Your brand is more than a collection of colors, logos, and images. It's the relationship between your audience and your company and the emotions people experience when they interact with or think about your company.
A strong brand can get customers to buy more, pay higher prices, shorten sales cycles, and even become brand advocates. But did you know that it can also help with search engine optimization?
In this episode, we discuss the impact that a strong brand can have on SEO and we'll offer some tips on how to leverage your brand for search engine performance.
*This transcript has been edited and formatted for readability.
The Case for Branding as an SEO Tactic
Kyle Smith: Let's dive in. Let's say a company is thinking about developing an SEO strategy, what's your pitch to the CMO or CEO about why that's a good investment?
Chris Wilks: Yeah, so I think an SEO strategy should be a part of any business that's looking to grow and looking to establish themselves, particularly for the long term. There's a number of benefits to investing in SEO. The main, the most obvious one, is going to be more traffic, right? That's what people typically jump into SEO for, they want more visitors to their website. But there are other benefits, namely:
- higher brand recall
- more visibility
- staying power in rankings
- more brand credibility
- establishing yourself as a thought leader
But even more than that, if I'm pitching to a CMO or CEO, I would probably talk to them a little bit about their decision-making habits. And ask them how do they make decisions when they are starting out on a purchase journey. How do they go about that? What's their process like?
My guess is that at some point a search engine, and particularly Google, is going to be involved. And that's becoming more and more common, not only for B2C but also for B2B.
People are doing research. Everyone has phones in their pockets. And so it's really easy to look up information about what's the best product service. So, I think it's a no-brainer. Granted, I do have a little bit of bias because I kind of came up in SEO. But I think it's a no-brainer to invest in SEO, and there are multiple ways and multiple reasons for that.
The Complexity of SEO and Ranking
Kyle: I think people see the value in being the top-ranked site on Google. You're immediately showing up and being visible. How difficult is it to get that ranking in those search engine result pages (SERPs)? Walk through that process and how, as you mentioned, it's more of a long-term play than something that can immediately be accomplished in the short-term.
Chris: Yeah, one thing to know about SEO and potentially the most important thing to know about SEO, is that it requires a longer-term investment. The process that you go through to rank isn't just to create a piece of content, optimize it a little bit, and all of a sudden, it shows up high in SERPs.
Google needs to see a lot of things, not only from that piece of content but also from outside sources and from your website as a whole. It needs to see a lot of those things to get you up to that number one ranking.
And another layer of complexity is that you could knock it out of the park or really, really showcase your expertise in one area of your business, but you fall short in another area of business. So just because you're ranking really high for this service that you provide or this product, it doesn't mean you're going to be anywhere near the top for another area of your business.
Not only just showcasing your expertise, but probably most importantly, providing a good user experience (UX). There are a lot of elements that go into that user experience and one of those is time.
So if you're a company out there that's looking to do SEO, and you call a company and say, "Hey, can you help us with our SEO?" And they say, "Yep, we'll get you up on page one tomorrow." They're lying, or they're doing something really nefarious that is ultimately going to hurt you.
Doing SEO properly is a process that takes a while, it takes a long time. And there are very few, if any, shortcuts. But really, for all intents and purposes, there are no shortcuts in SEO.
The Correlation Between Brand and SEO
Kyle: So you mentioned the importance of building a lot of touchpoints that lead people to your website. This way they can learn more about your business. And you talked about how that helps Google understand what solution it is that you're providing and how it might tie to a common query online. And that brings in the topic of brand to this conversation. Can that be leveraged as a strategy for improving your SEO?
There was a tweet not too long ago, by an SEO consultant and speaker, Aleyda Solis, where she responded in a Twitter thread saying essentially building a brand is the most underrated SEO tactic. Dig a little bit deeper into how building a brand impacts all those touchpoints and affects your SEO.
For smaller sites: Probably building a brand but that’s not a tactic, is a company objective to achieve its goal and mission.— Aleyda Solis (@aleyda) February 27, 2020
For bigger sites: optimizing internal links.
Chris: Yeah, and I love that she mentioned that. Kyle, we've discussed it at length in different conversations. But I'm so glad she mentioned that because I think in the SEO community, we don't necessarily always give the credit that is due to brand building for SEO.
And what I think she means by that is that what's good for your brand, is good for SEO, and I'll elaborate it a little bit. It may not be a ranking factor or it may not directly feed directly into Google's algorithm, but everything that's good for building a brand is also good for SEO.
So for example, if you set out on a journey to update your brand, and let's just say for argument's sake, you have no interest in working on SEO. So there are no plans to put any effort into tinkering with content or link building strategies or any of the other stuff we think about when we think of SEO.
Let's just say you're setting out to try to build a better brand. What does that entail? It entails looking at your overall brand experience, how people interact with you, how you interact with them, the consistency, the feeling users get whenever they visit any touchpoint, whether it's online or offline, aligning your internal teams with that singular focus and mission.
And so if you're working on your brand, because we know that your brand is more than a logo, it's more than a set of colors, it's more than a tangible group of things. It's really about how people feel about you and how they connect with you. So if you're working on all those things, and you're doing a good job, the results of that are positive sentiment, right? Positive sentiment from your target audience, good brand experiences that people want to talk about, that they want to share.
So, as you're building your brand, what you're doing is you are building advocates. Whether it's online or offline, if you're building that brand experience to be a positive one, what's going to happen is then people are going to be more inclined to speak positively about the brand. They are going to be more inclined to tell their friends.
If they have a Facebook page, they're going to mention this wonderful experience that they had with your brand. They're going to go to Google Reviews and say that your company exceeded expectations. If they have a personal blog or some other forum, they're going to link off to your site where they are going to showcase this new, wonderful product that you provided to them, and talk about how it made them feel and how it solved their problems.
Well, those links, those reviews, those mentions online, Google does see those as direct ranking factors. And they're going to start taking notice of those and putting those into their index and taking those cues into account.
And what's going to happen, is that Google is going to begin showing your results a little bit higher, because what's happening is Google is taking notice of this buzz that's happening around your brand. They're saying, "Oh, look, this brand is providing a great user experience, as evidenced by all these great reviews and these links and all that kind of stuff. So what we're going to do as Google is we're going to bump them up higher in rankings."
And the reason Google does that is because their stated goal is to provide useful information and provide a positive experience for their users online. So if we're doing that, if we as a brand are providing our users, great experiences, Google is going to take notice of that and their mindset will be, "That brand is making the online experience better. Therefore, if we serve that brand to our users who are searching for this particular item or service, then that's going to make the entirety of that person's search experience better."
And there's evidence of this in Google's algorithm, right? They do track bounce rate, they do track pogo-sticking, they do track engagement rate. So, let's say you do earn the right to be on page one of rankings for a particular query, and someone clicks onto your result, and immediately leave, Google's going to then take that signal into account and understand that maybe that site not providing a great experience.
On the flip side of that, if someone finds what they're looking for, and has a great experience, and then goes a step further and talks about it later, those are all factors that Google's going to consider. And then they're going to move you up even further.
So maybe you get to ranking position number nine, so on page one. But if you provide a great user experience, then maybe next time they jump you up to number six, and then five, and four, and three. And that's how you make your way up the rankings, by proving to Google over and over again, that you're bringing value to the searchers, and therefore helping them fulfill their mission.
I know that's a very long-winded way of talking about how brand correlates and there's a lot of ways, but I think that might be the most direct path to how the two correlate.
Examples of Great Branding Resulting in Great SEO
Kyle: You talked a little bit about how brand is perception, it's a company's reputation in the marketplace, and it drives awareness. And to boil down what I think you were talking about, the impact is that awareness drives search, search drives traffic, and if your website is optimized that traffic results in revenue.
So it has a tangible business impact when you look at it in that way, as a sequence. Are there any companies from your perspective that are good examples of having a strong brand that have reaped SEO benefits as a result?
Chris: Yeah, so my favorite example of this is Kleenex. And partially because their strong branding predates the internet, before SEO. So Kleenex has built its brand over time. We've talked about it before Kyle, that if you were looking, if you had a cold and you were looking for something to help you clear up your sinuses and all that kind of stuff, you are very likely going to search for Kleenex as opposed to facial tissue, right?
I mean, Kleenex is a brand of facial tissue, but it's synonymous or interchangeable even with that word. The data bears this out. If you go look right now in Google Trends, over the past year, Kleenex versus facial tissue, Kleenex has searched significantly more commonly than facial tissue. So what you've done is you've kind of reverse-engineered SEO by becoming the prominent brand in your niche, whatever that might be.
You're doing it right if you can become a verb, much like Google is. If we want to look for something on the internet, what do we say, "Hey, let's go to a search engine and search that." No, we say "Hey, Google it." Right? A lot of people default to a 'Zoom meeting' as video conferencing, right? So it's these kinds of associations through really strong branding, that reap a lot of benefits in this niche.
And it bears out in the data. I did a little research ahead of this recording. So if you search 'Kleenex,' obviously Kleenex is going to be number one, and probably under it, there's probably going to be a couple more references to that and there's not going to be a lot of competitors on there. But if you do search 'facial tissue,' if you're one of the few people who search for 'facial tissue,' you're going to find the Amazons, you're going to find the Targets, the Walmarts, all these retailers.
But still on page one for 'facial tissue,' the only brand that is consistent in there is Kleenex. Kleenex shows up on page one. It's lower but it just goes to show that if you put together really good branding, Google's going to understand it and reward you.
If you perform these searches, Google will understand what you're looking for, and they'll try to serve you the best results. So for facial tissue, everyone knows that Kleenex is synonymous with facial tissue. So Google is therefore going to add that into page one where no other facial tissue brand is present on the top two pages. I mean, that in itself is worth just an incredible amount of marketing dollars. Just buttoning up your brand to that level, to where it becomes synonymous with your product or service is huge, because now Kleenex owns that space.
So that's one of my favorites. We talked about Zoom, we talked about Google, those are probably more recent examples. Purple, the mattress brand. If you search Purple right now, there's probably gonna be a fair amount about the color. But you'll also see something about mattresses. So there is a little bit of a flywheel effect if you do really good branding, that the SEO will follow.
On the other side of that coin, and I think this is a lot tougher to do, but if you do really good SEO, and you start to gain visibility for that, the reverse can also be true. Your brand can also benefit from strong SEO performance.
It's just like what we talked about earlier. Brand recall, visibility, trustworthiness, thought leadership, all those things become associated with your brand, because anytime someone searches for whatever service that you provide or product you provide, they automatically see your brand. So there's this subconscious association that makes you buy into that brand more because you feel like it's more trusted.
So there's certainly, going back to what Aleyda Solis mentioned, a lot of overlap in the things that are good for branding are also good for SEO and vice versa.
Kyle: The Zoom example that you mentioned earlier fascinates me because there's a company that has been around for the better part of this decade, but only in 2020 have they really reaped the benefits of building their brand for the last over seven or eight years.
In March, the pandemic hits, and businesses shifted to going completely virtual and in that moment in time, for many people, Zoom was top of mind. And if you look into the data and trends, Zoom dominated over Google Meet and Microsoft Teams. They just dominated, and it completely changed their business. It attracted new investors, all these positive outcomes, because of that long term play that they made.
Chris: I'm glad you mentioned that Kyle because I do believe that you touched on an important point. And that's that building a brand takes time, SEO also takes time. The whole point of SEO and the whole reason for the way marketing really is shifting these days is because no one wants to be sold to. People want you to help them solve their problems.
So what we do with our marketing, and what we try to advise clients to do in general, is to help your users solve a problem. Showcase your value, showcase your knowledge, and then when the time is right, when they are ready to buy, the goodwill you have built up, the thought leadership, the expertise that you have instilled in them as the go-to source when it comes to this subject or another, that's when that activates. Right?
To me, that's what I think of when I think of the Zoom example you brought up. Zoom is building a brand for the better part of the decade. And then when the pandemic hit, it was obviously terrible for everyone, but that was an opportunity for them. Their business was positioned to seize that opportunity because they had invested in their brand.
WebEx could have decided, "Oh, there's a pandemic, everybody is going to shift to remote working. Let's work on our brand right now." At that point, it's too late. Zoom has already capitalized on that opportunity that arose.
You needed to invest in your brand prior in order to realize the benefits that Zoom is now seeing. They did the hard work up front, and now they're reaping the benefits of that and are now synonymous with video conferencing.
Kyle: And no one could have predicted a pandemic coming, but they were appropriately positioned to capitalize when the time did come.
Purple Mattress Example
Kyle: The Purple Mattress example is another really interesting one to me, because, as you mentioned, if you type 'purple' into Google, you're going to get results about the color. But there are more monthly searches for 'purple mattress,' that exact phrase over the word 'purple.' They've captured this mindshare, where people are turning to search engines to learn more about the brand itself, and they're gonna dominate those SERPs as a result.
Chris: Yeah, and if there is an end game for SEO, which I'm here to tell you there that there is none. You should always be improving and trying to find new ways to garner maybe more of the SERP and then, beyond that, trying to help users have a more positive experience on your site. So you should always be evolving your strategy, particularly because algorithms change and trends change and competitive behavior changes and the landscape is ever-changing.
But if there was an end goal, the closest thing we have to an end goal anyway is to establish your brand so much, going back to the Kleenex and the Purple Mattress example that, you see branded searches rise, continue to rise for your brand. And that's kind of the next evolution in search engine optimization.
Because if you've gotten to the point where you're owning all the SERPs, and now people are so impressed with your brand and they identify with your brand or enjoy your brand so much that they're now seeking out branded searches for Purple Mattress, for example, you're in a really great position.
Because the easiest thing to do in SEO, arguably, is to rank for a branded search. So if people are searching for your brand, not only does that allow them to see your website. But frankly, if you searched Purple Mattress right now, I'd venture to guess that you would see a SERP that includes multiple links to the website, links to their social channels, maybe to tweets about Purple Mattress, maybe to reviews about Purple Mattress and so forth.
So, if you look through all those organic links, those are all different brand touchpoints that are now going to Purple Mattress as opposed to if someone just searched for 'comfy mattress' or 'new mattress' or something else.
If they're searching for 'purple mattress,' first of all, the likelihood that they're going to click on your site is significantly higher. So your click-through rates are going to go through the roof. But second of all, there's less of a chance that there's going to be competition on that page to take away from your brand because of all those social channels, those reviews, maybe news articles you've built up. Those are all brand touchpoints that you own once you establish yourself as that leader in a particular vertical.
How Branding Plus SEO Can Equal Stability
Kyle: So looking back at 2020, we've seen it all. And we've seen the business impact for so many companies. Companies struggling as a result, companies weathering the storm, and companies seizing the moment and thriving under these circumstances. Talk a little bit about how branding and SEO, you mentioned they're very complementary to one another, are actually really valuable tactics to help companies weather any storm. To future proof your company, investing in brand and SEO is a really powerful tactic. Talk about why?
Chris: Yeah. So we touched on it a little bit earlier, but one of the tenants of SEO is that it is a long term play. And that's by design. You have to build up equity with Google in terms of search engine optimization. It takes a little while for them to really crawl and understand your site and then understand also the universe that your site plays in -- assessing the mentions, the reviews, and all this other stuff.
So what happens is if you invest in this over time, and you carve out your position, and you prove to Google that you're trustworthy, that you're a reliable source, that you're accurate, and that you are the prominent brand or one of the prominent brands in your space. They don't take that lightly. It's hard to overthrow that because they know that your brand, if you've gotten to position one for important terms, they know that your brand is going to provide their searchers a positive experience. So they're going to stick with that until your competition can prove unequivocally that they're better.
People may be gunning for you, but it's not going to be that they can just copy what you do or duplicate what you do and overthrow you. We talk to clients about this because everyone is eager about how quickly they can increase their rankings. There have been studies, there's one by Ahrefs, that shows that depending on how competitive your term is, in a lot of cases, in order to get up to the first page, it's going to take you at least six months. Give or take some months, right?
If it's a less competitive vertical, maybe you can get there in three, if it's more competitive, it can be more than a year. And again, the reason for that is that, once you establish yourself as the authority, you've proven to Google that you are trustworthy and they don't take that lightly.
SEM Real Estate Example
Search engine marketing (SEM) is like real estate, right? You want more visibility, you want real estate, you want to be seen on those pages. There are two broad components to SEM; PPC and SEO. I like to explain it in that in this way:
Pay-per-click (PPC) is like renting a vacation home on the beach. You can go make a deal right now and say, "Okay, I'm going to pay every month to be here." Right? But you stop paying, you lose access to that beachfront property.
If you invest in SEO, it's like building a house on that same beach. It's going to take longer, and it's going to be more expensive upfront, but once you've built it, and once you own that property, it is yours. It's going to be very hard for someone to move you from that property.
On the flip side with PPC, you can pay the first month's rent and be in there tomorrow. But again, soon as you stop paying, you're going to lose that position on the beach.
So that's the longevity aspect of SEO. Again, it's the same kind of long term, but high-value investment as a brand, right? At first, you're going to invest in your brand, if you're doing it the right way, it's going to take you a little bit of time to build up that credibility. It's going to take you a little bit of time to really think through who you are and what your values are, and what your mission and vision is.
But once it starts to take shape, eventually and if you get everyone aligned, and everyone's pulling the same the right direction, eventually you're going to start to see that brand equity start to build up.
And what happens is a phenomenon called brand insulation, which we've talked about on this particular, not this episode, but this podcast in the past. And now, that's where you start to get brand advocates and people who will go out and defend your brand, even if you have a misstep here or there. So there's really a lot of value in that long term SEO and branding play.
Another nice example, maybe the tortoise and the hare, right? If you think of SEO as the tortoise, it's going to be slow and plodding. And it's going to be a lot of hard work upfront. Eventually, it'll get easier, it will. But upfront, you may think "Oh, man, what am I doing? Why am I not seeing these results?" But once you get there, once the momentum has built, then the rewards are fantastic as opposed to that hare approach where if you go, "Let's go do social media advertising, let's go do PPC advertising, Let's go do this advertising."
You may get some initial bumps from that. But the long term play of being trusted in those organic results helps to insulate you from maybe the tough times because those brands with a lot of recognition and a lot of trustworthiness built up or equity built up. Those are going to be the ones that survive and that are trusted because whenever things get tight it gets really important to spend money wisely, you want to go to a more trusted brand, because you know it's going to work as opposed to throwing money at something new or that you're not quite sure about.
So, long-winded as I tend to be, but I think that's the important aspect of understanding the longevity and the real benefits of SEO as well as branding.
Kyle: I'm glad you mentioned the importance of brand advocates as well. The question is: Is your company building a brand where you're inspiring belief and loyal customers, to the point where they're making recommendations on your behalf and it's making that flywheel turn? And it's bringing in that business?
If I make a referral to a friend, where are they going to go to look up more information? Well, they're going to go to a search engine. And if you're positioned to be the first result there, you're getting someone who has a higher likelihood to do business with you, because it's through a referral as well. So little things like that where again, they're complementary to one another.
Naming Considerations for SEO
Kyle: I'm going to put you on the spot here. Say a friend recommended this brand to me called "Fast" -- who does fast internet checkout. Fast is like Purple. It's such a common word. I searched it on Google, and they are number six in the SERP. Should they be concerned about that? Or is that something where they built a brand where someone is going to be searching specifically for 'fast checkout' or something like that? For comparison Purple, if you type in 'purple,' Purple Mattress is the number one result still, even if someone is searching for the color.
Chris: Yeah, so I wouldn't be worried about that. And the reason why is intent. So let's consider searcher intent. If someone searches 'fast,' it's probably a safe bet that they're not necessarily looking for that brand, or at least there's more doubt in that.
So if someone searches for 'fast checkout' for example, and they're only number six, there may be some concern. You would want to move up that list, but for brand names that are very generic, like a Purple, like a Fast, I wouldn't worry too much about that. I'd worry about maybe those different variations.
Now, if you are like Purple, and you've taken over the top spot, that's awesome. You've done a great job. I'm not saying you shouldn't strive for that. But don't be discouraged if you share a brand name with something very generic and a generic result ends up ranking higher than you. The only other caveat there though, is that if I search for the word 'fast' for example, and the results above me are competitors or are things that I do that, yes, that is worrisome.
You shouldn't have a competitor ranking higher than you for your branded term. But if you search 'fast,' and it's the definition of fast on dictionary.com or whatever. Don't worry about that, because those folks aren't your competitors, therefore, they're not going to be stealing traffic from you. As long as you're in the highest position for what you do, I think you're in good shape there.
Kyle: This one's just so interesting to me because it's a startup. It's a newer company and they selected the name fast. They're trying to own that and have people be really intent when they go search for them. Fast Company is an established magazine and they'll also be a competitor. 'Fast' is a generic term. You have to be actively seeking them out to find them on Google.
Chris: And that's a really good point because the discussion we're talking about here is branding and SEO, right? You would think if you're launching this branding journey and if you're doing a branding exercise, you would want to consider all these angles.
You want to consider that in the best-case scenario of my search engine efforts, I want someone to be able to search my brand name and easily find me. And if my brand name is something that's in a really crowded space, you either didn't do your brand research very well, or you didn't really think it through. Or, you're incredibly cocky and you're determined to make it happen. And who knows? A year from now, two years from now, we might be talking about Fast like we're talking about Zoom and Purple and Kleenex.
To your point though, it makes your climb, it makes your journey a lot harder. Not impossible. If you invest enough in the brand, and I don't necessarily mean monetarily investment. I mean invest enough effort and time. With that does come money and budget in some instances, but if you invest enough in that brand, and you build it the right way, then eventually you can get there. It's just going to be a little bit harder.
Kyle: It's a bold play. I mean, they're drawing on the association that that word elicits when you think wanting to be fast, and that's the association that they want. Would any company name themselves Apple in today's day and age? They've built enough brand equity over many, many years, where they're going to own any search engine results, and they have such a strong brand. But it's such a generic term. That's fascinating to me why companies make those name and branded decisions.
Chris: Well, Bo and Cynthia and the folks here who are in charge of brand experience and the brand strategy that we do here, those are things that they consider in their process and things that should be considered in the process.
So why are we saying this? Go back to the SNAFU of the Chevrolet Nova. That's like the marquee poor branding example. "No va" in Spanish translates to "no go" or "don't go" and it's a car. So the association there, you didn't necessarily think through what that brand name is going to say about you. So, while Fast is a very ambitious and bold, as you put it, brand name to take, there are other considerations which include, what does the market associate that term with.
Let's consider your point about Apple. Let's say, I'm starting my own branding agency or my own marketing consultancy, and I call it Apple Marketing or Apple Brands or something like that. I have put myself in quite an uphill battle to try to carve out something in terms of search engine marketing. And in general. And in terms of brand recognition.
Because to your point, Apple is ingrained in us, we know what Apple is. If you ask anybody in the world what Apple means, you're very likely going to get one of two answers. One is it's a fruit, two, it's a phone or a computer or technology. And arguably, people are going to associate the technology company ahead of the food.
So you have to be thoughtful about these things when it comes to branding. And not just from an SEO perspective, also from an offline perspective. You need to understand that if you name your company Apple Marketing, you're going to be competing with the Apple. If your aspiration is to get up to the top of SERPs, you're going to struggle.
If you are a local business that has no aspirations of growing and getting bigger, and you want to name yourself Apple Clothing Store, you can probably survive that. There may be a strategy in that that works for you. But it's just considering what your competitive universe not only is at the moment but what it could expand to be based on what your vision is for the company,
And that, again, starts with your brand. It starts with understanding who you are, what you want to be, where you want to go. If you do that, then those decisions might not take care of themselves, but those decisions definitely are easier and more well informed.
Key Takeaways of Branding and SEO
Kyle: This has been great. I think to summarize, a lot of what we talked about is that a key touchpoint in the branding process is through search engines. And when you have a consistent brand, you create advocates, and that creates awareness. And then your brand is more likely to be found online. So going back to that question of like, what are underrated SEO tactics? Brand is proven to work as one of those tactics.
Chris: To me the biggest takeaway in all of this is, what's good for the brand is good for SEO, and what's good for SEO is good for the brand, if it's done the way that it should be done.
Kyle: So thanks for explaining all that, thanks for educating on that. Yeah, it was great having you on.