The brand is dead, long live the brand: how is search affecting brand traffic?

  • 1
  • March 7, 2012
Matthew Jackson

Matthew Jackson

Planning Director

Here at Branded3, we get access to a lot of client’s web analytics accounts and have a lot of information across a number of different sectors. We are constantly looking for ways to present data and analyse how traffic is being affected by our campaigns or by other outside factors.

Terms that drive our brand trafficRecently, we have been seeing quite a shift across a number of clients in terms of the amount of Google traffic coming through brand-related terms. When we talk about brand terms we mean something like a user typing into the Google search box your brand name, your URL, or some other modifier around your brand terms.

For example, the screen shot on your left shows the top 20 brand-related searches bringing traffic to the Branded3 website. I used the filter box in analytics to include all terms containing “branded”. For other sites you might need to filter for a number of other terms, but this can easily be done by using a RegEx statement.

You might see that in position 11 is the term “how good is branded3 agency”. Why people feel the need to search for this I’m not sure (I can tell you the answer is ‘excellent!’) Anyway, these terms are good for us to segment out when we look at a client’s traffic, because it allows us to compare organic traffic growth without comparing how the actual brand name is growing.

For example, you might be a new start-up business who is not very well-known in the industry; but fast-forward three months; and your offline advertising may have made your brand quite well-known, so a lot more users may now search for you.

This would increase the traffic to your site but this would only be because of the increase in brand awareness and nothing to do with a natural SEO campaign. By filtering out brand we can see what your SEO campaign is actually doing to the traffic to your site.

Recently, across a number of clients we have been seeing fluctuations in brand visits to sites comparing year-on-year figures. Natural search campaigns might be performing well and non-brand traffic seeing good increases across a number of different terms; but despite this, the brand visits are not following the same trend and might only be increasing a small amount, seeing some dips or even a small decrease.

Changes to site traffic sources year on year

This graph shows the percentage change in traffic year on year for a few different traffic sources across one of our clients. When I stopped to look at this, there was no obvious reason why the drop in organic brand traffic was occurring. The clients were still doing a lot of offline PR and one different client even had a big campaign going on which was creating lots of social chatter so in theory brand traffic should be at least slowly increasing if not staying static. So what are the possible causes of these changes?

PPC cannibalisation

Initially, the main reason which might come to mind would be the increased PPC brand bidding either by our clients or by competitors who are taking advantage of stronger brands. This would increase the chance of a search going to the site (or competitors site) from a PPC brand term.

You would therefore expect the brand traffic through PPC to be changing proportionately to the changes seen in organic traffic, but this is not often the case and in some instances the PPC brand traffic has seen the same changes.

Not provided keywords

Another reason might be the ‘not provided’ keyword issue that Google dealt to SEO’s across the globe a few months back. Some brand traffic will now be being counted as non-brand traffic. There are some ways around this to see if much of this could be related to brand, but quite often the number of ‘not provided’ visits is so small that even if all the visits were brand related queries, then this still does not account for the drop.

Apps and direct traffic

Another possible explanation is the rise in the use of apps which some clients have. If users have these installed then they are likely to use this more often than searching for a brand term in Google.

This would reduce brand and direct visits and not be recorded in analytics, so it is important to track the number of users who have downloaded the app. However this does not explain the changes when clients do not have apps.

Brand search is changing

All these examples might lead to small fluctuations in brand traffic but one other explanation is that people are genuinely no longer searching for brands. People are nowadays more interested in great deals than great brands.

They are more interested in using a site which will provide the best price, rather than the best customer service, best user experience or most well-respected providers. There was a survey carried out by Accenture recently that looked at the shopping habits and brand loyalty of a range of online shoppers in the US.

This shows that even though people might be more satisfied by your brand, they are still happy to look around for a better deal. With the rise of mobile search, recent surveys suggest that mobile search accounts for 40% or more of some sites traffic, people are perhaps changing the way they search. Are people becoming more used to searching for what they want rather than who they know?

If you are a big brand, then a user on a mobile device is not going to want to spend hours using your search interface on their smartphone when they can type one product into Google.

So what does this mean for brands? In the past Google has been quick to try and help well-respected brands rank well in search results, so maybe people are having to switch their search habits and be more generic, or search for products rather than brands and then click on the brand name they know in the product search result.

If you have a big brand and rely on customers knowing you and returning to use your site then you might need to rethink this and focus on how you will be able to drive traffic through non-brand terms and make sure that if you appear for these products that you have an established brand name that is going to be the reason that makes someone click on your listing.

One thing we have seen a lot of lately is the rise of the exact match domains (EMD’s). These are sites where someone buys up a domain name that matches a specific search term and then can very quickly rank well for that search term. Sometimes these can be a great way to do business and there are some big sites out there which are EMD’s but the problem comes when Google does finally decide to devalue EMD’s.

Is your site still going to be strong enough to perform in the search results when Google doesn’t look as much at the domain name and instead is looking at other on-site factors and link profiles? If you have not invested enough in building up a brand reputation around your site then you are not going to be able to continue to bring in the traffic you have been used to.

At Branded3, we try to look at marketing on a holistic approach. There is no point just focusing online and not ensuring that you brand is getting enough coverage elsewhere. There is no point providing a great price or deal if your site is not user-friendly and no one can actually find your products.

SEO is about creating a good online brand profile, combining that with a great website, and then ensuring that you can get traffic from not only your brand name but from other search queries and referrals from social media and other sites.

The more established and trusted your brand name is the easier it should be to do this, but even if you are not so well-known it is still worth investing some time in making sure that your brand becomes more well-known. Without broadening the way you get your traffic you are leaving yourself open to failure if Google decides they don’t like you.

If anyone else has seen any similar changes in brand traffic over the last year then get in touch I’d be interested to hear any other possible causes for the brand fluctuations.