>> Part 1 of 2 in a series on branding and SEO.
A loyal reader of the Gist Brands blog recently posed a great question on Twitter about brand naming and search engine optimization:
My response was pretty direct on the issue, but I thought the concept was big enough and important enough to warrant some in-depth discussion and the rationale behind my advice.
The Domain Dilemma: Dominance or Differentiation?
The ultimate goal of branding is differentiation, and in most cases it’s hard to differentiate a brand by sticking to generic or purely descriptive terms; those general product and service categories and keyword terms we would typically fall back on for organic search.
Your company or brand name, and the related domain name, are key aspects of differentiation and brand building, especially for start-ups who lack an existing client base, market presence, or following. While the name (and logo) are not the actual brand (see a related post on the distinction between those) they are key aspects of building brand identity—the visible tip of the iceberg—and should take the lead on beginning that differentiation, or at least be chosen to underscore and support a key aspect of that differentiation.
In “old school” search engine optimization, the holy grail was an Exact Match Domain (EMD.) These are the root (generic, if you will) domains of single or strung keywords that someone might use for organic search, domains like tires.com or businessaccounting.com. Early adopters were casting their nets wide with the advent of internet marketing and simply looking to amass traffic to websites, and EMDs were an easy key to that kind of dominance.
But things have changed. EMDs are much less important now than a good, memorable brand name, and a domain and social identities (Twitter handles, Facebook brand pages, etc.) that closely match the brand.
Let’s talk about why and what’s changed, here, and what role SEO and keywords should play in general. Then we’ll talk about how to strategize choosing an appropriate brand name and domain in an upcoming post.
A Brief History of (SEO) Time
Originally, Google and other search engines assigned a higher page rank to EMDs assuming they were valid, specialized, and expert sites. Google thought they were doing us a service and it was an easy way to sort and rank a fairly limited number of options, compared to today’s search results. Soon, affiliate marketers were snagging any and all—even totally random and misspelled—EMDs for that “firehose” of traffic, and pointing them to spammy landing pages from which to market all sorts of related and unrelated products and services. We’ve all ended up on one of those.
As a result, even though we search with “generic” keywords we often don’t trust the authority or relevancy of the sites connected with many of the EMDs that may get served up in response to an organic search query, at least when we’re searching for something important. Either that or we assume EMDs represent commodities; things that are completely interchangeable (for example, our earlier tires.com example.) In most cases, I would hope, we don’t want our brand thought of as generic, irrelevant, or commoditized. Unless you are a large, deep-pocketed brand seeking to dominate the generic terms for your category, you are better served pursuing a smarter, more differentiated approach.
Like your size and budget, some of the appropriate reasoning and decision-making in choosing a brand name and domain has to do with addressing your own business and brand strategy before settling on a direction. Are you really looking to just drive and capture any old traffic? Or are you looking for qualified leads and serious, quality inquiries?
Search Engines, and Searchers, are Smarter.
Contrary to the early days of both SEO and search, you can see there are now historical, experiential, and perceptual barriers to consider with EMDs or a brand name that’s simply a mash-up of keywords. And some direct and descriptive options actually work against you perceptually or introduce skepticism, even if they are true or align with your strategy. If your earlier search had served you up bestpricetiresonline.com, would you really take the site’s claim at face value?
The search playing field has also changed over time, thanks to Google—and other search engines—de-emphasizing the importance of EMDs. Early gaming of the system to “fool” Google’s algorithms caused the search giant to refocus on page and content relevancy, and give that a heavy weighting in page ranking. Relevancy is determined on scads of factors, and the exact rules and algorithms to ranking are closely guarded and constantly evolving to avoid the Wild West banditry of early SEO. (In fact, practicing some of the old tricks can get your site penalized in rankings today.)
It’s not just the importance of EMDs that have changed in search. While still a factor, Google also has downplayed random and volume inbound and outbound links, looking instead for authority, relevancy, trusted sources, and quality links in terms of ranking pages. It’s a constant tweaking process. Google knows that people want to be served up the results that they can rely on, will find interesting, or that will be relevant. And they’re doing everything they can to serve their demanding public.
Content is King. And Social Media is Queen.
That’s why, in today’s online world, content is king. If you want appropriate traffic to your website and brand, the best way to gain that pipeline and volume is to not only develop a brandable name, domain, and related social media identities, but also to build a good base of original content (website page content, topical blog posts, social media conversations, etc.) to position yourself as a relevant and authoritative site. And the narrower you can niche that, the faster you can build relevancy.
It’s not that the keywords are unimportant; not at all. But they are more important in your content and conversations than they are in your domain. The days of lazy SEO are over.
Valuable, unique content is also much more likely to be shared via social media. In addition to giving you more exposure on multiple platforms (all of which are typically optimized for SEO themselves) that social sharing activity is one of the signals Google is thought to consider when ranking pages and sites.
Brand Should Be a Strong Foundation, Not a Moving Target.
Understand, relevancy and page ranking are moving, and constantly evolving, targets. As sites, links, and sheer amounts of data proliferate, search engines will have to come up with more ways to scan, parse, qualify, prioritize, and serve up relevant content to make users happy. So what works today may not be perfectly optimal tomorrow; in fact we can guarantee it.
Better then to choose your brand name and domain on a broad branding, business, and content strategy rather than engineering it strictly to game today’s SEO criteria that will surely change.
And while it’s a sure thing that relevancy algorithms and search criteria will continue to evolve, it’s not very likely that search engines are going to radically overhaul to ignore or downplay content expertise and relevancy in favor of self-selected keywords and names. An investment in strategy (brand, web, and SEO) and content not only gains you relevancy, it helps to target and prequalify your clients and encourage them to engage.
The bottom line?
While content is the biggest lever for SEO, it’s not unimportant to at least consider some aspects of keyword search in your brand name considerations, but it’s probably extremely unwise to base your decision solely on that one factor, or to allow someone outside your organization—especially one with a specific bias—to choose your brand name and domain for you.
Businesses today know that SEO is an important piece in their digital brand and strategy, but they don’t always know where it fits or how to leverage it best. A good SEO specialist is going to know that keywords are critical for gaining relevance, page ranking, and traffic, but that it is about your digital presence and content as a whole, not solely the choice of a brand name or domain name. And a great SEO specialist is going to know that branding and name selection is part of a larger integrated and holistic strategy and will be looking at the long game as opposed to a quick win.
This is the first of a series of two posts on branding and SEO. Up next: How to Choose a Brandable (and Available) Name and Domain; including Six Characteristics of a Brandable Domain; and More Advice on Choosing Your Brand Name and Domain Combo.
Special thanks to Dan Phillips (@DesignPhilled) of Design Philled for his original question via Twitter, and for the review and weigh-in of Keith Fleming (@540SEO) of 540 SEO on current SEO strategy and factors.