Has Google Reinvented Brand Serps? A Panda Update Special

Stuart Shaw 5 years ago

TLDR - Google has changed brand related search queries meaning it is the beginning of the end for being able to leverage other popular brands with high search volume for your own gain.

We have been closely monitoring the SERP flux since it was announced that Panda 4.2 was rolling out a few weeks ago and there does now appear to be an eye-opening pattern emerging. And it hits at the very heart of our understanding of Panda.

Alarmingly, many sites that had historically appeared for other brand related searches have seen a massive drop in search visibility and it appears to be related to how Google is increasing its entity and semantic understanding.

While in the past a search for a brand such as Facebook would have featured a real mix of domains it now appears that patterns are emerging – patterns that fill SERPs ONLY with URLs that directly relate to the entity that is Facebook.

There also appears to be a separation of what we are describing at commercial and non-commercial intent brand searches. For example, searching for brands like eBay, PayPal and Rightmove is different to Sony TV. The first three brands are entities and non-commercial searches but the latter clearly has some commercial intent behind it as a search term. As a result SERPs contains a mix of domains and commercial options, while the former is very, very different.

Brands like House of Fraser, Debenhams, Currys, etc will rank for a large number of brand queries due to the products they stock. They have the right to rank for these queries and it’s great to see that these have not been wrongly impacted. This type of query has implicit intent behind it to make a purchase decision, whereas queries such as PayPal, eBay and Skyscanner want to return their brand entities – website, brand information, etc.

Let’s dive into the data to understand this in more detail.

Meaningful traffic v Meaningless traffic

A website ranking for a large brand keyword is seen as meaningless due to the nature of the search. Users who search for the likes of eBay, Skyscanner and Rightmove aren’t looking for an alternative website.

Google has now taken this intent and run with it, and as a result, a search for Skyscanner returns:

  • Skyscanner website
  • Skyscanner related ‘In the news’
  • Skyscanner mobile website
  • Skyscanner app on iTunes
  • Skyscanner Facebook page
  • Skyscanner Google Play app
  • Skyscanner Twitter page

There is no other commercially related brand/website on the first page for this brand related query, when before there was.

1 - Skyscanner

This is incredibly relevant to the user’s search for Skyscanner as it displays a lot of different options of Skyscanner entities, from its app to the Facebook page.

The inclusion of apps in organic desktop results is something we’ve not seen a lot of before, but we can see from the iTunes website in the US that they’re now appearing for a lot more search terms, which has increased their search visibility exponentially over the last month – a 36% growth.

2 - iTunes Apple

We are also now beginning to see huge growth in the UK for the apple iTunes store for brand related queries who have apps.

3 - iTunes Apple

Another website to have thrived through this update is the BBC. This is a sign to me that Google has created a list of verified sources that deserve to rank for brand related keywords. Another to have done well through the update is London Stock Exchange.

5 - BBC

Facebook, Twitter and Google Play have all seen an increase in visibility and rankings for brand related queries. Facebook’s largest growth this week has come from brand queries - see below. This is evidence that Google is pushing brand entities in search results through Panda 4.2.

4 - Facebook

Google Play used to be nowhere for a lot of brand related queries. Now, if you have an app on Google Play, it is beginning to appear on Page 1.

It is also interesting to note that this pretty significant change may actually be tracking under the radar to a degree for a couple of key reasons.

If we look at popular SERP volatility trackers such as Mozcast we can’t see hugely drastic shifts but this could be explained by the fact that they monitor key commercial intent SERPs and don’t monitor, or heavily weight, change in brand search results as much.

The other point is then an internal one. While search visibility may note huge drops, the affect of not ranking for low converting searches will have a much less pronounced effect on the metric that matters – revenue.

With updates like this, there are always losers. If you have historically gained search visibility through utilising other brand’s search volume through content, you will see a drop.

A great example of someone being impacted by this is Windows Phone – windowsphone.com – who have experienced a 90% drop in search visibility.

All of the significant drops that contributed to this loss are mainly brand related keywords that the website used to rank for. Their apps used to rank highly for the keywords that have been impacted (see below), but we have noted there is some technical questions to be asked about the website through their current redirect structure. Nonetheless, it’s odd.
6 - Windows Phone

Where they haven’t got it quite right…

Soundcloud have seen a large increase in search visibility as a direct result of this update due to the vast amount of authors/DJs that they have with brand mentions forming part of their name.

For example, DJ Paypal now ranks above PayPal’s twitter.

7 - PayPal


8 - Soundcloud


9 - Soundcloud

Another example of difficulty in understanding the nature of the term is ‘Broadband Choices’, a large brand in its own right, but the nature of the keyword is vague and open to subjectivity.

The search result for this lists the brand and then GoCompare in third, clearly showing the update has not impacted this SERP and that Google are perhaps targeting large/global brands first.

What does this mean for marketers?

In conclusion, we’re seeing a huge shift in brand related queries. If you have a website ranking well for a brand that isn’t related to your own, you are more than likely going to see this drop in the next few weeks, if not already.

This is because Google appear to be favouring ‘credible sources’ over other websites ranking well in organic search for brand terms that aren’t their own.

To boost your own brand presence in organic search, it’s a good idea to get the following set up to be on the positive side of this update.

  • Wikipedia
  • If you have an app, list it on iTunes
  • YouTube
  • News
  • Stocks, if listed

We’re seeing this now in the UK and I imagine that this has already rolled out aggressively across the US.

The main takeaway from this learning is stripping it right back, again, and always focusing on the thought of building an awesome brand. As a brand, you want to develop it across the right channels to ensure this presence is earned.

Creating a brand footprint is essential and this can be done through earning citations in big pieces of content; the distribution of award winning content; creating a large social following with great engagement; developing mobile friendly websites and apps for all devices/platforms; and making noise through offline activity to earn all of the above naturally as an added extra value.

Lastly, the only way of capturing traffic lost through this update is to bid on brands that you used to rank for – yet another huge win for Google Adwords.

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