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What Makes a Brand in the Eyes of a Search Engine?

Tara West

by Tara West on 21st June 2012

Social BrandingA recent Econsultancy post about search engine ranking factors in the UK suggested that “Top brands have a ranking advantage”. Although we have been aware that bigger brands have often dominated the SERPs in many industries, it’s becoming clear that they really do have the ability to perform well in rankings for generic keywords (not just brand terms) above others in the same industry whose brands may not be as established.

The Econsultancy post suggests that standard on-page ranking factors such as keywords within headings, content and titles don’t have as much of an influence if you’re an established brand. In other words, if you are a big brand, Google won’t take into account the standard rankings factors that the rest of us have to play to!

The implications:

I can understand the logic behind this concept to some extent. I would imagine that the team behind this algorithm thought to themselves ‘Well if a brand is well established they must be reputable, and therefore be what people are looking for!’. But what about new brands? How are they supposed to become  ‘established’ if they are up against brands who already have a step up simply because of their stature?

I interpret this as another example of how the web is experiencing what I like to a call a ‘reversal’. It used to be all about discovering new things. Whether that is new information, or new brands and companies. Now it seems to be that every online platform is becoming highly personalised, and established brands ranking above others is another step in this direction.

I understand that the objective is for search engines to deliver the most relevant and high quality results possible, but by enhancing the visibility of big brands, they are effectively choosing to favour established organisations regardless of the quality of their site. That statement may be a bit extreme, and I’m sure there are other factors that would stop a truly awful quality site ranking purely because of its brand power, but I am concerned that a brand’s reputation alone is deemed suitable to hold an influence over their rankings positions even if their other rankings factors aren’t strong.

In terms of SEO, this has become a little bit of a silent game-changer. Although it hasn’t been shouted about very much, SEOs are well aware of the power a brand has in the SERPs.

As I continue to work to optimise sites based on the ranking factors we have an existing understanding for (keywords in headings, titles, content ect), I’m left wondering why I’ve not consciously considered ‘optimising a site as a brand’?

What factors indicate a brand in the eyes of a search engine?

Aside from really huge brands, which are likely to have some kind of manual factor determining their placement within search results, it must be an algorithm which determines what Google consider to be an ‘established brand’. As a result, if we can look for patterns in the behaviour and rankings of such brands, we can determine what smaller new brands need to achieve in order to try to compete.

A great example is Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. If you’re familiar with this brand’s heritage you’ll know that they started as a completely new and independent company in 1978 (They’ve since sold-out but that’s another blog post entirely!).

Today, if you type ‘Ice cream’ or ‘icecream’ into Google, the second or third result on the page is the Ben & Jerry’s site.  There are a few factors which should in theory work against this brand ranking so well for this term:

To start with, their site is almost completely built in Flash, and has very little content on it which can be read by search engines. Although the site has got the word ‘ice cream’ in its Home page title tag, there is no other mention of the word in any other page titles, or on-page content. For a regular website, mentioning a keyword once in your Home page title tag would not be enough to guarantee such a top spot ranking for the term.

I took a brief look into their link profile using Majestic SEO, and discovered that only 2% of the anchor text in their back-link profile contains the phrase ‘icecream’ or ‘ice cream’.

Interestingly, their link profile shows that although they don’t have ice cream in much of their anchor text, they do have their brand name in a whopping 88% of all their back-link anchor text.

This suggests that a high percentage of brand anchor text backlinks  is a strong indicator to Google that you are a strong established brand.

The econsultancy post I referenced earlier also suggests that when it comes to brands, the number of backlinks a site has is more influential than the kind of anchor text used in those links. This suggests that search engines deem a large number of backlinks as an indication of an established brand.

How do Google determine which brands are related to which product types? Basically, how do Google know Ben & Jerry’s are an ice-cream brand when there appears to be little that indicates so within traditional ranking factors?

A fundamental way search engines develop their algorithms is through correlating the results which users ultimately chose to click on and the search terms they used to search with in the first place. If the data suggests that a lot of users search using the term ice cream , and then click on Ben & Jerry’s website, it clearly suggests their brand is related to ice cream.

Search engines are also taking notice of the context around brand mentions. So if certain keywords are usually mentioned in close proximity to your brand name, they are likely to make a correlation between your brand and those keywords. Ben & Jerry’s are often mentioned in close proximity to the keyword ‘ice cream’. It’s important to remember that this does not mean including a link in close proximity to the keyword, as there is a clear benefit of even having brand mentions in close proximity to the keywords.

My next ideas about what makes a brand in the eyes of a search engine are based on experience and a little bit of common sense.

Although it’s suggested that exact match domains are losing their relevance in rankings (although I’m yet to see evidence of this!), I think that the inclusion of your brand name within your domain is likely to be a strong indicator to the search engines that you’re an established brand. I would imagine that they would correlate this against other factors such as the anchor text in your back-links to see if there are references to it and determine what your brand name is.

Including your brand name in your Meta Titles is bound to be an indication that you are an established brand. Many sites don’t include brand names in their titles if they think it’s taking up space or not established enough to encourage a click and influence the consumer. I’d recommend including the brand name even if you aren’t well known to consumers yet, as this will grow your online presence and bring continuity to all your listings within the SERPs.

Having a strong presence in social media is likely to be another key indication that you are an established brand. This means actively using your profiles and engaging with users, not simply signing up to a network and never using it! It also includes how often your brand is being mentioned by others in the social sphere.

Summary of brand factors:

Here’s a list to summarise the main elements I think make up a brand in the eyes of a search engine:

  • brand mentions in anchor text
  • a large number of links (regardless of anchor text)
  • mentions of a brand (with or without links)
  • a high volume of brand mentions in close proximity to certain keyword sets (eg Ben & Jerry’s in close proximity to Ice Cream’
  • brand name within the domain
  • brand name in meta titles
  • Strong social media presence (including engagement and mentions)

It would be great to hear from you if you have any other ideas of what contributes to making a brand in the eyes of a search engine. Please leave your comments below or tweet me your ideas (@Koozai_Tara).

Image Source

Social Branding via BigStock

Tara West

Tara West

Tara West is an experienced SEO and PPC specialist at Koozai, with particular expertise within AdWords PPC and Remarketing. She has worked on a wide variety of verticals, from plumbing and travel to fashion and beauty.


  • Stephen Logan

    Stephen Logan 21st June 2012

    Interesting post Tara. I really think the search engines are becoming more natural in the way they associate major brands with generic keywords – this is only likely to improve with the knowledge graph and the data this gives them.

    For a brand like Ben & Jerry’s I can well imagine some form of human intervention in the rankings. Their name is only synonymous with one product and therefore it would be illogical for search engines not to feature them heavily.

    However, it might well be basic old fashioned SEO stuff, after all most the links and mentions they receive are from authoritative sites and will invariably mention ice cream at some stage – lots of lovely context. Factor in social activity, in which they are pretty prolific (including 4.1 million Facebook likes), and you have a pretty decent argument for ranking.

    But I agree that new businesses may struggle with big established brands dominating products and related phrases. However, with greater emphasis now being placed on social factors and personalisation, we’re not all going to receive the same results for identical search queries – this provides a fantastic opportunity for brands of any size.

    Whilst SEO basics like on-page content and inbound links are hugely important, context is being derived from many more sources as is authority. Keywords should hopefully melt away to a certain extent, to make way for answers and social recommendations. Things are changing pretty quickly, and maybe one day the SERPs will catch up with the rhetoric from Google and Co.

    Building a social brand is certainly something that is going to become increasingly important for new businesses looking to compete. Great post.

    Reply to this comment

    • Tara West

      Tara 25th June 2012

      Hi Steve,

      Thank you for your comment. You make a good point that increased personalised search is going to make it easier for a variety of brands to break through, I never would have considered it in this way. I think personalised search will make it even harder for new brands to get through, because if we are only ever shown results that our Google connections have written / recommended it will be even more difficult for new brands to get found unless they’ve already been found by others. Very interesting times for brands online at the moment!

      Reply to this comment

  • Mark Fleming 22nd June 2012

    A hot topic for SEO at present and some probable thoughts and good actions if you’re building an online ‘brand’ (whatever that is to the Big G).

    Another example I stumbled across the other day was [toy cars] & Corgi – I should probably add at this juncture that it wasn’t for me!

    Not the Flash filled site that Ben & Jerry’s have but Corgi didn’t seem to optimising on-page for [toy cars], however I didn’t check the link profile and anchor text.

    Can see this one running and agencies offering ‘to build your online brand’ more than they do at present. As I manage client side I’ll expect the phone calls!

    Reply to this comment

    • Tara West

      Tara 25th June 2012

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for your feedback. It’s really interesting the number of brands that are synonymous with keywords and yet appear to have done little to deserve that in terms of standard rankings factors. brands are really getting special treatment and building a brand online is a great way to get a boost in terms of rankings and it’s also great to do for your consumers anyway. Having a strong brand can also do wonders for your conversion rate because it naturally builds trust with consumers.

      Reply to this comment

  • Andy Headington 2nd August 2012

    Interesting post Tara.

    It’s been something that we have been observing for quite a while now; sites which have no optimised backlinks and almost no onpage work done ranking at #1 or #2 purely because they are ‘brands’. The examples you’ve seen look at very big brands but I’ve also seen the brand affect work for a sub brand of a VERY large supermarket rank #2 with less than 10 backlinks on a different domain to the main brand which suggests that in addition to the backlinks/citations they would well be looking at domain registrations to help identify correlation between citations and domain registered office addresses or something similar.

    Either way as you say, it does make it harder for small businesses online to compete so expect to see more brand optimisation in the future!

    Reply to this comment

  • Tara West

    Tara West (Koozai) 2nd August 2012

    Thanks for the comment Andy, that’s really interesting. I’d love to know all the factors they are looking at! I can definitely imagine domain registration being one.

    Reply to this comment

  • Vincent Naughton 17th September 2012

    I have to agree that it is somewhat harder for small-medium businesses to achieve a higher ranking simply because they are seen as a smaller brand. Brand optimization will certainly be increasing and will become standard practice very soon to counter this problem. Very interesting post.

    Reply to this comment

    • Tara West

      Tara West (Koozai) 18th September 2012

      Thanks for the comment Vincent. I agree, it is increasingly popular as a service we offer here at Koozai and it has lots of benefits in terms of brand recognition in addition to benefiting your site’s performance in the search engines.

      Reply to this comment

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