How the top brands are dominating Google search results and what it can teach the rest of us.
A couple of weeks ago I came across a post online that said that SEO was dominated by just 16 companies. I found that hard to believe. I began to do my own research. What I found is both very upsetting and very encouraging. But before we go down that rabbit hole, let’s get some background information.
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is uncovering – and using – the formula for ranking web pages, to your advantage. Officially, everything we think of as SEO is ‘black hat’ and not approved by Google. Accordingly, Google goes to great lengths to keep us from really understanding how this works.
The original article by Glen Allsopp shows how the huge diversity we perceive in Google search results is indeed only a few large corporations controlling what we assume to be choice.
More specifically he shows how just 16 core companies are dominating the most popular industries online and how that situation is going to get a whole lot worse.
There’s good news and bad news.
The bad news first. This means that the very profitable niches, or business categories, are already taken. The top search categories include weight loss, cars, beauty, free online, technology and even baby showers. There is no way you and I can compete against this domination.
The good news is, it means that SEO works. And, those aren’t the only games in town. There are other niches that are too small or too new or too ‘long tail’ for the big corporations to consider.
This is where you and I come in. We can study their techniques and apply them in areas without competition. And, there are such categories! You just need to know where to look.
Work from home
If you want to work from home, make money in your sleep, or live a digital lifestyle, then pull up a chair and sit down. You are in the right place. These are things I have been working and playing with for some time and I know a few things.
In addition, I have some tools that you will need, and you can have them at the same price I pay. I’ll show you what I do and how I do it.
By the way, those are some of the reasons why I like this business. There are other reasons. I really like this business because I like helping people, especially I like solving problems and then helping other people who are searching for answers to those same problems.
I’m the boss
I can start an article, stop when I want to take a rest or stretch my feet, or do some research to find the best answers, and then come back to the actual writing of the article. I can save the draft, and look it over the next day, and re-write some of it, if needed. I’m in control.
The biggest reason I like this business is that I cam creating something that can accumulate income. It works like this. If I work at $xxx per hour, no matter how much that is,
I’m still trading my time for money. If I get sick, the money stops. With this business, I can take a day off and the money continues. It’s like I’m writing a book that people can buy today, tomorrow and for many days in the future.
I don’t sell
I don’t sell anything. I dislike selling. What I like is that I get to set my own hours, study and and share what I hav learned, make some genuine recommendations about my experience. I’m not an expert. If I need more information, I go find an expert and interview them.
Almost anyone who has written a book knows more about their subject than I do. If I learned a lot from their book, I will ask to interview them. They want to sell their book and most will agree to an interview if I mention their book.
If I get sick, or stop working for any reason, that money keeps coming in the door. That’s the potential of any website. It’s what I teach. If this is for you, I encourage you to join me. You can click the button at the end of this article to get started.
This is my own web hosting company and I have nearly all of the stuff you need right here. I don’t compete with the big companies. I made my company into a membership site. Members get everything at cost, the same as me. I have a staff that knows these products better than I do.
We, er they, are open all the time for sales and support. If you need something else, let me know. I’ll see what I can do. I like solving problems and making those answers available for people. And, I like simple, efficient and elegant solutions. Getting back to the subject.
Hearst Media owns many of the brands we know and recognize: Esquire, Elle and Cosmopolitan. A recent Reddit post claimed that Hearst was using their powerful brands to “game Google” to rank new websites very quickly, using slightly shady practices.
This led to the article I mentioned above. Being a rather nosey sort, I had to check it out for myself. The quick summary is that Hearst clearly was (and still is) using their authoritative brands to point links to their latest venture, BestProducts.com.
While I am not surprised that big corporations get a lot of traffic from the brands linking to them – Hearst Media, which also owns Marie Claire and Woman’s Day – what surprised me was why Google had taken such a huge liking to them. Especially when their new site had ranked so poorly under it’s previous owner that it was dropped.
To give an overview of what was happening for those who are skimming this article, a bit oversimplified, the situation looks like this:
The new domain, BestProducts is bought by Hearst Media, and within a very short time, large online magazines start linking to the new website, and suddenly the new website is ranking “organically” very high in Google.
To be fair, linking is one of the primary ranking factors in Google’s formula. In short: back-links ARE SEO. What is surprising, is that Google is allowing, no – accepting, no – encouraging, no – leading this ranking.
The website was launched in October, and by May it has an estimated one million visitors, an estimated 62% of them or 600,000 visitors are from Google (free) every month!
This illustrates the fundamental key to ranking – tons of authoritative sites linking to you is obviously great for SEO.
Anyone who has been involved in SEO for a period of time might wonder, surely getting so many backlinks in such a short timeframe should raise a red flag?
Even if the links in question are from some of the biggest media brands in the world. Does that mean the rest of us can buy backlinks?
I will say that I don’t think there is anything wrong with this. I’m just curious about what this means for SEO. Put simply, if I owned a lot of websites, I would be fine linking them together.
In fact, I do have a few websites, and I do link them to each other when I feel it’s appropriate. If for no other reason than from a usability standpoint.
That being said, still I’m a little surprised at this massive number of links. I think it’s a bit risky. The other thing that’s happening is that these are not static footer links that have been left alone (and not just on one site). They’re changing to different pages – and using different words – on a fairly frequent basis.
To me, and the original author, this doesn’t mean that they’re just linking to their own site. To me it means that they’re testing the placement and wording for usability reasons, and I think it means that they know a thing or two, that we can learn, about SEO. He wanted to see if he could figure out when these links were added to their network.
Thousands of backlinks from these authority sites would make any website rank in Google. Some of these are on the same day! It seems very clear this was a premeditated plan.
The smoking gun? Hearst Media purchased iCrossing, the most successful SEO agency on the planet just a few years prior to this launch. They paid $325 million for an agency that generated more than 60% of their revenues from SEO clients.
This explains the slow buildup of network links and the semi-frequent changing of URLs and link text in their websites’ footers. That’s not a surprise. What is surprising to me is Google’s reaction. There is no caution or hesitation at all. Google is leading this ranking.
Private Backlink Networks
Again, this is not an attack on Hearst Media. These are their websites and they know what they’re doing, so they’re welcome to do with them as they please. They also made BestProducts a rather attractive looking website.
What interests me, and the author of that article, is how accepting Google is of something they told us not to do – getting backlinks.
One of the practices for affiliate marketing that is “frowned upon” is a Private Backlink Network, or PBN. That is buying multiple domains that link to each other for the purpose of pushing the central domain into an authoritative position, and therefore higher in Google’s rankings.
I’m surprised at how well their strategy is working. I’m not naive – I know that authoritative links equal a good chance of increased search rankings – but I didn’t expect they would be outranking some of the biggest brands on the internet for search terms that can make them a lot of money.
Different sources give different results, of course. One thing that they’re at least right about is that BestProducts are ranking for what they state they’re ranking for.
It’s not just BestProducts. Hearst is having a lot of SEO success with their other properties. Just look at how their brand is doing as a whole.
In fact, Hearst Media – through different websites – is dominating not just the top three spots in the SERPS, but the whole first page and more. Clearly their strategies are working.
And, it’s not just Hearst. You may think Hearst is some kind of exception, and partly, you would be right. However, they’re not alone. Purch also owns some of the biggest sites online.
There’s no doubt they are each watching the success of the other. It must be very tempting to follow the same path if they can spin up another domain to fill a niche.
The more research you do through this lens, the less varied Google search results appears to be. Time after time you can trace back the top ranking websites to some of the biggest media companies in the world.
So much so in fact that this situation is probably only the tip of the iceberg. This domination of Google results is likely to get much worse. Hearst can move fast. According to Digiday, “We’re now at place where we can spin up properties incredibly quickly,” Young said.
“This (BestProducts) went from idea to launch in six weeks.” Young also commented that, “We have a strong new platform. Now we can start applying that to new opportunities.” Which can only mean that more BestProducts-like websites are on their way.
Back in September of 2015, Time Inc’s ‘The Foundry’ launched a car news website called ‘TheDrive’. Time recently revealed the site is now receiving more than 2 million unique visitors per month.
More recently, Time launched a website called ‘ExtraCrispy’. Oddly enough it’s a website dedicated to breakfast, but they’ve received a TON of links back to this site, simply because it was created by Time.
There’s a lot of similarities in these mega brands. Many started offline in publishing and brought those titles online while many purchased their own competitors and ran different brands like they were separate entities. For instance, IAC purchased About.com while AOL (now owned by Verizon) purchased Patch, TechCrunch and The Huffington Post.
There are a few takeaways that I see here. These are my own ideas. First, I miss the days of the web 1.0 when it was a free-for-all. This, in my opinion, is the beginning of web 3.0.
It’s now a big-company field day disguised as competition among the smaller brands, aided and abetted by Google. Similar to the few big food companies that control your local grocery shelves.
While I am saddened to see this, I’m not surprised. It’s a pattern we’ve seen repeated many times before. For example, the U.S. founding fathers, at least officially, wanted plurality and diversity of opinion when electing government leaders. They didn’t foresee political parties limiting that diversity to only two opinions.
Take television. The FCC limited ownership of television stations to increase diversity of opinion. They envisioned thousands, or even tens of thousands, of stations all across the country.
Initially, that was true, and still is, but these stations started forming into networks. And that quickly narrowed the diversity down to three. PBS was added, partly to increase that diversity later.
So, What can we learn from this?
Backlinks rank. There were no detectable backlinks from SimilarWeb, Alexa or Compete, to the domain until About.com launched the domain. About.com pointed a ton of their high authority health-related sub-domains directly at the VeryWell homepage and categories. This had the effect of spreading the “link juice” around the entire website.
There’s 3.6 million visitors to the site. A full 56% of that reportedly comes from free Google search engine traffic.
This surprised me because I always heard that the reverse was true, that the individual web page ranked, not the web site. Maybe Google is now too big to not reward the other big companies.
The domain is important. The most common thing seems to be that they all plan to spread the authority of their online presence. Based on the success of VeryWell, About.com will disperse into many more verticals. This gives the appearance of specialization and competition, when in fact, it’s not.
A vertical industry is one that is focused on a relatively narrow range of goods and services. Because most industry tends to specialize, most industry tends to be vertical. A horizontal industry is one that aims to be “full service” and produce a wide range of goods and services.
About.com’s CEO Neil Vogel explained it this way, “About was built during a different time in the internet, where scale translated to trust. But the internet has changed. No one wants advice on their 401k from the same people that give advice on how to bake a pie.”
Build PBNs. We can apply these SEO lessons to our own sites and to favor our clients. This means we can do our own research and add more domains to focus on each specific market. We can also build out PBNs. We can form groups or associations where we link to each other, even if Google doesn’t approve.
Individual bloggers can form their own systems for linking. Some very good resources for individuals might include Google’s own properties, like Blogger.
I know it’s ancient, but Google rewards old domains with more authority. Google also gives extra “link juice” to it’s own properties, like Blogger, Maps and YouTube.
We can be more nimble. We are small marketers in smaller markets. We can find new, interesting niches, and market to them before the larger companies even know what those are. Generally, we are younger. Established brands, no matter how big, are generally staffed by older people, with more degrees or credentials, no matter what their niche or category.
We are much more local. The internet rewards “real value”, read: offline information. We can always to the leg work to get that information better because we know where to find it.
Offline information is much harder to get long-distance. Google may not always favor the local marketer, but that is what they say. At least, we can do more locally and access more information directly.
We can be more diverse. There are other search engines. At the end of the day, Google has the right to rank their sites any way they choose. But there are other search engines.
Besides Yahoo and Bing, Pinterest is a search engine. So is YouTube (even though it’s owned by Google, it has it’s own listing system). There are others.
We can be more creative. There is no lock on creativity. We can probably still find the “long tail” markets. There is software that makes this easier, but some of the smaller markets may just not be worthwhile for the big companies.
One good example is Doug Cunnington’s “Golden Keyword Ratio” or GKR. This means marketing to very small niches, but sometimes there are no results for these markets. Fifty percent or 100% of a tiny market can sometimes be enough.
We can diversity. Your exit strategy could be a buyout. If you can find and rank for a new niche and own it, the competition may find it cheaper and easier to buy your domain and assets from you instead of compete with you directly. This would probably be a good move for both of you.
In the end, a battle is not a winning proposition. The big companies have bottomless pockets. If they want your market, in general, my advice is to negotiate the best deal and run.
Keep your old domains. If you have an exact match domain that you’re sitting on, keep it. Exact match domains cannot be replaced. Have it appraised. Offer it for sale at the appraised value. Some of the big companies may want it, and they can afford it.
Thank you for reading.
This post is about the post by Glen Allsopp, dated June 6, 2016 here: https://detailed.com/google-control/