Brand Mentions Are the New Links?

April 3, 2015

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.

mentions are the new links

Even if they’re talking shit, at least they’re talking about you.

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?

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

Sign up to get our top tips and tricks weekly!