Skip to content

Bullish on SEO : RankBrain vs. SEOBrain

Google has begun promoting a new name for their advanced search technology, which they claim is far superior to prior manually-tuned algorithmic approaches to search. They want you to refer to their Artificial Intelligence engine as “RankBrain“. They claim RankBrain has been controlling much of what you experience at since early in 2015.

We SEO practitioners have clearly noticed the changes, but not everyone agrees that the new RankBrain is better. In fact, most of the people I know have been complaining about a decline in search quality for specific searches since around the same time Google claims to have deployed RankBrain.

What has not changed is the ongoing battle between RankBrain and SEOBrain. That will only heat up now.

SEO is Dead. Long Live SEOBrain

Let’s call the collective innovation efforts of SEOsSEOBrain“. SEOBrain has been challenging Google since Google incorporated.

Back when Google finally went public on the stock market, the leadership listed SEOBrain as a primary threat to Google’s success as a public offering.  That’s right… one of the biggest risks to investing in Google stock was SEOBrain – the practice of strategically publishing in order to rank highly in search engines. SEOBrain was not Artificial Intelligence. SEOBrain was human intelligence, executed by thousands of human brains hell-bent on reaching audiences.

Now that Google has handed TheAlgorithm off to an artificial intelligence engine, we can visualize the battle between SEOBrain and Google’s RankBrain as Man vs. Machine. Can you predict how that will go?

Google Always Loses Against Clever Human SEOs

Throughout search history, Google has lost the battle against human SEO. Google even acknowledged this, when it hired thousands of humans to work on its own anti-SEO team, battling SEO efforts directly mano-a-mano.

Manual intervention, as distasteful as it was to Google’s leadership, was the only way Google could maintain its canned search results in the face of the world’s overwhelming desire for fresher, smarter, more helpful results.

You’ll Get Brand Results, and You’ll Like it!

Google wanted us to accept stale, sanitized, Big Brand results for our search queries, when in reality we all wanted fresh, smart, interesting, and helpful results. Stale corporate pages led to advertising revenue for Google, while innovative and more interesting results were untamed and unpredictable.

As most humans shifted their publishing off of individual websites and onto 3rd party platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Google didn’t know what to do. Those were controlled by competitors.

If Google was to manage risk, and ensure a predictable corporate revenue stream, innovation had to be stopped. Guidelines were written to stifle innovation. An almost mercurial penalty system was developed to constrain innovators, under threat of lost rankings. Blogs were assigned special management, and older, established sites given renewed power to help stabilize volatile SERPs.

Google needed stability, but didn’t know how to get it out of a rapidly-growing and super dynamic web it didn’t own. Enter humans.

Google is an Algorithm… except… Quality Raters! WebSpam Team!

When TheGuidelines and TheAlgorithm couldn’t stop innovation, humans were hired to do it. The WebSpam and QualityRater teams grew thousands strong. Google invested heavily into technology that could be used by humans to judge and penalize web content, to prevent it from ranking. Google decided to sacrifice search quality as needed to protect its advertising-supported business model.

Backed by a coordinated PR effort, these “quality raters” and “spam fighters” diligently clicked through Google’s tasking orders, collectively generating the signals TheAlgorithm needed to slap down web pages that were risky for Google. Even as Google claimed in public that only TheAlgorithm could determine search results, it knew it needed humans to battle the humans behind SEOBrain.

And there are reasons for this. Basically I will sum it up as this : until Google’s search customers are as dumb as machines, human SEOs will always outsmart Google’s AI and win at search. This is because SEOs follow and influence the intent of searchers in the marketplace, while Google’s algorithm (and AI) merely monetizes it.

Go back to business school of you need a refresher on why a sales team has to wait for product R&D to be completed, or why Marketing needs to wait until market shaping is well underway.

My Bet is on SEOBrain

I’ll put my chips on SEOBrain for the win, especially as RankBrain is given more and more influence over the Google SERPs. My team is already being forced to Page 2 of Google SERPs for most of our commercial research queries. Google is not delivering reasonable results sets on Page 1. And one thing we know for sure… the market influencers.. the people who search and then influence consumers with their publications or talks or leadership, will search when they don’t find what they want or need, even if it means clicking to Page 2 (or using another tool).

You can fool the masses for a while, to get your ad dollars, but you can’t suppress the power behind the markets. Cashing in on brands will get Google rich, but it will kill those brands much more quickly than they can be built or restored.

Fools Watch the Rising Tides while Leaders Predict the Floods

The currents of insider knowledge, empowered by specialty product development and increasingly valuable personal experience with those products, are noticeable now and growing fast. SEOBrain will dominate RankBrain for as long as Google search is considered essential by the valuable users.






Google no longer “helping”

Some time ago Google shifted from helping and enabling, to hindering, interrupting, and exploiting. The shift was quick, on a real-world time scale, but slow in search marketer hindsight. One could *almost* track the activity by plotting a timeline of Matt Cutts’ public personality changes. Matt’s public profile went from helpful, specific, and sincere to somewhat apologetic-but-still-trying-hard-to-help to a sort of frustrated-hopeful, before going into the basically-misleading mode we griped about for years, before he checked himself out on “sabattical” where he’s been for years now.

There is also that “the rise of Larry Page” thing, the “who the hell is in charge over there” thing, and the “wow is there anyone here who didn’t used to work for Microsoft?”  thing.

But perhaps most telling of all, were 1. the switch to manipulating webmasters (via the no-accountability Google Help Forums and the “trust me I’m honest” John Mueller persona), and 2. the shutting down of Google Reader.

I think the rise of the Google Ventures conflict of Interest and BigMoney lobbying are separate issues, driven by need and ancillary opportunism. You can’t have control and not pay the policy-makers, and you can’t bank THAT much cash and not invest in what you know.

They Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Reader

Google Reader (and the associated tech Google had bought up to control, such as SuperFeeder and related) was technology that web consumers used to stay connected to specifically sourced content. It was an outstanding curation tool, which of course bypasses search. I don’t think it was so much a threat to search, though… it’s pretty clear it wasn’t very widely used in Internet demographic terms. But it represented an alternative to search, and it enabled influencers to operate independent of Google Search.

The shift from helpful to hindering involves specific strategic steps calculated to stop helping and start hindering… such as shutting down curation tools and closing down tech that had been advancing the web towards better curated connections between sources (authers) and consumers (the market).

Of course there doesn’t need to be a deliberate decision to shut something like that down. Like a “donut hole lie”, where you effectively lie by leaving OUT some important part of a story, a Google manager can simply incentivize everything except a specific project, in order to kill it.

Didn’t Matter to Me at the Time

I didn’t use Google Reader. I didn’t really use any feed reader… but I have always struggled with curation, bookmarking, and keeping connected to specific sources I prefer and trust. And of course I utilized feed reader technologies in my SEO work, as much as it was helpful for advanced, technical SEO, or for enhancing reach.

But now, years after Reader was shut down and the complaining dwindled, I have had enough time to watch the alternatives not replace Google Reader.

I’ve been able to see Internet Infosumers lose focus, become less productive, demand less quality from Google Search, and change their habits to lower quality, less productive use of the web. I’m seeing them more accepting of crap answers, half-baked information pages, and unverifiable or unsupported marketing claims. Less demand for Trust Badges that used to help testify to veracity. More acceptance of the idea that “trusting what some web page said is ok, because the responsibility lies with them not me”, among the general population (in America).

Meanwhile, as in the days of Google Reader and the RSS feedreaders before it), the “smart people” have moved off the mainstream web for a larger portion of their research, to find the trustworthy content and authority. The used to use Readers to help them manage (while also using search), and now they use OtherThings to help them manage, supplementing search.

So Where is the Damage?

The mainstream is now more ignorant, less able to get informed, and more susceptible to untrustworthy or non-worthy-of-authority published content than ever before, after consulting Google Search, which has become for many “the Internet”.

Web businesses are now profiting by contributing to the very “cesspool” that earlier Google warned about… before it shifted from helper to exploiter. Google apparently decide to get into the cesspool monitization business instead f the Amazing World Wide Web of Organized Information. Of course good business practices and supply chain management would then dictate efforts to encourage more and bigger cesspools.

Was Eric Schmidt the Nice Guy?

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this for me, is that it actually seems like Eric Schmidt, the  guy we all knew in our hearts was capable of the nastiest explotation in the world should he desire to execute in that fashion… in a Carl Rove-like way, or perhaps a Koch Brothers or Charles Manson way, may actually have done a fine job controlling his natural insticts and “being nice” to all of us while running Google.

Can you imagine?

Of Course Not

We have to wait for the final Chapters to know what is really happening behind the scenes, but it’s pretty obvious that power brokers don’t need or want an organized, democratic World Wide Web. They need a cesspool they can manipulate, and at the peak of Helpful Google, Google Search represented the perfect choke point for content curation at scale.

And content curation at scale, by and for the power brokers, is exactly what Eric Schmidt gave them.


Location3 Denver : True Clients or Just Logos?

Looking at Location3 in Denver

Location3 is a “digital agency” in Denver, Colorado. It was recently featured as an “award winner”. Now we all know how those awards programs work. It’s nearly impossible to tell a legimiate award from a nonsense award, because a well-known marketing strategy is “create an awards program”.

The Power of Awards

Awards programs work…. and have been used by advertising agencies since long before the Internet became a thing. Even small, boutique vertical industry agencies are encouraged to create awards programs, because that allows them to grant “awards” to their best clients and friendly associated in positions of influence. Since people still respect “award-winning” people and agencies, they love getting awards. And since award winners typically brag about and link to their awards (which are hosted on the award-granter website), running an award program is a win-win for agency and client.

Until the trust is lost… and people come to recognize that most awards programs are full of BS. Has that happened yet? I’m not sure. But I am pretty sure the use of client logos has gone haywire, and I’m looking at Location3’s “clients and work” page wondering if this is for real or not.

Illegal and Inappropriate Use of Client Logos

One of the biggest struggles of a performance-oriented team is the way agencies steal attention and cause clients to doubt efforts. Performance teams deliver results, not promises. But while such teams are busy drawing leads and making the phone ring etc, client marketing leadership can get bored, and look at agency claims.

Let’s admit this right off:  in most companies, an in-house marketer’s career is not based on performance as much as it is based on the appearance of capability, and the promise of future performance.

A C-level marketing exec with an awesome performance team at work keeping up the business growth, still seeks a way to differentiate herself from her peers in the world of Marketing. In-house execs are also subject to the “what else are you doing” challenge from other C-level executives, even when targets are exceeded. And because of these pressures, even when they are achieving excellent results, they look at “what’s happening in the industry”.

And they find Awards. And award winners.

And when they look at the websites of award winners (like Location3), they find… a page full of impressive client logos, like below.

The logos of 55+ companies proudly displayed on the Location3 client page. Click for full-size view.

The logos of 55+ companies proudly displayed on the Location3 client page. Click for full-size view.

The Lanham Act, and the Legal Issues of Using Logos and Trademarks

Now I am not a lawyer, but I have been involved in lawsuits. And among those lawsuits have been suits brought by losers who painfully discovered that my team had displaced them in the SERPs and “stolen” all the commercial opportunity in the page 1 search results.

Second Page is the First Loser

Yes, that is correct. An incumbant, accustomed to sitting in the top 3 for some money terms, who may or may not have been paying some agency a hefty monthly fee to stay there, may get upset when their web site is displaced to page 2 and the phone stops ringing. And since anyone can sue anyone for anything, this sometimes results in a law suit that seems to be designed to frighten competitors (at best), or demand disclosure of methods and tactics used to win (at worst).

Lucky for me, I have a great legal team. Unlucky for them, I get very aggressive under such conditions.

As a performance-based team leader, I have little patience for such game-playing. I have less patience for lawyers who appear to have a need to get “Internet experience”, and appear to be abusing their client’s ignorance to get some experience on the company dime. Shame on you.

The Wonderful Lanham Act

This Lanham Act thing is a catch-all for lawyers seeking some cause for action. Look it up… it’s an act (law) that prohibits unauthorized use of trademarks (including logos). It is intended to prevent theft of business via hijack of trademarks, but is widely used by lawyers to stifle competitive pressures (in my experience).

Publishing a company logo on your client page, without permission from that company, is very likely a violation of the Lanham Act. Yes, even if you did work for them.

Now back to Location3. That impressive page full of company logos suggesting “clients and work” included 55 logos from companies as impressive as Public Storage, ACE Hardware, Olive Garden, ATT, Discover, Charles Schwab, Dunkin Donuts, In-n-Out Burger, Red Robin, and Advantage Rent A Car. Wow. Impressive. There were actually 56, because HP SpartaCote was coded into the page, but the logo was missing.

Not My First Rodeo

Now, this is not my first rodeo. I know some of the games that are played with client lists and such. For example, an accountant who used to work for an account at a big agency, but now works at a small design firm, might think that it’s ok for his new employer to show that former client’s logo on the “our clients & work” page. Misleading for consumers seeking a desgn company, but quite often done.

I don’t think the FTC would be happy with that, but the Lanham Act is the law to cite.

Another common trick : a small PPC agency that helped a larger agency with strategy, may try to put that larger agency’s client logo on the “our work” page. This happens all the time. And it’s improper (and often illegal).

When Cheaters are Allowed to Cheat, Honest Players Get Hurt

Why do I care to question (in this case) Lacation3’s use of 55 corporate logos? Well, it’s not because I have any issue Location3. Honestly, before I was told about this new Awards Program and looked at the winners list to evaluate the credibility of the awards program, I had never heard of them.

I am concerned because my teams routinely avoid stealing client brand trust via this sort of tactic. In fact, all of the respectful (and knowledgable) agency people I know avoid such making claims like they avoid The Plague.

One of the first things you learn when you play with the Big Boys in marketing (big clients, big brands, big money players), is that trust is everything.

If agencies are permitted to play fast and loose with company logos, performance-based teams suffer because even though they do actually work with such projects, they cannot proclaim that on their own “clients and work” pages. When “agencies” do, with big bold proud pages like the Location3 Digital “our work and clients” page, it’s unfair. When such an agency wins an “award”, shouldn’t we care?

Personally, I’d love to see the world change and allow such use of logos (I think.. not 100%  certain).But since that’s not reality, I would really like to know if this awards program bothered to check candidates up for awards, for such things as respecing the law, etc. Maybe not?

The Litmus Test : Ask The Client-side Legal Department for Permission

I have no ill-will towards Location3. I don’t even know them. But I have serious doubts that many of those companies whose logos are proudly displayed on the Location3 client page, would be happy to know about that trademark use. And I think if they did know, many would say “take it down”.

I would like a level playing field, at least among award-winning agencies. After all, they should be held to a higher standard than fly-by-night Internet marketing companies. At the very minimum, that standard that requires not violating the law. Right?

Disclaimer: one of my teams recently did some work for one of the clients listed on that page. Real work. Real as in strategic, national, high-visibility work that is a highlight of the brand, seen by just about every online customer of that brand, and with which the agency and client teams are very, very happy. But we can’t publish their logo. Our team asked. They said no. As they should have. They need to protect their trademark. We got paid, and they are the brand. By law, they have to protect their trademark rights.

Which made me wonder, did Location3 get paid? Did they do major work, or just work for another agency (an Agency of Record, for example) that was subcontracting part of the work? I can’t tell. Location3 doesn’t say. And by all appearances, the companies are allowing Location3 Digital to publish their logos on the portfolio page.

Which Highlights Another Trick

As a side note, I have to point out another “trick” marketing agencies sometimes pull. They will do some work for free, hoping to be able to claim that client on their portfolio page. Again, a common tactic. It has been used by some of the best in the agency business (whom I will not name). But again, unless specifically permitted by that trademark owner, likely to be illegal (under the Lanham Act).

Let’s Have a Pool: What’s your guess?

I wonder, what if Location3 asked the legal departments of those 56 clients for permission to publish the logos on the Location3 client page. Would Location3 Digital get permission to publish client logos? For at least 30? How about 20? Maybe 10? How about 5?

My guess is on the very low end of that range of possibilities.