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Dark Days for Big Brand SEO

Posted on 8.03.2014

By Amberly Dressler

If money, fame and compliments are the benchmarks for success, big brands truly have it all. In fact, they have it so good that many of them are instantly recognized by simple symbols like an apple, a bull’s-eye, a shell and the list goes on.

To a degree, these brands’ popularity extends to the Web. Even when large enterprises overlook SEO fundamentals, they can still benefit from their name alone.


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“If you are listed on the New York Stock Exchange, Google is going to give you more traffic than a small no-name brand,” said Ken Gaebler, CEO of Walker Sands. “In part, that’s because when you are publicly traded, you get a ton of great inbound links that raise your stature in the eyes of the search engines. But the reality is that two smart guys working in a garage who are SEO gurus can get more organic traffic than a big company that is taking SEO for granted.”

When big brands grow complacent or don’t recognize the value that SEO can bring to their organizations, this provides ample opportunities for marketers at any size company to expose and capitalize on their weaknesses. If they’re not careful, even the richest and most famous enterprises may face dark days - losing market share to businesses that are hungrier for traffic and leads.

A Misguided Perception

With 63 percent of marketers planning to increase their SEO budgets this year (source: Econsultancy and Responsys), it’s hard to believe that any enterprise would devalue search marketing. Still, digital marketing agencies like Walker Sands often see organizations underestimating SEO’s contributions. There is, however, a pretty good explanation.

“SMBs tend to be closer to information about where leads come from, and as a result they know how many leads they get from SEO,” said Gaebler. “As an SMB owner, you only need to get one big sale from SEO to recognize its power to drive business growth.

“In a large organization, in contrast, a sales rep might get an SEO lead and never know that it came via SEO. Even if she does know the lead came from SEO, she can’t drive any organizational energy toward getting more SEO leads. So, SEO tends to be underappreciated and underinvested in at many large-brand organizations, unless they happen to have people who understand the power of SEO and can harness and unleash that power within their organization.”


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Getting those people in place is never an easy feat, as there is yet another misconception about SEO – that it’s gimmicky or unethical.

“There’s this sense that it’s a fringe marketing tactic,” said Gaebler. “The reality is that it aligns incredibly well with traditional marketing objectives: define an audience; understand what they are interested in; and give them engaging content that advances the interest of your business. If you do that, you are 9-10ths of the way to having a great SEO program.

“These days, SEO is mostly about creating good content, but doing it with SEO in mind. Many large brands haven’t yet realized that their content marketing programs and their SEO programs need to be one and the same thing.”

A Content Collapse

Being a large, well-known brand is seen as an obvious SEO advantage and while some argue that Google gives them special treatment, the enormous influence and engagement that big brands bring to the Web cannot be mistaken. They can grow so accustomed to the power of their brand, however, that they become a bit lazy, according to SEMrush Director of Marketing Michael Stricker. He warns that spending little time, money or effort on exploring other keyword types (like informational, transactional, navigational) beyond branded keywords can impede their success and make them vulnerable to new, disruptive competitors.

Take a large beauty brand as an example. Using SEMrush, it discovered an over-reliance on traffic resulting from their branded keywords. There were virtually no landing pages or fresh content being created to capitalize on emerging keyword queries in their product’s “wordspace,” which Stricker defines as an imaginary boundary that encompasses all text-based content within their domain. Consequently, several competitors had made great strides in attracting organic and paid traffic using related terms.

The fact that some of these were longer-tail phrases that included price, quantity and other transactional details, indicated that they were savvy enough to seek searchers who were further down the conversion funnel and likely to convert.

Unmonitored Trademarks

Similar to how brands can underestimate the need for new content, so too do they forget about protecting their trademarks. By not using the tools available to detect trademark words and phrases (like SEMrush, SpyFu, KeywordSpy, etc.), they not only miss out on sales and leads, but may also need to take legal action against competing brands that might be abusing their trademarks.

One way or another, enterprises need to regain control. For example, SEMrush was used to examine a particular beauty product whose household name was hijacked as the primary keyword in ads that were performing very well – for the competition. The advice that resulted was that even though the brand name attracted great interest organically, the company should advertise using its own trademark, to preserve the trademark and to compete with the trademark hijackers. This turns out to be a good strategy.

“The brand’s own Web pages are so relevant to the term that the resulting Quality Score will make it far less expensive for the trademark owner to bid for those ads,” said Stricker. “The ‘trademark thief’ will have to pay more and is likely to become discouraged.”

Once the abuse has ended, the trademark owner can cut back advertising, and continue to monitor using SEMrush.

Needed Change

As much as large brands have going for them, their biases and passiveness toward SEO can inhibit their online success, as can their bureaucratic structure. Gaebler of Walker Sands notes that the antidotes are education, planning and communication. He continues that large companies should always have an SEO program with educational sessions that explain what SEO is and why it’s important - getting more people interested, involved and contributing.

The second driver of change is planning, which can be as simple as creating and maintaining a calendar of due dates and responsibilities. Finally, if an organization truly wants to control its digital presence, they need to establish communication channels.

“Microsoft, for example, has an annual SEO Summit that is attended by 500 attendees who are on the front lines of the SEO effort,” said Gaebler. “They have monthly SEO meet-ups in local geographies where they get between 30 and 60 attendees. There’s constant day-to-day communication on a variety of SEO issues. That’s how you keep things moving forward without making any big mistakes.”

A New Day

Big brands shouldn’t take search engine traffic for granted. By acting as if it were still early days in a company’s history, brands will start competing for SEO traffic and stop relying on name recognition alone.

“You still need to execute the basic blocking and tackling fundamentals of marketing, and that includes having an active, strategic and well-executed SEO program,” said Gaebler. “Big brands die off all the time and it’s usually because they got fat and complacent, and started neglecting the little details. Their founders would be rolling in their graves.”

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