+ The Big Picture of Building Your Online Brand
+ How to Optimize Brand Name for Search Engines
+ Brand Qualities That Resonate With Customers
+ Online Brand Identity Considerations
+ Brand Awareness KPIs to Track
+ How to Build Better Content for Better Branding
+ Questions to Ask to Find the Perfect Brand Voice
+ Using Brand Associations for SEO
+ How to Improve Brand Engagement Through Storytelling
+ How to Outrank Big Brands in SEO
+ Technical Components of Building Your Online Brand
+ Qualitative Brand Building
+ Modern SEO = Proper Branding
+ How to Build an Online Brand from Scratch
You know what a brand is, so I’m not going to bore you with a standard definition. You might already have a brand, but are unhappy with it, you might be starting a company without a brand, or you might have a brand but simply know nothing about it.
In any of these scenarios, your brand requires attention. It’s one of the most important elements of your business since it permeates not only your corporate identity, but also every sales and marketing campaign you ever launch. If you’ve got a brand already, you can work on it by trying to understand its function (and maybe upgrade it to a more modern aesthetic), but otherwise, you have one, admittedly daunting option: building a brand from scratch.
This guide will walk you through this complex, yet stimulating process, helping you to find the perfect set of brand characteristics for your organization—and challenging you along the way.
Before I dig into the details, let’s establish why it is a brand is important in the first place.
Take a look at these options.
(Image Source: The Benjamin)
Which one do you think tastes best? Second best? Unless you’re deliberately manipulating your answer, the stronger brands with the higher prices look as though they taste better. Yet, according to blind taste tests, there’s no inherent advantage one brand has over the other (for the record, Pepsi won consistently during the Pepsi challenge—but biases in the type of test used have been called into question).
The point is, a noteworthy brand will immediately seem like a better product, service, or business than one that is unknown, or objectively weaker. Strong, consistent brands have immediately better appeal, tend to encourage more customer loyalty, and end up performing better than their counterparts. If you can develop your brand enough, it will come to speak for itself in terms of quality—the way powerhouse brands like Coca-Cola, Apple, and Amazon have today.
So how can you build a “strong” brand on your own? That’s the purpose of this guide.
First, you need to set yourself in the right frame of mind. Building a brand isn’t a simple, easy, one-step process like choosing a gas station to refuel at. It requires an investment of time, effort, and in many cases, money. If you start with the right mentality, you’ll be prepared for all the challenges to come your way:
Now that you’re mentally prepared for the challenge, it’s time to start building a brand.
First, I want to cover the “big picture” of SEO, because the “technical,” intimidating stuff is only a fraction of what’s actually involved in your search rankings. The goal of SEO is to increase your search visibility, which in turn will increase your site traffic.
Google ranks sites based on a combination of two broad categories: relevance and authority. Relevance is how closely the content of a page is going to meet a user’s needs and expectations; for example, if the user asks a question, Google wants to find a webpage that answers it. Authority is a measure of how trustworthy or authoritative the source of the content is.
Your tactics will usually involve building your authority, increasing your relevance for targeted queries, or both, across three main areas of optimization:
Search engine optimization (SEO), to the outsider, is a frustrating, complicated mess. Google doesn’t publish how its algorithm works (though it does give us helpful hints), and there are hundreds of independent, technical variables that can determine how your site ranks.
If you don’t have experience with programming or website building, technical factors like meta titles, site structure, and XML sitemaps can seem intimidating and difficult to approach. And while it’s true that experience pays off—a novice won’t get the same results as someone with years of experience—the reality is that SEO is more learnable than you probably give it credit for.
I’ve put together this guide to help the technically challenged folks out there—the ones new to SEO, or those unfamiliar with coding and website structure—to illustrate the basics of SEO, and simplify some of the more complicated techniques and considerations you’ll need to get results.
Optimizing a brand name for search engines takes time and a lot of upfront work if you’re coming up with a new name or renaming an older product. The majority of the advice in this article will focus on a “brand name” as the name of your company or organization, but keep in mind that the same strategies can be applied to the branded name of a particular product or service to achieve the same ends.
That being said, take a look at the ways you can create a search-friendly brand name and populate that brand name in authority-rich ways around the web.
First, your goal is to create a brand name that is both memorable and unique. The “unique” factor of the equation is important because it differentiates you from the competition. If you have a slightly modified version of a competitor’s brand name, your potential traffic could become confused if they see both in the SERPs, or even worse—mistake your competitor for you in a more general sense. The “memorable” factor is important to encourage more searches in general—for example, if someone hears your name from a friend and makes a note to search for you later, you’ll want to be sure your name is memorable enough to stick around.
For the sake of illustration, imagine a company with the name “Qwoxillyyon.” It’s definitely a unique name, but it’s also not memorable because it’s not catchy. On the other end of the spectrum, a name like “VitaSupps” is more memorable, but it’s not unique—it’s pieced together from names of existing companies in the supplement industry. The key here is to find a balance between those two qualities.
Don’t rush into your brand decision; this name is likely what you’re going to be stuck with for a long time, so spend some time really perfecting it.
In addition to crafting a brand name that’s both memorable and unique, you’ll want to include some keywords, phrases, or even chains of letters that are related to your industry. Barring that, you’ll want to come up with a tagline or slogan for your brand that clearly defines what you do. There are two major search-related motivations for doing this. First, including industry-based language will make your brand more likely to appear in industry-related searches. Second, incoming searchers who see your brand name and/or tagline in search results will be more likely to click on your link and understand exactly what it is you do.
If you’re stuck on trying to figure out exactly what type of keywords to include, run an exercise that can help you determine the strongest possible identifying words in your industry. Forget about your brand for a second, and just work with your team to come up with a list of seven to ten words that most succinctly describe or are most associated with your business or line of work. See if you can work at least two of those words into your brand name, or the tagline associated with it. Doing so will increase your brand’s relevance to the industry and attract more total search traffic to your site.
Once you have your brand name and tagline finalized, you’ll have to find ways to work it into your website in a way that maximizes your chances of getting shown. In your title tags, the first few words should be the most important and most descriptive—so here, you’ll want to include the title of your business or a description of your space. Do include your brand name, but try to include it closer to the end, perhaps segmented off with a vertical bar (|). Throughout the body copy of your site, make references to your brand in text and in the context of descriptions of who you are and what you do. Google will semantically learn to associate your brand with whatever type of terms and subjects you include it with.
As an ongoing process, include references to your brand on offsite sources. Google sees brand mentions in a way highly similar to the way it views offsite links—but with a much lower chance of getting penalized if you appear spammy. Post mentions of your brand in the context of relevant, appropriate responses on industry-related blogs and forums, as well as major publishing outlets, news sources, and .edu/.gov sources whenever you get a chance. Just be sure to stay consistent in your efforts and diversify your sources.
As with any search optimization strategy, the upfront work is important, but the true value only comes through an ongoing process of dedication, refinement, and improvement. The more time you invest into making your brand name strong and visible on the web, the more results you’re going to see. In short order, you’ll be dominating any searches related to your brand name directly, and in time, your brand name will help you rank higher for even searchesperipherally related to your industry.
Every business is unique, and every brand needs to stand apart as something original, especially in a competitive landscape. However, there are seven essential brand qualities that serve as prerequisites to capture and keep consumers’ attentions:
Imagine two brands. One you consider trustworthy, and one you do not consider trustworthy. If forced to make a purchasing decision between these two brands, which one would you choose? Trustworthiness should be an obvious quality to go after for your brand, but many companies neglect to prioritize it. You can improve your perceived trustworthiness by ensuring the accuracy and validity of each and every one of your posts. One misstated fact, false claim, or misleading piece of information can wreck your trustworthy reputation, so double check everything. Aside from that, just make sure you remain honest, and your reputation will naturally follow.
Asserting yourself as an authority in a given space takes some time, but it also forces you to exaggerate your expertise in a given area. That doesn’t mean inflating your capabilities or lying about your status, but it does mean choosing your words carefully when describing your business. For example, including references to your certifications or your history can make you seem like more of an authority, as can calling out the fact that your content has been featured in major publications. It also helps if your company is mentioned or gains the approval of other influencers in the industry—so start networking!
Many companies choose the logical, conservative approach when it comes to communicating with their audiences. It’s less risky that way, but it also has a way of alienating your followers. People don’t want to deal with a faceless, bland corporation—not in any context, and not in any industry. If you want to seem more appealing and truly resonate with your potential customers, you need to inject your messages with a little more emotion. Show it off when you’re happy. If your company announces some bad news, show that it’s personally affecting you. Otherwise, you’ll come off as robotic.
This goes along with the emotional element, as customers are more naturally drawn to brands that seem like people. What you really need to do is inject a bit of your own personality into the brand personality you intend to demonstrate. Add a bit of characteristic flair with some colloquial language, informal expressions, and a bit of direct humor. Doing so will make your brand seem more human and more approachable, and it’s going to lead to more people seeking you out for their needs. It also helps to show off the names and faces of your team—especially on social media.
Openness goes along with trustworthiness, but it is a distinct characteristic. People want to engage with brands that aren’t afraid to hide anything from their customers. For example, when facing controversy, many large modern brands choose the route of ambiguity—hiding or speaking in generalities about whatever subject is being hotly debated by their fans. This leads to a sense of distrust, or a sense that the brand doesn’t have the people’s best interests in mind. Instead, be open about anything and everything you can be. Develop a reputation that you’re willing to share information with your followers.
Obviously, helpful brands are going to get more attention than apathetic ones, but showcasing this trait is harder than it might seem. All you can really do is pay attention and look for opportunities where your brand can step in and do something valuable. Watch for people complaining about your products, and step in to try and resolve the situation. Find individuals with problems in forums and offer your own advice. Include tutorial or FAQ sections on your website, and go out of your way to ensure your customer service processes are unrivaled.
Finally, you’ll have to show off how passionate you are about your business. Corporations that are in it only to make profit come off as evil, intimidating, or otherwise alienating. Companies that appear to truly enjoy what they do and live and breathe that culture have a far better reputation, and tend to fare better in attracting new customers in their marketing programs. Shine a spotlight on individuals of your team, show off your latest and greatest accomplishments, and do whatever it takes to show you really care about the industry.
As you develop (or revise) your brand, you’ll need to consider and map out these seven elements:
These represent what is most important to your company. Your vision is the culmination of your goals and your central mission, while your values are the characteristics of your brand that will allow those goals to be met most efficiently.
For example, the vision of a nonprofit could be “ending hunger,” and the values could be a focus on education, community empowerment, and personal motivation. The vision can be expressed and reiterated subtly, while the values should become evident through your use of language and the presentation of your ideas. Let’s say this nonprofit decides to publish a newspaper. Obviously, they’ll want to make reference to the fact that their main goal is reducing hunger in the community, but each entry in the newsletter should be in line with the brand’s values of education, community empowerment, and personal motivation. A spotlight on an individual’s attempts to unite the community with an awareness program would fit in perfectly with the brand.
You’ll have to decide where your brand voice falls on the spectrum of formality and informality. Formality usually requires strict adherence to grammatical rules, full and detailed sentences, and a straightforward, logical structure. Informality has no such structure, allowing more colloquial phrases, swear words, and unconventional structures to convey messages. Formality is often considered in higher regard, earning more respect from readers, but it can also be seen as rigid or impersonal. Conversely, informality is much more conversational and approachable, but can be seen as immature or inexperienced as a result.
Consider your main demographics. As an example, if you run a chauffeur service, your clientele will be wealthier, better educated, and demanding of a formal experience—so incorporating a layer of formality into your brand will improve your reputation. Alternatively, if you’ve created a new phone messaging app that you hope teenagers will use, you can afford to be more informal with your communicating.
This is another important spectrum to consider for your brand, and it might change slightly depending on your purpose and medium. Emotion-based communications try to persuade readers and followers by making an appeal to emotions. For example, a dog food company could create messaging that dramatizes your relationship with your pet and focuses on that bond to sell dog food. Logic-based communications, on the other hand, use logical and rational appeals. Using the same example of a dog food company, the company could emphasize the objective nutritional superiority of their dog food versus a competitor’s.
Every company will need to use both emotional and rational messaging to convey ideas, but some brands will gain value by using one more than the other.
Some branding experts use humor and informality interchangeably, since most jokes and humorous language can be classified as informal. However, the humor and sarcasm factors of your brand are separate, and can be incorporated regardless of how informal or formal your brand is.
The level of humor your brand adopts should be directly related to how personable you want your brand to seem; if you want your brand to seem very approachable and down-to-earth, include more humor. If you want your brand to seem more distant and revered, less humor is appropriate. No matter which direction you choose to go, make sure you use humor appropriately in the messaging of your brand. All it takes is one tasteless joke to compromise your reputation on the web.
It might seem strange to have a separate category for “personality,” since much of your brand’s identity can be described as its personality to begin with. But we’re using “personality” to describe the personal characteristics of your brand beyond simple identifying factors. Think about what your brand would be like if it were a person. What does your brand look like? How does it interact with others?
Imagine interacting with your brand in an engaging conversation. Is your brand younger or older than you are? Is your brand more masculine or feminine? Does your brand walk stiffly and quickly to a new destination, or does it take its time with a leisurely stroll? It probably seems silly to think of your brand in such terms, but it’s actually quite helpful in identifying the defining traits of your brand’s personality.
Showing and telling are opposite forms of communicating, and while all brands will rely on both at some point, most brands will favor one over the other. For example, Apple tends to do very little in the way of telling users what its products are about and very much in the way of showing them. Instead of releasing a commercial bombarded with words and descriptions, Apple will simply demonstrate how the product works.
Other brands rely on explicit, often written messages to fully describe their capacity, and that approach can work too. How much you show and tell matters to your audience, and you’ll need to find the right balance for your company.
I’m not talking about how politically conservative or liberal your brand is. Politics should not be a considering factor for your brand at all. Here, conservative and liberal refer to how willing your brand is to try and experiment with new things. A conservative brand, like an investment firm, might stick to the fundamentals and try to minimize change whenever possible in order to guarantee a reliable, familiar experience for its customers. A more liberal brand, like a company based around a phone app, is more mobile and more willing to change rapidly. Startups are commonly more liberal companies, making radical changes to their mediums, messages, and formats without blinking an eye.
Other branding factors are more slippery—they’re subjective, open to interpretation, and difficult to measure in any tangible way. What’s worse is that these factors are just as important to your bottom line as trackable metrics like traffic or conversions. Take brand awareness, for example; the number of people who can recognize and identify your brand is important. Those aware of your brand have a higher likelihood of buying from you, whether it’s out of the blue or in response to one of your advertisements.
It’s one of the less trackable benefits of content marketing. You can measure how many people come to your site after reading your content, or how much your search rankings have improved, but how do you go about measuring the general awareness of your key demographics? Unfortunately, there’s no one easy, reliable way to measure this (other than massive-scale surveys), and no matter what you do, there’s bound to be degrees of uncertainty and subjectivity.
Still, if you focus in on the following five factors, you can get a better read on where your brand awareness stands:
If you’ve read some of my other content on social media marketing, you might be surprised to see this here. I’m a staunch proponent of the idea that social media followers is a “fluff metric” that can distract you from more important measures. I stand by this; focusing only on social media followers, instead of things like interactions, shares, and comments, can leave you with a big audience who doesn’t care about your brand. However, brand awareness specifically doesn’t necessitate a value of quality—it’s more a measure of how many people are aware of your brand, and how many new people are attracted to it. For these purposes, follower counts can work well—every new follower you attract is a little bit further your brand awareness reaches (unless you’re buying followers, in which case nothing can help you).
Organic traffic measures visitors who found you through search. Social traffic measures traffic from social followers. Referral traffic measures those who followed links. In all of these cases, it’s possible for new users to stumble across your work (and why inbound strategies are so effective at generating new audiences). But for brand awareness, it’s better to measure direct traffic—the number of people going to your site directly, either through a bookmark or a direct URL entry. In each of these cases, the visitor in question has heard of your brand previously. Accordingly, you can use it as an indirect measure of general brand awareness.
This is difficult to measure comprehensively, but you can get an overall understanding for where you stand in the market by analyzing your offsite mentions. Use social listening software, backlink searches, or just Google your own brand name to see what others are saying about you—without your interference. Look for mentions of your brand, links to your site, and other indicators from both consumers and publishers unrelated to any of your marketing strategies. How many are there? How high-profile are they? Are they positive or negative?
Engagement is an indirect measure of brand awareness, since technically followers and readers who engage with you could be learning about you for the first time. However, interaction is an indication that you’ve truly connected with an audience member. If that member hasn’t heard of you before, he/she will remember you now. Members who have already heard of you will be more likely to comment on or share the articles you publish. These indicators are fuzzy, imprecise, and open to interpretation for how they relate to brand awareness, but engagement is a good factor to know for your marketing campaign anyway. Your goal should be to increase the number of people interacting with your brand—it can only do good things for your engagement.
Measuring and tracking the number of reviews your business receives provides two benefits in understanding your brand awareness. First, it shows that the reviewer in question is intimately familiar with your brand. Second, it shows how existing audience members are spreading the awareness of your brand to others—referrals are some of the most powerful ways to attract new customers. Do your best to encourage more reviews and testimonials from your readers and customers, and do what you can to address and ameliorate negative reviews.
Working together, the above metrics can give you a somewhat accurate picture of your brand awareness level—or at least a glimpse into your impact among your key demographics. Track these over an extended period of time, comparing month to month figures, to see if your awareness strategies are having a substantial impact.
There are seven ways content can build you a better brand reputation, and all of them are impactful:
This first way should be fairly obvious to you. If you write frequently about a given topic, always speak in an authoritative voice, and bring new insights to the discussion, eventually people will begin to recognize you as an expert in the field. For new customers, this might mean browsing for a specific product, reading a recent blog, and deciding that this particular provider knows what they’re talking about. For older customers, it might mean checking your newsfeed regularly and growing more comfortable every day that your voice is one of authority and expertise. Either way, people will grow to trust you as a commanding voice in your niche.
One of the key benefits of inbound content marketing is getting in front of customers who are already looking for someone like you. When you write “how-to,” “why,” and “what” style posts, you’re using long-tail keywords that help you appear in common user searches for those topics. When you’re in need of something, whether it’s as urgent as a plumbing emergency or as innocuous as a curious question about meat packing, you get a sense of relief whenever you find the answers to your questions. If you’re the one answering those questions, people will associate that comfortable relief with your brand, and they’ll remember you the next time they need something.
Building authority isn’t all about self-promotion. If your content gets featured in an external publication, you can build your authority by proxy, siphoning some authority from whatever external platform you’ve chosen to work with. In some cases, this means an industry affiliation—for example, you might be considered more of an expert if your piece is featured prominently in an industry trade publication. In other cases, this is sheer name recognition—for example, people might think more highly of your brand if you’re featured in high-profile publications like Forbes or Entrepreneur.
This is especially true if you taking advantage of guest posting (as you should). As long as you choose the right topics and do a decent job of promoting your work, you’ll start showing up for people looking for content. The first time you show up, people might not think anything of your name, but the second time they see it, they’ll likely remember it. By the fourth or fifth time they see your name, they’ll instantly trust you, and beyond that, they’ll seek you out specifically whenever they have a need (assuming you’ve been meeting their needs).
Not all businesses take the time or effort to produce content. If a visitor perusing your site finds your blog and newsfeeds empty, it might reflect that you aren’t interested in regularly updating your customers. On the other hand, if your blog is full and your site is ripe with fresh, interesting content, it shows you’re committed to making your business better, and that builds trust.
You might struggle with this aspect at first, but the longer you spend optimizing your content strategy, the stronger it’s going to become. People trust brands and personalities that other people already trust—it’s a social confirmation bias that’s hard wired into our brains. When people see others commenting on, sharing, or otherwise engaging with your content, your content instantly appears more valuable, and your brand builds a stronger reputation as a result.
Think about the most comfortable things in your life. It could be your favorite chair in the living room, your mom’s old chicken soup recipe, or that perfect spot in the park down the street. Few of these things were inherently comfortable when you first encountered them, but they became comfortable over time because you experienced them repeatedly and consistently. The view in the park never changed. The taste of the soup never differed. People grow comfortable with things because they’re consistent, and if your content consistently demonstrates your brand voice, that trustworthy reputation will naturally come along for the ride.
A better brand reputation isn’t just about getting more people to recognize your name, or getting more people to visit your website. It’s about building trust with new customers and loyalty with older ones. Trust and loyalty are qualities that can’t be bought or traded, nor can they be forcefully acquired. But over time, with diligence and commitment to quality, your content campaign can earn them, and your brand will enjoy the benefits of a bigger, more invested audience.
Don’t underestimate the power of a brand voice. Though somewhat subjective in nature, your choice of words, tone, and direction throughout all forms of your company’s content can have a major impact on how many people read that content (as well as how they react to it). Unfortunately, you can’t choose a brand voice for your company the way you choose a flavor at an ice cream parlor. There are too many variables and options to consider, and even when you’ve crafted the ideal starting point, you’ll still likely have to make tweaks as you get comfortable with it.
To start things off, try asking these 10 important questions. They’ll help you understand the nature and intention of your brand voice, as well as how to start writing in it effectively:
This question will feed into several of the others, so it’s the one you need to ask yourself first. Writing a voice for a brand that caters to teenage boys must be different than writing one for a brand that caters to retired women. Different generations, sexes, belief systems, economic and education levels all have different perspectives on life and different values, so you need to keep those in mind when you start developing the voice that will be speaking to them.
The formality of your voice can dictate a reader’s initial reaction. Do you want to speak formally, with precise, professional language and an almost stoic tone to give the impression that you’re an absolute professional with old-time values? Or do you want to speak informally, with conversational, casual language and a playful tone to connect with younger audience or seem more approachable? There’s a lot of gray area to work with here.
How familiar is your reader going to be with your industry and your topics? This should dictate what level of vocabulary you choose to use, as well as what topics you select. For example, if you run an automotive repair shop, will you speak to readers like they’re in the habit of fixing their own mechanical issues, or like they’ve never driven a car before in their lives? You could instantly turn someone off by choosing the wrong level of complexity.
This is a big one. When readers think about your brand, what emotions should be conjured up? Should they get a warm, cozy, home-like feeling? Do you want them to feel energized and excited? Should they feel challenged and inspired? These feelings need to come across in your voice.
Why does your company exist? Most companies have a succinct mission statement already—if you do, use that as inspiration for developing your brand voice. Make that message a part of what you say at all times. If you don’t already have a mission statement, it’s time to create one. What’s the most important duty your company performs for people? What do you give them that they need?
Run a quick search for your competitors and see what their brand voices are like. Read a few of their blogs and see what they’re posting about on social media. What kind of tone do they use? What kind of audience are they speaking to? If they don’t seem to have a consistent voice at all, you’re already ahead of the game.
Now that you have a good understanding of what your competitors are doing, you need to ask yourself how your company is different. Are you more casual and less formal? Are you more exciting and inspiring? There needs to be some differentiating factor here, or your customers won’t care who they end up buying from. Choose your factors carefully.
Most brands do well with a careful balance of useful information and entertainment—such as jokes, informal language, and interactive images and videos within content. The question for your brand voice is how much entertainment are you willing to provide? Too much or too little could skew the image you’re striving for.
Think of at least two or three different statements, topics, or content types that would be completely out of character for your brand. Sometimes, imagining what your company wouldn’t say is easier than imagining what it would say—use this exercise to help you figure out the latter.
This is the most useful question on this list, since it’s easy to answer and can help you develop a natural-sounding voice without overcomplicating things. Think of your brand as a human being. Is your brand male or female? How old? What educational background? How does he/she dress, act, think, and talk? What are his/her friends and family like? Give your brand a real, personified character and use that image to feed your streams of content to come.
The age of link building is dead. Or at least, that’s what the majority of SEO experts today would have you believe. Link building was once one of the dominant strategies for getting your site to rank in Google, as having lots of links pointing to your site from multiple different external authorities caused your domain authority to rise in turn. Today, it’s frowned upon by Google engineers and is thought to be more risky than valuable, since unnatural link building can earn you a sizable penalty.
But it isn’t exactly true that link building is dead—instead, it’s evolving into newer, more sophisticated forms. Google still bases the majority of your domain authority on which other authoritative sites are linking to you and how they’re doing it, but the measurable correlation between one new link and an increase in authority is no longer relevant.
Instead, “links” are taking a variety of new forms—I put links in quotation marks because many of these reference points don’t have links at all. In fact, the mere mention of your brand name is enough to register as an authoritative boost with Google, and with none of the drawbacks of a potential penalty. There are a few different ways to use this “new” way of calculating online authority, and one of the best are a new strategy known as brand associations.
Google’s search algorithm has grown to become a sophisticated piece of artificial intelligence, rather than just a mathematical process. Rather than scouring the Internet for numerical bits of information it can pour into a calculation, it seeks to learn things about the world and use those insights to give better search results. With semantic searching in mind, Google is able to understand what a user is requesting in a given query and then provide them with what it believes to be the most relevant answer.
As a result, brands today have a better chance of getting ranked if they simply describe themselves accurately—rather than trying to trick the search engine into ranking them higher. In a way, since Google wants to learn what your brand is, you have to teach it what your brand is.
Brand associations are a way to do this. In pieces of offsite content, you’ll be mentioning your own brand in context with topics that you want your brand to be associated with. For example, if your brand is “Taco Palace” and you want to be associated with “high-end taco restaurants,” you could work a sentence into your content like “Among high-end taco restaurants, Taco Palace stands apart.” With a diversity of these brand mentions across the web, Google will have an easier time associating your name with these subjects, and you’ll become a greater authority in that space.
Brand associations are like a flavored form of brand mentions. You’ll get all the benefits of traditional brand mentions, but the additional industry-specific authority is the real draw for brand associations.
If you’re new to the concept of brand mentions, they work much like link building did in previous eras. However, they’re far less risky and tend to focus on long-term returns rather than short-term boosts. When used in the body of great standalone content, you can expect the following benefits:
Of course, you’ll only be able to see these benefits if you use brand associations correctly. To see the best results, be sure to follow these best practices:
Brand associations are one of the most powerful new strategies for SEO. Replacing the nearly-obsolete practice of straightforward link building, brand associations bring you all the authoritative power with virtually none of the risk. If you’re interested in more industry-specific authority, or just higher ranks in general, be sure to add this tactic to your overall campaign.
Brand storytelling has been a strategy for far longer than it’s been a buzzword, but the technological characteristics of the modern era—namely, blogging, social media, and online videos—have made brand storytelling an even more dynamic, more definable strategy for compelling audiences. The principle behind brand storytelling is simple and easy to understand—it’s a form of storytelling that strengthens a user’s relationship with a brand. How you tell those stories, and what type of stories you tell, determine how your audience reacts.
Stories are effective because they’re humanizing and personal. Using relatable, personal elements in your marketing and advertising entertains people, makes complicated ideas easier to understand, and it can even make people trust you more as a brand.
If you want to do more for your brand storytelling, try one or more of these seven engagement strategies:
Depending on your industry, it’s more than likely there’s at least one idea that can’t be conveyed easily to your audience. Most consumers aren’t interested in reading technical manuals dozens of pages long; they’re interested in getting the gist of a concept as quickly as possible. This is where storytelling comes in.
For example, if your company specializes in website development and you’re trying to explain why it’s inefficient to add scope in the middle of a coding sprint, you may find it difficult to articulate the logistics of the situation. Instead, you can illustrate the dangers of the concept using a story; a man is driving a car down a highway, and attempting to make engine modifications to the car while doing so. It’s going to be near impossible without causing an accident. Such a story demonstrates an idea without making it too complex or unnecessarily wordy.
Sometimes, the course of business will come up with stories for you. Case studies are a perfect example of brand storytelling, and you should use them to your advantage whenever possible.
Let’s say you’ve done a great job for a recent customer and you have the data to back it up. Ask your customer’s permission to publicize their story and tie your brand to it; once you have that permission, write up a narrative about your performance. Don’t rely on numbers to do all the work for you; tell your customer’s story as if writing a book or a screenplay. Walk your reader through all the stages of development that came during the process, and environmental factors that complicated the situation. By the end, you’ll have a beginning-to-end story that effectively captures an “ideal” brand performance and presents your company as a real contender to those unacquainted with the brand.
Hypothetical situations can also serve as valuable stories. These are perfect for when you’re trying to describe the advantages of a particular product without getting into technical specifications or simply bulleting out a list of benefits. Instead, you’ll describe a person in a demanding situation, noting details and using narrative elements to show, rather than tell your readers, how your product would fit into such a situation.
Consider the “mayhem” advertisements from AllState. A character who epitomizes and represents the abstract concept of mayhem or unpredictable events arrives onto a scene—sometimes a residential neighborhood, or a highway—and inevitably creates a disastrous situation through physical damage. At the end of each advertisement, AllState claims that it can protect you from such situations. Readers are able to easily relate to this because they witnessed a story play out before them. Of course, you don’t need video ads to do this—you can just as easily illustrate a similar scenario through written posts.
Another type story is a more literal translation of brand storytelling—it’s the story of how your brand came to be. This isn’t necessarily a story you want to tell often, but it is one you’ll want to bring up from time to time, especially if your company has a unique origin story. For example, Coca-Cola regularly calls attention to its lengthy history as one of America’s favorite soft drinks—it’s a simplistic reminder of the brand’s origins, and it does a great deal to strengthen its relationship with consumers.
Your business might have an entirely different story—for example, you could be a startup less than a year old that’s looking for funding and a handful of maverick customers to launch its flagship product. No matter what kind of company you are, there’s some kind of story to tell about your brand.
Characters in brand storytelling are more than mascots, at least in most cases. Take, for example, Flo from those Progressive Auto Insurance commercials. She is strongly associated with the brand, but she isn’t really a mascot. Instead, she finds herself in regular situations, helping customers with various dilemmas solve their insurance woes. Flo exists as a personal manifestation of a company, illustrating principles and demonstrating the brand’s values on a personal level.
You could use any type of character you want to generate the same sentiments—for example, you could have a recurring character in your blog posts named “Tim,” who always finds himself in tricky situations. Recurring characters help humanize your brand, and build an extra layer of familiarity among your readership.
If you’re always rolling out new products and services, don’t rely on them to always speak for themselves. Instead, make it a point to tell the story of how each one was created—with particular attention to the problem each product or service solves. For example, if you’re launching a new app feature that corrects a common customer complaint, tell the story; explain that your customers were having trouble with a particular feature, and narrate the path of those complaints from customer service representatives to brand visionaries to field technicians, who eventually came up with an ingenious solution.
This type of story is a perfect way to give a little more transparency to your company, building trust, while giving a logical backing to each of your new products and services. Essentially, it promotes your product and strengthens your brand relationships simultaneously.
Of course, stories don’t need to be longwinded blog posts or television commercials. Social media presents a perfect opportunity to tell extremely short stories, narrative pieces that convey the feelings of a story without the lengthy backing. For example, instead of writing several paragraphs charting the history of your latest product development, you could consolidate it to a short tweet: “You spoke. We listened. Welcome to this new feature…” In three short sentences, you told a beginning, middle, and end to a dynamic brand story, and it’s far more compelling than a bland tweet like “Check out this new feature…”
The beauty of brand storytelling is that it isn’t limited to any one subject or any one format. You can easily convert any message you have—internal or external, informative or entertaining, online or in person—into a type of story. That simple inclusion of a narrative element can do wonders for improving your brand’s reputation, and increasing engagement in your target audience.
One persistent rumor about Google is that the search giant favors big brands—“authority websites” and reputed sites of long standing—when it comes to search engine rankings. Prior to Google’s Penguin algorithm update, it was easy for small websites to rank ahead of big brands by using spammy SEO tactics that were specifically targeted by Penguin. This not only caused the drop of countless small websites battling for top rankings, but also fueled the flames of suspicion that Google favors big brands.
Many webmasters now suspect—and probably with some justification—that authority is everything in the world of search. Opinions are floating around that Google has bestowed its favor solely upon big brands and websites that have been around a long time. I see that in my line of work, too. Brand websites (or authority websites) often get away with posting what almost anyone would agree is “thin” content.
Does this mean Google’s algorithm is skewed to favor big brands? While it isn’t possible to prove this point of view, several new websites have arisen and ranked well for highly competitive keywords where brand/authority websites already were operating. So, it can be done. But what’s the secret?
The solution is to move beyond the general perception of unfairness and work toward becoming a brand yourself. And I would argue that whether Google favors the big guys or not really doesn’t matter. Here’s why.
1. Identify Opportunities with Long-tail Keywords
One of the easiest things to observe is that big brands—the seemingly invincible market leaders—rank for only a particular set of keywords. Not every keyword that relates to a niche can be targeted by the top brands, so there’s a considerable array of keywords—mostly long-tail—that are lying about. While ranking for core keywords is probably not going to be possible, that’s ok; long-tail keywords are your opportunity to shine, and they often yield better conversion rates, bounce rates, and time-on-site metrics than core terms.
Regardless of how big a website is (in terms of brand value) and how long it’s been established, it can’t possibly account for every possible keyword combination in its content strategy. The authority websites are strong because they built a solid content strategy around a few keywords and stuck to it, with plenty of dollars and hours invested in that strategy.
Key Takeaway: Figure out the keywords for which your big-brand website doesn’t rank well. Then take on the competition with those keywords. There are many ways to find long-tail keywords, but the most basic is to use Google’s Adwords Keyword Tool to perform keyword research.
2. Authority Isn’t Everything; Content is King
A key feature of Google’s algorithm is the concept of authority; Author Rank seems to be the mantra of every SEO effort. But, in truth, how many websites with correct author information have you observed still failing to secure the top spot? Some of these, you’ll notice, are from websites that are in the big-brand league.
For instance, you won’t see Mashable or BuzzFeed ranking right at the top for every “tech-related” keyword. But honestly, they’ve got some really awesome content.
Key Takeaway: The ranking algorithm is a summation of factors that consist largely of:
So, while big brands easily get inbound links, social shares, and comments at the page level, this isn’t an algorithmic favor from Google; it’s simply the result of big brands investing time and money into developing and nurturing their reader base.
Counter this advantage by creating better content around the keywords for which you want to rank, properly optimizing that content from an on-site perspective, and strategically marketing it. Big brands may get links and social shares more easily, but great content will always win out over time.
3. Social Signals Don’t Play Favorites; Use Them to Your Advantage
This is the age of social signals. Google and Bing are actively seeking out social signals to value the websites they rank, and this offers a huge benefit for new websites looking to compete against authority websites. What is interesting is that the notion of authority itself is often deciphered through the kind of social shares and signals your website/page sends (besides the other, usual factors of Author Rank and links, of course).
When it comes to social signals, brand/authority doesn’t really matter. If you provide value, you win. If you provide the most useful and unique content, you win.
Key Takeaway: Encourage social shares and maintain your social media presence. It’s the perfect intersection between SEO and user engagement that offers you an opening to beat the big guys.
4. Focus on People, Not Search Engines
Pause a moment and think about this: What actually comprises an authority website? Most of the big brands have taken years to build a strong and credible following, a fan base, or active user-engagement. That boils down to just two things: 1) value and 2) people. When you provide value through your content strategies and your products, you attract people. As such, your focus should be on people.
Key Takeaway: Treat SEO as a tool and not as the means to achieving the goals of your website/brand. The real means involves pushing value outward and enabling it to be shared across a wide platform—ideally, multiple platforms. This will draw in customers over the long run, and establish you as a brand and authority in your own right.
5. If You Can’t Beat ‘em, Join ‘em
If you’re already doing the things that are recommended by content strategists, user-engagement experts, and community managers, you’re already on your way to building your own brand. Why, then, should you worry about whatever bias Google might harbor with regard to the big brands?
If the bias isn’t really as strong as we think, then there’s nothing to worry about. If it is a fact of life, then it may favor you over time as you build your own brand. Building a business requires long-term investments of time and money, and that’s often what it requires to outrank the big brands. But as you grow your business strategically and have patience, eventually you’ll be playing in that same ballpark with the big guys.
In the age of “authority,” the challenge for new websites is that, by the time you get halfway toward becoming a recognized authority on Google’s radar, many of your competitors may have established a firmer brand, better positioning, and a stronger level of authority.
That’s why you can’t waste time by competing with them on every keyword they rank for. Instead, build your brand, gradually, by targeting the areas the bigger brands and authority websites haven’t included in their net. From then on, it’s merely a matter of repeating the efforts, using social channels and strong content strategies, while expanding your territory.
Don’t worry. I’m going to make this as painless as possible. In this section, I’m going to cover most of the “technical” SEO elements that you’ll need to consider for your campaign. These are changes you’ll need to make to your site, factors you’ll need to consider or monitor, and potential technical issues that could come up during your campaign. I’m going to cover these as simply and as thoroughly as possible—so you can understand them and use them, no matter how much technical experience you have.
When you go to a library for information, librarians can probably help you by finding a book. But no matter how relevant a book may be to your interests, it won’t matter if the book isn’t currently on the shelves. Libraries must acquire books as they’re released, updating old copies and adding new copies, to keep the most recent information on the shelves.
Search indexing works similarly. To provide results, Google needs to maintain shelves of “books,” in this case, a running archive of websites and pages that are available on the web. Google uses automated bots, sometimes known as “crawlers” or “spiders” to continually search the web for new page entries, which it then logs in its central system.
How is this relevant for you? If you want to be listed in search engines, and be listed accurately, you need to make sure your site is indexed correctly.
There are three main approaches you can take for search indexing:
You’ll also need to consider creating a robots.txt file for your site, which is essentially an instruction manual that tells Google’s web crawlers what to look at on your site. You can create this file using Notepad, or any program on your computer that allows you to create txt files—even if you have no coding experience.
On the first line, you’ll specify an agent by typing: “User-Agent: ____”, filling in the blank with a bot name (like “Googlebot”) or using an * symbol to specify all bots. Then, on each successive line, you can type “Allow:” or “Disallow:” followed by specific URLs to instruct bots which pages should or should not be indexed. There are various reasons why you wouldn’t want a bot to index a page on your site, which I’ll get into later. However, you may want bots to index all pages of your site by default. If this is the case, you do not need a robots.txt file.
If and when your robots.txt file is ready, you can upload it to your site’s root directory like any other file.
Speed has been a somewhat controversial topic in SEO, as its importance has been somewhat overblown. The loading time of your web pages won’t make or break your rankings; reducing your load time by a second won’t magically boost a low-authority site to the top rank.
However, site speed is still an important consideration—both for your domain authority and for the user experience of your site. Google rewards sites that provide content faster, as it is conducive to a better overall user experience, but it only penalizes about one percent of sites for having insufficient speed. When it comes to user experience, every one second in improved site speed is shown to be correlated with a two percent increase in conversions.
In short, whether you’re after higher rankings or more conversions, it’s a good idea to improve your site speed.
You can check your speed using a site like Google’s own Page Speed Insights, and start improving your site with the following strategies:
Mobile optimization is a broad category that includes both technical and non-technical elements. Mobile searches now outnumber desktop searches, so Google has taken extensive efforts in recent years to reward sites that optimize for mobile devices and penalize sites that don’t.
Put simply, if your site is “friendly” to mobile devices, capable of loading and presenting content in a way that works well for mobile users, you’re going to see an increase in authority and rankings. Incidentally, you’ll also become more appealing to your target demographics, possibly increasing customer loyalty and/or conversions.
So what is it that makes sites “optimized” for mobile devices? There are a few main criteria:
If all this sounds complex to you, don’t worry. There are some simple ways to test your site to see if it’s counted as “mobile friendly,” and simple fixes you can make if it’s not. The easiest way to make your site mobile friendly is to make your site responsive; this means that your site will detect what device is attempting to view it, and automatically adjust based on those parameters.
This way, you can keep managing only one site, and have it work for both mobile and desktop devices simultaneously. You can also create a separate mobile version of your site, but this isn’t recommended; especially now that Google is beginning to switch to mobile-first indexing.
How can you make your site responsive? The easiest way is to use a website builder and choose a responsive template. Most mainstream website builders these days have responsive templates by default, so you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that doesn’t offer what you need.
If you’re building a site from scratch, you’ll need to work with your designers and developers to ensure they’re using responsive criteria.
As long as your site is responsive, you should be in good shape. If you’re in doubt, you can use Google’s mobile-friendly tool to evaluate your domain and see if there are any mistakes interfering with your mobile optimization. All you have to do is enter your domain, and Google will tell you if any of your pages are not up to snuff, pinpointing problem areas so you can correct them if necessary.
I’ve mentioned the importance of sitemaps in multiple areas of this guide so far. Now I’m going to get into the technical details of what sitemaps are, why they’re important for your site, and how to create them.
There are actually two different types of sitemaps you can build and use for your site: HTML and XML. I’ll start with HTML sitemaps, since they’re a little easier to create and understand. As I mentioned before, HTML sitemaps exist as a page on your site, visible to both human visitors and search engine crawlers.
Here, you’ll list a hierarchy of all the pages on your site, starting with the “main” pages, and splitting down into categories and subcategories. Ideally, you’ll include the name of the page along with the accurate link to it, and every page on your site will link to your HTML sitemap in the footer.
Google won’t be using an HTML sitemap to index your pages, so it’s not explicitly necessary to have one. However, it does give Google search crawlers a readily available guidebook of how your pages relate to one another. It can also be useful for your visitors, giving them an overall vision of your site.
XML sitemaps are far more important. Rather than existing as a page on your site, XML sitemaps are code-based files that you can “feed” to Google directly in Google Search Console. They look a little like this:
As you can imagine, they’re a nightmare to produce manually, but there are lots of free and paid tools you can use to generate one.
Before I explain XML sitemap generation, you need to know what they’re used for. Again, these aren’t going to determine whether or not Google indexes your site; Google is going to crawl your site anyway. Instead, Uploading your XML sitemap to Google will instruct Google which pages you find most valuable on your site, and how those pages relate to one another.
For example, you could exclude technical pages of your site that contain fewer than 200 words, so the overall perceived quality of your site isn’t dragged down by your worst content.
Google explains that XML sitemaps are especially useful for the following types of sites:
Note that excluding a page from your XML sitemap doesn’t mean that page won’t be indexed; the only way to fully block indexation altogether is to use your robots.txt file (as I described earlier).
Does this all sound too complex? Don’t worry; the actual process you use to create a sitemap is fairly simple. Most CMSs have built-in features that allow you to automatically generate both HTML and XML sitemaps; for example, Yoast’s SEO plugin gives you the ability to create dynamic sitemaps, which automatically update as you make changes to your site.
For example, you could exclude pages of your site that fall short of a given word-count threshold, and if you add content, they’ll automatically begin to reappear.
It’s helpful to know how sitemaps work and why they’re important, but for your own sanity, it’s best to leave their generation in the hands of automated apps.
What I’m going to refer to as “meta data” is a blanket category that includes page titles, meta descriptions, and alt text. These are sections of text that describe your pages (or specific pieces of content within those pages). They exist in the code of your site, and are visible to Google search crawlers, but aren’t always visible to visitors (at least not in a straightforward way).
Google’s crawlers review this information and use it to categorize certain features of your site, including pages (as a whole) and piece of content within that page). This makes it helpful for optimizing your site for specific keywords and phrases.
It’s also used to produce the entries in search engine results pages (SERPs) that users will come across. Accordingly, it’s important to optimize your meta data to ensure that prospective visitors are encouraged to click through to your site. The title of your page will appear first, followed by your page URL in green, followed by your meta description, as shown in the example below:
Your goals in optimizing the meta information of your site then, is to first ensure that Google is getting an accurate description of your content, and second to entice users to click through to your site.
Thankfully, optimizing your meta data is fairly simple. Most CMS platforms will, for each page of your site, offer blank, clearly labeled boxes that let you edit the corresponding meta data for that page. Remember, it’s a good idea to include at least one keyword in each of your titles and descriptions, but you’ll want to avoid keyword stuffing, and focus on writing meta data that makes sense to your users.
The last component of technical SEO I want to cover is the possibility for technical errors; these are common things that can (and probably will) go wrong with your site, causing a hiccup in your rankings and interfering with your plans.
If you notice your site isn’t ranking the way it should, or if something has dramatically changed without your notice (and no immediately clear underlying cause), your first troubleshooting step should be checking for the following technical errors:
<link rel=”canonical” href=”https://seo.co/examplepage/”>
If you have an SEO plugin, you may be able to enter the canonical link manually, like you did with titles and meta descriptions. Alternatively, you could use 301 redirects to clarify duplicate content discrepancies, but it’s arguably easier to set up canonical tags.
There are some other technical issues you may encounter, such as images not loading properly, but many of them are preventable if you follow best practices, and are easily resolvable with a quick Google search. Even if you don’t understand exactly what’s happening or why, following step-by-step instructions written by experts is a fast way for even amateurs to solve complex SEO problems.
In this section, I want to cover some of the “non-technical” tactics you’ll need to have a successful SEO campaign. None of these strategies requires much technical expertise, but it’s important to understand that the technical factors I listed above aren’t the only thing you’ll need to grow your rankings over time.
Keep in mind that each of these categories is rich in depth, and requires months to years to fully master, and these entries are mere introductions to their respective topics.
Without high-quality content, your SEO campaign will fail. You need at least 300 words of highly descriptive, concisely written content on every page of your site, and you’ll want to update your on-site blog at least two or three times a week with dense, informative, practical content—preferably of 700 words or more. This content will give search engines more pages and more content to crawl and index.
Collectively, they’ll add to the domain authority and individual page authorities of your site pages, and they’ll provide more opportunities for your site visitors to interact with your brand and your site. Here are some resources to help you create and publish high-quality content:
All that on-site content also gives you the opportunity to optimize for specific target keywords. Initially, you’ll select a number of “head” keywords (usually limited in length, and highly competitive) and “long-tail” keywords (longer in length, usually representing a conversational phrase, and less competitive) to optimize for.
When performing your keyword research, you’ll choose terms with high potential traffic and low competition, then you’ll include those terms throughout your site, especially favoring your page titles and descriptions. You’ll want to be careful not to over-optimize here, as including too many keywords on a given page (or your site in general) could trigger a content quality-related penalty from Google.
Authority is partially calculated based on the quality and appearance of your site, but the bigger factor is the quantity and quality of links you have pointing to your site. Link building is a strategy that enables you to create more of these links, and therefore generate more authority for your brand.
Old-school link building tactics are now considered spammy, so modern link builders use a combination of guest posting on external authority publishers and naturally attracting links by writing high-quality content and distributing it to attract shares and inbound links. In any case, you’ll need to invest in your link building tactics if you want your campaign to grow. For help, see SEO Link Building: The Ultimate Step-by-Step Guide.
Finally, none of your tactics are going to be worthwhile unless you can measure and interpret the results they’re generating. At least monthly, you’ll want to run an analysis of your work, measuring things like inbound traffic, ranking for your target keywords, and of course, checking for any technical errors that have arisen.
By interpreting these results and comparing them to the amount of money you’ve invested in your campaign, you’ll get a clear picture of your return on investment—your ROI—and can then make adjustments to improve your profitability. For help, see The Ultimate Guide to Measuring and Analyzing ROI On Your Content Marketing Campaign.
The old methods of search engine optimization (SEO) are practically dead. SEO was once a game of numbers and regular tasks that culminated in a predictable rise to the top, butthat strategy relied on manipulation and structure. Today, the complexity of search engine algorithms is such that manipulation and structure are secondary to quality and relevance—factors that are almost intangible.
What does that mean for modern search marketers? It means the old strategies of quantitative task execution are disappearing in favor of qualitative brand building. If you’re trying to rank in today’s search landscape, you need to spend more time designing and supporting your company’s brand.
There was never a single point where SEO ceased to be one thing and started to be another. Instead, over the course of dozens of algorithm changes, SEO has slowly evolved. In the early 2000s, Google began rolling out regular changes that prevented online marketers from abusing loopholes in its algorithms, penalizing domains that engaged in spamming tactics or other schemes.
The biggest changes for modern search marketers came in the form of Google Panda and Google Penguin, from 2011 and 2012, respectively. Google Panda penalized sites with minimal or low-quality content, while Google Penguin penalized sites with poor-quality backlinks. The combination of these effects put the last nail in the coffin of keyword stuffing, backlink spamming, and content spinning—the signature tools of old SEO.
It’s still entirely possible to climb the ranks in search engines, but you need more finesse in order to do it successfully. When producing results for a given query, there are several key indicators that are considered. Above all, Google wants to give users relevant results and a great overall online experience, so these criteria reflect that primary goal.
First and foremost, quality content matters. Google shows heavy favoritism toward sites with a regularly updated blog, and peruses that content when trying to find relevant sites for a given query. Specific keywords are no longer a factor; instead, search algorithms review content from a higher-level topical perspective, and weed out pieces of content that appear to be written by a non-native speaker or copies of content elsewhere on the web. Unique, high quality content is important because it gives a user valuable information. In order to keep your readers coming back for more, you need to sustain a consistent voice—but we’ll touch on that later.
Natural, Quality Backlinks
Backlinks are still important, but not in the way they used to be. Instead of looking at the number of external links you build, Google pays more attention to the quality of those links. For example, if your links appear to be built using a link scheme designed specifically to build your rank, you could be penalized as a result. Instead, your links should be posted on sites that have relevance for your industry and should point to pages that are relevant to the conversation. Brand mentions, even without a link, are also becoming important.
Visible Presence on Social Sites
It’s also important to have a strong social presence. While it’s not clear exactly how much weight this carries in the ranking algorithm, sites with an official presence on major social media platforms tend to rank higher than sites that do not. Additionally, local businesses with detailed profiles on social directory sites like Yelp and Urbanspoon also tend to rank higher than businesses that lack them. What’s important here is social context; a signal that many people recognize and engage with your brand in the real world. The stronger that signal is, the more “authority” you have.
So why is brand building so important to this process?
Your core brand is your business’s identity. Without a consistent set of standards for your image and voice, there’s nothing distinguishing you from your competitors. Building a brand means earning the interest and loyalty of your potential customers and giving them a repeatable, familiar, and positive experience.
Your branding is a central element of your business that makes all your other elements stronger. It makes your content more recognizable and enjoyable because it lends a consistent, familiar voice. It makes your social media engagements more personal and engaging because you can use your brand’s personality. Solid branding helps you give your users a better overall experience—and quality user experience is exactly what Google is trying to achieve. Let’s take a look at exactly how great branding can improve your modern search efforts:
Content marketing involves both written content and visual content like images and videos. Of course, many people use content marketing as a tool to improve search engine ranks, but more importantly, it’s a strategy that builds your authority and creates trust between you and your readers.
When you adopt a content marketing strategy with solid branding backing it, you’re far more likely to get returning visitors. But more importantly, it’s easier for your brand to be recognized by those visitors. You can post a new article written in your brand’s unique voice, or an infographic decorated with your branding, and people will instantly recognize it as one of yours. If your content is valuable or surprising, people will share it on their own sites with a link or a brand mention pointing back to you.
Without that brand recognition and perceived authority, you would be stuck building links on your own, putting your site in danger of getting penalized. Instead, with a strong brand, you can let your users do the work for you.
Similarly, social media plays a significant role in both brand awareness and search engine ranking. Social media is your opportunity to distribute your content and build an audience, thereby attracting new people to your brand and keeping your current fans engaged at the same time. Keeping your brand consistent across your website and multiple social media platforms allows people to seamlessly engage with you across multiple mediums, increasing your digital presence and rewarding you with more backlinks and brand mentions.
Finally, building a powerful brand can be great for customer service and your presence on third party social directories. For example, if you give a new customer a memorable brand experience, he/she will be more likely to write up a positive review about your business on an external review site. The more positive reviews and positive experiences are associated with your company, the more likely you are to achieve a high ranking in Google (and it independently attracts new customers to your brand). If your brand is consistent and rewarding, eventually you’ll establish an online presence that extends far beyond the boundaries of your own individual efforts.
A brand is more than just a logo; it’s an entire character in its own right. It’s an attempt to personify everything your company is and hopes to be, which as you can imagine, is a monumental challenge. There are three main outlets for your brand to exhibit itself.
When most people think of a brand, they think of its logo and colors—two defining signatures that, when present, can color the impression of an entire ad or sponsorship. Think about the subtle power of the Nike swoosh on a headband, or the ubiquitous and familiar FedEx logo on trucks and packages. It’s more than just a name or an iconography—it’s a symbol of an idea.
Ideally, your logo and colors will stick with you through the ages. Even as your brand requires updating, your customers will still be able to recognize the core. Take Shell, for instance, which has updated its logo many times without ever alienating the original concept:
(Image Source: Logo My Way)
It’s hard to communicate a personality through a shape and color scheme, but that’s what the other elements are for. The logo, colors, and even the tagline merely serve as quick identifiers for people to pick up on.
Your logo and colors are all about making a fast impression, whereas your image and character require some investment—they need to be built over time. There are many potential applications and signatures here; for example, your company’s mission and vision statements can speak volumes about who your company is and what it does. Your choice of social media platforms, advertising, and the type of building you occupy can also tell consumers (and employees) what type of company you are.
These are intangible, hard-to-define qualities, which makes them a challenge to pin down. But take a look at this Doritos ad:
(Image Source: Deseret News)
The lunacy in this ad, independent from the logo’s presence and the tone of voice (which I’ll touch on next), is something you wouldn’t find in an ad for Wells Fargo or Rolex. It’s a brand of a different character altogether.
Finally, there’s the voice you use—and that voice isn’t limited to written messages. Your brand’s voice should flow in every piece of content you produce, from your blog posts, infographics, and videos, to internal memos, to social media channels. Take Taco Bell’s casual, down-to-earth, surrealist voice as an example:
Can you imagine if Taco Bell wrote something like, “Tacos are an inexpensive way to satisfy your hunger. Ours are prepared fresh. Learn more: (link)”? It doesn’t seem to fit.
Now that you have an idea about what your brand should cumulatively entail, it’s time to start building the foundation for your work. We’re not going to build your brand all at once; this is just the infrastructural work that we’ll need for modifications down the line.
Your competitors are going to be a rich source of information for you as you develop your own brand. You’ll learn what to do, what not to do, and how to distinguish yourself from the crowd—and with these tenets, you can start constructing the pillars of your brand.
(Image Source: Strategy Business)
Speaking of standing out, your brand must if it wants to survive. There must be at least one factor, preferably more, that no other brand in your industry possesses to make yours seem unique in the crowd. To find this quality, you must look at what your brand offers; what unique value can you give your customers? Is it your excellent customer service? Is it your friendly atmosphere? Is it your underdog status? Is it your novel approach?
Try to pin down as many qualities as possible, and integrate those into your preliminary brand identity. For example, if one of your key differentiators is your game-changing app, emphasize your break from the mainstream with an edgier brand personality. If you’re trying to emphasize value, make your brand more logical and calculating.
It’s not enough to identify your competitors and how you stand out in the crowd. After all, there’s only one thing that matters when it comes to the effectiveness of a brand: how your customers accept it. Accordingly, before you go any further in your brand development, you need to ask yourself some serious questions about your target demographics.
(Image Source: Adweek)
Okay. At this point you have a tenuous grasp on what your brand is, at least at the center of its identity. If it helps you, make a list of all the qualities you wish your brand to have and keep them as a point of reference for this section. Here, I’ll introduce you to a number of different strategies and exercises you can use to take those qualities and flesh them out into something more comprehensive and substantial.
When you look at your list of key brand qualities, it may look a little bit jumbled. You may see lots of words on the page, but no clear identity shining through. This exercise will help you create a more approachable identity for your brand, one that transcends the words you’ve written on the page, and may help you find new qualities to introduce or manage.
Instead of thinking of your brand in the colorless term of a “corporate identity,” instead, think of your brand as a human being—a fictional character. What would this person be like in real life? How would they talk? What would they look like? How would they dress, walk, and act in different situations? Can you see this person making a good impression with your target demographics? Why or why not? Make adjustments accordingly, and sculpt your character as you would for a character in film or literature.
Some brands have actually attempted to do this literally. Remember Apple’s “Mac vs. PC” ads?
(Image Source: Business Insider)
They’ve done the work of characterizing Apple as the hip, young, easygoing man while contrasting it against his stuffy, mediocre counterpart. It says a lot about the brand as a whole, and you can almost see these characters’ identities emanating in their different brand environments.
You’ve currently listed a number of qualities you want your brand to have, but how many adjectives have you used? Come up with a giant list of adjectives—and you may need help for this—that may or may not describe your brand. Randomize them, and start evaluating them one by one. Ask yourself: does this describe your brand? Why or why not? This will lead you to new and different perspectives on what your brand truly is. You may even find some new words that describe qualities you’d like your brand to have that you hadn’t thought of before.
Sometimes, it’s even easier to define what your brand is by defining exactly what your brand isn’t. Take the time to generate a list of qualities that are the antithesis of your brand, and play them out in hypothetical scenarios. These scenarios will serve as a counterpoint to whatever strategies and qualities you do come up with. For example, if you want to be a brand that’s youthful, playful, and down-to-earth, come up with some ad taglines that are the opposite of your intention, such as ones that speak to an older generation, or put on airs. Then, come up with an appropriate version of the message that fits in line with your target brand characteristics. Seeing them side-by-side will help you illuminate and pinpoint the key areas of differentiation.
When you put your brand in place, you’re going to be featuring it everywhere, so try experimenting with your brand in different areas. What kind of advertising would your brand produce? What kind of voice would it have for a blog post or an ongoing content marketing campaign? How can you structure your customer service emails differently, or change the way your sales team approaches new deals? Run isolated test scenarios as a kind of sandbox for your working brand platform. If you run into an ambiguity, or don’t know how your brand can change or influence something, it means you’ve overlooked a key element of your brand and you may need to return to a former planning stage.
You aren’t going to get it perfect the first time. Or the second time. You can’t think of everything during the brainstorming and initial outline phase. The only way to uncover every possibility is to put your brand in place, and make adjustments as you come to encounter new challenges and situations. Don’t be afraid to make mild adjustments to your brand along the way, as long as you aren’t compromising the main pillars that you’ve already established.
It’s up to you how you want to finalize your brand. Most companies opt for some kind of “brand manual” or guidebook that explains everything there is to know about your brand, including color requirements, taglines, characteristics, and specific applications. If you’re working with an external marketing firm, they’ll almost certainly supply you with such a tangible handbook. The key is to come up with something tangible and accessible among your entire staff that recaps everything you’ve established thus far in a formal and concrete way.
If you’re releasing a new brand for your company, it may be beneficial to make a formal announcement on social media and through press releases. The extra attention will give you an initial boost in visibility, and will help to “finalize” the change, especially if you have current clients. This can be as grandiose or as innocuous as you wish it to be, and you certainly don’t have to make a formal announcement (especially if you’re a new company that has never released a brand to begin with). Judge the advantages and disadvantages for yourself.
Much like any other marketing strategy, you probably aren’t going to be good at it without some kind of experience. The first few times you go to write up a press release, or respond to a customer via email, you may find yourself struggling to frame it in a way that’s consistent with your brand. Don’t worry—this happens to even the most seasoned brand experts, and it’s a natural part of the process. As you get to know your brand better, just like you would a person, you’ll more easily access and understand the characteristics you need to harness—and of course, how to actually harness them.
If you’re concerned about how you’re implementing the brand, spend some time practicing your brand standards on your own. Write out a handful of simple sentences such as “I want to eat ice cream” or “my dog is running fast and I can’t keep up,” then try to rewrite those sentences with a flair and intonation that matches the brand you’ve imagined.
You may already have a handbook or formal set of guidelines, but consider going a step further and creating simpler “cheat sheets” for you and your staff. These cheat sheets should consist of a single page, and include some of the most important highlights about how to use your brand. These may include examples, illustrations, or questions to ask before sending a message like, “does the message convey a sense of friendliness?” or “is there a way to make your message more formal?” This will help your staff keep things straight until they’ve all had the chance to develop an intuitive grasp of your brand.
Don’t forget there’s also an internal element to your branding efforts. The qualities you’ve created for your brand shouldn’t just permeate all the outbound messages and ads you’re sending; they should dictate the type of environment you’ve created for your partners, workers, and clients. For example, if you want to be an energetic, hip brand, your office should be energetic and hip. If you want to be classy and worthy of respect, your office should be sleek, and your dress code should be stringent.
Look at any major brand, and you’ll be able to see elements of their brand personality in their corporate headquarters. Just take a look at Google as an example:
(Image Source: TIME)
Congratulations! You’ve officially created a brand, entirely from scratch, and you’ve put it into complete practice in your organization. Now for the hard part: keeping it consistent! Consistency is one of the most vital parts of your branding strategy—even the best brand will fall apart if you aren’t consistent in applying it.
However, don’t ever feel like your brand is totally locked in. Over the years, you may find yourself offering different services, targeting different demographics, or maybe even falling behind in terms of technology and competition. In these cases, it’s more than permissible—it’s necessary—to update your brand. The key is to keep your brand consistent enough to avoid alienating any of your previous followers, while making enough changes to present a new identity. It’s not easy, and it’s not that simple, so I may cover it in a future post. Until then, stick with the brand you have, and embrace it for what it is—a singular encapsulation of your organization.
Hopefully, after reading this guide, all those technical SEO details relating to your brand should seem a lot less technical. If you’ve followed the guide step-by-step, you should have been able to tackle tasks like building robots.txt files and improving your site’s speed even if you don’t have experience in creating or managing websites.
Even though this guide covers some of the most important fundamentals of SEO and online brand building, and can help you through the basics of technical SEO, it’s important to realize that SEO is a deep and complex strategy with far more considerations than a guide like this can comprehensively cover. A good next step would be to check out 101 Ways to Improve Your Website’s SEO.