowned international corporations. He is passionate about sharing his expertise and frequently publishes thorough case studies. In his off time, he enjoys spending time with his wife and two young baby girls.

bartosz góralewicz