Since its inception in the ’90s, Google has relied on link signals to evaluate the quality and trustworthiness of webpages to determine their rankings in organic search results. This has been the backbone of their algorithms and helped them deliver superior results, leading to their current dominant position in search. However, link signals have been subject to abuse from spammers and SEOs as well, and over the years Google has worked hard to filter such manipulation attempts from its algorithms, striving for pure search results that genuinely reflect the quality of the websites being shown. As anyone working in the SEO industry knows, this is a fight Google is struggling to win. The continued pivotal position of link signals in Google’s ranking algorithms means that weaknesses continue to be found and exploited, and the link graph’s usefulness as a measure of quality is increasingly diminished. Earlier this year Google admitted to having experimented with search results that don’t use link signals, and by their own admission it generated very poor results indeed. So it seems Google is stuck with using links as a key ranking signal for the foreseeable future. Or are they?
Brand Sentiment as a Replacement for Links
Much has been written in recent times about using alternative signals for ranking purposes. One possible measure that keeps cropping up is brand sentiment; the general perception of a brand’s quality and value as determined by the collective mentions of that brand on the whole web. Brand sentiment, on the surface, seems like an ideal metric to complement – and potentially even replace – links as a ranking factor. Google is seriously committed to delivering the best possible search results, to ensure they maintain their dominant market share. If Google struggles to show quality websites in its SERPs, users might opt for different search engines that provide more reliable results. So Google wants to make sure their results provide the best experience for their users, limiting the incentive to use rival search engines. Brand sentiment as a ranking factor makes perfect sense in that context. If Google can consistently show webpages in its results from companies that deliver great products and services, as determined by positive brand experiences mentioned online, users will continue to trust Google’s results as the best, and the implied quality and trustworthiness in high rankings is proven true. However, as others have written about before, brand sentiment has its own issues. It’s not a mature technology by any stretch. The intricacies of human language can lead to many false interpretations of a subjective experience. Sarcasm, for example, leads to all kinds of false positives in many brand sentiment analyses. And customers can have mixed emotions towards a business, with some positive aspects and some negatives as well – a level of nuance that sentiment analysis has historically struggled with.
There might be good news on the horizon for Google though. The field of sentiment analysis is abuzz with new technologies and startups that show promising developments. At the recent Web Summit in Dublin (of which I wrote a mixed review) one startup exhibiting there caught my attention: Adoreboard, a local startup, has built a platform that measures brand sentiment as determined by in-depth analysis of vast amounts of online data, and summarises this in a simple metric: Adorescore. Ranking from -100 to +100, this score seemed to provide an accurate reflection of how people feel about a given brand, as expressed by online mentions including social media, blogs, news sites, comments, etc. What I liked about Adoreboard is that their brand sentiment score, whilst seemingly superficial, is actually composed of 24 distinct emotions, reflecting the complex nature of human feelings towards a company or brand. To me, such a technology might well prove to be the holy grail of organic search in the future. With the ability to discern varying emotional attitudes towards a brand, and incorporating these in ranking signals in the right context, search engines could easily decrease their reliance on link signals and shift towards detailed brand sentiment instead. For example, in a sector where repeat purchases are common, an emotion like loyalty from a repeat customer might carry more weight than fear expressed by a first-time buyer. The ability to automate the discovery of these emotions in different contexts is a very promising development in sentiment analysis, which could well pave the way for this technology to be used in search engine ranking algorithms.
The Future of SEO
I don’t expect brand sentiment to become an overnight replacement of links, but I do believe we will see early implementations of this technology in organic search results in the near future. It’s too promising to be ignored, and has the potential to solve a lot of problems for Google and other search engines in the long term. Google has previously acquired a sentiment analysis startup, and it’ll be worthwhile keeping an eye on future acquisitions to see which technologies Google finds worth exploring. What this means for SEO is clear: as Google focuses on ranking websites that deliver positive brand experiences, SEO will need to shift some focus to telling positive brand stories online – beyond the confines of the company’s own website. Moreover, businesses will be forced to deliver better products and services if they want to compete in organic search, which can only be a good development. There will of course be new shortcuts discovered, and fake sentiment placement (astroturfing) might become a valid tactic. In this area Google will find some unlikely allies: social networks like Facebook endeavour to filter fake accounts from their platforms, which would help Google keep brand sentiment signals honest and trustworthy. Equally, advertising standards regulation mean that paid placements should be declared, which allows Google to filter the sentiments expressed there as well. The gray area in paid placements is of course a fertile ground for SEO at the moment, and with brand sentiment in the picture it will remain so. Outreach will continue as a cornerstone of effective SEO; brand sentiment will only enhance the value of that tactic. Brand sentiment is not the definitive cure for spammy search results, but it does give search engines an extra tool in their arsenal in their efforts to keep their results reliable and trustworthy. I don’t expect links to be replaced as a signal entirely, but I do foresee a future where ongoing SEO is as much about promoting positive brand experiences as it is about generating links. It’s a future I would embrace wholeheartedly.