Tara West

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

21st Jun 2012 Brand 7 minutes to read

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

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