Are Brand Mentions The New Links?

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Are Brand Mentions The New Links?

Over at Moz, Simon Penson just wrote an interesting post about a “Panda Patent” which may shed light on how Google will rank sites in the future, “using a ratio of links and mentions, or ‘implied links.’” With penalties flying and the value of the almighty link coming into question, could Google be looking for new signals of authority? We think so, but are brand mentions the answer?

The relevant part of the patent is this:

The system determines a count of independent links for the group (step 302). A link for a group of resources is an incoming link to a resource in the group, i.e., a link having a resource in the group as its target. Links for the group can include express links, implied links, or both. An express link, e.g., a hyperlink, is a link that is included in a source resource that a user can follow to navigate to a target resource. An implied link is a reference to a target resource, e.g., a citation to the target resource, which is included in a source resource but is not an express link to the target resource. Thus, a resource in the group can be the target of an implied link without a user being able to navigate to the resource by following the implied link.

“Express links” versus “implied links”? Am I the only one who thinks this is a very strange kind of back-pedaling? I’ve got a couple of questions for Google:

Why Didn’t They Focus On Mentions In The First Place?

The fact that Google is calling brand mentions or citations “implied links” shows how wedded they are to the idea that links are everything. No, a mention isn’t an “implied link,” it’s a mention – people mention stuff and link to stuff for different (though sometimes overlapping) reasons.

Generally, you link because you believe the reader will get some benefit from visiting the page in question – because it contains further information or value that isn’t contained on your own site. You might mention a person/site/brand for any number of other reasons – possibly to give them credit for something, or just because you like them, or perhaps because you hate them.

I can see the ratio of links to brand mentions being a useful signal – for example if a site has tons of links but very few mentions, that might by a sign of a spammy site. The funny thing is, you don’t need fancy technology to measure brand mentions. This is pretty easy stuff*. So why has Google always emphasized the value of links over mentions? They just figured out that brand mentions are a sign of popularity? I know patents take a while to process, but this seems like it should have been built in from the get-go. What gives?

*Actually, it’s only easy if your brand name is unique. For example, I’m the only Elisa Gabbert in the world, as far as I know, but there’s more than one Larry Kim. This is the advantage that links have over mentions; domains are unique, while names and brands are not. I’m not sure if Google’s usual handling of synonyms in search is enough to overcome the synonym problem in brand monitoring.

Aren’t Mentions At Least As Gameable As Links?

It seems even easier to game a system based on mentions rather than links. Mention-building could be as scalable as link-building:

  • You can buy brand mentions
  • You can get brand mentions through guest posting (and you don’t have to worry about over- or under-optimized anchor text)
  • You can score a bunch of brand mentions through “linkbait” like infographics (mention-bait!)

So … what’s the difference here? Wouldn’t the “mention graph” eventually be as corrupt as the link graph? If Google has trouble distinguishing natural versus unnatural links, how will they distinguish between natural and unnatural brand mentions? (BRB, adding Brand Mention Optimization to my LinkedIn profile.)

Since big brands already have a lot of citations and smaller sites may have focused on links rather than a broader strategy of content quality and PR, they’ll have catching up to do, so this could buy Google some time. I don’t see it as a definitive spam-killer over the long run.

Google Still Needs A Better Satisfaction Index

A mention-to-link ratio might be a good patch for the holes in the link graph, but I think Google will eventually need to move to a very different system for judging site authority and popularity (not, as Matt Cutts notes, exactly the same thing). This system might be something more like the Quality Score system it uses for ad ranking, where user engagement trumps all.

Still, in the near term, this is an interesting development in the ongoing saga of the link. The question is, what took Google so long?


This post originally appeared on WordStream, and is re-published with permission.

Featured Image: quietfall via Shutterstock

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the Content Development Manager at WordStream Inc., a provider of AdWords solutions and other tools for PPC and SEO. She manages the... Read Full Bio
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  • Aaron Bradley

    “Actually, it’s only easy if your brand name is unique.”

    Well, and only easy, at that, if all you care about as a search engine is figuring out who’s talking about what brands. Whether in the link or “implied link” universe what a “brand” is just another instance of a URI to be matched to a query. And Google isn’t just trying to match queries to “brand” URIs, but to resource URIs. In this broader context Google isn’t just trying to disambiguate mentions of “Amazon”, but of “Cecilia Smith”, and “History Department”, and “constitution”, and “ISIS” and – god help us – “Kardashian”.

    So looking at mentions rather than links may not be a “spam killer” but it could certainly help Google better organize that world of information that isn’t concerned with merchandise and merchandisers.

    One way or the other the ability of Google to be able to do this – sort out which entity in particular an “implied link” is qualifying, and to which URI it should map that reference – has been vastly improved by Hummingbird. That has enabled Google not merely to improve its “handling of synonyms in search” but to move past those relatively simple semantics to the identification of the actual things (like what brand is being referred to, or which “History Department” is being referenced). That’s what took it so long.

    For that mercantile world are brand mentions as game-able as links? Time will tell, but my suspicion is that they’re not. I think this mostly because there’s a relatively small number of links out there in comparison to, well, the volume of everything else on the web that isn’t a link. One or two links can make or break a ranking, but the same can’t be said of simple textual references. As you say, mentions can be bought and sold as well, but at scale that becomes tougher than placing links in many ways. And of course this isn’t Google merely counting “mentions” but of trying to match topics and “implied links” – rather more difficult IMO than good old anchor text optimization.

  • Alan Rothstein

    There is a big difference between brand mentions and links. With a link you are willing to loose the user to other content where as a brand mention you retain the user. I would see links as more of an indicator of a valuable brand because you are so interested in the brand you are willing to let your user leave your website.

  • Alex Morris

    I think the answer here is no one, other than Google, really knows what’s going on. Brand mentions are fine, though, I’m eager to adhere to whatever Google expect. I do appreciate the efforts to remove the spun articles, spam, and dubious link building, and the it’s clear if you focus on unique content you’ll be okay. I presume. And hope.

  • Sara

    Cool post 🙂

    But now you’ve got me wanting to Google your name to see if you ARE the only Elisa Gabbert 😉 I’ll try and abstain…

  • Rank Watch

    Brand Mentions play an important role regarding performance of a site in SERPs. It’s likely that it’s importance as a ranking factor continues in future.