Why SEOs should care about brand

I’ll get right to it. As an SEO I think you should care about brand performance.

This isn’t an “I know better than you” post. I don’t.

This isn’t a “you’re obsolete” post. You’re not.

What I’m going to do here is make a series of statements that I think you’ll agree with and I believe that, together, we’ll come to the conclusion that SEOs should be actively involved in brand decisions.

I think we’ll agree on that because we don’t have the option of saying “I’m not getting involved”. Because, like it or not, our brand interest is already affecting the performance we are held accountable for, so our best bet is to get ahead of it and use the data we have access to as SEOs for the benefit of our whole company. To get credit for the successes we’re contributing to and avoid the losses.

An SEO decision tree

It all boils down to the decision tree image below.

To use it, start at the blue box at the top and let yourself be guided by your answers to each question. After the decision tree, I’ll break down each question to show why I think they are relevant and why I think they lead us to caring about brand.

The questions

If you agree with me and you don’t need convincing – skip to the end for details on how we can be involved with brand performance. Through measuring success and helping to guide brand building efforts.

I’m not going to break down the first couple because I think they’re fairly self-explanatory. We’re focusing on the impact of brand for SEOs. If you’re not an SEO or you know brand just isn’t a factor in your industry then fair enough.

Are you able to separate your branded and non-branded traffic?

As an SEO, you’re likely judged on how many valuable sessions you can bring to the site through Google organic traffic.

If you are just reporting on total organic sessions, that number will include the sessions where people have searched {{x generic product name}} or {{y topic we’ve targeted by a blog post}}. But they will also include sessions where people have searched for your brand and, understandably, clicked through to your site.

That means that if more people start searching for your brand, you get more traffic. Great, you look good. It also means that if fewer people are searching for your brand then you look bad.

If we focus only on standard SEO tactics and overall organic performance, we don’t have full control over whether the numbers go up or down. We also won’t always have a good explanation for why the numbers are going up or down.

In this case our personal performance, the performance of our team, is impacted by demand for the brand in a way we can’t control for.

You should care about brand.

How can I separate branded and non-branded numbers?

One way is to use data from Google Search Console (GSC). GSC will give you data that is kind of like organic session numbers, broken down at keyword level.

You can see here that for two of my coding-themed keywords, I’ve had 436 and 102 clicks respectively. We can take those “click” numbers to be roughly similar to sessions.

Search Console data showing clicks and impressions for specific keywords.

So you can make one bucket that has every keyword which includes your brand name, misspellings of your name, and any terms which only refer to you or things you list on your site. You can make another bucket which includes everything else. You can then sum up those groups to get an idea of how many brand/non-brand sessions you’re getting over time.

You could do that manually by exporting data from the interface. You could use the excellent Search Analytics for Sheets plugin which will extract the data directly to Google Sheets. You could use code to extract the data day-by-day and put it straight into BigQuery (which is what we do with our clients). Whatever you do, I would use Regular Expressions (RegEx) to help with the categorization because people will be spelling your brand in a bunch of ridiculous ways when they search for you and matching RegExs avoids having to identify all the misspellings manually (if you’d like to learn RegEx, I actually made a game to help you).

As we’ll see in the next section, that won’t give you perfect data but separating everything out this way will give you some idea of how you’re getting on for brand and non-brand separately.

Are you sure you’re getting all of the brand/non-brand data?

Maybe you are separating out your traffic based on whether it’s branded or non-branded. Maybe you’re using one of the methods we spoke about in the last section to calculate the number of branded clicks.

The problem is, Search Console doesn’t give you all the data. Particularly if you ask for keyword-level data you lose some of it to sampling and some of it to protect the privacy of users if Google thinks that what they searched for is specific enough.

We said that we use Search Console clicks as a rough guide to the number of organic sessions (Google only). Below I’ve pasted the number of clicks that Search Console registered for my site and the number of Google organic sessions it registered, for the same time period.

Admittedly, this is a particularly bad example but Google Analytics is reporting 191 users arriving from Google Organic search for a total of 325 sessions whereas Search Console is reporting only 60 total organic clicks. That’s a lot of data missing.

Search Console clicks
Organic sessions

So if we use GSC data to measure brand, we might be able to see some fluctuations in interest but, if we’re using Google Analytics terminology, our data is basically sampled at 15%. There’s a lot of potential for us to think brand is going up when it’s actually going down.

It’s unlikely that brand interest is going to change enough between February and March that it has a considerable impact on your recorded performance as an SEO. 

However, brand interest could change a lot over the course of a year, for example. We could lose enough branded sessions over the course of a year that this lost data makes a difference to your year-on-year session numbers. And it’s quite likely that you will be held responsible for that change. If we aren’t reporting specifically on brand changes over time it’ll be hard to say why.

So if we’re not getting all the data, we’re still in a position where changes in brand interest can change the overall numbers we’re responsible for. And we don’t have all the data to pick it apart.

You should care about brand.

Do you avoid reporting on things like conversions that you can’t split by brand/non-brand?

I want to be clear in this section – I think we should report on conversions. Whenever we can, whatever we do should come back to business impact.

Branded sessions are highly likely to convert. By the time someone is searching for your brand, particularly by the time someone is searching for your brand plus a product you sell (i.e. “H&M dresses”) they are interested in buying specifically from you.

If you’re in an industry where customers tend to spend much more time researching, you’re probably using some kind of multi-touch attribution to see what channels are contributing to conversions. In that case brand could well come up multiple times, for example at the comparison stage (i.e. “Zendesk vs Freshdesk”) and then the final conversion decision (“Zendesk”). 

Whether we’re just looking at conversions based on the last referring channel, or we’re using some kind of attribution, branded sessions are likely to be a significant chunk of the organic numbers we are reporting. 

We can’t reliably split organic conversions into brand and non-brand because on-site analytics platforms can’t (or won’t) tell us what organic keyword brought a user to the site.

So if brand interest goes up organic will probably get credit for more conversions, and we will look good. If it goes down we will look bad. If we’re not paying attention, if we’re not involved in brand activity, these changes will be out of our control and we’ll be blind to the causes.

You should care about brand.

Are you allowed to report to your line manager directly on non-branded performance?

Even if we can split brand and non-brand, and our manager understands the distinction, if we’ve set KPIs based on the total number they are going to care about the total number.

So if we aren’t measuring brand changes, if we’re not participating in brand activity or brand planning, our success or failure is still somewhat outside of our control.

You should care about brand.

Can you tell your board to ignore non-brand performance numbers?

Again, I have to be clear here – I don’t think we should be doing this. We just need to be aware – this is what is required if we want to separate brand performance from SEO numbers.

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