Why SEOs should care about brand

SEO & SEM

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.

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 Search Engine 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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