Why SEOs should care about brand

If we took the stance that organic measurement shouldn’t include brand and shouldn’t include conversions, we might be able to convince our manager. But they probably have time to understand the nuance.

Their manager might not, or perhaps the level above them. Usually, at some point below board level, someone in the hierarchy doesn’t have time to think purely about organic non-brand clicks. They just need to know how much we’re getting through organic search.

In order to completely avoid being judged on changes in brand performance we would have to convince our entire company that whenever “organic performance” is mentioned it should only be in the context of non-branded clicks. 

I don’t think we want to win this particular argument. Organic performance will be compared with paid, social, email. Those are all channels that are very good at talking money. If we’re not reporting on things like conversions it becomes a lot harder to justify investment in organic. That makes it harder to get more people on our team, to get space in the dev queue to make site changes, to get rises and promotions. 

Even if we ignore the impact on our progression and workload, we aren’t doing SEO for the sake of it. We’re doing SEO to help our company to make money, and that means caring about conversions (and hence brand performance). These things affect whether our company will exist next year. 

Even if we decide it’s worth it, it’s quite unlikely that we can get the whole company to only judge us on non-brand clicks. So if we’re not involved in brand decisions we don’t have control over the numbers we’re held responsible for.

You should care about brand.

Do you have evidence that brand recognition doesn’t impact click-through rate for your brand?

In surveys around 70% of people say that they look for brands they know when choosing what result to click on in search.

Say we completely ignore the purpose of SEO (to help the business make money) and we massively reduce our own influence by convincing everyone to judge organic performance based only on non-brand clicks. Because people are more likely to click on brands they know, we could end up getting less traffic for exactly the same hard-won position in a non-brand search, purely because people don’t know us.

So if we’re not measuring brand, if we’re not involved in brand decisions, we’re not fully in control of the numbers we’re reporting on.

You should care about brand.

Are you sure that branded searches don’t impact rankings?

Maybe we know (somehow) that click through rate isn’t impacted by brand. Or maybe we’re not even judged on organic traffic, maybe we’re judged on rankings for specific keywords through some kind of rank-tracking tool. The only wild card left is the rankings themselves.

To rank search results, Google has always needed a way to work out which sites are reliable and which aren’t. Initially the main solution was links. If we assume that links are still a major factor for Google in terms of trust, we know that generating links often involves getting attention and exposure across the internet (through things like press). Essentially – building a brand. What’s more, if people know your brand they are more likely to link to you.

So even if we take links at face value, they’re pretty deeply entwined with brand.

You could think we can generate links without building brand. Funnily enough – that is exactly why links have always been so problematic for Google. SEOs have worked out how to generate lots of fake links that don’t actually provide value for users, that don’t actually help users trust a brand. And trust is what Google wanted to measure from the very start..

Now, Google has lots more information about the internet than it used to. There are lots of other signs they could use to judge if something is reliable. For years, Tom Capper has been talking about brand being a better predictor of search rankings than links are. That doesn’t mean that Google has to know what a brand is, but it does mean that Google may be measuring a series of other factors which all, like links, are correlated with brand. In that case, even if we can directly manipulate some of them the way we can directly manipulate links, it’s much harder to know which levers to pull and the most direct way to try to impact the numbers we’re judged on, again, becomes brand.

There are also some stories filtering through the SEO industry, by way of pub chats, DMs and private groups, of people influencing rankings by driving up specific branded searches. The theory could be summed up with this example;

  • Google already knows lego.com is a good result for the search “Lego toys”
  • Google’s algorithms start to relate the concept “Lego” closely to the concept “toys”
  • Because the concepts are closely related Google starts to believe that lego.com is also a good result for the broader “toys” search.

I don’t have any direct data on this and don’t have any interest in us committing to rumours here so we’ll treat that as an interesting point but not one that we need to take as gospel.

This question has a less obvious answer than some of our others but there’s still some evidence here that we should pay attention to, and be involved in, brand, because it may well be impacting our rankings as well as everything else.

You should care about brand (if you disagree, go to the next section).

You answered “yes” to all the questions – are you taking the credit?

So, to get to this point we have to take the fairly extreme position that;

  • We’re separating non-brand traffic completely from brand
  • Every level of our company is judging us purely on non-brand clicks
  • We don’t care that channels like PPC will probably get more investment from our company because they can talk about conversions and we cannot
  • Brand recognition doesn’t impact click through rate
  • Brand interest isn’t impacting Google’s rankings
  • If links matter we’ll generate links without building brand
  • Google isn’t paying attention to other signs of brand strength

If you’re getting sessions for non-branded searches, that means that people are coming to your site when they might not otherwise. They are seeing your products, they’re knowing more about your brand.

As an SEO, when you aren’t benefiting from brand you are building brand. While we’ve focused purely on the SEO impact here, that brand awareness will affect your company’s marketing and success.

If you’re not measuring brand, if you’re not part of brand conversations, then you’re not getting full credit for all your hard work. You should care about brand.

Why SEOs are the perfect team to be involved in brand

You could argue that many teams are impacted by brand and I won’t disagree with you.

I think it’s important for SEOs to be involved in brand conversations because we are particularly vulnerable to untracked brand changes and because we regularly use tools and work with data that can help us estimate branded search.

As an industry, we’re also much more used to SEO involving longer-term investment. Perhaps because channels like paid social and paid search are so thoroughly tracked, it can sometimes be even harder to convince people to think less about those channels in terms of immediate ROI and more in terms of medium-term brand growth.

How to measure brand and inform brand activity

We have a couple of ways to track overall brand performance, you can use these to help benchmark efforts over time.

Direct traffic to the homepage: tells you about people putting your site into the address bar and landing directly on the homepage (so they definitely know your brand). It’s not specific to SEO and it’s not perfect but it helps you form a picture.

Total branded searches in Search Console: won’t give you all the data but by tracking total brand impressions you can see a trend in interest (for more information on this, check out the section above How can I separate branded and non-branded numbers?)

Guiding brand activity

Even better than seeing how well we’ve done – we can help our whole company know where to focus brand-building efforts.

Google Trends: is a fantastic source of information that can help you see what has been working for you or your competitors, and what states/locations/geographic areas to focus your activity on. That can inform everything from blog content and digital advertising, to newspapers to target and billboard placement.

Google Ads: can get you next-level brand data at product and city level. For example, you could use it to see if your customers are more likely to search for your dresses or your competitors’ (replace product as necessary). As with Google Trends, you can use that data to guide everything from on-site content and email campaigns, to advertising, events, and outreach.

SERP ownership trackers: are increasingly common. For instance Visably (I have no affiliation but do have a free account, which you could get too) and SERP Sketch (I’ve heard of it but not used it). Rather than just telling you if you’re ranking for a specific keyword, they’ll show you if any of the pages in the top ten results mention your brand. That’s the kind of information you can use to select outreach targets.

Let’s do the interesting work

Brand isn’t the only factor we need to contend with in SEO but the way I see it, we either have the choice of reducing our roles, of closing off and taking less responsibility for the performance of our companies, or diving right in, understanding that brand is a part of our work and using the data we have access to, to help everyone.

Anything you think I’ve missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Robin Lord is a consultant at Distilled/Brainlabs. He works with clients from Toronto to Singapore, on everything from technical site health to brand strategy. You can find his blogging and interactive learning games at therobinlord.com (the domain was a pricing decision – he’s not quite as arrogant as it sounds).

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