SEO – Attention search marketers: ALL keywords are branded keywords!

SEO - Attention search marketers: ALL keywords are branded keywords!

Look, I get it. For the longest time, PPC marketers and SEOs alike have been segmenting brand campaigns and content (those with trademarks and company names) from more generic search terms.

After all, branded keywords tend to be “unicorns” — in PPC, these are keywords which generate ridiculously high CTRs (click-through rates) (40, 50 or 60 percent) and Quality Scores (9 or 10); in SEO, these are keywords that rank at the top of the SERP. Meanwhile, non-branded keywords perform like donkeys — in other words, average at best.

be a unicorn not a donkey

While branded vs. non-branded is an interesting distinction, it’s also an incomplete one. Even non-branded keywords can act like brand terms when brand affinity exists.

Here’s why it’s time that we re-examine some of our assumptions about branded vs. non-branded keywords in both paid and organic search marketing.

Search doesn’t grow demand

Generally in search marketing, the goal is to connect with people who are searching for your products and services. If you reach them at the right micro-moment, you can turn these searchers into leads and sales for your business.

By definition, however, the greatest strength of paid and organic search marketing is also its greatest weakness.

Search doesn’t grow new demand. Search harvests existing market demand.

Specifically in terms of commercial queries, searchers need to know what they are looking for — and to have already decided to buy — in order for search marketing to be successful. So when people search, they already need to know what they want to search for and purchase.

But how do they decide which ads they click on and from whom to buy? Where does that come from? Certainly, it isn’t based on whether the keyword is branded or non-branded.

Brand affinity makes or breaks your search

The propensity to click on your paid or organic search listings is often based on pre-existing brand affinity. Put simply: searchers are more likely to click on you if they’ve heard of you before:


Source: WordStream customer data

What you’re witnessing here is the massive impact of branding on paid search. When more people know about your brand, they will search for your brand and the products you sell.

All the queries people are searching for are branded terms. When people search for these terms, they express their preference for brands they know and love!

So if your “non-branded terms” aren’t performing as well as “branded terms,” then that means that these terms are performing great for other companies. Search is a zero sum game. You’re just not getting the clicks.

This points to a branding issue. You’re being passed over, and there could be various reasons why. But most likely, you don’t have strong enough brand affinity among people searching for your solution.

Are we creating as much value as we think?

mirror mirror

Are we the search marketing rock stars we think we are? Or are we really just positioning ourselves at the very bottom of the funnel and taking credit for harvesting the existing demand and brand preferences that were established elsewhere?

If you have really good performance on non-branded keywords, then a lot of times you want to take all the credit. However, it could just mean you’re working for a company with strong brand affinity.

If you find your branded keywords acting like non-branded keywords (with low CTRs and conversion rates), then that means you have a lot of work to do.

wants to be a unicorn has no brand affinity

Remember, people don’t just randomly click on paid search listings. Listings don’t really have a simple one in seven chance of getting clicked on (or a one in 10 chance on the organic side).

The impact of brand can be difficult to quantify. But now, with Remarketing Lists for Search Ads (RLSA), we can target ads to repeat users.

RLSA has revealed what I suspected might be true but had been hard to measure. The easiest way to measure the impact of brand affinity on CTR is to run the same ads, keywords, bids and budgets, but using RLSA in one campaign and excluding the same audience in another non-RLSA campaign.

The success or failure of search marketing campaigns is based largely on the existing brand awareness of your product, service or company in the marketplace. People are overwhelmingly biased toward clicking on brands they know and love.

RLSA is incredibly powerful. It can triple click-through and conversion rates and cut CPC (cost per click) in half, as shown here:


We position ourselves to look heroic to our clients. These notions about our awesomeness are kind of falsely affirmed by Google Analytics, which tends to focus on the last-click attribution.

It’s OK to be the hero in your client presentations. Just don’t delude yourself.

Search marketing, particularly when it comes to commercial queries, is often just reaching people already at the bottom of the funnel and ready to purchase.

What should we do?

Search used to be a way to build a brand. But Google’s machine learning algorithms (RankBrain on the organic side and Quality Score on the paid side) are becoming pickier about which results they show. This has changed search from a channel where you can just do demand generation into more of a direct reflection of pre-existing preferences of the market.

What we need is a more predictable and repeatable way to win business, so we’re not waiting on people to search for our stuff and just show up at the last minute in the hopes of making a sale.

So how do we create value? What we should do is balance search marketing efforts with brand affinity and demand creation activities.

Organic search

If you’re doing SEO, that means embracing doing off-topic content. So, in addition to going after the people who are looking for the exact commercial keywords you’re going after, you also want to go after higher-funnel queries (i.e., informational queries) that don’t have as much commercial intent, but could bias a future commercial search toward your brand.

Organic search is becoming increasingly a reflection of people’s brand preferences because of feedback loops. You may have never heard of Brand X, but if enough other people have heard of Brand X, then it will have a higher average CTR — and a more prominent position on the SERP.

That feedback loop always existed in AdWords because of Quality Score. Big brands have had huge advantages thanks to brand affinity. People tended to click on ads from brands they knew.

Now the same thing is happening in organic search. There’s a kind of feedback loop where brands you see in search now more closely correlate to the overall popularity of that brand.

be a unicorn

Paid search

Now, on the paid search side, it’s remarkably difficult to use the same strategy because of the Quality Score algorithm. The Quality Score algorithm rewards high CTRs but is very punitive for low CTRs (it will restrict your impression share and increase your cost per click).

The problem you run into is that people tend to click on ads if the query is commercial in nature because they were looking to buy something. They also tend to not click on PPC ads for educational/informational queries because they aren’t looking to buy something.

Google grades your CTR for keywords on the same curve, regardless of whether it’s an educational or transactional query, as long as they’re in the same query space. You don’t get bonus points because it wasn’t a high commercial-intent keyword.

Informational queries tend to get very low paid search CTR (around 1 to 4 percent, in my observation) and Quality Scores of 1 to 4. This CTR is substantially lower than you’d expect to get compared to a commercial query.

So what can you do? If you’re doing paid search, use display and social ads, as well as other forms of brand advertising (radio, TV or whatever) to create the demand before people search.

What does it all mean?

what does it all mean

If you see such a huge difference between your branded and non-branded keywords, it means you need to focus on building brand affinity even more. Go after users before they ever search for your stuff!

The success of campaigns that include queries without brand trademarks is largely based on the brand awareness and brand affinity of the products and services you’re promoting.

Stop thinking in terms of branded vs. unbranded. There are just queries and the native amount of awareness you’ve been able to create.

It’s not the presence of a certain brand term in the query. That was always just a proxy for whether or not the searcher has brand affinity.

Once that brand affinity exists, you’ll see the CTR and conversion rates for non-brand queries start behaving like brand queries.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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