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Is Google Stealing Your Brand Search Queries?

Published: October 7, 2014

Author: Katie Walton

On 5 September, the Google Webmaster blog announced that we would “see a new and improved sitelinks search box” in organic search results. It sounds brilliant – an easy way to help customers with brand awareness straight to where they need to go.
However, just a few weeks later Dan Barker put up this post, showing that the sitelinks search boxes may actually be screwing brands out of their customers. He talks about how keyword site:asos.com SERPs triggered by the sitelinks search box was triggering nothing but competitor ads for the online retailer.
Thinking that his results may have been a fluke, I tried for myself and found that even when googling keywords that ASOS is targeting independently of their brand name, the ads were exclusively from competitors.
At this point I started to wonder if a canny account manager at ASOS had a negative keyword list in place for search operators that was backfiring on them. ASOS is a big brand; it makes sense that many a digital marketer would look to them to see what tricks they could learn, and that’s the kind of brand traffic they don’t want to pay for.
So I did some more digging, and saw similar results for other big brands. Ocado bids on their brand name:
And on attitude laundry liquid:
But when you combine them into attitude laundry liquid site:ocado.com, poof, the Ocado brand ads disappear:
It felt like I was seeing this happen again and again, but just when I was starting to despair, I saw this from Waterstones – a brand ad:
A text ad for Kindle covers:
And a text ad for Kindle covers site:waterstones.com:
Hallelujah! And to make things even better, there was this from House of Fraser:
A text ad for lace dress:
And a number one ad spot for lace dress site:houseoffraser.co.uk – it was about time:
So, why do competitor ads drown out the brand some of the times, but not others?
I can’t offer any definitive reason, but there are a few key characteristics of these search results, as far as I can tell:

1.   Google does not appear to treat these internal site searches as branded search queries.

At the moment, at least. While it may not seem fair, there is at least some logic to this. The AdWords system doesn’t recognise search operators, and if you were to target [site:mycompetitor.com their best keyword] AdWords would treat this as [their best keyword].
So in the cases where I did see brand ads on the site: searches, they also had strong (i.e. top three) ad spots for the keywords alone. In the case of House of Fraser, it’s their strong ad rank for lace dress that wins them the top spot, and not their better claim of actually owning the site indicated in the search query.
At least the system is consistent, but with Google providing an easy way for the general public to run search operator searches, the approach isn’t going to make them any friends.

2.   They don’t trigger Google Shopping ads.

On more than one occasion I was confident that I had seen ads from a brand for a certain keyword and that said brand was then screwed out of site: results. However, looking back through screengrabs, I can see that they only had Shopping ads showing and that the site: results are text ads only.
I highly doubt it will stay like this for long.

3.   It’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

No, this is not ideal; yes, it would be good if Google would show your ad first on this inarguably branded search. But they haven’t just handed over all ad spots to competitors.
You don’t even need to let Google show ads at all.
The best line of defence against this is to include the appropriate markup on your website to direct users to your internal site search. Details and links about how to do this were in the announcement post from the Webmasters blog that I linked to right at the start of this post – here it is again for you.
Don’t worry if you do see this happening to a client – I noticed that one of our clients had the sitelinks search box, so I checked out their search query reports, and in the last 30 days there was not enough data to display any queries including site:. I know this doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but they are negligible at this point.
Have you seen this happening to any of your clients? Has it had any noticeable impact? Share your stories.

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