How to Take Advantage of Big Brand SEO for Your Small(er) Business
There’s been a common theme lately under discussion in some of the big SEO forums. The concern, in a nutshell, is that there is a major tide of change underway in the SEO world. Many SEO pros are concerned that big brands with huge budgets, reach, and exposure are getting a disproportionate number of the top search results for highly sought-after keywords.
This trend can be disheartening for smaller brands that are working hard to increase their SEO rankings. If you’re already outgunned on the selling and marketing front, will the playing field be forever unleveled if the big brands take over the search engine results as well?
I’d like to take a closer look at this issue, and then make a suggestion. Instead of lamenting this change, work to understand what’s happening and figure out how you can make the system work for you. If you can’t compete dollar for dollar or link for link with big brands, is there a way that you can benefit from their success and better position your own company vis-à-vis their positioning? I think so, and will offer a closer look at this perspective and how I’m achieving this very result for my own clients.
The importance of “brand”
Many of the assumptions behind the idea that Google is prioritizing big brands come from Google’s stated position that branding is important. As early as 2008, Google CEO Eric Schmidt is quoted as saying the following:
“Brands are how you sort out the cesspool. Brand affinity is clearly hard wired. It is so fundamental to human existence that it’s not going away. It must have a genetic component.”
It’s important to understand the context of the quote. Schmidt was addressing magazine publishers that were concerned about the threat from individual and independent publishers. Independent publishers are code for website owners, by the way.
To take a hypothetical scenario, if you have two sites competing for a product-related term, branding plays some role in which one achieves the higher rank in search results. A site like Amazon may come up higher than a regional player for queries like picnic tables, roofing services, or red sneakers. The question is how brands are accounted for in the algorithm, and whether this is a simple generalization or indicative of a specific factor that’s gaining more traction in the algorithm over time.
In the marketing world, the idea of brands is simple: brands are trusted sources for a specific type of product or service. The quote above seems to indicate that the same general concept — that brands equal trust on some level — is at play at least in a general way in the search engines as well. Tactically speaking, building your brand and building your SEO profile are similar in that the end result is your company being associated with a specific set of values.
The natural SEO benefits of “brand”
There are several natural SEO benefits that follow a strong brand:
· Loyal customers that follow and engage with your materials
· A site with a strong focus that’s easy to optimize around a single set of priority keywords
· Well-funded content budgets, leading to strong content and natural, organic and relevant inbound links
· An easier path to landing guest posts and other features in topical publications and websites
· A strong social media component through your fan base and your overall focus
· Authority and trust when you speak “on brand” and “on message”
· Recognition of names, visual identity and topical framing
· Naturally high occurrence of non-link citations, e.g. people discussing your brand even when they don’t link to it
· Co-citations — mentioning that you write about or offer X service at Y location, and both brands relating back to each other
Even without a strong focus from Google, it’s easy to see why these aspects provide a natural advantage for a strong or well-known brand. It creates a context where the three pillars of SEO — great content, strong links, and an active social media presence — function naturally.
An unbranded site is starting from scratch, working these three angles deliberately while trying to attract a following, in the hopes that eventually it will lead to becoming a recognized brand. A strong brand may very well find that they have a head start on the SEO front, without making an explicit investment in that area.
With this in mind, and combined with the realities of big budgets and access to top marketing talent, it’s easier to understand why big brands are getting ahead.
What’s really happening out there?
As with every topic in the SEO world, the question of big brand versus small brand is a controversial one. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer, and the results vary from query to query. Some people swear that big brands are taking the lead, and others argue that it’s a persistent SEO myth. Yet it’s a big enough issue that it’s been raised to Matt Cutts in public forums such as conferences and online discussions.
SERoundtable reported that Cutts was asked why big brands were allowed to get away with more during a panel at SMX. In response, Cutt is reported to have replied:
“Big brands cannot do whatever they want. They look at value add, etc. Faster, better, better UI, content, etc. It is weird, Google does take action on big sites and big sites often do not like to talk about it. So it happens a lot.”
During a “Future of SEO Panel,” at SMX this year, the topic came up repeatedly. Moderator Danny Sullivan suggested: “Search engines don’t favor ‘big’ brands, they favor information and authority that can stand on its own.”
Cutts went on to reiterate: “Individuals can absolutely become brands. If you can put out creative content, the moms and pops of the world can become great brands.”
In another article written by Sam McRoberts, McRoberts states:
“To sum it up: if you aren’t a brand, and aren’t willing or able to turn your business into a brand, organic search is probably out of your reach (or will be in the not too distant future).”
I asked McRoberts for further comment on the issue of big brands dominating the search landscape, to which he replied:
“The thing is, big brands deserve to dominate the rankings. If smaller players can’t make themselves a more worthy result, then they shouldn’t rank. As an SEO, when I’m looking at a potential client, I ask myself a question. If I searched for this keyword, and found this site, would I be happy I landed there, or would I leave? If I’d leave, then they don’t deserve to rank.”
Clearly, the days are numbered for companies that aren’t doing anything to turn themselves into a brand. All this discussion is happening against the broader landscape of the idea that transparency matters more. The importance of author expertise, authority, and trustworthiness is increasing. Who wrote the content? What are their qualifications? What else have they written, and does their body of work demonstrate a trend of expertise?
Anecdotally, I’ve noticed that many search terms seem to have big brands appearing. Searching for a simple term such as a scanner, for example, leads to several pages of big brand results. A similar search in Bing leads you to all smaller brand results.
So what’s a small brand to do?
If your keywords are being overrun with big brand results, is it time to throw in the towel? I don’t think so. Instead, think differently about this issue. Why not find an opportunity to contribute to or blog for these brands? Think about the power of a guest post to capture some solid links and increase your visibility. Contributing guest posts to the top sites includes the following benefits:
· Build links from a trusted, big name site
· Get your name and expertise in front of their audience
· Build co-citations with your brand and theirs
· Expand your following and your personal brand recognition
So how do you land a big-brand guest post?
If all of your guest posting efforts to date have focused on niche sites, it can be easy to become overwhelmed at the thought of approaching a big brand’s publishing arm. Here’s a quick five step process that’ll help you navigate the process.
1. Identify your opportunities
The first step is to locate blogs or other publishers where you could contribute. When many people hear this, their first thought is that big brands don’t have sites where they can contribute. Two examples that come to mind are Intuit’s Small Business Blog and The American Express Open Forum.
To find these opportunities, take a look at the various websites that are associated with a brand. Many times, the blogs that they are promoting are featured prominently on the site. If that doesn’t yield what you’re looking for, spend time searching for the brand name and terms such as “guest blog,” “contributor,” “submit article,” “write for us,” and “author guidelines.” Opportunities you didn’t know existed may bubble to the top of the search engine results.
2. Get to know the site
Before you begin to pitch, it’s critical that you spend time getting to know the site. Here are some key factors to take a closer look at:
· What are the brand’s core values, and how are those played out across the site?
· Who is the audience for this blog?
· What topics, problems, or areas do they cover?
· What opportunities or angles have articles to date missed, that could make a stand-out contribution?
· Do the pieces that they post follow a specific formula or format that you need to emulate?
· Are there any hot buttons that I’ll need to avoid to get past the brand’s lawyers and brand stewards (marketing, sales, or executive management)?
There’s an endless array of questions that it’s important to understand, but the key takeaway for this phase is that you walk away confident that you can craft a strong pitch and delivery an article that is too great not to publish.
3. Draft a strong pitch before you write the piece
Crafting a great pitch isn’t rocket science, but it does require doing your homework ahead of time and spending the time to frame your proposed topic in a compelling way. A great pitch always has four sections:
· Establish that you know the blog: open with a reference or two to something you read and why you found it compelling. E.G. “I really enjoyed your recent coverage of the National Rodeo Finals, and in particular, the focus of marketing tactics to reach a younger generation.
· Be clear about your intention to contribute and offer a strong lead: “I’m writing to ask if you accept submissions from freelance writers. The recent developments in the area of Obamacare are critical to your small business audience.”
· Briefly explain why this topic matters to their audience: Don’t presume to say that “it’ll be great for your audience” but instead establish why their audience needs this information. If relevant, connect it to the company’s brand promise.
· Share a brief bio to give yourself credibility: Write a short, powerful bio that shows your expertise and credibility. If possible, include a line about other places you’ve published. It’s critically important that this section be no more than two or three lines.
4. Create epic content that’s worthy of the brand opportunity
Invest heavily in creating great content. It’s important to assume that this will be a high visibility piece that continues to get views for a long time to come. Therefore, make sure that whatever you submit represents your best work.
· Write a great draft, and allow yourself adequate time to develop your ideas.
· Support your argument and thoughts with data, images, videos, and other back up that help it be memorable.
· Polish your writing. Test the piece with people you trust and if possible, get a professional writer or editor to review your work.
· Always submit your work on time, and in a format that fits their guidelines or makes it as easy as possible for the piece to be posted.
5. Have a promotion plan
Finally, it’s easy to assume that once the content is posted that the hard work is done. In reality, your work is just beginning. Make the most of this opportunity and share it widely. Take advantage of your social media channels, your newsletter, and participating in social sharing sites.
Look for opportunities to share the material on social news sites and other key places where it’s likely to be seen by people in your industry. The more traffic your piece generates — and of course, the more social signals — the more likely you’ll be invited to contribute again in the future.
For a more in-depth overview of exactly how to execute your guest blogging strategy, see my article “The Ultimate, Step-by-Step Guide to Building Your Business by Guest Blogging.”
If you’re finding that big brands are creeping into the search results for your key terms, don’t assume that all hope is lost. You know the saying: “If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘em.” As you continue to work to build your online search visibility and improve your rankings and brand awareness and exposure, think about contributing to a big brand site in the form a guest blog post. You might be surprised at the results this single effort brings for your brand.