One persistent rumor about Google is that the search giant favors big brands—“authority websites” and reputed sites of long standing—when it comes to search engine rankings. Prior to Google’s Penguin algorithm update, it was easy for small websites to rank ahead of big brands by using spammy SEO tactics that were specifically targeted by Penguin. This not only caused the drop of countless small websites battling for top rankings, but also fueled the flames of suspicion that Google favors big brands.
Many webmasters now suspect—and probably with some justification—that authority is everything in the world of search. Opinions are floating around that Google has bestowed its favor solely upon big brands and websites that have been around a long time. I see that in my line of work, too. Brand websites (or authority websites) often get away with posting what almost anyone would agree is “thin” content.
Does this mean Google’s algorithm is skewed to favor big brands? While it isn’t possible to prove this point of view, several new websites have arisen and ranked well for highly competitive keywords where brand/authority websites already were operating. So, it can be done. But what’s the secret?
The solution is to move beyond the general perception of unfairness and work toward becoming a brand yourself. And I would argue that whether Google favors the big guys or not really doesn’t matter. Here’s why.
1. Identify Opportunities with Long-tail Keywords
One of the easiest things to observe is that big brands—the seemingly invincible market leaders—rank for only a particular set of keywords. Not every keyword that relates to a niche can be targeted by the top brands, so there’s a considerable array of keywords—mostly long-tail—that are lying about. While ranking for core keywords is probably not going to be possible, that’s ok; long-tail keywords are your opportunity to shine, and they often yield better conversion rates, bounce rates, and time-on-site metrics than core terms.
Regardless of how big a website is (in terms of brand value) and how long it’s been established, it can’t possibly account for every possible keyword combination in its content strategy. The authority websites are strong because they built a solid content strategy around a few keywords and stuck to it, with plenty of dollars and hours invested in that strategy.
Key Takeaway: Figure out the keywords for which your big-brand website doesn’t rank well. Then take on the competition with those keywords. There are many ways to find long-tail keywords, but the most basic is to use Google’s Adwords Keyword Tool to perform keyword research.
2. Authority Isn’t Everything; Content is King
A key feature of Google’s algorithm is the concept of authority; Author Rank seems to be the mantra of every SEO effort. But, in truth, how many websites with correct author information have you observed still failing to secure the top spot? Some of these, you’ll notice, are from websites that are in the big-brand league.
For instance, you won’t see Mashable or BuzzFeed ranking right at the top for every “tech-related” keyword. But honestly, they’ve got some really awesome content.
Key Takeaway: The ranking algorithm is a summation of factors that consist largely of:
So, while big brands easily get inbound links, social shares, and comments at the page level, this isn’t an algorithmic favor from Google; it’s simply the result of big brands investing time and money into developing and nurturing their reader base.
Counter this advantage by creating better content around the keywords for which you want to rank, properly optimizing that content from an on-site perspective, and strategically marketing it. Big brands may get links and social shares more easily, but great content will always win out over time.
3. Social Signals Don’t Play Favorites; Use Them to Your Advantage
This is the age of social signals. Google and Bing are actively seeking out social signals to value the websites they rank, and this offers a huge benefit for new websites looking to compete against authority websites. What is interesting is that the notion of authority itself is often deciphered through the kind of social shares and signals your website/page sends (besides the other, usual factors of Author Rank and links, of course).
When it comes to social signals, brand/authority doesn’t really matter. If you provide value, you win. If you provide the most useful and unique content, you win.
Key Takeaway: Encourage social shares and maintain your social media presence. It’s the perfect intersection between SEO and user engagement that offers you an opening to beat the big guys.
4. Focus on People, Not Search Engines
Pause a moment and think about this: What actually comprises an authority website? Most of the big brands have taken years to build a strong and credible following, a fan base, or active user-engagement. That boils down to just two things: 1) value and 2) people. When you provide value through your content strategies and your products, you attract people. As such, your focus should be on people.
Key Takeaway: Treat SEO as a tool and not as the means to achieving the goals of your website/brand. The real means involves pushing value outward and enabling it to be shared across a wide platform—ideally, multiple platforms. This will draw in customers over the long run, and establish you as a brand and authority in your own right.
5. If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em
If you’re already doing the things that are recommended by content strategists, user-engagement experts, and community managers, you’re already on your way to building your own brand. Why, then, should you worry about whatever bias Google might harbor with regard to the big brands?
If the bias isn’t really as strong as we think, then there’s nothing to worry about. If it is a fact of life, then it may favor you over time as you build your own brand. Building a business requires long-term investments of time and money, and that’s often what it requires to outrank the big brands. But as you grow your business strategically and have patience, eventually you’ll be playing in that same ballpark with the big guys.
In the age of “authority,” the challenge for new websites is that, by the time you get halfway toward becoming a recognized authority on Google’s radar, many of your competitors may have established a firmer brand, better positioning, and a stronger level of authority.
That’s why you can’t waste time by competing with them on every keyword they rank for. Instead, build your brand, gradually, by targeting the areas the bigger brands and authority websites haven’t included in their net. From then on, it’s merely a matter of repeating the efforts, using social channels and strong content strategies, while expanding your territory.