Posted by randfish
A frequently asked question in the SEO world is whether or not branding plays a part in Google’s ranking algorithm. There’s a short answer with a big asterisk, and in today’s Whiteboard Friday, Rand explains what you need to know.
Howdy, Moz fans, and welcome to another edition of Whiteboard Friday. This week I’m going to try and answer a question that plagues a lot of marketers, a lot of SEOs and that we ask very frequently. That is: Is brand or branding a ranking factor in Google search engine?
Look, I think, to be fair, to be honest, that the technical answer to this question is no. However, I think when people say brand is powerful for SEO, that is a true statement. We’re going to try and reconcile these two things. How can brand not be a ranking factor and yet be a powerful influencer of higher rankings in SEO? What’s going to go on there?
What is a ranking factor, anyway?
Well, I’ll tell you. So when folks say ranking factor, they’re referring to something very technical, very specific, and that is an algorithmic input that Google measures directly and uses to determine rank position in their algorithm.
Okay, guess what? Brand almost certainly is not this.
Google doesn’t try and go out and say, “How well known is Coca-Cola versus Pepsi versus 7 Up versus Sprite versus Jones Cola? Hey, let’s rank Coca-Cola a little higher because they seem to have greater brand awareness, brand affinity than Pepsi.” That is not something that Google will try and do. That’s not something that’s in their algorithm.
However, a big however, many things that are in Google’s ranking algorithm correlate very well with brands.
Those things are probably used by Google in both direct and indirect ways.
So when you see sites that have done a great job of branding and also have good SEO best practices on them, you’ll notice kind of a correlation, like boy, it sure does seem like the brands have been performing better and better in Google’s rankings over the last four, five, or six years. I think this is due to two trends. One of those trends is that Google’s algorithmic inputs have started favoring things that brands are better at and that what I’d call generic sites or non-branded sites, or businesses that have not invested in brand affinity have not done well.
Those things are things like links, where Google is rewarding better links rather than just more links. They’re things around user and usage data, which Google previously didn’t use a whole lot of signals around that. Same story with user experience. Same story with things like pogo sticking, which is probably one of the ways that they’re measuring some of that stuff.
If we were to scatter plot it, we’d probably see something like this, where the better your brand performs as a brand, the higher and better it tends to perform in the rankings of Google search engine.
How does brand correlate to ranking signals?
Now, how is it that these brand signals that I’m talking about correlate more directly to ranking signals? Like why does this impact and influence? I think if we understand that, we can understand why we need to invest in brand and branding and where to invest in it as it relates to the web marketing kinds of things that we do for SEO.
One very clearly and very frankly is links. So when we talk about the links that Google wants to measure, wants to count today, those are organic, editorially earned links. They’re not manipulative. They weren’t bought. They tend not to be cajoled, they’re earned.
Because of that, one of the best ways that folks have been earning links is to get people to come to their website and then have some fraction, some percentage of those folks naturally link to them without having to do any extra effort. It’s basically like, “Hey, you made this great piece of content or this great product or great service or great data. Therefore, I’m going to reference it.” Granted, that’s a small percentage of people. There’s still only maybe two or three out of a hundred folks who might visit your website on the Internet who actually have the power or ability to link to you because they control content on the web as opposed to just social sharing.
But when that happens, in a lot of cases folks go and they say, “Hmm, yeah, this content’s good, but I’ve never heard of this brand before. I’m not sure if I should recommend it. It looks good, but I don’t know them.” Versus, “Oh, I love these folks. This is like one of my favorite companies or brands or products or experiences, and this content is great. I am totally going to link to it.” Because that happens, even if that difference is small, even if the percent goes from 1% to 2%, well now, guess what? For every hundred visits, you’re earning twice the links of your non-branded competitor.
These are pretty much exactly the same thing. Folks who visit content, who have experiences with a company, with a product, or with a service, if they’re familiar and comfortable with the brand, if they want to evangelize that brand, then guess what? You’re going to get more social sharing per visit, per exposure than you would ordinarily, and that’s going to lead to a cycle of more social sharing which leads to visits which probably leads to links.
User and usage data
It’s also true that brand is going to impact user and usage data. So one of the most interesting patents, which we’ll probably be talking about in a future Whiteboard Friday, was brought up recently by Bill Slowsky and looked at user and usage data. It was just granted to Google in the last month. It talked about how Google would look at the patterns of where web visitors would go and what their search experiences would be like. It would potentially say, “Hey, Google would like to reward sites that are getting organic traffic, not just from search, but traffic of all kinds on a particular topic.”
So if it turns out that lots of people who are researching a vacation to Costa Rica end up going to Oyster.com, well, Google might say, “Hey, you know what? We’ve seen this pattern over and over again. Let’s boost Oyster.com’s rankings because it seems like people who look for this kind of content end up on this site. Not necessarily directly through us, through Google. They might end up on it through social media, through organic web links, through direct visits, through e-mail marketing, whatever it is.”
When you’re unbranded, one of the few ways that you can get traffic is through unbranded search. Search is one of those few channels that does drive traffic, or historically anyway did drive traffic to a lot of non-branded, less branded sites. Brands tend to earn traffic from a wide variety of sources. If you can start earning traffic from lots of sources and have the retention and the experience to drive people back again and again, well, probably you’re going to benefit from some of these potential algorithmic shifts and future looking directions that Google’s got.
Same story a little bit when it comes to click-through rate. Now, we know from experience and testing that click-through rate is or appears to have a very direct impact on rankings. If lots of people are performing a search and they click on your website in position number four or five, and they’re not clicking on position one, two, or three, you can bet that you’re going to be moving up those rankings very, very quickly.
Granted there is some manipulative services out there that try and automate this. Some of them work for a little while. Most of them get shut down pretty quick. I wouldn’t recommend investing in those. But I do recommend investing in brand, because when you have a recognizable brand, searchers are going to come here and they’re going to go, “Oh, that one, maybe I haven’t heard of it. That one, I’ve heard of it. That one, I haven’t heard of it.”
Guess what they’re clicking on? The one they’re already familiar with. The one they have a positive association with already. This is the power of brand advertising, and I think it’s one of the big reasons why you’ve seen case studies from folks like Seer Interactive, talking about how a radio ad campaign or a billboard ad campaign seemed to have a positive lift in their SEO work as well. This phenomenon is going to mean that you’re benefiting from every searcher who looks for something, even if you rank further down, if you’re the better known brand.
So is brand a ranking factor? No, it’s not. Is brand something that positively impacts SEO? Almost certainly in every niche, yes, it is.
All right. Looking forward to some great comments. I’ll try and jump in there and answer any questions that I can. If you have experiences you want to share, we’d love to hear from you. Hopefully, we’ll see you again next week for another edition of Whiteboard Friday. Take care.
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