On January 17th, we reported on a pretty significant Google update that Google denied and then five days later they pushed out a Panda refresh. No, I don't think the Panda refresh was related to what we saw on January 17th - I don't.
Pete Meyers from SEOmoz is a man who does his research and he provided one example based on a pattern he saw with the update on January 17th that he thinks might shed some light on this.
Pete posted this on his Google+ page yesterday and explained how he thinks Google is pushing the search query towards the brands, and less towards lesser known brands, people or things. He showed one example of where before January 17th the search term for [kholes] would return results for the brand K-Holes but now, it is returning results for Kohls the department store. He has seen other examples of this but shows a screen shot of this in action.
Here is what I see now for a search on [kholes]:
Now, Pete shared a screen shot on Google+ that even hides the "did you mean" option! That is big.
Here is what you would have seen before (notice the did you mean):
I am not sure exactly how widespread it is, but I suspect Pete is doing the analysis now and will share his results when he has them.
I am also sure this will fuel some fire within the SEO community about Google once again being thought to favor large brands with big ad spends.
I'll ping Google about this but I suspect I know what the response, if any, will be.
Forum discussion at Google+.