Are branding and search engine optimization (SEO) two competing forces fighting over the same territory? Sometimes it seems that way. There are articles that discuss achieving the right balance between SEO and branding, as if these were two competing goals in a zero sum game.
It does happen, people worrying about branding strategy will propose tactics that the good SEO practitioner will oppose. And some SEO practitioners act as if only the content is important and the brand is completely irrelevant. Arguments are typically over page title tags, information architecture, and whether keyword choices should reflect branding goals or research into what phrases searchers are actually using.
Sometimes it is tempting to think that once a website ranks first for the brand name, all future efforts should focus on generic phrases.
These so-called trade-offs are not really a competition. Search engine optimization is a great tool to help branding, and branding is an excellent way to improve your SEO. After all, the function of a brand is condense a lot of information into a very small space.
Google has long considered the authority of a website to be of great importance, and often a brand indicates authority. The National Institutes of Health, or WebMD are both powerful brands that give us greater confidence in the health information we may find there. If we see a new crazy finding about physics or biology, we would be more likely to believe it if we find it on Scientific American or a university website than on a tabloid news site.
For some time, it has been apparent that branding can add authority to websites. Recently, we learned that Google is going a step farther and associating brand directly with search phrases. According to a new patent, uncovered by Rand Fishkin of SEOMoz, Google is using searches that incorporate a brand with a keyword as a ranking factor. To give an example:
A lot of people are searching for tweed suits, but a significant number of the searches include the brand name “Harris,” Google will give Harris Tweed Suits more weight in the search results. Even people who have never heard of Harris will see that website ranked more highly.
Some writers take a more negative view of Google’s preference for brands, assuming this comes at the expense of small businesses and outsiders. SEOBook has compiled a list of decisions Google has made that seem to give weight to big brands. These include giving more authority to older websites, and using brand names as part of autosuggest and other suggested searches. Whether this is a deliberate strategy or just the algorithms reflecting user preferences is hard to say. After all, we do use brands frequently to make decisions, and having that information online is something many of us prefer, even if we don’t admit it.
Looking in the other direction, how does SEO shape a brand? Every time you search for something and see the top results, you associate those top results with credibility, especially on the topic you are researching. Branding is more than the name of a company or its logo. Branding consists of all the associations and experiences people have with that company.
Good SEO places the company’s best content in association with the questions people most often have about that topic. The position is important, but there are other benefits as well. Often content that is the top result for a search phrase is given additional prominence, as an answer box, or with additional site links to important pages.
This gives the content, and the website delivering the content much additional authority in the mind of the user, because the search engine itself is seen as a trusted source.
Another important feature of SEO is the selection of the descriptions that will appear on the search engine result pages. Even if the user does not click through to the site, this description becomes a part of their experience with the brand. Not paying attention to this aspect can lead to significant negative branding, the name of the website may be displayed next to low quality content or indecipherable coding.
There is also the apparently obvious case of people searching for information about the company using the name or brand. This is done frequently as part of many important decisions, employment, purchasing, or recommendations. The content created by the company itself should be placed at the top of any search, otherwise many users may perceive the company as shady. Also important, any negative information out there should be addressed with content that is at least equally well placed on search engines. Otherwise the brand will be defined by those who don’t much care for it.
For better or worse, branding is now part of the search process, and attention to branding can help with SEO. More importantly, a good branding strategy should include SEO at the very beginning. The reality is many people will build their perception of your brand through various online experiences, and SEO is the best way to sculpt these experiences to your advantage.
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