In last week’s #SEMrushchat, we talked about an exceptionally important topic: how brand authority interacts with SEO as a ranking factor, since we just released our newest study: the 17 most prominent Google ranking factors. We invited expert, Jennifer Slegg - founder & editor of The SEM Post, speaker, and author of Understanding Google Panda Algo Guide. Along with her and our other guests, we focused on questions like how to identify a good brand authority, how authority influences rankings, and how PR and SEO can, and should, interact. Here is what they had to say:
Q1. How do you identify a good brand authority? What are the main metrics you would use?
There are three factors that come into play: expertise, authority, and trustworthiness. Expertise is your knowledge level and the value you can provide on any given subject. Expertise is your knowledge level and the value you can provide on any given subject. Your authority is how established your brand is, both in your industry and online. Trustworthiness is how much customers and industry peers trust that you, your content, and your products and services are all top-notch.
When it comes to measuring these factors, there are a number of metrics to look at in order to get the full picture, all of which can individually strengthen your search rank.
There are several ways to measure this. The first is branded search volume, or how many people are searching for you by name. Instead of searching for “sneakers,” for example, someone might search for “Nike sneakers” due to the brand being well established. This includes branded products, content, and even social media.
Site links, including the number of backlinks a site has, are essential. In fact, our Ranking Factors study found that there was a direct correlation between the total number of backlinks a site had and its position in the SERPs, with every domain ranking for high-volume keywords having about 3x more backlinks than from lower-volume groups on the same position.
That being said, you don’t want to spam your links or use unethical practices to build links; Google penalized Rap Genius for doing just that recently, knocking them from the top page of the results even for their own name. This lasted ten days.
Social mentions are also a key factor. This can significantly improve your brand authority, and the transparency and user-generated content that comes with social media and social mentions can improve trust from other users and help you to be favored by Google.
Other key metrics to keep an eye on include knowledge graph integration, competitors bidding on a brand, and co-citations with competitors in lists. All of these indicate that people are talking about you and interacting with your content and brand organically, helping to establish your brand and raising your authority in Google.
Q2. Should marketers work to increase the branded search volume, or is it something that comes naturally as a result of good PR? Why?
While good PR can naturally increase branded search volume, marketers should also be working diligently to increase their branded search volume simultaneously. Though this may come naturally on its own, deliberately helping this metric increase is always a good idea and producing content that will increase the branded search volume is a good plan.
Ideally, you want customers to search for “Lush bath bombs” instead of just “bath bombs,” or “pepsi.com” instead of “soda.” While it’s relatively easy to rank for branded keywords, it’s more difficult to get customers to search for them.
To do this, you’ll need to spark interest using strategies such as guest posting, word-of-mouth marketing, referrals, and creative campaigns that keep users coming back. It’s about building up your brand and making people interested in that. Having strong content can, over time, also help with this; it is why people search for things like “Jon Loomer Facebook Ads blog post.”
While you can easily rank for brand keywords (unless there is competition for a said keyword), it is better to optimize the brand for all keyword buckets equally. According to Ryan Glass - @RyanGPhx, “Marketers like to drive up branded search volume, and SEO experts want to drive it down and diversify the terms we are visible for.”
It is essential that you are always focused on increasing your brand awareness because it doesn’t just “come naturally” today, where there is an overabundance of content and a near crisis of attention scarcity. You could search for almost any given topic and be shown thousands of blog posts and hundreds of free ebooks. While some will definitely be others, it is the brand authority that will often carry the most weight in determining where users click. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how great the content is if you haven’t been able to build a name around it.
In addition to producing more content, you should also be focusing on presenting your products and services in a clear, concise language that includes search phrases that will likely be used by consumers. This is where smart copywriting and keyword research comes into play. If you have optimized your product for “ballet slippers” but most of your target audience is searching for “pointe shoes,” you will miss out on a lot of searches - and a lot of sales.
You shouldn’t neglect the organic power of social mentions and PR placements. They provide a well-rounded, holistic brand authority that is difficult to match without them. Encourage customers to leave reviews, which have a strong word-of-mouth advertising feel and the benefit of immense visibility and immortality on your site. Some reviews will be SERP-friendly, which will automatically help you in rankings and brand authority. Even if they aren’t, however, Google takes customer reviews and mentions of your brand into their ranking consideration.
And, as Andrew Martin - @AndrewDoesSEO pointed out, organic content has the capability to alleviate some of the need for PPC campaigns. When you are building relationships on social media or through content organically, you are staying relevant and on their mind. They will trust you more, and if they need something your business can offer, they will actively search you out instead of you needing to pay for PPC campaigns to win over these customers. You can then allocate that budget to other, more difficult targets like connecting with cold audiences.
Q3. How should SEO and PR work together? What are the main touch points?
It is very clear that SEO and PR go hand-in-hand. Whether it’s a press release or outreach for a guest posting opportunity, you have to think of both disciplines both separately and together in order to get the most out of your marketing. If you want your press release to do well, for example, you want to make sure it is optimized for SEO. At the same time, that very press release could benefit your SEO strategy. The two disciplines are separate, but they are entwined.
In many cases, after all, the best place for some of your content to live isn’t necessarily on your site, but on another site. This has enormous SEO benefits of a good backlink and a strong, relevant built-in audience. Plus, SEO can directly affect the outcomes of our PR goals; an SEO-optimized press release, after all, can ensure that as many people as possible see it. They increase visibility in different ways, and together they can increase brand authority for optimal SERPs.
It is clear that good content writers or PR individuals and strong SEO marketers aren’t always the same people, even if everyone has a general understanding of the other disciplines. PR workers are typically focused specifically on content and sharing certain messages, whereas SEO experts are focused on the array of technical factors that will affect search results.
Because of this, both the PR and content teams and the SEO marketers should be checking in with each other regularly about the goals they have and how to meet them.
PR and SEO are stronger together, and weaker apart. This is a consistent theme that our experts noticed and made sure to point out when weighing in. If you want your big announcement to get as much visibility as possible, after all, you need strong SEO behind it. This can happen when all press releases and content are run by the SEO team, and feedback from the SEO team is observed regarding link opportunities.
Some important examples of how PR and SEO teams should be working together include:
Educating each other and creating goals - and the strategies to accomplish them - together.
Discussing media outreach. The PR team might know that the audience on one site is a better fit for your business, but your SEO specialists might be aware that a different site would provide more valuable backlinks (or that certain links on the same page might be more valuable than others). Together, they will make sure all the bases are covered.
Developing strategies to distribute and amplify content. When consulting each other, these teams can make sure that all of your content is highly readable by both Google and your target audience.
Q4. How, if at all, could authority influence positions in search?
Authority can, and does, influence search a great deal. Brands with higher authority are often more desired, and therefore searched out more frequently by customers because it’s a brand that they trust. This, in turn, results in even better search visibility because it’s getting more traffic. Authority means trust, after all, and trust means better CTR, which means more authority. All of this is an upward spiral that means better SERPs across the board, giving you the ability to rank for more difficult and valuable keywords and show up higher in the results.
This doesn’t just go for consumers; bloggers and publications prefer trusted brands, too. They will trust you and your content more as reliable and accurate, so it’s much easier for a trusted brand to get links than it is for an unknown company to do the same.
This means that known brands have an enormous natural advantage when it comes to generating significantly more backlinks. And, the more backlinks you get, the better your SERPs become. On top of that, if you are able to optimize for keywords correctly, you will dominate the organic traffic, too. Again, it is all about that upwards spiral and building momentum.
In the meantime, there are strategies you can use to make your content more linkable and trustworthy to new visitors. These strategies include:
Sourcing statistics and facts that you can back up and verify from other credible sites and publications.
Adding social share buttons, or quotable “Click to Retweet” CTAs in the text to increase social shares and drive up social proof.
Mentioning influencers, brands, and publications in your own articles, which can help put you on their radar.
Providing value with your contest instead of just trying to sell your products or services aggressively.
It is also worth noting that domain names and queries are seen as search entities instead of brand entities; it is why Google favors big brands. This is why big brands sell a small portion of what companies only sell but consistently rank better for broad search terms because of their site and brand authority in the space. If you search for organic soap, for example, you might be sent to Whole Foods or Target which has two or three choices, instead of a small local business with twenty-five options.
In this way, authority heavily influences the search user, and those enterprise-level clicks will significantly boost your ranking position; even smart keyword research can only do so much against that kind of authority level. The only way to combat this factor is to build up more authority for your own brand.
Q5. How can negative sentiments in the SERPs affect authority, and how would that negativity also affect rankings?
Negative sentiments or reviews can cause an almost immediate drop in CTR and traffic, especially if those sentiments pop up towards the top of a search engine, like the United Airlines debacle that happened earlier this year; news reports about the scandal ranked above the business’s site. Negative sentiments can cause your brand reputation to suffer, losing trust or earning you less of it, sinking the amount of traffic you are getting. Simultaneously, fewer people trust your brand, which means that fewer people are looking for it, hurting you again. We talked about an upwards cycle in question 3; this is a downward spiral you don’t want to get sucked into.
To top it all off, Google has recently incorporated sentiment monitoring into the Quality Rater Guidelines. They want site raters to look for the reputation of the sites they rate, specifically telling them to look at off-site sources of reputation. If you have bad reviews on Yelp or several bloggers hot on your tail saying that you aren’t reliable, your SERPs are going to drop. There’s nowhere to hide, so you need to be ready.
Because of this, you want to do what you can to avoid negative reviews and comments online. Offer incredible customer service, produce great products, and make your customers happy, and all the E.A.T. goodness can follow. It is important that you don't just wait for Google to start knocking you down, you should actively monitor both social and traditional media channels. SEMrush has brand monitoring tools that allow you to see what other people are saying about you (since they might not always say it to you) in real-time, allowing you to get ahead of any type of bad situation.
Negative sentiment can erode your brand in the long-term as users slowly abandon you as a viable authority, source, and brand. It can also hurt you even quickly in the short-term if you are unlucky and don’t respond to it fast enough, and the situation escalates with stories across multiple mediums and a flurry of negative social mentions. Keep in mind that every single business will have unhappy customers and that this is almost unavoidable.
It is also true that negative sentiment can be more powerful than positive sentiment in some cases. After all, one unhappy customer will tell ten of their friends to never shop again, while one happy customer will tell only one of their friends about their great experience. In one scenario, you lose eleven customers; in the other, you gain two. Negative reviews that show up online can do even more damage.
Here is the good news: while no brand wants to have negative comments about them online, it isn’t an automatic death sentence. If the situation is handled well or if it’s an occasional or isolated incident, they can recoup. If not, of course, they’ll be purchasing a ton of reputation management and maybe getting a new PR team to boot.
Are there any other questions you have about brand authority coming into play as an SEO ranking factor? Do you have any additional insight? For more information, check out our recent study about the 17 most prominent Google ranking factors.