The Real Reasons Big Brands Don’t Rank

Someone pointed out a post to me that Advertising Age did a few days ago called “Meet the Brands Hiding on Google.” I’m assuming it was because they knew sending me something that got me a little riled meant I’d go off on a tangent and write a post about it… thus getting me to blog. ;-)

The article starts by taking the stance that big brands should be worried when they don’t show up for generic vanity search results. For those who don’t know what a “generic vanity search result is” outside of the obvious “a search for your own name” vanity term, I’ll explain…

A few years back I had a household name telecom company come to me in hopes I’d do some SEO for them. Their primary offering was local phone service. They promptly explained to me that they wanted to rank for “telephone.”

Me: “Why do you want to rank for telephone?”

Them: “Because it has the highest search volume.”

Me: “But it won’t convert. You’re going to spend a ridiculous amount of time and money to rank for such a generic phrase and then come back to me in six months and want to change course. ‘Local phone service’ types terms should be your primary concern.”

Them: “But our CEO wants us to rank for ‘telephone’.”

And there you have it. They wanted to rank for a generic term that won’t convert simply for the ability to say “we rank for ‘telephone’” in board meetings. That’s the other type of “vanity” term.

Now don’t get me wrong… there’s volume and therefore some value in these terms. But, any SEO worth their salt is going to go for converting terms first, not the generic informational ones, be it a big brand or a small brand, because that is where the ROI is.

That said, big brands have a definite advantage in the search results and by default should be able to easily rank for more generic terms. So, Ad Age asked the author of the study, Craig MacDonald, to analyze five specific big brands and their search rankings on generic vanity terms.

And that’s when I tilted my head to the side while reading and went “huh?”

Home Depot

What Craig said the biggest problem was:

“Home Depot’s key problem is that it is missing category-defining keywords in the urls.” [cited url]

What some of the real problems are: First off, the term identified for the research was “home repair” which is an informational term. The competition is high and the conversions would be low. Again, we’re talking a vanity term here. But, if Home Depot did want to rank for it, their biggest issue is far from “category-defining keywords in the urls.” It took a three minute glance to notice:

  • They don’t have “home repair” in their title tag
  • They don’t have “home repair” on the page
  • They don’t have a solid site structure
  • They don’t have a solid internal linking structure
  • They don’t have a solid url structure (regardless of lacking keywords from the url)
  • They are running their main url through a redirect and therefore lose a bit of link popularity from inbound links

No. Home Depot has shitty ranks because they have shitty SEO. On a large scale. Period. Throwing keywords in their url strings would be like throwing a knife to a guy facing fifty machine guns.

Tiffanys

What Craig said the biggest problem was:

“Like Home Depot, Tiffany also failed to put keywords in its url.”

What some of the real problems are: Sorry Craig but “bzzzzt!” wrong again. A quick three minute glance at their result for “wedding gifts” (a cited example) shows:

  • They could have a better targeted title tag for the term
  • They don’t have the exact phrase “wedding gifts” on the page
  • They don’t have any significant content on the page… it’s primarily flash
  • They are not targeting that keyword through their internal linking structure
  • They don’t have a solid url structure (regardless of lacking keywords from the url)
  • They are also running their main url through a redirect and therefore lose a bit of link popularity from inbound links

Keywords in the url are far from their main problem. We now have two guys with knives facing fifty machine guns.

Harry & David

What Craig said the biggest problem was:

“Harry & David’s problem is not content, but the sheer number of links out, one of the other three factors Covario used to determine search health.”

What some of the real problems are: Seriously? The number of links out? The page that ranks for Craig’s cited example “gifts” is the homepage. The homepage does not have an extensive number of links out. But, another three minute glance reveals the real issues are:

  • Their title tag is a tad long and therefore loses keyword density for the word “gifts”
  • They have a TON of unnecessary code being delivered through their HTML source to the engines
  • They are also running their main url through a redirect and therefore lose a bit of link popularity from inbound links
  • LACK OF LINKS LINKS LINKS

The number one result for “gifts” has almost three million backlinks. The number two result for “gifts” has almost three hundred thousand backlinks. The number three result has almost seventy thousand backlinks. Harry and David? They’re nearing thirty thousand backlinks. And unlike their competitors, their links are passing through a redirect. Links out? Links IN. That’s the issue. Three knives now facing fifty machine guns.

1-800-Flowers

What Craig said the biggest problem was:

“However, 1-800-Flowers runs into problems with category-defining keywords.”

What some of the real problems are: Sorry, not even close. I’m not sure what the hell 1-800-Flowers’ SEO staff is doing, but category-defining keywords are far from their fatal flaw. A three minute look tells me:

  • The page that ranks for “mothers day” is www.1800flowers.com/mothers-day-flowers-and-gifts and it redirects to ww11.1800flowers.com/template.do?id=template4&page=3000&conversionTag=true (let’s note the second new url, ww11)… losing some link popularity in the process
  • The “mothers day” page they link to internally is yet again another url: http://ww32.1800flowers.com/collection.do?dataset=10373… and not the url Google obviously prefers for the term from their site
  • The landing page that ranks has zero content outside of product listings… the landing page they link to internally is made up of nothing but graphics and JavaScript
  • Their internal linking is spread out across MULTIPLE subdomains
  • They don’t have a solid url structure (regardless of lacking keywords from the url)
  • They are also running their main url through a redirect (to ww32.1800flowers.com) and therefore lose a bit of link popularity from inbound links to the homepage which in turns passes to the subpages

I don’t know who the hell is managing their SEO, but they should seriously actually LEARN SEO. Their site is spread through more subdomains than Lindsay Lohan is through drug dealers. Four knives and still fifty machine guns.

CDW

What Craig said the biggest problem was:

“…it seems to be leaving the generic terms where people are doing initial research to the big-name brand advertisers, and instead focus on very specific terms where conversion rates are higher.”

What some of the real problems are: Ok, so he is sort of right here. But, their problems aren’t simply “leaving the generic terms”. Let’s take a look at the example term “wifi systems” for a few minutes:

  • They don’t have “wifi systems” in their homepage title tag
  • They don’t have “wifi systems” in text on the page
  • They don’t even have a link within their main navigation to a “wifi systems” page
  • That’s because they don’t have a “wifi systems” landing page at all… just a one product search result when you search the term on their site

So yes, they’re not targeting it… but “targeting” would imply they even have something to target WITH. And if they’re not targeting the product, why even use it as an “example search term”? But hey, at least we now have five knives against fifty machine guns.

Bottom line? Ad Age’s post was way off… as was the information provided by Covario CMO Craig MacDonald. I’m not trying to be an ass here, but I’ll leave the CMO to managing and reporting to executives on the company’s marketing efforts… so please, leave the SEO to an SEO. We have machine guns.

About Rae Hoffman

Rae Hoffman aka "Sugarrae" is an affiliate marketing veteran and the CEO of PushFire, a search marketing agency specializing in SEO audits and link building strategies. She is also the author of the often controversial Sugarrae blog. You can connect with Rae via Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

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