A few months ago, ViperChill, posted a very well researched article on how a few companies were completely dominating a specific type of search on Google. This type of search is the beginning of the Consumer Journey’s basic research phase — product reviews, a very profitable area to be in for publishers. I was the Chief Traffic Officer for one of the companies featured in this article, which can be found here. All of the companies here have an excellent understanding of the google algorithm.
Some of these companies include; Ziff-Davis, Hearst, Conde Nast, Purch, CBS to name a few. These companies own brands like; CNet, PCMag.com, Elle, Popular Mechanics, TomsHardware to name a few. [Yes, the tech vertical is a really big and crowded vertical because of all of the advertising money available to these audiences. But let’s not forget about beauty and fashion.]
Being featured in this article I really had to consider that this was a double-edged sword. First, it really illustrates that as a company that is/was a white-hat only SEO shop, we were really doing the right things in order to be found on the first page of search results for a really good number of search terms that we were focusing on. That’s obviously the good side of that sword. The flip side of this sword is that I’m pretty secretive about how I go about things and the attention that this piece brought was not what I was looking for.
I waited until now to have any kind of a comment on this because I was an employee of one of the companies featured in the piece –> if you know me, you know which one so it really doesn’t matter which one. Now that I’m doing my own thing, I do have an opinion about this which I’m going to try to put into words here.
My view on SEO is really simple. It’s a zero-sum competition. During a given period of time, there’s a finite number of searches that will be made focusing on a topic. In order to move up in rankings for these terms, you need to take traffic away from the other sites that rank for these terms. Once you understand what terms you want to focus on you need to get an understanding of what you need to do to beat the sites that you are competing with. This is the SEO “industry” in a nutshell.
As a white-hat SEO guy, I always focus my attention on following Googles recommended guidelines as much as possible. This is (my opinion) the best way to prevent Google from making a tweak in their algorithm and destroying your business or hurting your business over night. We’ve all at least seen this if we haven’t been there before. According to SearchEngineLand.com (one of my go-to places) the top 3 ranking factors in the algo are: 1&2 – Links & Content, 3 – RankBrain. These 3 are the most important of the literally hundreds of other rank factors and weights (how the Google algorithm measures the importance of the rank factors).
I will talk about RankBrain in a future post (because i find it really interesting) so I want to focus on the first two of these rank factors, Links & Content. A lot of the sites on this list are representing the Technology Product vertical so I’m going to focus on this one so that I don’t jump around a lot.
When the ViperChill piece first came out I read it and said to myself, ‘wow, good job’ but over the last several months I’ve been thinking about why the these results are what they are. From a business perspective Google needs to present the best results on a SERP (search-engine-result-page) for a users search query. If they don’t the users eventually will go somewhere else and ‘Google’ something on Bing (yeah i said that). Because of this, Google has to make sure that the content on the results they present is good quality content not just according to Google but to the internet as a whole. One of the key components of the Eigen Value within their algorithm is the importance of what are called Back Links. Back links are when one web page points to another (with a clickable link) to indicate that “this thing over here is important and you might want to take a look at it”.
The importance of these links indicates to Google and to the world what pieces of content are important, but also what SITES are important. The more links the better, particularly in bound links. One of the common threads in the sites owned by these 16 companies is that they are really big sites from the perspective of just how many pages they have on their sites. All of these 16 companies have multiple web sites within their owned and operated network of sites. Hearst has 17 sites, Ziff-Davis owns 12, CBS has 15, Purch has 11 sites listed in the Viper piece, Time Inc has 18 and so on. There’s always a small niche site that will appear on the front page and small publishers can break in by doing the right thing, but the sheer size of these companies might just be tipping the scales in their favor.
One way to ensure that these companies do to get links from “outside” sites is to link sites together. If you go to Download.com, the very first thing on the page is a link to CNet. There’s over 65 thousand pages on download.com pointing at CNet. If you go to Gamespot.com there’s a link on every page pointing at CBSInteractive.com which in turn has a link to every site on ViperChills list of Winners. That is 9.5 million documents pointing at CBSInteractive making that site really important in the eyes of GameSpot. In the footer of IGN.com (a Ziff-Davis property) there are links to AskMen, PCMag.com, ExtremeTech.com and 4 other Ziff sites.
I could go on but that would be tedious for both of us. What I’m describing above is an SEO best practice for companies large and small and most importantly it works. When these companies launch new sites one of the first things that any SEO expert would do is to get the footers or headers of every site that we own and point at the new site. In the Viper article, they pointed out the performance of BestProducts.com which is owned by Hearst. They went from not existing at the end of 2015 to some really good front and second page rankings in only a few months. By the time Viper published their article in June they were at a potential $600K a month in Google AdSense revenue (if it was implemented) based on their traffic levels.
Is this fair? Yes, if you’re CBSInteractive and you own CNet. No, if you’re a small site like GearBrain.com or Wareable.com. This could absolutely be an unfair advantage. In some ways it is and some ways it’s not. I won’t get into the views that Hearst or GearBrain would have about this, but suffice it to say that the opinions would likely differ. Wareable and GearBrain focus on a niche within the technology space. They focus on the sector within technology that they see an opportunity and dedicate all of their activities to it. A CNet while their coverage of this segment is good, they are not the “one-trick pony” that the smaller guys might seem to be.
Now, getting to my point with the title of the article — Google needs to think about their algorithm because of this. The way these links work, they DO appear to Google to be in-bound links, which means that they come from another site. So when LaptopMag.com points to an article or a page on TomsHardware.com (both owned by Purch), are those links the same thing as say a user comment on Reddit.com pointing at TomsHardware.com? Or is a link from FoxNews.com directed at an article or a page on CNet.com any different from a link on CBSNews.com pointing at CNet.com?
I would say that there’s really a big difference between the examples above. TomsHardware had to be considered to be pretty important to EARN a link from a post on Reddit and they really didn’t to earn a link from LaptopMag.com because Purch owns both. CNet would have had to earn the link on FoxNews while they might not have had to do more than walk down the hall to get a link from CBSNews.com. If you think that this is a practice that’s exclusive to the list that Viper put together, it’s not. If you look at any page on CNBC.com and hover over “MORE” in their top navigation bar, under “Tech”, the first link there is to a site called Recode.net. NBC owns RE/Code and their content is ‘syndicated’ to CNBC pretty much every day.
The Google algorithm at least seems to look at all of these links as being the same thing. Anyone that works or worked at a company with multiple sites, creating this web between the sites they own is just something that is done. This is pretty well known in the industry to the point that people that know squat about SEO even know this. One of my other views on SEO is that anything that can be done at scale to “play” the algorithm, Google will eventually put in a fix. This is one of the things that Google should look at. Adjusting the weighting factor of what I’ll call related sites should be looked at. My point in saying this is that just because one of these big companies publish something does not make it good. The small niche publishers may or may not publish content that’s better. In order to do the right thing for the user, which is after all what all web-based businesses have to do, related site links really should have less emphasis than non-related site links simply because related sites don’t have to work at earning the link. It’s expected.