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When it comes to ranking in Google, your keywords will fall into two major buckets: branded keywords and non-branded keywords. So what’s the difference? Why does this distinction matter? Aren’t all keywords good? Let’s take a closer look at branded and non-branded keywords and see what they mean for your brand and search.

What are branded keywords?

Brand keywords are searches that directly match your brand name, variations of your brand name, or your product’s branded name. For example, “Amazon,” “Amazon Basics,” “Amazon Alexa” are all clearly brand and brand-related keywords for Amazon. Just for fun, let’s look at Fi’zi:k, this brand is known for selling bike saddles, cycling shoes, and accessories. In their case their branded keywords would be “Fi’zi:k”, “Fi’zi:k saddle”, or “Fi’zi:k tempo”, the latter being the name of one of their saddles. You get the point. 

Advantages of strong brand awareness for keyword ranking

The bigger your brand awareness, the greater the volume of branded traffic. Typically, when you search by brand, it’s because you already have an affinity for the brand or its products. You know they’ll likely have what you want once you get to their site. From a brand standpoint, this is a great place to be. Those who search for your brand are more likely to purchase your product or do business with you because they’re essentially a warm lead, as that trust has already been established.

Leaning into the previous Amazon example, you can see below that they get approximately 124 million organic searches from the brand query “Amazon” per month. 

Understandably, if you’re a lesser-known brand, your monthly brand searches will probably be considerably lower. But that’s ok — everybody has to start somewhere, right? 

Disadvantages of only ranking branded keywords

If you’re a lesser-known brand, one of the obvious disadvantages is that with less brand name awareness, you’re not going to get as much traffic from brand queries.

For this example, let’s take a look at Fi’zi:k again. As you can see in the image below, they generate an average of 8,100 brand name searches each month. Now, a total of 8,100 organic searches per month isn’t necessarily bad, but if Fi’zi:k  only ranked for their brand name, that strategy would cap their organic traffic and visibility. It’s also important to realize that not all of this traffic will click into the site. Many searches produce zero clicks, as information like location, hours, and phone number can be found in the SERP, or in the case of eCommerce businesses, users could click into another site that ranks on page one. 

If you’re not focused on broader SEO goals and ranking keywords related to your brand, product, service, and audience, you’re limiting your website’s traffic potential.

Brand traffic will always be tied to brand awareness. Your brand traffic will grow as awareness of your brand grows. If you’re not actively marketing, building your brand awareness will be a slow process. If you’re only relying on brand keyword traffic, you’ll keep hitting a ceiling and need to push into new markets and use new marketing initiatives to break through.

Users who are already familiar with your brand are mid-low funnel. If they make up the bulk of your search traffic, you’re missing out on that critical top-funnel awareness phase of the user journey.

What are non-branded keywords?

Non-branded keywords are the broader keywords related to your business. This could be the products you sell, services you offer, or content addressing your audience’s specific pain points.

For example, since you make bike saddles, “bike seat” would be a broad keyword outside of your brand term.

Looking at the SERP below, we can see Amazon is ranking on top for this term, although it is not a brand keyword for them. Using SEO, they’ve created targeted landing pages for product categories. In this case, we can also see that the keyword is so broad that Google is also putting content at the top of the page to help users who are higher up the funnel research the best bike saddles.

Ranking for non-branded keywords opens a huge opportunity for your business. It increases the likelihood that you’ll acquire traffic that’s new to your brand. By knowing your keywords and the intent of the SERP, you’ll know how to optimize your site for these users.

For Fi’zi:k if they ranked for this broad term the search volume is three times greater than that of their brand name. On keywords and results like this sometimes the strategy is more than just trying to get your site on page one, it could be using off-page SEO stratgies to get into the review/best of post on page one. This then creates the brand awareness and helps move the user to a brand search or clicking a link in content to your site.

Types of non-branded keywords

When it comes to non-branded keywords, we can separate them into two distinct categories: keywords with commercial intent and keywords with research or knowledge intent.

Commercial intent keywords

Commercial intent keywords are product- or service-driven. If you’re an eCommerce company, it’s critical to have your categories/collections optimized for the right keywords and then dial them in even further with your product pages. For service-driven businesses, this can be accomplished by creating a page that clearly explains your services and proactively addresses the questions users routinely ask about them. This may be oversimplifying it a bit, but it’s a foundational block towards optimizing your site for non-branded commercial intent keywords.

Research intent keywords

Some people refer to Google as the answer engine. If you think about the searches you’ve made today, there’s a good chance most of them have been questions. If you’re like most people, when you research topics, make decisions on what you want to buy, or try to decide where to go out to dinner, you turn to Google for those answers. 

Using non-branded, research intent keywords may be one of the most effective ways to grow your audience and site traffic. By answering questions well and positioning yourself in all the right SERPs, you’ll develop valuable brand awareness. All these efforts combined will increase conversions and build future brand-aware traffic.

Why ranking for non-branded keywords is important

When you’re not solely relying on your brand name to drive traffic, you’re opening up so many more opportunities. Your brand keyword traffic can be limited, so by optimizing for non-brand keywords with commercial intent pages and research intent content, you’ll be reaching your audience at each stage of their journey.

The brands that are winning online rely on more than just their brand name. They know what their potential customers are searching for and optimize their site pages and content accordingly. By delivering value to users during the research phase, they’re helping prospective customers feel more comfortable visiting their site at the commerce phase. The beauty of this approach is that it can work for your brand as well. 

How do I know what keywords my site ranks for?

Now that you know the ways users could potentially be finding your site, it’s best to load up on the data to help guide your strategy. Here are a few of the best ways to find out what keywords users are searching for when they find your website:

  • Google Search Console: This is a free tool from Google. If you haven’t set your site up on Google Search Console (GSC) already, you’ll want to do so as soon as possible. If you’re newly added to the platform, your data will be limited. Google Search Console will show you the keywords/queries users are searching and that Google is giving you impressions for. If your report shows all brand keywords, you know you need to close the gap with non-branded keyword optimization.
  • SEMRush, Ahrefs, Moz: These are paid SEO tools that can arm you with a ton of insights about how users are finding your site and the keywords they’re using to do this.
  • Professional SEO Audit: Sometimes, it just makes sense to call in an expert. You can gather insights from Google Search Console and the paid SEO tools; however, knowing how to convert these insights into actionable strategies requires experience. 

At The Brand Leader, we love launching new brands and growing existing brands, in not only cycling and the outdoor space, but also tech, medical and finance. If you feel your brand needs more awareness or you could use help with your website strategy, we’d love to connect. 

Tim Lowry is The Brand Leader’s Director of SEO Best Practices.