When Google Highlights Brands For Generic Queries

    October 6, 2013
    Chris Crum

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.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.