ADOTAS — On Bing and Google‘s search engines, pages from top brand web sites seem to have an automatic advantage which helps them rank in the top positions. In fact they rank at the top or near the top of search results even if they fail to meet certain criteria that other sites have to.
Top brands can get away with ignoring SEO basics
For example, brands often rank very high on Bing and Google despite using keywords in the title or description much less frequently, offering less content on average and having a lower number of internal links. These are search engine optimization (SEO) basics that non-brand sites seemingly have to do – or do more of – if they want their pages to rank well.
If you type “adidas sneakers” into Google or Bing you’ll see that adidas.com is at or near the top. Yet the site does not have the keyword “adidas sneakers” in the html title tag, or in the H1 heading (basic requirements in the underlying code of web sites that search engines expect most sites to adhere to if they are to rank well). Many sites positioned below adidas.com have a much better search engine optimization, but the big brand effect means that the site ranks higher.
So it appears that from a search engine’s perspective, brands have a special role and are strongly preferred to rank very high.
Searchmetrics has conducted two analyses in 2013 that support this idea. It conducted a comprehensive analysis of the factors that correlate with a high ranking on Google US based on 10,000 popular keywords and 300,000 websites appearing in the top 30 search results. And it conducted a similar study looking at the factors that correlate with a high ranking on Bing US – again this was based on 10,000 popular keywords and 300,000 websites appearing in the top 30 search results.
Let‘s look at the findings of these studies and what they tell us about the brand factor.
Brands rank at the top even with Exact Match Domains
One of the interesting insights we discovered is the way the search engines favor brands when responding to Exact Match Domains (EMDs) – domain names which exactly match searchers‘ keyword terms (for example “payday loans”).
In the past, EMDs used to rank well but more recently both Bing and Google have tried to reduce the rankings of EMDs to stop poor quality sites using this tactic to get an advantage in the search results. But this does not apply so much to big brand web sites; they are placed at or near the top of the results even if they have an EMD. In fact, on Google – which usually ranks big brands at position one in the search results – our analysis highlighted a sharp 50% increase in the share of EMDs between position one and position two. Both search engines are quite good at separating brand EMDs from non-brand EMDs. Which is why big brands rank higher even if they use EMDs.
No need for brands to pay attention to on-page coding
Our studies show that the special position of brands is particularly noticeable when looking at elements related to on-page coding on web pages. Take the meta description tag which is the 160 character snippet used to summarize a web page’s content (often shown in snippets in search results to tell searchers what a page is about before they click on it). For most sites, SEO professionals put keywords in the description to help them rank higher, but this is not always necessary for top brands.
On average we found that around 64 percent of web pages listed in top 30 results do have a keyword in the description. But for the top 3 ranking places – which are generally reserved for brands – the average is significantly lower. So brands rank in top positions without having a keyword in the description (as the chart below illustrates).
We found a similar pattern to this when we analyzed a wide number of factors that most non-brand sites need to adhere to in order to rank well, including word count on the page, number of internal links on a web site and – the existence of H1 heading tags. While most sites have to fulfill or have more of these requirements, sites in the top ranked positions that brands normally occupy, do not need to.
But brands do better when it comes to off-page factors
It’s worth stressing that while brands don’t have to meet many of the criteria that we studied – especially on-page factors – brand websites usually do perform better than average on off-page factors. For example big brands are generally more trusted and are hence more likely to have links from other high authority web sites such as online publications. In addition, brands receive significantly more social signals – shares, likes, tweets etc. So perhaps these off-page factors have something to do with why brands rank highly.
And possibly trust is also one of the reasons why search engines might be choosing to favor brands. Big brands have gained a level of trust from consumers that they are highly motivated to preserve. They have a public profile to protect and are less likely to put unreliable, “spammy” (or just plain poor) content on their sites. And of course popular brand domains are often what people do actually intend to find with many searches (at least, brand domains normally generate a higher volume of positive on-page user signals such as time-on-site, click-through-rates or bounce rates than other domains). Brands therefore probably are among the best results for search engines to display if they want to meet the needs of searchers. Perhaps this is why the search engines consider big brands a safe option to put near the top of their results pages.