Posted by Dr. Pete

If you live outside of the ivory walls of the Fortune 500, it can sometimes seem like Google gives big brands all the breaks. This isn’t just sour grapes – some examples are very public. When JC Penney and Overstock got a slap on the wrist for widespread and intentional link manipulation, it was hard not to feel slighted.

There’s been a lot of debate about how Google, both manually and algorithmically, may favor big brands, but I think the debate misses something more fundamental. Since the beginning of the internet, the eventual advantage of big brands was only a matter of time. This post is about why I think that advantage was inevitable, why it’s not going away, and what you can do to compete.

The Wild West

In the early days of the public internet, building a website was like heading into the Wild West – all you needed to stake your claim was a wagon and a frontier spirit, as long as you survived the cholera, dysentery, starvation, and bear attacks (i.e. learning HTML)…

Lone home on the internet range

Sure, you didn’t get many visitors, but at least it was quiet and no one minded if you wallpapered your house with dancing hamsters. Then, along came the search engines. At first, it was great – the pioneers got all the visitors. With the allure of free land and free customers, though, the quiet didn’t last…

Internet settlers begin to arrive.

Much to the dismay of early adopters, it didn’t stop at a few neighbors. Pretty soon, people started to make real money online, and along came…

The Gold Rush

Big brands didn’t rush to the internet early on because they simply didn’t have any reason to. They let the pioneers do the hard work of drawing the maps and clearing the brush, until the first prospector discovered gold. When online-only brands started to draw sky-high IPOs and generate ad revenue, the big brands took notice, and the dot-com bubble started to inflate…

Big brands take over - "Ma, get my gun!"

Before this becomes a history lesson, let me cut to the point. The risks in any uncharted territory are often taken by the people who have nothing to lose, and that’s not the big brands. As soon as there was gold to be had, the companies with money and power made their move to claim it. The early movers had an advantage, but it wasn’t destined to last forever.

Googling for Gold

So, what does all of this have to do with Google?  While Google probably has made changes along the way that favor big brands (like 2009’s “Vince” update), I suspect that many of the changes in the search landscape really just reflect the broader evolution of the internet. In other words, as big brands followed the gold, so did Google.

Over time, signals that favor brand-building have naturally found their way into the algorithm. Let’s step back from any specific algorithm update and look at the progression of ranking signals since the early days of search engines…

1993+, On-page ranking signals, Weak brand influence

Declaring the “first” search engine is an argument waiting to happen, but I’m going to pin the launch of mainstream search around the time of Excite in 1993. The early engines relied almost exclusively on on-page ranking signals, like keywords in page titles, content, and (at the time) META tags. This leveled the playing field for a lot of small businesses, as anyone could create content that was keyword-targeted. Big brands could exert their influence by spending more money, but the direct influence of their brands on on-page signals was fairly weak.

Of course, the downside of on-page signals is that they were also easy to game, and the early search engines suffered from a lot of spam and quality issues. Then, along came Larry and Sergey and their PageRank algorithm, which relied on links to rank websites. In 1998, Google officially launched to the public…

1998+, Links as ranking signals, Medium brand influence

Link-based rankings gradually gave big brands more of an advantage – their offline presence naturally led to news articles and write-ups, and they began to collect strong link profiles. I call this influence “Medium” because it was mostly indirect. Link buying was (and is) strongly discouraged, so big brands had to work through one-off channels, such as viral marketing.

What’s important to note here is that Google didn’t create PageRank and the link-graph specifically to hand big brands an advantage. They created PageRank as a response to the declining quality of search results powered only by on-page signals.

In 2009, with the success of social media sites like Twitter, Google launched real-time search. Soon after, both Google and Bing would begin to integrate social signals into the algorithm…

2009+, Social signals, Strong brand influence

While the impact of social signals on ranking is still evolving, these signals are directly influenced by the power of a brand. Offline advertising drives brand awareness and mentions and this directly leads to social media activity. As social mentions begin to affect ranking more and more, brands now have a direct channel for their influence to impact SEO.

Step 1 – Get Over It

So, what can you do about the advantage that big brands have in the evolving internet landscape? First, some tough love – you have to get over it. This was inevitable, and whether or not Google was complicit to some degree doesn’t matter. The internet was destined to reflect the offline world, and in the offline world big brands are rich and powerful. We had a nice run, but it was naïve to expect that to last forever.

Step 2 – Act Like a Brand

Ok, so Step 1 wasn’t very helpful. I see too many SEO situations where people obsess about the competition and what’s “fair” – it’s time to step back and learn from the big brands. If your entire focus is on a few on-page factors and manual link-building, you’ll live and die by the algorithm. Big brands are part of the public consciousness – they bombard us on multiple channels, and don’t put all of their eggs in the Google basket.

Obviously, you can’t spend billions of dollars simply trying to implant your brand in people’s brains, but you can tap into the brand awareness you already have. Somewhere, your product or service – if it’s at all decent – has fans and evangelists. Engage with them, reward them, and start thinking about your brand as more than just Top 10 rankings. Social media is a perfect place to start – stop just Tweeting links and begging for Likes and build relationships. In other words, stop focusing on the direct SEO impact so much and start looking at the health of your brand outside of search.

Step 3 – Be a Pioneer (Again)

Search is changing faster than ever. I’ve seen too many companies recently that rely on Google for their survival and have watched their rankings slip over the past year or two. Many of these are good businesses run by good people, but they’re also businesses who made good on SEO years ago and, at some point, started to coast. Meanwhile, the internet changed, the algorithm changed, and the competition changed. If you’re resting on your laurels from 2005, you’re in for a wake-up call. It may not be tomorrow, but it will happen, and it will happen quickly and without mercy.

The early movers had an advantage on the internet because they were willing to take risks that the big brands couldn’t. You can’t live forever in the glory days of being the first person to set up shop. It’s time to branch out again – get active on social channels, including new and unproven channels. Try out new tags and on-page approaches (like Schemas). They won’t all work, but when they do, you’ll be somewhere that the big brands aren’t yet. Your greatest power as a small to mid-sized business is agility. You can set up a social profile or add a few pages to your site without a committee meeting, budget approval, and 6 months of deliberation. That’s a 6-month head-start, but to get it you have to move now.

Sign up for The Moz Top 10, a semimonthly mailer updating you on the top ten hottest pieces of SEO news, tips, and rad links uncovered by the Moz team. Think of it as your exclusive digest of stuff you don’t have time to hunt down but want to read!

More: continued here