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Branded vs. Non-Branded Traffic: What’s the Difference?

How should you treat branded vs non-branded traffic and search strategies? Unpack the things to consider when it comes to targeting, attribution, and more.

Search campaigns have goals that can range from generating awareness, to driving traffic, to achieving specific conversion types.

While the level of data we get in analytics and aggregated Search Console reporting has changed over the years, one constant is that for SEO and PPC we’re still focused on the specific keywords and terms that drive that traffic.

Context-focused SEO nowadays isn’t as much about one single term – or the top 10 terms – and is much more about topics.

Building topical relevance help you rank for top-level generic terms, long-tail keywords, and even queries that are more natural for being served up in voice search.

One big distinction in all of the types of terms and topics and ways to focus on keywords and optimization or ad targeting is branded vs. non-branded.

There’s a big difference between the two and ways we should handle and treat them.

In this post, you’ll learn how they differ and the importance of four key ways we look at branded vs. non-branded keywords in our search campaigns.

1. Targeting and Focus

Keyword research is a big part of what we do in search marketing.

When setting up a campaign or on an ongoing basis, we’re looking at keywords, intent, match types, and making sure our ads and organic positioning are where we need them to be.

Brand vs. non-brand has a big impact on our targeting.

There are different schools of thought on if you should bid on branded terms or not.

My point of view is that if there’s a question, test it. If you have a generic brand name or don’t have much awareness, there are cases to be made for bidding on branded terms.

If you’re in a competitive space and despite any level of cease and desist letters or efforts to get others from bidding on (or leaving open the option to dynamically show up for) your brand, it shouldn’t cost much to protect it by advertising on it.

On the flip side, if you’re not ranking number one organically for your brand and aren’t at the top of the Map Pack, fix that right away.

That should be some level of alarm or concern regarding your site, unless your company name is literally a general word in the language you’re targeting and you haven’t been around long enough to win for that term yet.

Do keyword research specifically on volume for your branded terms – any short or long-tail term or phrase that includes any branded elements from the company name to products that are trademarked.

Know how many people are searching on them so you can evaluate current search traffic share.

Also, take a manual look at the SERPs for those terms.

Know who is advertising, nad what the Map Pack and organic listings (and other SERP features) are displaying. Use keyword spy tools as well, to see what ads might be showing at other times, too.

This will help you map out your strategy and the level of effort to put into brand vs. non-brand terms.

2. Brand Cannibalization and Conflicts

While you may identify that you need to protect your brand by spending ad dollars to be in the top ad slot for branded terms, you need to be aware of what is happening with your search share and where traffic is really coming from.

Benchmark your paid and organic search numbers for branded traffic. Know the total volume and have a baseline.

If you decide to start bidding on branded terms in paid search, be very conscious of how any increases in branded paid traffic impact organic traffic.

If both go up, great! Dive deeper and do more of what is working both organically and paid.

If turning on a branded paid search account results in a relative decrease in organic traffic, take a closer look.

Are your ads attracting traffic that you’d normally get through organic sources?

Can you fully tell?

Be sure that you’re not just now paying for the same traffic you’d get normally.

3. Distributors, Resellers & Other Partners

The money question is always what is driving our results.

Should we care about the brand? Won’t we just get that traffic by default?

The hope is yes, and that there’s no need to pay for it. However, there are strong arguments to pay for and put a lot of attention on branded terms.

Certain companies and industries thrive on branded traffic and being the leader. If you’re in a multi-step channel industry, this can be really important and sensitive at the same time.

Say you’re a manufacturer that sells direct and also through distribution partners or retailers. You already have a sensitive relationship.

Margins are better selling direct, but volume is probably better through partners. Partners might not like competing with you. Yet, you’re the authority on your own products.

See some conflicts here?

How much does being at the top for your brand in ads, Map Pack, organic results, and other SERP features matter to you?

Look at your end goals and work backward. It might be okay to let a channel partner or retailer spend those extra ad dollars while you own the organic listings.

You need solid attribution tracking for your own brand. If you have a distribution network, you need to go outside of your brand and track the broader industry and market for your brand.

Regardless, know what is the best investment in paid and organic efforts for branded terms so you can spend as much time and effort as possible on generic terms.

4. Attribution

The last thing any search marketer, CMO, executive, or business owner wants is to not fully know what is driving search performance.

Dedicate energy to making sure there’s a clear separation between brand and non-brand in your efforts.

Branded searches are driven by brand awareness, marketing, sales, referrals, reputation, and all kinds of factors outside the control of search marketers and content strategists.

To a degree, this can be true for some generic terms, too.

However, please – if nothing else – spend a moment to split out brand versus non-brand terms in your rankings, impressions, traffic, and conversions reporting.

There’s nothing worse than rolling up all search data into a single report and later realizing (or being questioned on) how much of that was brand vs. non-brand. It brings into question the hard work and dollars you have spent on your search strategy.

You don’t want to take credit for branded search traffic that was not your fault – good or bad.

You want to be accountable for the work that you did to get traffic that was more within your control.

Closing Thoughts

Whether this article was a pep talk or brand new information, I hope you take to heart that branded and non-branded traffic must be properly segmented and categorized.

Search marketers deal with enough that is out of our control already. We don’t need to take inflated credit for results for branded traffic (unless part of our strategy), which can then turn into unfounded blame when external, non-search factors tank it.

Work on getting your targeting right, be intentional, know where you might cannibalize, and get attribution right. Don’t muddy the waters!

More Resources:

Featured image: ArtemisDiana/Shutterstock

Category SEO
VIP CONTRIBUTOR Corey Morris President / CEO at Voltage

Corey is the owner and President/CEO of Voltage. He has spent nearly 20 years working in strategic and leadership roles ...

Branded vs. Non-Branded Traffic: What’s the Difference?

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