In a recent instalment of his video blog, head of Google’s webspam team, Matt Cutts, addressed the question of whether small websites can compete with major brands in search engine results pages (SERPs).
“How can smaller sites with superior content ever rank over sites with superior traffic? It’s a vicious circle: A regional or national brick-and-mortar brand has higher traffic, [which] leads to a higher rank, which leads to higher traffic, ad infinitum.”
Most people would agree that healthy competition in the marketplace is a good thing. But does Google’s search engine make it too difficult for small business to acquire top ranking positions?
Today, we’re discussing the difficulties small brands face in an increasingly competitive online marketplace and examining some of the strategies which small businesses can (and should) adopt to rank higher.
It’s tough at the top
Google constantly faces allegations that its search algorithm favours big brands to the expense of smaller customer-friendly companies. In 2012, the Federal Trade Commission (an independent US government agency which promotes consumer protection and the prevention of anticompetitive business practices) waded into the controversy and determined that the search giants had manipulated results to favour big brands, to the detriment of small companies and academic sources. “Google…has drawn complaints from rivals and antitrust regulators as it has expanded its business beyond its dominant product, search and search advertising”, reported the New York Times. “[It] has aggressively built off this main business to fields including online commerce and smartphone software. As it expands its empire, Google takes on new competitors and brings formidable resources.”
For the most part, however, antitrust allegations against Google have been unfounded. Indeed, throughout most of its history – from start-up to $380 billion giant – Google has competed with larger rivals such as Yahoo! and Microsoft.
Google has always championed “user-satisfaction”. Nevertheless, alterations to its search algorithm have undoubtedly had an impact on small brands. It’s always the case: as the big players make changes, it’s the little guys who ultimately lose out.
Since the “Vince Update” in February 2009 the dynamics of SEO have changed. It emphasised the importance of online brand building and multi-channel optimisation. Google’s Penguin and Panda algorithms (designed to discourage unethical SEO practices) have also hit smaller brands, particularly those with limited SEO budgets.
How, according to Matt Cutts, can small brands compete with the big players?
Cutts argues that smaller online businesses can rank as highly as well-established national brands by thinking and playing smart. “Sites that are smart enough to be agile, dynamic, respond quickly and roll out new ideas much faster than lumbering larger sites can often rank higher in Google search results”, he says.
At DSM we continually stress that “content is king”. Accordingly, smaller sites that produce superior content can out-rank major sites who receive more traffic. Major brands like Facebook, MySpace and Instagram were all initially small, Cutts explains, but climbed up Google’s SERPs because they “did a better job at focusing on user experience”. The sites that are producing more authoritative content and providing a superior user experience than the top-ranking incumbents can expect to climb SERPs.
Cutts refers to a “Katamari philosophy”, named after a popular Japanese video game where players start with small objects and roll them into increasingly large star-like things. Small brands should initially concentrate on a niche specialism and then expand their field of expertise as they become more reputable. Moreover, Cutts asks us to consider the history of the web, where sites have competed against each other on a level playing field. “Because there is very little friction in changing where you go, the Apps you use and the websites you visit, the small guys absolutely can outperform the larger guys as long as they do a really good job.”
Sounds easy. So what do small brands have in their favour?
The hugely competitive online market, dominated by big name brands with huge marketing budget and economies of scale, can seem impenetrable to small companies. Matt Cutts argues, however, that small brands possess qualities that make them inherently more competitive than their larger counterparts. Firstly, they tend to be more in touch with customer needs. Small brands usually target products at a specific type of customer, so tend to have a better idea of the changing dynamics of their market. Small businesses can also get immediate customer feedback – entrepreneurs can meet their customers face-to-face, for example – helping them to identify new opportunities before their larger rivals.
Secondly, small brands are usually more adaptable and are not restricted by as many corporate rules. Overheads tend to be lower and it is (arguably) easier for them to cut costs. In contrast, big businesses are often stifled by red-tape and corporate guidelines that prevent them from doing anything too radical.
“Small firms will never win on price, but they can compete on value and service, [and] the more specialised their product or service, the better”, says author Heather Townsend. “They can be flexible and adaptable to meet customers’ needs, and through the clever use of social media, they can make their brand more “loveable”, which gives them the edge.”
Small brands typically find it easier to focus on quality over quantity, maintain their individuality and focus on customer requirements. And if a brand is smaller in scope it can often afford greater opportunities in the long run. Indeed, Matt Cutts argues that as large brands become more popular, they often lose their niche and their content becomes more diluted and less focused.
In short, by focusing on core strengths and niche areas, small businesses can rank highly because they will be producing authoritative, unique and relevant content.
How can small businesses perform better in SERPs?
Major brands are always going to rank highly in Google’s search results. It’s unavoidable. They receive lots of traffic and usually have proven track records for trustworthiness and excellence. However, small business can perform well if they follow Google’s advice.
Brittany Berger writes how small businesses can achieve SERP domination by tailoring their SEO strategies. For instance, page backlinks are important. “The easiest SERP domination situation to accomplish is when someone searches for your business name, or the name of one of your product”, writes Berger. “Working towards SERP domination for branded keywords can help bury any negative press ore reviews your company has, or may have in the future. You also don’t want to risk your competitors popping up on the first page.”
As Google has tinkered with its search algorithm, SERP results have become more dynamic and increasingly diverse. If a browser is signed into a Google+ account their results are customised, for instance. Ads are personalised. Search results are location-relevant. While news stories, images, videos and shopping results are also incorporated.
Small companies should also use social profiles to promote products and engage with customers. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest rank very highly in SERPs, receiving huge numbers of inbound links and lots (and lots!) of traffic. Brittany Berger calls it “piggybacking on a social network’s domain authority.” Furthermore, brands need to optimise their Google+ presence by building their following, posting regularly and replying to customer queries and complaints. Furthermore, it’s important to link your website to your Google+ page, which “makes you eligible for Direct Connect and the possibility of your page being included in Knowledge Graph.”
In other words, it is essential to create a dialogue between business and customer.
User-interfaces are becoming increasingly more important. Brands should ensure that their website and media are optimised for multi-device, multi-platform use – because more and more searching is done on mobiles and tablet devices. Similarly, multimedia content has become more popular. Engaging visuals appeal to readers and help websites perform better in SERPs. For example, Google prioritises YouTube videos, as well as images with “alt tags”, in its search engine results.
Paid advertising, albeit expensive, is another useful tactic. And, if a brand has the money, it can save on the time and tools required for SEO. Bidding on branded keywords is a sensible and fairly cheap insurance policy to organic SEO, remarks Brittany Berger.
But are Matt Cutts’ remarks a little disingenuous? Can small websites really compete?
It’s difficult for small brands to compete with the major players. But it helps to steer clear of larger rivals. “When we set up in business, we decided that there was no point in trying to compete directly with larger businesses”, says Nikki Walls, MD of the online jewellery retailer Bling Rocks. “Our primary focus is to provide exceptional customer service, and sell bespoke high-quality jewellery products that are not available on the high street. We source products from niche suppliers, normally overseas ones, who will not be supplying to larger businesses.”
It’s very difficult for companies with limited resources to roll-out fresher content quicker than larger rivals. Glenn Behan, owner of online home furnishing company Bruno and Bean, believes that small brands should instead concentrate on offering a more personal experience. “I’ve learned that rather than try to match them on price, it’s better to encourage loyalty instead,” he says. “Your marketing budget will be a lot smaller than theirs, so it’s about grabbing customers who can see what you do well, and then holding on to them. Big businesses don’t do that. Lots of small businesses get bought by larger business because they are trying to buy into that personal touch.”
In his video-blog, Matt Cutts does not clearly define “superior content” and does not make clear who makes such a determination. In reality, Google decides what regards as “good” content. Therefore, it wields a great deal of influence over which sites rank highly and, hence, the direction internet traffic.
In an ideal world, quality should rest in the hands of the consumer and the publishing editor. Does the consumer, for instance, learn all they need? Is the editor satisfied that the content covers all it needs to?
Most websites are small content providers which offer niche services, rather than emerging Googles, Facebooks and YouTubes. Nevertheless, Google has the power to engulf brands which pose a threat to its dominance which, in turn, can discourage competition. What’s more, small businesses can have their growth potential constrained because resources are directed away from content to activities like SEO, social media marketing and PPC.
For years, small business owners have lamented over the fact that it takes them much longer to recover from a manual action penalty imposed by Google’s webmasters, than larger rivals. Of course, big sites are going to earn natural links much more easily because of their reputation, whereas browsers are less likely to trust small sites initially. So are some brands simply too big to fail?
Publishing authoritative content is one thing, but it needs to be properly promoted. Social media is great but, ultimately, small sites depend on Google. Brands with a major offline presence are effectively guaranteed online traffic and it is difficult for small businesses to compete when larger rivals have such huge resources. However, if small brands play by Google’s rules, if they concentrate on their own niche, provide great content and focus on customer experience then they can stay in the game. After all, the SEO landscape is not exclusively defined by what the big names are doing.