Search Marketing

Google Test Puts Brands Front & Center via the Knowledge Graph

August 6, 2013

Google’s introduction of the Knowledge Graph last year marked a notable shift in the company’s approach toward delivering search results. In addition to simply matching user queries to web pages as it has always done, Google began to show a deeper understanding of entities – the real meaning behind certain words and phrases. At its inception, the Knowledge Graph was limited to showing information on certain types of queries, such as celebrity names and landmarks.

But over time, Google has expanded the Knowledge Graph to influence a wider variety of search results, including some related to brands. Typically, companies have only appeared in the Knowledge Graph for obviously branded queries. However, recently spotted results illustrate that Google may be testing updates that have new implications for brands.

New instances of brands in the Knowledge Graph

When you perform a search on the word “mobile” from a desktop computer or laptop, Google generates two distinct columns of information. On the left side, you see the usual mix of natural and universal search listings. On the right side, there is a very prominent disambiguation box containing multiple entities Google thinks you may be seeking: the company T-Mobile, the mobile phone as a technology and the city of Mobile, Alabama. The Knowledge Graph has reasonably concluded that a user searching for “mobile” may be showing intent toward any of these three entities.

Perform the same search for “mobile” on a mobile device, and you see a very similar results page, except the content is now merged into a single-column experience. The disambiguation box appears at the top, displacing a portion of the natural listings, and showcasing those same three “mobile” entities seen in desktop search (you have to scroll horizontally to see more than the first two).

As the heat map shown below illustrates, this is a win for T-Mobile. Because Google has determined there is a reasonable likelihood that someone searching for “mobile” is seeking the brand, T-Mobile receives a prominent link adorned with an eye-catching logo image before every other organic result (and with no active paid listings, it’s the first result, period). Clicking this link does not point to T-Mobile’s website directly, but it does generate a new search on the brand, complete with a full Knowledge Graph box and a results page that is dominated by the company’s web properties.

It happens that T-Mobile already holds the top natural search result for the keyword “mobile” – but this is not always the case.

An unexpected brand advantage for non-brand searches

In recent days, select queries such as “flowers” and “steaks” have also been generating disambiguation boxes that feature brands. For these two keywords in particular, those brands are ProFlowers and Omaha Steaks, respectively – neither of which is the same as the brand that holds the top organic position for those queries. Some variation has been noted in how the results are presented from day-to-day – at times they resemble the prominent links in the “mobile” example that displace natural listings, while at other times they appear further down on the results page. The periods in which the disambiguation boxes receive very prominent placement benefit the brands that would not otherwise appear in such a prime position.

Why is Google including some companies but not others in disambiguation boxes for such major non-brand keywords? In looking at other keywords and their recently-seen disambiguation suggestions, there appears to be one major common trait:

  • “Buy” – Shopping and Best Buy
  • “Tickets” – and Ticketmaster
  • “Poker” – Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars
  • “Sports” – FOX Sports

In each case, the suggested companies hold an exact keyword match within their brand names and associated domains (note that Shopping is rebranded).

The presence of a domain containing the non-brand keyword is not enough to qualify a company for this kind of Knowledge Graph inclusion. In each case, these company sites have strong traditional search optimization and link authority, giving them natural listings on the first results page. But the exact match does appear to be a requirement for inclusion nonetheless.

It is highly probable that Google is actively testing these results, as they have been changing to varying degrees over the past week. But, there are potential long-term implications to this testing, as Google has now shown some propensity to include brands within the Knowledge Graph in a way that affects the non-brand keyword landscape. In fact, brands are now sometimes competing with each other organically for very broad queries – regardless of their natural search ranking on the page.

Aligning your SEO strategy with Google’s present and future

The expansion of brands within the Knowledge Graph and the associated evolution in mobile results page design means marketers must adapt in some key ways:

  • Have a strong and engaged Google+ brand presence:  With Knowledge Graph results appearing more often for brands, it becomes even more important to have a verified and frequently-updated Google+ page. Google+ is one of the main sources of Knowledge Graph data, and the one over which brands can exert the most control. Your most recent post may show up in the Knowledge Graph, creating a direct point of entry for searchers into your social content. These “Recent Posts” can incorporate hyperlinks pointing to any URL, a very useful feature that provides an additional way to funnel searchers to target content. And for brands with a local presence, it is equally important to manage your Local Google+ pages – as elements such as maps and reviews may get pulled into the results page.
  • Take full advantage of structured markup:  As Google looks to provide more intelligent results about entities, brands can implement structured markup to help ensure their web content is interpreted correctly. The main selling point of structured data and to marketers has been the rich snippet, where Google infuses marked up information such as images, user ratings and pricing into search results. But the value of structured markup extends even further, helping Google understand your content in a more explicit and comprehensive way than traditional crawling allows. This data is so important to Google’s search strategy that they introduced a Structured Data Markup Helper tool in May, making it easy for webmasters to automate the appropriate microdata through a visual interface.
  • Build credibility through brand ambassadors and authorship:  Linking your content to individual authors in Google+ is a great way to boost your overall brand authority and visibility in search. Select ambassadors to represent your brand as industry experts and thought leaders, and use authorship markup to help your company benefit from their personal authority. In addition to having results snippets with author photos that enhance your search presence, you will be adding a new layer of personal reputation and expertise to Google’s understanding of your brand, which may then be integrated into the Knowledge Graph.
  • Adhere to Google’s best practices for mobile:  In June, Google announced updates to its mobile ranking algorithm and clarified certain best practices for mobile sites. As premium real estate in mobile search becomes increasingly difficult to obtain, it is essential to adhere to these mobile guidelines in order to compete. This means that users should utilize responsive site design or closely follow the rules for bidirectional annotations on separate mobile and desktop sites, as well as avoid any issues that might cause a poor experience for mobile users.
  • Continue to implement traditional SEO best practices:  Although holding top ranking positions can no longer be considered the be-all and end-all of search, the fundamental principles of SEO have not changed in their significance. Having great content, a search-friendly website and high quality inbound links are all still requirements for appearing in Google for competitive keywords, including within Knowledge Graph results.

The best news for big brands is that Google is continuing to move in a direction that emphasizes their relevance to consumers within search. Increasing amounts of space on the results page are being given to brands over smaller competitors, and the most agile and forward-thinking of those brands will be able to use that space to their great advantage. By helping Google understand your business as an entity, and integrating your SEO efforts with strong social and mobile strategies, you can put yourself in a position to succeed as the Knowledge Graph grows smarter and more refined.

Cover photo via Fast Company