Branding: A Path to Better Search Engine Rankings

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Most small and mid-sized players on the Web do not have much experience with branding, nor do they know how an SE’s algorithm works.  In fact, why even talk about branding and algorithms in the same sentence?  The answer lies in the fact that over the course of the last two years, the two processes have become more closely related than many think.

In many respects, branding revolves around identifying the “signals of quality” that users consider important when making decisions (e.g., brand name, packaging, design, ease of use, manufacturer, etc.). Increasingly, major search engines are looking for these “signals of quality” to effectively rank websites.

By focusing on “signals of quality,” even website owners with modest budgets and no past marketing experience can increase a site’s appeal to both users and search engines, thereby improving everything from ROI to organic search rankings.

The Product is Your Site

Regardless of what your website features, you should think of it as a brand that portrays, at the very least:

  • A unique, value-added service
  • A distinctive image
  • Simplicity and ease of use

Additionally, your site will need to develop a great reputation over time, as all successful brands do, to attract new users and retain existing ones.

Unique, Value-Added Service

No smart marketer launches a “me too” product or service – a lack of distinction in marketing equates to a lack of interest and poor sales.  Similarly, in today’s environment search engines aren’t motivated to feature “me too” websites … in fact, they actively seek to exclude them from the SERPs.

So how will your website be different from all the other sites you intend to compete with?  If you scan sites in your sales category, chances are you will find at least one element in every website that could be improved.  The solution? Build a new site that does everything better than everyone else.  This can be as simple as aggregating all the good ideas from other sites and culling out the bad ideas, or as complex as seeking to offer information in more interesting, compelling, or convenient ways.

Does launching a site with “unique, value-added service” help it rank higher?  Absolutely!  Among other things, it increases the chances that leading authority sites, relevant industry blogs, and other quality sites will link to you (often without being asked).  Great links mean better rankings.  Moreover, unique, value-added sites tend to attract links not only to their homepages, but to their subpages as well – another signal of quality in the eyes of the search engines.

Also, plan your website in such a way that its offerings can evolve over time.  Great brands are rarely static, and the same is true of great websites.  Great brands grow and change with the times, in natural, progressive ways.  Search engines know that one of the best indicators of quality a site can display is a regular pattern of growth and evolution; this characteristic is shared by leading sites on the Web.

Distinctive Brand Image

There was a time when stringing together a few generic terms with hyphens to make a domain name was the best way to gain quick, easy rankings.  Today, naming a site “keyword1-keyword2-keyword3.com” is no longer a guarantee of good results in search engine ranking.  Keywords in domain names still matter, but the benefits gained relate mainly to the likelihood that those keywords will appear in backlinks to the site. Instead, work on developing a unique, benefit-oriented domain name that also offers some flexibility.  “MySpace.com” is a great example.  It’s not hyphenated, and it’s not generic.  Rather, it is simple, descriptive, and communicative  - in advance – of the benefits of the site.

Also, consider paying a talented individual to create a decent logo for your site, even if you have to invest a few hundred dollars.  It doesn’t have to be worthy of a multinational corporation – just something that looks professional and signals to users and search engines that there is reason to believe your site is above-board and professionally run.  It’s a good investment that can help with everything from gaining unsolicited backlinks, to fending off hand checks by search engine spam investigators.

Simplicity and Ease of Use

Perhaps the single most common mistake website owners make in this respect is creating pages with poor titles.  Brands that are household names go to great lengths to segment and distinguish their product offerings –   websites should too.  Give each page on your site the clearest, most unique title you can, and avoid duplication of page titles from one page to the next.  Clear, unique page titles are an important way to signal the uniqueness of every page on your website to search engines.

Similarly, why use URLs like  MySite.com/callmode.asp?node=20800sf*#&*562sla&%=2234lskjalkdk23i9saslsjfgolkwsdfs93w3499292, when the URL could read  MySite.com/widgets/big/blue/? Long, convoluted URLs do nothing to help search engines understand what a page is about and nothing to help users find relevant listings when scanning SERPs or navigating through a site.  Clear, simple, keyword-oriented URLs produce not just better rankings and user experience, but also higher click-throughs and a better ROI.

Developing a Great Reputation Over Time

A site’s reputation should develop naturally over time, as a result of addressing the points above.  But to help your site along, consider seeking out one-way inbound links from high quality sites.  Focus on sites in your category and related categories, and start with sites that are already showing up in SERP’s.  The search engines are telling you which sites they value – pay attention.

More Signals of Product/Brand Quality:  Functionality and Access to Information

Think about what else would make your site more appealing to users and search engines.  How about site characteristics that imply quality or trustworthiness?

  • Fast page loads (users are happy; bots can fetch the pages)
  • Intelligent navigation (users can find their way around; bots can reach and understand what the site owner thinks is important about the site)
  • Appropriate mix of ads to content (not just an auto-generated site designed to deliver ads)
  • High percentage of unique pages (versus lots of too-similar pages)
  • A feedback mechanism on the site (credibility)
  • Help pages (credibility)
  • A legal page (credibility)
  • A contact page including physical address if available (credibility; inclusion in local search databases)
  • A domain that has been around for some a few years, or if the site is new, a domain that is registered for at least several years (suggesting an intent to stick around for a while)

The items above are only a partial listing of the “signals of quality” that your site might employ.  Try to work in brand-building techniques used by the big guys in your market too, if you can. Things like offering customization, interactivity (build your own t-shirt from my stock), building connectivity with your users, as well as connecting with larger businesses who you can configure your product with (feature your top seller on a related, but not competitive, site) can differentiate you from everyone else and start building your brand. Above all, if you make it your mission to think more like a brand builder, you will start to recognize and develop your own unique signals of quality that search engines will recognize and reward.

About the Author

Scott Smith is co-founder of Clientside Search Engine Marketing LLC, with his partner Aaron Wall, of SEOBook fame. Scott is also a moderator of the Search Engine Promotion & Marketing Forum at Webmaster World, the leading site for webmasters and independent web professionals, where he posts under the name "caveman."

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