Latest steps in the Google dance: brands, or not?

There’s a buzz in the SEO community about an update which the search company has made to its algorithms – though Google’s Matt Cutts calls it a change, if you can figure out the difference, albeit one important enough to have a name within the company – it’s “Vince’s change”, after the employee who contributed it.

According to SEO guru Aaron Wall  it is related to CEO Eric Schmidt’s comments last year that the Internet is a “cesspool” of false information. Big idea: promote trusted brands in the search results to ensure quality in the top hits.

As usual with Google, it’s hard to discern whether this is a big deal as Wall claims, or a minor evolution as Cutts presents it. Still, it is worth a few observations.

First, it seems obvious that Google’s original big idea, pagerank based on incoming links, is becoming less and less useful. It has been killed first by the SEO industry itself and its unceasing link farms and exchanges, and second by Google’s promotion of the “nofollow” attribute, which ironically means that many of the best incoming links are now supposedly ignored, while the SEO folk ensure that low-quality links which are not tagged nofollow abound.

That being the case, Google has to look for other ways to rank sites. According to Cutts, there are three things (in addition to pagerank) that it tries to identify: trust, authority, and reputation.

The brands idea is an easy solution. Prefer the well-known names; that way you may not get the best content or the best price; but at least users generally won’t be scammed.

The potential consequences of this kind of thinking are far-reaching. It is undermining one of the Web’s key attractions, which is low barriers to entry. If SEO becomes a matter of building a big brand, it is no different than the old world of big-budget marketing campaigns (and perhaps that should not come as a surprise).

The other twist on this is that users searching don’t necessarily want the big brands. Rather, they want the best information. Further, if a user wants to find a big brand on the Web, it does not need Google to do so. If Google goes too far in promoting familiar names above the best content, it leaves an opportunity for other search engines.

I think Google is smarter than that. Nevertheless, the problem which Schmidt refers to is real, and I reckon that barriers to entry on the Internet are rising and will continue to do so.

The power Google exerts to make or break Internet enterprises and to influence the flow of information is downright spooky, mitigated by the fact that it does an excellent job as far as I can tell (and there lies the rub).

Finally, one tip for Google. Scrap nofollow. It was a bad idea, for reasons which only now are becoming obvious. If I were building a search engine today, I would take little or no account of it.

PS great comment from @monkchips on Twitter just as I posted this entry:

for my purposes google search has actually become less useful over time. Now its kind of like a mall of corporations