As we continue to launch new clients and improve the lead generating performance for existing clients, the subject of keywords is always top-of-mind. For a new client it’s the choice of keywords that reflect their brand promise and resonate with the audience they initially want to reach. For existing clients it’s about improving rank to gain position against the competition in search results and create more qualified conversions. To provide the best counsel to both, I try to stay abreast of what other thought leaders have to offer about the way search is evolving. Recently I happened upon this article about branded and non-branded keyword search by Will Uppington at Bloomreach.

Optimizing for Branded vs. Non-Branded Keywords

Unless you’re a brand new startup, chances are your prospects know you by your name. Your name is the most visible evidence of your brand. Visitors who come to your site using a keyword that includes your brand name or the name of one of your products are using branded keyword search. Those who find you based on a problem the visitor is trying to solve are using a non-branded keyword search. So what’s the difference and why does it matter? Visitors using branded keywords have some important traits. These visitors already know you. They asked for you by name. It’s reasonable to assume these visitors are already BOFU (bottom of the funnel) leads and are probably much closer to being ready to buy than a visitor who found you while trying to solve a problem (case in point… I found the Bloomreach article not because I was looking for Will Uppington, but because I was looking for information on branded keyword search.). Visitors using non-branded keywords are more likely to be TOFU leads, or top of the funnel. These visitors have an interest or need in an area that applies to you or your products, and are in the process of doing research to learn more.

They Already Know You

Because they already know you, visitors who search on branded keywords are more likely to convert. But when devising your PPC ad or organic SEO campaign strategies, do you want to concentrate all of your efforts on this group, simply for the potential for a higher conversion rate? Tactically this may seem like a good idea but may not be the best strategic approach. Think about your sales funnel. A funnel that consists of only bottom of the funnel leads is not sustainable, and isn’t really a funnel. It’s more like a pipe, narrow at both ends. I see a lot of companies building PPC campaigns, using ads to drive branded search to their landing pages. The result is often a narrow reach in their potential market that is a direct function of their ad spend. Revenue never grows at a rate faster than the spend. On the other hand, predictable, sustainable growth comes from a constant flow of leads at all stages of the sales lifecycle – which means thinking beyond your branded keywords. If you’re a Google Analytics user, this article provides a good how-to for setting up a widget to track your branded and non-branded search. In Hubspot, you can see this traffic directly in your sources report. A sustainable SEO/PPC campaign will focus on both branded and non-branded keywords. Here are some observations about how to allocate resources between the two:

  • Optimize your PPC campaign for top of the funnel and middle of the funnel using non-branded keywords. This may initially be painful because you will feel like you are ‘missing’ the branded click throughs. But your top-of-funnel and middle-of-funnel opportunities are most likely to search on non-branded keywords (they are solving problems), and paid search is an effective way to expand your reach to new prospects.
  • Concentrate on long-tail keyword SEO with keyword phrases containing three, four or five (even ‘natural language’ sentences). These key phrases attract prospects looking for specific information and have a higher conversion rate.
  • Organize your lead nurturing campaigns around leads at each stage of the sales funnel. Create search optimized content that pulls new visitors into the top of the funnel, nurtures them into the middle, and sets expectations for a bottom of the funnel offer.

The Dreaded Encrypted Search. How Will Marketing and Search Evolve?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to analyze keywords – branded or not. Google implemented a mechanism that defaults to an SSL screen for users who are logged into their Google accounts. If you use Hubspot you’ll recognize this in your sources report as the dreaded Unknown Keyword (SSL). You can still see the number of visits and leads that came from these sources in the aggregate, but the actual keywords are hidden. In spite of Google’s insistence that only about 10% of keyword traffic would be masked by SSL, a year on, our clients average between 17 and 45% of their organic traffic in this category. There are several factors contributing to the increase in SSL masked search:

  • Firefox 14, launched in the summer of 2012, defaults to Google SSL Search.
  • Google+ has continued to grow, which has possibly increased the number of logged-in Google users.
  • The new Safari browser in iOS6 defaults to Google SSL Search and has the added negative effect of reporting traffic as direct rather than organic.
  • In certain vertical markets, such as those catering to a technical crowd, we see much higher percentages of people opting-in to SSL on their own.

Search experts project this trend is going to continue, which begs the question: “Will keywords continue to be a valuable tool for marketers?” My personal perspective is that a decreasing emphasis on keywords as a proxy for the meaning of content puts greater emphasis on creating quality optimized content and on new search techniques that analyze content and author credentials. But today these types of evolved search technologies, like SocialEars, only exist in vertical markets. How have you addressed this in your organic search strategies?