Targeting Branded vs. SEO Keywords: What Should You Focus On?

It’s no longer in dispute that Google places a premium on branded websites when it comes to choosing the pages to display in its search query results listings.  And from Google’s standpoint, this practice makes sense.  The search engine’s goal is to provide users with the best possible results, and there’s no doubt that some users prefer the “known quantity” of a branded website than the potential risk of an unknown competitor.

Unfortunately though, this shift towards prioritizing branded results leads to confusion on keyword targeting best practices for SEOs and webmasters alike. If branding matters so much, should you abandon your traditional SEO keywords altogether in order to focus your efforts on branded phrases? If you’re a new brand, should you make this change even if search volume doesn’t exist for your branded keywords?

But before we jump into the appropriate way to address these competing demands, let’s take a second to clarify exactly what branded and traditional keywords are:

  • Traditional SEO keywords represent the phrases you’ve chosen to target on your website based on their search volume and competition alone.  You’ve chosen traditional queries like “online camera review” or “best women’s shoes” because your keyword research indicates that you’ll be able to get your website ranked well in the corresponding SERP and that you’ll see an influx of natural search traffic as a result of your optimization efforts.
  • Branded keywords, on the other hand, include search queries that reference your company’s name or other branded elements specifically.  In our case, “Single Grain SEO” is a branded keyword that we might target, while “SEO assistance” is an example of a traditional SEO keyword from which we could benefit from ranking highly in the SERPs.

With Google’s changes, companies are now responsible for including both of these different keyword groups in their marketing plans.  But while there’s no “one size fits all” solution that will provide the ideal balance of branded and traditional keywords for all websites, the following scenarios should help you to determine how to juggle these competing priorities on your own site.

1 – Launching an entirely new brand

Suppose that you’ve recently launched a new startup.  As such, there is no existing search volume for your company’s branded keywords, as your brand name simply hasn’t been around before.

In this case, your ideal SEO scenario involves two major tactics:

  • Targeting traditional SEO keywords, and
  • Building up brand recognition using other types of marketing.


Since targeting branded keywords within your SEO efforts won’t make sense at this point, focus your energies instead on targeting traditional SEO keywords.  For example, if you’ve launched a startup in the personal finance space, you might target the phrases, “personal finance tool” or “online savings tool” (depending on your startup’s business objectives).

By targeting the phrases that you anticipate your users will be entering into the search engines with both your on-site and off-site SEO activities, you’ll begin to build up the momentum needed in order to build familiarity with your brand.

At the same time, though, you’ll want to put some effort into carrying out branding activities on other web properties in order to begin generating the branded search traffic needed to win in the SERPs over time.  There are dozens of different ways to do this, but a few places to start include:

  • Writing and submitting press releases detailing your startup’s launch and benefits
  • Setting up social media profiles and optimizing them with branded imagery
  • Claiming any local business profiles (as found on Google+, Yelp and similar sites) that are applicable to your business
  • Releasing content marketing pieces that capture your audience’s attention while promoting your brand

Over time, as consumers become used to seeing your brand name mentioned on the web properties they frequent, they’ll be more apt to use your brand name in association with the queries they enter into the search engines.

2 – Realigning the keyword strategy for an existing website

Now, suppose you aren’t a young startup.  Instead, you’re an established company that’s been carrying out digital marketing campaigns according to previously-known SEO best practices.  You’ve heard that branding is becoming more and more important in terms of natural search performance, but you aren’t sure how to alter your current marketing strategy in order to satisfy both of these requirements.

Chances are, if you’re in this position, you aren’t currently targeting any branded keywords – unless they happened to come up in your traditional keyword research.  So should you really give up your existing keyword priorities in order to chase after branded search queries?

Well, yes and no.  First, it’s back to the drawing board to research exactly how much search volume any existing branded queries are receiving.  You can use any keyword research tool to do uncover this data, simply by generating keyword ideas based off of your brand name.  As an example, if we put “Single Grain” into the Google Adwords External Keyword Research Tool, we’d likely get a handful of phrases that include our company name and receive search volume each month.

If you do see instances of branded keywords receiving existing search traffic, consider optimizing different parts of your website for these keywords, as it would reflect poorly on your company to appear below others in these SERPs.  However, if you do decide to replace traditional keywords in order to make room for branded queries, be careful to monitor your results to ensure that you don’t see a reduction in natural search traffic or overall conversions.

At the same time, consider optimizing a few instances of your branded keywords both on your website or on external web properties – even if these phrases don’t have any meaningful search volume yet.  Building links that showcase your branded keywords will help prove to Google that you’re a known brand, regardless of whether your branding efforts have caught up to your aspirations yet.

3 – Competing in a market full of established brands

Finally, what are you supposed to do if you’re a small fish trying to compete against known entities like Amazon, Zappos or Best Buy?  After all, these companies likely have a substantial branded advantage over your seemingly-puny marketing budget.

In these cases, you’ve got to take your branding efforts directly to the people!

While you may not be able to command enough of a presence to score points against better branded competitors in the SERPs right away, you can make your case directly to consumers by marketing your business using social channels.  On sites like Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Pinterest, the barriers to attracting customer attention are much easier to overcome than trying to secure the same interest through your natural search presence.

Of course, you should certainly consider adding some branded keywords to the anchor texts you use in both internal and external links, in order to prove to Google that you’re a branded force to reckon with as well.  But at the same time, don’t wait around for these efforts to be noticed.  Get out there, start promoting your brand on social networks and, with time, you should see an improvement in both your brand’s recognition and your website’s natural search performance.

Really, no matter what size your business is, the power of branding is something you need to be aware of.  Integrating branded keywords into your SEO approach will help your site to build recognition with both visitors and the search engines – recognition which is likely to play a larger and larger role in the way your site’s authority is measured by Google in the future.

Further reading:

The Content Marketers’ Guide to Keyword Research

7 Techniques to Speed up Your Keyword Research

SEO Keyword Research Made Easy: How to Uncover High-Volume, Low-Competition Keywords

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