A recent change to the Google algorithm apparently favors established, well-known brands in some categories, potentially making it harder for small online sellers to compete with large retailers for search engine rankings.
The so-called “Vince Update” seems to have taken effect on January 18, 2009 and clearly favors some established brands over web pages that might otherwise have good content but are not as well known. The change was seemingly an effort to improve the quality of the results that Google returns for a particular query, but the Vince Update leaves me concerned that Google’s good intentions have inadvertently raised the bar too high for some small retailers.
Examples of Keyword Queries The Vince Update Has Effected
In an excellent and evidentiary blog post, Aaron Wall at SEOBook used data from RankPulse to demonstrate that the Vince Update was real. Borrowing from Mr. Wall’s demonstration, I used RankPulse to look at a few keyword phrases that I believed were important to Practical eCommerce readers based on responses to a survey we conducted in 2008.
- Toys. In the middle of January, four pages which had not ranked in the top ten for the query “toys” leapt into leading positions. Specifically, Lego.com, Fisher-Price.com, Walmart.com, and Hasbro.com all moved up. This may be bad news for smaller online toy merchants, since it now seems unlikely that a lesser known store—regardless of the quality of its content—can rank better than these major brands.
- Cosmetics. On the day that the Vince Update was implemented, four pages that had not ranked in the top ten for “cosmetics” in the two months prior, took the 3, 5, 6, and 7 slots on Google’s search results. Those pages included Estee Lauder, Cover Girl, Lancome USA, and Avon. Note that all four pages were from well-known brands.
- Golf Clubs. Like Toys and Cosmetics, four sites all rose in the “Gold Clubs” rankings the day that Vince was implemented, pushing brands like Ping.com and Titleist.com higher on the results page than those brands had been in the two prior months.
- Clothing. Since the Vince change, Old Navy/Gap and American Eagle have taken over top spots in “Clothing” searches, after not ranking in the top ten since at least 2007.
Is There Cause For Concern?
In some sense the Google search rankings have always been a popularity contest. The engine’s famously democratic PageRank algorithm uses backlink “votes” to estimate and rank a page’s relative importance. The supposition with PageRank implies that the masses know intuitively which content is best—popular content is quality content. While I am sure that this is true to some extent, very high-quality content can be overlooked in favor of popular tripe.
As a somewhat charged example, a search for “recycling” in Google generates a search engine results page full of positive recycling content. But one of the most important recycling papers of the last ten years, “Eight Great Myths of Recycling”, is nowhere to be found—largely, I think, because its content is unpopular.
Concerning ecommerce, it may be that the Vince Update has little overall effect. In fact, Matt Cutts, Head of Google’s Webspam team and one of the company’s best-known techies said that Vince wouldn’t affect very many searches. “It doesn’t effect a vast majority of queries….Most people haven’t noticed it.”
But it remains to be seen if smaller merchants will be able to compete for ranking against well-known brands. Can my toy store, which is tiny, challenge Walmart? If I have a startup snowboarding retailer, will I be able to out rank the more established Snowboarding.com?
The Vince Update Has Improved Some Rankings
In spite of my concerns for the small to midsized retailer, the Vince Update has had a positive impact on some queries, for example “airline tickets” now includes several leading carriers that had not previously been listed on the first page of the search engine results pages.
“We try to return high quality results,” Google’s Cutts said in a video response to questions about the Vince Update. “We think a lot about trust, reputation, authority, PageRank, and so what you should be doing doesn’t change [in light of the Vince change]. Try to make a great site. Try to make it the site that is so fantastic that you sort of become known as in authority in your niche, and it doesn’t have to be a big niche.”
- Aaron Wall’s evidentiary SEOBook article Big Brands? Google Brand Promotion: New Search Engine Rankings Place Heavy Emphasis on Branding
- Webmaster World thread that started the speculation about the Vince Update
- Base One Search’s article “About the Latest Google Update (aka ‘Vince’ update–As well as a Brief History of some of the Google Updates
- Video of Google’s Matt Cutt’s Answering a Question About the Vince Update
- Rank Pulse is the site that I used to determine how the Vince Update had affected certain keywords.