Google Serves Up a Fail for Waffle House

I’m not from the South and have never been to a Waffle House. So, without ever having given it too much thought, I could only imagine that eating there is probably fairly similar to any other fast food experience. Today, though, I had occasion to search for Waffle House on Google. Based on their search results, with all due respect to customers of Waffle House, I have learned that Waffle House seems to be a magnet for the lowest class of society. Highlights from their search page include:

Waffle House Google Search Results Marked Up

As an SEO researcher, I am particularly intrigued by the in-depth articles Google’s algorithm selected for inclusion here. In-depth articles often appear in search results for a known entity, such as a person, company, brand, or concept. They appear as a group of three articles and are typically long form journalistic coverage of the searched term. Often, their coverage has a negative slant. For example, one of Apple’s in-depth articles is “iPhone Killer: The Secret History of the Apple Watch.” For Uber, we find “The Inside Story of Uber’s Radical Rebranding.”

But these in-depth articles aren’t about Waffle House at all. They are stories about people, some crazy people, whose lives happened to intersect with Waffle House. Is that really what people searching for Waffle House are interested in finding? More than anything, they create a highly unfavorable impression of Waffle House, even though these stories have little to do with the brand itself.

Yes, these articles all mention Waffle House and yes, they are all long form journalistic coverage. In that sense, Google’s algorithm got it right. But I think nature abhors a vacuum and Google abhors one even more. In the absence of any other in-depth article-worthy coverage of Waffle House itself – positive or negative – Google’s algorithm scraped the bottom of the barrel and came up with these.

Ultimately this is one big fail for Google’s algorithm that leads to an even bigger fail for the Waffle House brand. Google is probably the best place to go when you want to size up an individual, company or brand. You are quickly exposed to a variety of sources and types of information: corporate website, social media, news, YouTube, Wikipedia etc.  But when Google gets it wrong – as they do in this Waffle House example – the cost can be very high for the brand, with stakeholders getting a negative and undeserved impression of the brand.

In-Depth Articles Rising From the Depths

It looks as though Google just couldn’t wait to celebrate the six month anniversary of one of its newest search results feature, In-Depth Articles. In the last few days, there has been a subtle but important change regarding the placement of in-depth articles in the Google search results.

Rather than appearing as the bottommost group of results as they have since their introduction on August 7th last year, in-depth articles for a handful of companies (including Dell and Ford, shown below) have been promoted, with some of the organic results now appearing below them.

dell

ford
That’s the subtle part. But why is that important?

The in-depth article box is Google’s way of highlighting long-form journalism and ensuring articles of this type persist in first page results for the increasing list of companies for which they appear.

While the depth of their content makes them relevant long beyond the always-changing news landscape, by and large they are unfavorable portrayals of the companies they’re about. As digital branding consultants, Five Blocks has been closely following in-depth articles for the past six months. For our clients, as well as many of their competitors, in-depth articles are a force to be reckoned with, specifically because they (and their mostly unflattering content) stick around even as other search results on the page come and go.

This latest move by Google to start inching in-depth articles up the page, placing them above some of the organic results, suggests even greater popularity for this type of search result. It also underscores the importance of careful strategic planning to ensure a favorable online brand image. Like it or not, Google’s inclusion and promotion of the in-depth articles means they are an integral part of a brand’s online story. It’s no longer enough to tell your story on your own sites, be socially active, and make the news. The brand story will need to be told by engaging magazines and other long form publications to utilize the opportunity afforded by in-depth articles rather than becoming a victim of them.

PR professionals and corporate communications specialists know that these stories usually take several months to write and photograph, so the path involves planting seeds ahead of time and being willing to own up to missteps as well as successes. For more about the potential impact of in-depth articles on PR and Digital Marketing firms, click here. It follows that the long form article will not be 100 percent positive. Companies need to take a strategic approach and realize that if they warrant one long form article, there will likely be more to follow. Brands should look for opportunities to proactively pitch and place these coveted long form articles with the goal of ‘owning’ at least part of the in-depth conversation about their brand.