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1 May 2018 / Opinion

Is brand the only future ranking factor?

Malcolm Slade / Director of SEO

Over the past year, I’ve spoken at several industry events across the UK about the impact of brands on Google’s search results. Just last week, I presented at the Figaro Digital Marketing Summit in London, and a few people have asked for a write up of my talk, so here it is!

TLDR; I’ve summed up the talk and key takeaways in this video:

What’s the relationship between brand and rankings?

Historically, in SEO, your brand didn’t factor that much; it was simple to game the algorithm by writing more content, then writing great content, then gaining links, lots of links; no matter who you were.

But times have changed. Google needs to be able to differentiate between a website that people expect and want to see, over a website which doesn’t satisfy a user’s needs and results in a bounce back to Google. Dissatisfied searchers will eventually choose a different search engine and Google will do everything in its power to keep users - all makes sense.

There’s a set of standards which all SEO’s work with clients to help improve, such as crawlability and ensuring there’s useful, shareable content; but improving these elements only works to a point - something I like to call a ranking glass ceiling.

This ranking glass ceiling is the point where doing “more of the same” just stops working or at best, has heavily diminished returns. At this point you need to have a realist look at the sites that rank above you and how / why they might be there.

This however raises the question of how Google judges which websites are quality and which websites users expect to see; over those which are not.

While links is an obvious answer, it is important not to stop there. Why do these links exist? What other factors might be at play?

At BrightonSEO last year, I met Tom Capper from Distilled; he was presenting a talk around the diminishing value of links. He and I chatted prior to the conference and in the end combined our talks in to a coherent story that spanned the session.

We talked about proxy metrics (DA, links etc.) and how Google has evolved beyond them. Google is powered by data from GA, AdWords, Android, Chrome, Google Home, Free WiFi and a whole load of other data sources we just don’t have access to.

When we disregard proxy metrics (the things that get you to the ranking glass ceiling) and review what remains outside of these, we come back to a single key point - brand.

People expect to see brands. People trust brands. And, for high volume terms, brand and brand plus key terms search volume is a surprisingly accurate predictor of a page one ranking, with some exceptions as explained in the presentation.

So, is brand search volume a ranking factor?

By itself, brand search volume is not a ranking factor. It doesn’t make sense for Google to use this in such a straightforward way as it would leave things open to manipulation once again.

What makes more sense is that Google is seeking the traits of a brand entity and using this to help order rankings. If Google is using machine learning to seek out what makes a brand, or simply to order documents; this will be very challenging to reverse engineer, as it’s much more difficult to become a brand that people recognise and significantly more complex than it is to buy hundreds of links - especially as we know that there could be lots of traits that make up a brand.

It’s difficult to imagine a future in which Google, or any other search engine, would not take a brand into account. As consumers look towards trusted brands to guide them in a more uncertain future, we suspect that brands will get ever more dominant.

Taking this as a useful conclusion, then, what do we need to establish as our goals? Becoming a brand isn’t easy and is a big task.

What can you do now?

We need to get more people thinking about our brand. We need to be the first and foremost option, before consumers have the opportunity to go elsewhere.

To get people thinking about us, we need to get them to talk about us. We need to get them to talk to each other about us and pass on positive messages about what we offer, whether that’s a product or a service.

We need to get people to choose our brand; we need to get people to choose us consciously, subconsciously, and in search results. More clicks on your SERP listings is always a good thing; making them as attractive as possible is a tactic that has been around since the beginning of search engine optimisation and is one that is incredibly unlikely to go away.

It may sound cliche, but the best thing you can do to help build your brand is to be memorable and stand out. There are plenty of different ways in which you can work on this and it all ties back into your marketing.

Every element of your marketing should work as hard as it can to 1) stand out on its own, and 2) work as a cohesive whole. This matters online, across your paid media, your display campaigns, the videos you create, and the content you place on your site.

Create the best landing pages that you can imagine and target your marketing towards them.

Offline, cultivate your TV campaigns, your billboards, your buses and your flyers. No one attempts to create a boring marketing campaign, but our goal here really is to make sure that everything works together and ultimately drives people to your website and Google to search for you directly.

How will we know it’s working?

One indication will be more people searching for our brand. This might not be a ranking factor, but it can certainly be an internal factor that we review. Moving from one “bucket” of searches to a higher one is a good indication that things are progressing as they should.

Even better as an indication is that people are looking for you *and* the product that you offer - as we’ve seen this is closely correlated to head terms and means that not only are you rising in popularity for a brand but also for something that you can provide.

This helps (but doesn’t completely) cancel out false positives; search volume can spike or rise for plenty of negative reasons that have nothing to do with people seeking your services or products in higher numbers

Final key takeaways:

You’re not always going to see a massive brand presence in SERPs.

Some niches don’t have many dominant entities. In these cases it can be a real challenge to see the value in what I am saying. But if you are happy to be 4th behind the three main entities then that’s fine. You should however, remember that you run the risk of new entries into your niche rapidly growing beyond you should they do it better.

Your website is still critical to your performance.

Many brands struggle to rank where they should simply because their website is not technically sound, doesn’t have the best content, or just isn’t enough of a focus in their marketing.

While brand has an important part to play, leaving behind traditional tactics to focus entirely on above-the-line marketing is not a future-proof strategy.

Even the strongest brands in the world still need to mention what they sell or do for a search engine to rank them for it. They need to fulfill their user’s needs to stop them giving up and ordering it on Amazon. They need to engage with their audience to keep them coming back for more.

Brands don't dominate everywhere.

If focusing on wider marketing activity is a challenge for your business, both informational and product-specific queries were less likely to show such a strong correlation with brands as those with high volumes were. While this is the case right now, we doubt it will be the case forever - and moreover, Google won’t care if it is or not.

Google doesn’t care if you do or don’t.

This is an important thing to realise regarding search. Google only really needs to produce 20 excellent organic results. Other than really random coding challenges which lead you down the Stack Overflow rabbit hole, you rarely visit page three and to be honest, rarely visit page two.

Hopefully I have covered enough to get you thinking beyond classic SEO; you can check out my Figaro presentation slides here and a video of the talk here.