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How Branding Will Replace SEO

After yesterday’s firestorm, I feel the need to clarify a few things and then explain what I mean by branding.

1) Was I linkbaiting? No. Telling the truth as I see it even when it is unpopular is not necessarily linkbaiting. I do have a small gift for provocative titles though.

2) Do I really believe what I said? Yes, every word. Some people seem to find it stunning that I would actually believe what I wrote. Trust me when I say I do believe it.

3) Do I know what I am talking about? You can be the judge of that. I have been pretty successful selling online for ten years though.

4) Can a small company actually brand themselves? Yes, and if you keep reading, I will tell you how.

If you are a store that sells other brands and are currently depending on SEO, you are probably in deep trouble. I don’t care how spider-friendly and organized your site is or how many metatags you add, articles you write, or inbound links you barter for. Products come and go, and while in the past, you could achieve SEO for new products quickly, those days are almost gone. My guess is that most companies with this business model have seen decreased sales and profits over the past three years.

I know this to be true because I have watched what has happened to that part of our business, and I have talked to numerous other companies in the same boat. In the past, watching for other brands to become popular and then capitalizing on their success worked. Today, it still works but not nearly as well, and the trend is getting worse every year.

If, on the other hand, you spend time branding your company, or if possible, your actual products, you are going to be immune to this trend. Is it more difficult to do? Yes. Is the initial cashflow as good? Of course not. But if you change your focus from SEO to branding, within a few years, when all the SEO-dependent stores are out of business, you are going to be in much better shape.

Three years ago, when I recognized the trend, I made a decision to use the great cashflow we had from SEO-driven business to start building the Vitabase brand. Over the past three years, I have watched the SEO-driven business shrink and our business built on our brand grow exponentially.

Branding is normally associated with expensive media campaigns that try to get a brand drilled into the consumers’ heads. That approach is out of reach for most small companies and is not the way we brand either.

Here is a 3-step branding process for a small business:

1) Develop a USP (unique selling position). I know–this is advice that you have heard before. However, I cannot tell you how difficult it is to have a USP in internet retail–very few internet retailers have one. We have struggled with this issue for years and are constantly refining what our USP is. “Great customer service” and such things are not USPs.
2) Improve every part of our business to the point at which customers are loyal and refer others to you. We like to call every way a customer interacts with us a touchpoint. Phone calls, emails, packaging, products, and such are all touchpoints that need to be in a constant state of improvement.
3) Incentivize customers to talk about you and your USP. You can call this viral marketing or word of mouth marketing or any number of things.

If you are successful with these three steps, your branding will improve. Also, since many customer conversations take place online, your inbound link profile will improve as will your traffic and conversion rate. And by the way, so will your SEO.

Now, I am not saying that these three steps are easy. In fact, they are very hard. But they are also within the reach of a normal small business. If you can do these things very well, the outcome is quite predictable–you will grow. I am not as optimistic about a small company growing online if they just follow the typical advice of the SEO industry.

  • http://www.bloggeries.com Bloggerie

    Good post Andy.

    Your discussion of branding covers the USP / Improving Touch Points and Word of mouth / Viral marketing. That’s great for someone who knows bout your site.

    When someone with no connections comes online they are still going to google/yahoo/msn; how does this affect that touch point?

  • http://www.srinagubandi.com/junk/devdelivery.tuckthattummy.com Sri Nagubandi

    I think your post yesterday had another intent that the content conveyed. I really think you were talking about counting on SEO 101 being an end all for a company.

    I think most SEOs who have been around the industry a while think of the SEO 101 items as think you should do when you build a site anyway, not something that will provide 1999 results in rankigns traffic, etc.

    The SEO industry is meshing with PPC, SMO, SEO, Usability, and much more. I think a better post would have been what is the future of SEO not that it is dead.

    SEO evolves, and grows daily. It is not a static target that can be defined.

    And your point about brand. Any company small or large has to build a brand and USP to grow thrive and dominate.

    SEO is just one cog in this machine not the end all and be all. I doubt many of the SEOs that work at a high level feel they are gods, just mortals doing their part in the machine.

    -Sri Nagubandi

  • http://www.360sell.com Sean Maguire

    The term “link-bait” has become the platitude for every internet action taken that might drive traffic to your site, evoke provocative discussion, elicit thoughtful feedback and God forbid – act as the catalyst for a few peripheral posts that reference your original.

    Greg, if I were you, I would focus my efforts on writing dull, boring posts on irrelevant topics. You certainly don’t want to be labeled a linkbaiter. ;)

  • http://www.ourmonmouthblog.com Our Monmouth

    I understand what you are saying here, I just don’t think it is a strong argument. IMO you contradict yesterdays post with the following statement:

    “Also, since many customer conversations take place online, your inbound link profile will improve as will your traffic and conversion rate. And by the way, so will your SEO.”

    Item 3 sounded a lot like the practice of link building or dare I say link buying (incentivize?!?)….

    “3) Incentivize customers to talk about you and your USP. You can call this viral marketing or word of mouth marketing or any number of things.”

    Our Monmouth’s last blog post..FBI 1 Corrupt NJ Mayor 18 to 24

  • MikeTek

    I don’t agree at all that branding can/will replace SEO. That’s way off base, and it obviously stems from a misunderstanding you have about SEO.

    You can brand the hell out of a website build on a crappy eCommerce platform that renders crawlers dead in their tracks at the home page, or creates bloated code that inflates page sizes and load times, etc, but if you ignore what makes a site crawler friendly you can the prospect of getting some Google traffic goodbye – and I don’t know a single small business owner who wouldn’t be upset to learn that their website is inelligible to get organic referrals from Google.

    Branding is massively important – there’s no doubt about that – but you’d be a fool to focus all efforts there and assume that all other pieces will just fall into place.

  • http://www.srclarke.com Todd Mintz

    Branding can supplement SEO (or vice-versa). It’s not an “either or” discussion…both are important.

  • http://www.themadhat.com TheMadHat

    You say you “have watched the SEO-driven business shrink and our business built on our brand grow exponentially.” then go on to say doing the three branding steps will improve your SEO.

    Of course if you focus your marketing efforts on branding and not on SEO you’ll see a decrease in conversions from search. That just sounds like a dumb way to run a business.

    Your 3 step process is all good but leaving SEO around to “die” doesn’t make much sense. Like Todd said, SEO and branding compliment each other.

    TheMadHat’s last blog post..Do Not Click Here

  • http://www.newhomessection.com Jayson

    Todd I agree – there is no either or. Without SEO how would an organization (with a tiny advertising budget) reach people to start branding their company? There’s only so many people that friends and family know; it would take an online company close to six centuries to build an online business if they ignored SEO or read on a trusted blog that they shouldn’t pay attention to it (and left believing the theory).

    Your ideas above are great, true and extremely important. However, the entire process that you used to brand your company was built on a strong foundation of SEO. You claim that SEO will be a thing of the past and I’ll guarantee that there will always be a need, and demand, for an industry that focuses on helping businesses improve their online exposure, online reputation ;), and website performance and usability.

    There are always going to be factors that help a website rank well and the need for people that understand those factors will last along with the Internet. If only branded companies do occupy the first page of Google results one day, I’ll find a search engine that didn’t take the easy way out, along with everyone else that enjoys options.

  • http://www.idoseo.com David Saunders

    Surely branding and any form of marketing go hand in hand….

  • http://investing.curiouscatblog.net/ John Hunter

    Branding is important but I wouldn’t tie the future of SEO to it. What will be import for SEO is what is important for search engine algorithms. My guess is branding related stuff is likely to be important but things can change. The goal for a search engine will be to provide the user exactly what they need. Therefore it is likely that the SEO will be providing exactly the content users need.

    There will likely be some level of failure of search engines to do this. In that area SEO is largely about convincing search engines they are what the user wants (regardless of what the user really wants). My guess is the search engines will keep getting better at reducing the gap to be exploited. Therefore SEO may well morph more into usability, customer focus type activity (if that becomes increasingly important to rank highly).

    John Hunter’s last blog post..Continued Credit Card Company Customer Dis-Service

  • http://www.barbaraling.com Barbara Ling

    I’ve been marketing online now for over a decade. During that time, I mastered SEO from back when Infoseek did real time indexing to the point of breaking the Google code in 2004 (a glorious few months that was – I was able to achieve top 10 visibility for ANY keyword whatsoever). And nowadays, I’ve discovered that it’s pretty darned easy to conceive of a methodical SEO plan to achieve decent keyword visibility (search for ‘twitter rant’ and see where the site AskOwlbert pops up. That was in preparation for my April Fools Joke – took 10 days of planning and execution).

    But one thing has remained constant during all these years – the reputation that I’ve built up has always backed me up whenever I start something new online. I can count on all my former customers following me over because of the brand I’ve developed and the fact I walk the walk I talk.

    SEO is a quick fix….but personal reputation will always win out.

    Data points,

    Barbara

    Barbara Ling’s last blog post..Proactively boost your blog subscription via the Best Benefits Technique

  • http://www.greatpriceshere.com Nicole

    Keep at it Greg, you are making more and more sense, the more you explain.

  • http://chasinggoogle.blogspot.com/ Elections guy

    Nothing can replace SEO.

    Elections guy’s last blog post..Polls before Pennsylvania primary: Obama most popular

  • http://web-ebiz.blogspot.com Peintros

    SEO will constantly adapt and respond to the quest for ever more reliable and relevant search results irrespective of whichever platform or medium they are displayed on, and as the search engines refine their processes the opportunities to tease out a marketing edge through algorithm exploitation will gradually disappear.

    Peintros

    Peintros’s last blog post..Article Marketing Tips

  • http://www.fastbannersuk.co.uk banners

    If you are a store that sells other brands and are currently depending on SEO, you are probably in deep trouble. I don’t care how spider-friendly and organized your site is or how many metatags you add, articles you write.

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