Five most interesting search news stories of the week


Welcome to our weekly round-up of all the latest news and research from the world of search marketing and beyond.

This week, we’ve got the latest on a strange glitch appearing in Google’s mobile search, a new beta search engine launched by Creative Commons, and the decline of brand hashtags in Super Bowl ads. Plus, a new report has indicated that consumers don’t find the vast majority of brands meaningful; and Google reveals that custom 404 pages are not beneficial to SEO.

Google’s mobile search glitches, indexes desktop sites

If you’ve been keeping an ear to the ground – or the Twittersphere – in the world of Google SEO, you might have heard that strange things have been happening with Google’s mobile index over the past few days.

Last week and early this week, some astute observers noticed that Google’s mobile search was indexing desktop websites where it would normally be indexing the mobile version of that site.

The suddenness of the switch, coming on the heels of Google’s newly-implemented penalty for intrusive mobile interstitials and ahead of its planned rollout of a mobile-first search index, had Twitter abuzz with speculation as to what could be going on.

In a post for Search Engine Watch yesterday, I broke down the events of the last few days, with the help of some data from Pi Datametrics, to try and work out what happened to the affected sites – and whether it could be a sign of an impending mobile-first index launch.

Creative Commons has launched a new free-to-use photo search engine

If you’ve ever worked in online publishing, chances are you know the unique frustration of searching for a free-to-use image to break up your blog post, or serve as the perfect feature image. Luckily, that just got a lot easier with the launch of a new search engine from Creative Commons, CC Search.

A screencap showing the homepage and search bar of the CC search engine.

It has always been possible to search for Creative Commons-licensed images using a search filter on Google or Flickr, and the Creative Commons website has its own search portal – although it has always been careful to emphasise that this is not a search engine, “but rather offers convenient access to search services provided by other independent organizations, meaning that CC is not responsible for the results returned.

Now, however, it seems that Creative Commons is ready to go full search engine. In a blog post announcing the beta release of CC Search, Creative Commons CEO Ryan Merkley wrote that,

There is no “front door” to the commons, and the tools people need to curate, share, and remix works aren’t yet available. We want to make the commons more usable, and this is our next step in that direction.

Bad news, brands: Consumers could probably live without you

While some of the largest brands in the world spent upwards of $5 million on Super Bowl ads last weekend, a report by Havas Group has delivered some sobering news for brands: consumers wouldn’t care if 74% of them disappeared off the face of the earth.

The report, entitled ‘Meaningful Brands’, has been billed as “the largest global analysis of its kind”. It polled more than 300,000 people in 33 countries about 1,500 global brands in 15 industry sectors in order to draw conclusions about the way that people interact with and form connections with brands.

Unsurprisingly, the brands which made the “meaningful” list were also some of the biggest names, including Google, Microsoft, PayPal, Kellogg’s, Disney and Nike. Which begs the question: what is a “meaningful” brand? Is it just a brand that you’ve heard of, or is there more to it than that? And do these findings mean that smaller brands should give up trying to make an impact?

Hashtags were down and URLs up in this year’s Super Bowl

In more brand news, references to hashtags only appeared in 30% of Super Bowl advertisements this year, down from 45% a year ago.

The Super Bowl is a huge brand extravaganza, and as such, can provide a useful insight into trends around brand advertising, what works and what doesn’t. According to an analysis conducted by Marketing Land, the drop in hashtag usage this year is the continuation of a general decline that has been taking place since 2014, when hashtag usage peaked at 57%.

A white chalk drawing of a bird holding a hashtag, set against a green chalkboard backdrop.

Meanwhile, URLs are on the rise, and have overtaken hashtags for the first time with a presence in 39% of ads. While this might seem like a return to the past, it also makes sense for advertisers to direct users to websites they own, as opposed to social media services that they don’t.

Custom 404 pages have no SEO benefit – but quality is still important

The SEM Post reported this week on an interesting revelation from Google’s Webmaster Central Office Hours hangout: Google does not crawl the content of custom 404 pages on sites. John Mueller, Webmaster Trends Analyst at Google, said that:

“So if we see a 404, then we see a 404 and don’t look at the content.  We don’t look to see what is visible on your 404 pages, on your server error pages, we essentially assume that something that the user can look at and kind of deal with, we don’t follow the content on pages that return any of these error response codes.”

This might come as a blow to some web developers who use a custom 404 page for SEO purposes, but custom 404 pages are still helpful from a user perspective, as they can help reorient lost users to the right part of the site. The Google Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines recommend giving well-thought-out 404 pages the highest quality rating; they just don’t contribute directly to SEO.

An error message from a Tumblr 404 page reading: "There's nothing here. Whatever you were looking for doesn't currently exist at this address. Unless you were looking for this error page, in which case: Congrats! You totally found it."

Tumblr’s tongue-in-cheek 404 error page

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