Hugo Boss, the brand witch-hunt and Google’s culpability

by Paul Carpenter
See Dave Speak SMX London

..and the year’s new SEO pastime of “Out The Brand!” continues unabated. Today we learn that Hugo Boss have followed Beat That Quote and JC Penney into Google’s threshing machine. It’s a slightly different case, in that Hugo Boss are in trouble for effectively cloaking – redirecting users to relevant pages whilst serving default content to Google.

It’s probably unnecessary for a brand the size of Hugo Boss to be doing this. With their brand cachet and natural authority, it should be capable of ranking fairly handily and staying within the guidelines. But taken together, these cases highlight some problems that Google has helped to create.

Inability to Identify & Rank Brands

There have now been several algorithmic updates which were supposed to enhance brand presence in the SERPs and yet big brands continue to buy links. It’s worth pausing to ask why that is.

The first thing to note is that links still make for rankings. If you’re a big brand and not showing up for your core money terms on the strength of that alone, then where do you go? A big social media push… infographics… blogger outreach… display ads…

Buying links?

The eternal truth is that, even in some major verticals, you need links to rank. If big brands don’t join in the scrum, that just makes for a top 10 result full of affiliates who are ready to pack up and move the second the hammer falls on one of their properties.

So whether you, I, Google or Uncle Tom Cobleigh like it or not, the CEO of Dave’s Plumbing and Bodgery is slamming down phones on his marketing team who can’t explain why he’s not #1 when he types “bodge jobs in Leeds” into Google. And they’re heading out in turn into the SEO world to find someone who will buy them the necessary links.

Beat That Quote got sucked into the Big Bad Ban Bin, but picking out the big name linkbuyers in that industry is like shooting a 200lb Coelacanth in a teeny-tiny barrel. With no water in it.

So it should be pretty apparent that Google can’t actually determine who is a brand with 100% accuracy. Links are the blood in Google’s vein and the line between “tonnes of links” and “legitimate brand” has to be blurry. Various players have bought their way into the market through link buying and Google can either reward them or ban them. But a Google without brands lacks credibility so they have to turn a blind eye to some degree.

And until someone finds a way to create an engine that disregards links as a ranking factor (or shoves them waaaaay down the priority list) then the boys at Mountain View are going to have to occasionally march a brand into the town square to shave their head and write “link buyer” on their forehead. It’s about as much as they can realistically do.

The Tyranny of “The Guidelines”

Were Hugo Boss doing something that terrible? Well, to an SEO, yes they were. Instead of structuring their site properly to get a relevant page ranking, they did some sniffing to serve visitors that content through automation once they’d arrived on the site.

Google has always said that it aligns itself with the user. And without some kind of mechanism in place, it would be possible to rank a site for “Bob the builder” and serve up some tasty amputee porn. But when you consider this case, the penalty seems a bit more like the expression of a blunt instrument.

Someone at Hugo Boss notices that someone searching for “Hugo Boss suits” on Google gets served the homepage. Wouldn’t it make sense to sniff those people out by the referrer, make a reasonable guess at their intent and push them straight onto the relevant page? It’s the same kind of ballpark that sees people getting banned for serving French content on the basis of IP sniffing.

There’s a tonne of grey areas where the unwary can find themselves tipped into Google Hell (which is a recurrent gripe we have with idiots who say that you don’t need SEO input on your site). So are Hugo Boss beholden to Google or their users?

The solution is, of course, to structure the site properly and to SEO the target page, but as you can probably attest that isn’t a perfect science. Google will happily carry on serving an empty product page, discarded category or something random if it wants to, guidelines or no.

The solution? Links. And we’re back to point 1.

Is this just another gripe about Google?

Hell no. If I knew the solutions to these problems, I wouldn’t be writing this post: I’d be coding a kick-ass search engine, plotting Google’s downfall and scoping out a private island with excellent fishing rights*. Every search query poses a new set of problems to the Google engineers and, in the main, they respond admirably to get through the thickets of conflicting signals and intentions better and faster than anyone else.

But let’s not kid ourselves: Google doesn’t just solve problems – it creates them. Whether you’re a brand, a start-up or a mummy blogger with a hobby, the free traffic that Google sends you is at their behest, and their own technical quirks and business motivations can destroy you as easily as it created you.

If you’re mulling over the big red button marked “report my competitor while it’s Wabbit season” then think on: the backdraft could be too much for you to handle.

[image: courtesy Wikimedia]

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* You’re a cynic.

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