When Google Highlights Brands For Generic Queries

    October 6, 2013
    Chris Crum
    Comments are off for this post.

Earlier, we posted an article asking if users can trust the information they see in Google’s Knowledge Graph, discussing errors Google has made. The trustworthiness is important for these results in particular, given that this is the stuff Google is highlighting as “knowledge,” and presumably giving people actual answers to their queries, rather than making them have to dig through third-party results to find them.

A reader named Jason made an interesting comment: “It appears that the knowledge graph is giving large brands an unfair advantage by displaying them for generic terms. One such example is when you do a search for a generic term such as travel insurance. It currently brings up a bio for an individual company, Travel Guard.”

Have you seen brands getting special placement in Google for generic queries? Let us know in the comments.

Sure enough, I performed that query, and got the same result, and as you can see, Travel Guard is also the top advertiser on this page. It’s also the top organic result.

Travel insurance

The traditional ads are all marked as such, but this shows no indication that it is a sponsored result. Google’s Knowledge Graph just thinks that if you are searching for “travel insurance” there’s a very good chance you were talking about Travel Guard. You probably didn’t care about any other provider (though if you do, you can find them further down in the organic results.

Regardless of whether or not this has anything to do with the fact that the brand is an advertiser, there is a perfectly good Wikipedia entry for the term “travel insurance, which provides a non-biased, non-branded result. Considering that Google often draws from WIkipedia for Knowledge Graph results, it’s a little odd that that it wouldn’t go that route on a query like this.

I tried out some other generic keywords. I found a similar result for “online betting”. This time there aren’t any sponsored results, but there is a “see results about” box for BetOnline, a privately held company.

Online Betting

Why single this company out for one of these boxes? It’s not even the top organic result in this case. And wouldn’t it make more sense to show the “online gambling” Wikipedia entry that it is listed under BetOnline in the organic results (especially considering that much of the Knowledge Graph info draws from Wikipedia, and when you actually click over to the BetOnline results, you’re presented with a “knowledge panel” for BetOnline, pointing to its Wikipedia page)?

The ‘buy” results are quite interesting, as there are Knowledge Graph entries for Best Buy and Rakuten.com Shopping. These are the first two organic results as well, followed by Apple’s iPhone page, curiously, then the dictionary definition of the word buy. And look who the sponsored result is (hint: it’s Rakuten.com)


I couldn’t get a Best Buy ad to show for the query, but they are an advertiser, as you can see on the “buy electronics” query:

Buy Electronics

If you want to “buy” something, you must be looking for one of these two retailers, right? Certainly not Amazon or even Google Shopping.

Also interesting on the “buy” example is the “in-depth articles” section, which points to an article from Bloomberg Businessweek from 2006 about Best Buy’s Senior Director of Multichannel Order Management, one from Wired about Best Buy, and one from The Verge about “every thing you need to know” about buying a camera.

In-depth articles

“These results are ranked algorithmically based on many signals that look for high-quality, in-depth content,” said Google when it launched the in-depth articles. We don’t know much more about how these are picked.

Also worth noting is that whatever algorithm Google uses to show related searches doesn’t appear to deem Best Buy or Rakuten.com related enough to include in the list.

To be fair, I don’t know who’s just searching for “buy” on Google and expecting to find anything helpful, but it’s interesting to see what Google thinks people want.

A search for “cheap flights” brings up a “see results about” box for CheapFlights, a company that operates a family of travel sites. This one makes a little more sense since its name is the same as the query. It shows that it was smart to name itself after such a sought after generic query. It also shows up as the top organic result, just below Google’s own Flight Search box. I guess there is still some power to those exact match domains.

Despite the similarity between the company’s name and the query, (the company doesn’t have a space, and the query did), is it fair to give this brand an extra boost over its competitors, given that it’s such a generic term? Google could just not have one of these boxes at all. It’s not like they have them on every query, and it’s not like searchers won’t be able to find CheapFlights.com when it’s the top organic result anyway.

Cheap Flights

When you click to see results about CheapFlights, the company, you get a Knowledge Panel, once again pointing to its Wikipedia entry, which Wikipedia itself says is written like an advertisement.

Cheap Flights Results

Cheap Flights

I didn’t immediately come across any other glaring examples of branded results like these, though I would guess there are plenty of others, given how little time it took to find these, but I do have a few other observations I feel like pointing out.

When you search for the generic keyword “rent,” for example, the organic results are all over the place. They include things like the Wikipedia entry for the musical, rent.com (for apartments), the IMDb page for the movie version of Rent, some local real estate rental results, and the dictionary definition of rent.

Clearly, Google has no idea what the user is talking about, which is typically where the Knowledge Graph shines. It helps you let Google know which thing you are actually looking for via these “see results about” boxes. In this case, however, the Knowledge Graph only assumes I’m either talking about the musical (which it lists as a book for some reason, while pointing to a page about the actual musical) or the film. No mention of actual rentals, like some of the results you find in the organic results.

Rent Knowledge Graph

Why not distinguish between different meanings for “rent” with Knowledge Graph so people can get the right results? Same goes for the the query “AFL”. This shows no Knowledge Graph results whatsoever, but it has organic results for a variety of different options, such as AFLAC stock, the Australian Football League, Arena Football League, American Federation of Labor, AFLGlobal, etc. Wouldn’t the Knowledge Graph differentiation make a lot of sense on a query like this?


Granted, Google is continuing to expand Knowledge Graph results, so there is no reason to think it won’t have them on a query like this in the future. Still, Google does provide Knowledge Graph results distinguishing between different meanings of NRL:


We’ve reached out to Google for comment/clarification about why brands sometimes appear in Knowledge Graph boxes for generic terms, and will update accordingly.

Do you think Google should highlight specific brands in the Knowledge Graph, when the user searches for a generic query? Let us know in the comments.

  • http://www.insureandgousa.com Jason

    This is a great article. Thanks for following up on my initial observation and shinning some light on the matter.

  • glover

    when will sign promotion & non-disclosure agreements, so we can think it “natural”.

  • http://blumenthals.com/blog Mike Blumenthal

    This problem, when viewed through the lense of local and local spam, is even more egregious in the local searches on google as the quality of the results is even worse.

    Google’s insistence on highlighting exact and near business name matches for local head terms (like Plumber Chicago) at the expense of other quality signals has surfaced a plethora really terrible results.

    For whatever reason old spammy listings have once again been surfaced to fulfill these queries with local knowledge graph (pinned results). These results clearly demonstrate how google’s approach to brand is an unreliable proxy for really understanding brand.

    • http://www.webpronews.com/author/chris-crum Chris Crum

      I haven’t tested the local stuff myself too much, but your coverage has been interesting. I’m guessing Google will get the post Hummingbird spammy listings worked out, or at least improve them significantly.

  • http://www.sundresses.net John B

    Look up ‘sundresses’ and you get nothing but gas giants. If someone wants a sundress from Victorias Secret or Sears or Dillards, they go to their websites directly. These companies do not need nor deserve the keyword positions. Their sites are not even ABOUT sundresses.

    To me, this kind of search result is search SPAM. I do not know why more people do not call this what it is.

    So why are these bloated corporations clogging the top organic search listings? I believe it is for profit, with search quality paying the price. To see through anyone trying to deceive you, look at what has been done more than what has been said. Google has sold these junk results to us as ‘brand’, but the only improvements have been to Google’s advertising program’s bottom line.

    Google is the defacto owner of the internet. If you work online, you work for Google if you get a check or not. It has far too much power over our economy and they have quietyly destroyed more mom and pops then ten thousand Walmarts ever could have. This needs to change.

    And I hope that all the cheerleaders, the ones that think Google can do no wrong and whatever harm Google causes is the fault of those harmed will kindly wake up and smell the coffee. These are generally otherwise very intelligent people as a whole and the online industries very much need their voices freed.

  • http://www.Disneyland.com Yahoo in my future.

    Yesterday, I can’t believe I’m saying this. I wanted to look something up on the Internet and my first thought was to go to Google as normal, but then something strange happened. I stopped myself. I thought…I’m so tired of all those poor search results and clogged pages. I have no idea what this all means, but it actually happened. And then, several hours later, I DID IT AGAIN! I did my searches on Yahoo and for some reason, the world REFRESHING came to mind. What is happening? Is this the end?

  • http://www.Disneyland.com Phonebooks

    Can anyone help me find my phone book? You know the one printed on paper.

  • http://www.cityweb.co/local-marketing-company/ Help with Local Marketing

    Maybe Google gives large companies an advantage because they’re the ones also able to pay Google big money for online advertising (PPC) too, whereas most small businesses can’t afford this. It’s kind of like throwing the large companies a bone. There should be a search engine dedicated to small business, or maybe a search filter added to Google for this.

    • https://www.facebook.com/CityWebCompany My Facebook Page

      I totally agree with this!

  • http://none Peter

    Knowledge Graph and In-depth articles are absolutely terrible. This must be one of google’s worst implementations of a new feature ever.

    I think the poster who pointed out that they are using this as a sweetener for the big brands who spend bit with them is absolutely spot on.

    This is nothing about quality content.

  • http://bulkprchecker.net/ Geoff

    Well, it’s true that large brands get unfair advantages on the top of the search results, search ads as well as search image ads recently. It’s highly difficult to compete with these biggies.

  • http://www.sbwebcenter.com Steve B

    It’s just issues with their “sponsored” listings. Their organic listings are just as bad. For example, do a search for “online shopping” and see what you get. #1 and 3 are listings for clothing stores.

    I don’t know about you, but don’t you think “online shopping” should show more generic listings? If I wanted to look for “clothes,” I would search for “clothes.”

    This is what happens when a company goes public. Their focus turns to profits and it becomes less about the users.

    • Steve B

      It’s *not* just issues with their “sponsored” listings.

  • http://design-4-less.com Tad

    On Google if you do a search for almost any style of tile or flooring, it will almost always bring up Home Depot or Lowes even though they may not match a long tail keyword search.

  • http://Mabuzi.com Kevin

    Great article one cannot wonder what will happen to small business the corner stone of good economies?

  • http://www.lerentech.com Lerentech

    Just another example of Google giving advantages to big companies and PPC spenders while the little guy gets pushed down. I agree with the comment above, there should be a filter for small businesses. As an internet marketer and SEO I’m becoming very dissatisfied with all of these moves Google is making. They destroyed the keyword tool, rankings are not as “fair” as they used to be and they clearly just want everyone to buy ads. I can already see the shift and falling share of search for Google. I hope Bing and Yahoo gain and I’d like to see another SE get significant traffic like Wolfram or Duckduckgo.

  • http://www.maximumgoo74.com Jeff

    With blogs like this around I don’t even need website anymore. I can just visit here and see all the latest happenings in the world.

  • http://zeonsolutions.com Renee Girard

    I have seen this for “monthly clubs” and “of the month club”. In both the KG and Google Shopping, only wine-specific clubs show. The intent of these queries are clearly ambiguous to a specific membership type. Not nice Google!