SEO is a profession with intangible aspects, making it challenging to find concrete evidence of impact. Our work with Van der Garde revealed a strong correlation between brand interest and SEO performance on highly competitive queries.
Coincidentally, Google’s John Mueller’s perspective differs from ours, and we will explore this further in the article.
The interface between branding and known SEO factors
As mentioned, there are many intangible things within SEO, including branding. Both share many similarities. They:
- Seem unclear and intangible to many.
- Require a long-term vision.
- Have a path to success.
- Will become some of your strongest assets.
And they can reinforce each other:
- Increased SEO visibility throughout the customer journey increases brand visibility.
- A stronger brand can contribute to SEO.
That being said, there are plenty of known SEO factors, some having common ground with branding:
- Authority (Authority, the A of E-E-A-T)
- Reliability (Trust, the T of E-E-A-T)
- Search intents
The Quality Rater Guidelines
By analyzing Google updates and documentation, we can understand their vision.
Google’s Search Quality Rater Guidelines (SQRG) is a book of more than 176 pages that offers a handle to Search Quality Raters (SQR). The SQR provides feedback to the output of the Google algorithms in order to improve the overall user experience within the search engine, as can be seen on page six of the SQRG.
We see that Google has over 16,000 external SQR at its disposal. 16,000 real people worldwide who continuously feed the algorithm with feedback based on manual checks they do on search results and web pages based on the publicly available guidelines.
Not every SEO professional knows these guidelines, but knowing them and monitoring changes contributes to developing a good long-term SEO vision.
One of the most important concepts within the guidelines is the E-E-A-T concept (Experience, Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trust). The SQRG mentions the E-E-A-T abbreviation 126 times.
Trust and Authoritativeness, in particular, have a great deal in common with branding and will therefore be discussed.
According to the guidelines, Trust is the most important factor because untrustworthy pages have low E-E-A-T regardless of how Experienced, Expert, or Authoritative they may seem.. The example given in the guidelines is a financial scam. It is completely untrustworthy even if the content is authoritative or the scammer is an expert in running scams.
The assessment of Trust is done by looking carefully at the information on the website of the company itself and everything else that can be found on the internet about the website and the authors. Examples are your About Us section, media sentiment and public complaints and reviews.
The SQR seems to use a mix of qualitative and quantitative data. Search volumes are a quantitative expression of (brand) interest. A website labeled as “Trustworthy” will not necessarily enjoy great brand awareness. But the chances that a strong, well-known brand is considered Trustworthy by people are far greater than a brand that is just entering the market, and enjoys the same perception.
Therefore, theoretically, when there is a relatively large search for a specific brand, this could be a signal of Trust for Google’s algorithm.
Google tries to present the most relevant answers (search results) to each query. For Google (and probably most people), the more you are an authority in your industry, the more likely you are to be a relevant answer.
Google can measure your degree of Authority based on numerous factors such as content quality, link profile, mentions and other data.
If brand interest can be linked to Trust, then brand interest in a specific niche is a quantitative expression of Authority in that niche.
Changes in search intent
The guidelines consist of four chapters, of which understanding users and the intentions behind their search terms is one. On page 87 of the SQRG, Google clearly explains that search intents can change over time.
Search intents can change rapidly, and search results adapt equally fast. A perfect example is the search intent for countries and cities during COVID. The intent behind very specific search terms such as “Holiday Barcelona” and “Holiday Spain” could change lightning fast whenever there was COVID turmoil. When a country received negative travel advice or the destination hit the news due to rising infections, the search results changed from travel websites to government pages almost immediately and changed back equally fast when things returned to normal.
An example of changing search behavior is the search market for health insurance in the Netherlands. In the Netherlands, health insurance is mandatory, and you can only switch healthcare providers around November and December.
Between January and September, the primary search intent of “health insurance” is more focused on information about health insurance in general. Because people have to make their choice in Q4 whether they switch from health insurance or not, you see that the search intention changes to “Compare health insurance” in Q4.
This has a clear impact on the search results. In the example below, you can see the fluctuations of a Dutch health insurer “CZ” and healthcare comparator ‘Zorgkiezer’ on the generic term “Health insurance”
We see that ‘Zorgkiezer’ starts at position nine during the beginning of Q4 and climbs to position two in the last days that people can switch, then drops back after that.
So we know that:
- The search volumes from Google Ads are measured and made available by Google itself.
- Google’s search results are created by the most advanced machine learning algorithms, of which RankBrain is an algorithm that has been active since 2015 (more than eight years) and is specifically intended to understand our search intents.
- A change in search intent has a direct impact on search results.
- The algorithms are fed by over 16,000 people, specifically briefed to check whether the website behind a search result is trustworthy and has enough Authority.
When a brand becomes increasingly popular in a niche, the search intent within that niche can change so much (because users want to buy a product in a specific category from the website) that Google’s algorithms will consider the website as more relevant within that niche.
Measuring the impact of branded searches in SEO
In our experience, branding definitely has an impact on SEO, at least to some degree. During our work at Van der Garde it became undeniably clear that the highly competitive queries were very sensitive to this: The short-tail dropped towards the high season, the mid-long-tail did not.
Impact on short-tail terms
Impact on mid-long-tail terms
We were able to perform this analysis because we have excellent GSC data retention and segmentation via Rytes’ Search Success (check out our other tips for daily use of Search Success).
Change of (branded) search intents
The demand increase between low and high seasons is extreme in this market, so we probably see more impact here than in other industries.
To map the change in search behavior within the outdoor furniture industry, we benchmarked brand interest towards Van der Garde against 15 competitors and the non-branded search market. The benchmark concerns the development of the average monthly search query between February – May (high season) compared to October – January (off-season)
We have distinguished between outdoor furniture specialists that sell nothing but outdoor furniture and companies that do not necessarily have outdoor furniture as their core business.
- Outdoor furniture specialists (core business)
- Van der Garde
- AVH Outdoor
- Buitenhof Tuinmeubelen
- Kees Smit
- Home furnishing store chains
- Leen Bakker
- Hardware stores
- Garden store chains
For the furniture store chains, DIY stores, and garden chains, we only used the keyword combinations between brand and outdoor furniture-related search terms (Karwei outdoor furniture, Karwei parasol 300 cm, etc.).
We used all queries with the outdoor furniture specialists because the entire brand has an outdoor furniture search intention.
By definition, the specialists should have more Expertise and Authority within their industry than many of the much larger national chains with a broader focus.
Additionally, they often have much lower budgets than the larger companies. As a result, they see a much more significant increase in search demand for outdoor furniture than the “real” outdoor furniture specialists and the non-branded search market itself.
So, given our theory, search intent is shifting more towards these companies in this period.
Outdoor furniture specialist Van der Garde drops annually on “tuinset” (Outdoor furniture set) towards the high season and rises towards the off-season. Simultaneously, hardware store Praxis performs the opposite. Their search demand increases over 665% towards the high season, whereas Van der Garde’s increase is “only” 200%. It’s not inconceivable that:
- Google concludes that people who search for “tuinset” are more likely intending to visit Praxis than Van der Garde.
- Van der Garde, therefore gradually drops from the top three to position 12 while praxis rises from position seven to the top three.
- This returns to “normal” when the difference in brand interest decreases.
Again, when comparing outdoor furniture specialist Tuinmeubelshop and home furnishing chain Jysk, the specialists’ brand demand “only” increases 300% while Jysks’ increases 717%. What’s more extreme is that on the query “loungeset.” Jysk never had top 10 positions during the off-season in the past two years. But during peak season, when brand demand peaks, they even tap the top three.
Can branded searches influence SEO results? Absolutely. It is logical, and our data shows it. Does that mean companies should shift their SEO budget to branding? Definitely not. Branding impacts SEO but is still a smaller factor than an SEO-optimized website.
However, the lower your brand interest is in a competitive industry, the harder you’ll have to work on your SEO. But with Van der Garde, we showed proof that even then, David can beat Goliath.
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