Solved: It’s all about the brand
For the past two posts, I’ve described a case study related to the Decade of Smart speech landing page on ibm.com. By now, you know the drill. We did everything right from an SEO perspective. We found relevant, high-demand keywords, infused the copy with the keywords at an early stage, and built a comprehensive social media linking strategy to support the page. Yet it still does not rank well in Google. What gives? Well, I speculated that the noncommercial competition for the keywords–sustainable development–made it extremely difficult to rank well in Google for that keyword no matter how well optimized or interwoven the page is on the Web.
It turns out, I was mostly right in my speculation. Recently, IBM hosted the Google rep who helps us with our paid programs, to give a talk to the top search leaders in IBM marketing. She shared some very interesting research about the brand value of search listings, which mostly confirms my suspicions, with one key proviso. I’ll elaborate and cover the proviso after the break.
Brand value study summary
The study linked to above is mostly about the relationship between paid and organic listings. The prevailing theory is that you buy position in Google until you rank well organically. Once you achieve organic rankings, you stop paying for position. Why? Well, users click organic listings much more often than paid listings–typically by at least an order of magnitude. So you don’t need to pay if you have good organic position. Also, users will only click one of two listings from the same vendor on the same page, so having more inventory doesn’t necessarily help get more traffic. Using the nomenclature of search engine marketing, paid listings cannibalize organic listings.
The study refines this thinking and questions some of the prevailing assumptions. It’s main point is that having paid position for a keyword doesn’t necessarily cannibalize organic position. In some cases, having paid position for a keyword improves organic click throughs and engagement (or at least lower bounce rates) for that word. The study points to brand value as the reason why paid and organic listings tend to complement one another.
The new theory is, if a user sees the paid brand above an organic listing, the brand impression from the paid listing leads to a tendency to click the organic listing more often. More than that, users are also less likely to bounce off a page if they see the paid listing and click the organic listing.
To be more precise, this isn’t just about having the paid listing. It’s also about pre-existing brand value. But having a paid listing is a good way to build brand value, at least that’s what the study suggests. We have seen this effect in our own efforts with Smarter Planet, so the study represents pleasant confirmation of what we’re seeing for some of our pages.
Brand value study critique
But I’m not about to just take the study on face value. Knowing what I know about Google, including the way it systematically changes its algorithm, paid branding actually affects organic ranking. I know it sounds iconoclastic to write such a sentence about the company that built its brand on a strict separation between church (advertising) and state (editorial). But it follows from their practices.
If Google knows people are more apt to click through and less apt to bounce off organic listing A than organic listing B (all things considered), it will rank listing A higher. That’s the way it’s A/B testing works. Two pages with similar optimization and link equity will be ranked according to what their user test subjects do. Pages with higher click through and lower bounce rates in their A/B tests climb the rankings. If brand value influences click throughs and bounce rates, pages with higher brand values will climb the organic rankings. If paid listings lead to higher brand value, paid listings result in higher organic ranking. Isn’t logic fun?
A corollary of this is what we struggle with vis-a-vis sustainable development. Every noncommercial organization that ranks better than the Decade of Smart speech page for that word–un.org, usda.gov, state.gov, etc.–have a lot of brand value surrounding that term. It might not be the kind of brand value marketers think about. You can’t buy it by pumping a lot of ad dollars into a campaign until the target audience identifies your brand with the keyword. It’s the kind of brand equity that comes from decades of success stories promoting sustainable development in developing countries.
It will take a long time and a lot of good PR to get IBM in the same league with the UN for sustainable development. But that’s the kind of brand equity you need to rank well for a keyword like that. No amount of optimization will do it. It will take long-term efforts such as the Corporate Service Corps–which places teams of IBMers into countries such as Nigeria to establish sustainable development–for IBM to develop this kind of brand equity.
There is a way to jump start that process. Because the organizations that rank better than IBM for that keyword are not competitors in the commercial sense, there is no reason IBM can’t work with them. Through our Smarter Planet and Corporate Service Corps initiatives, we can identify opportunities to combine forces with the organizations that rank higher than IBM. Together, we can fight poverty, infant mortality, inefficient agriculture, poor water management, and insufficient power, transportation and communications infrastructures. One thing the Corporate Service Corps has taught us is we need the kinds of partners to help us assess the problems on the ground and develop solutions for them. And we can readily find those partners in the search engine rankings ahead of us to make in-roads into these developing countries.
I initially thought sustainable development was a home run. What I thought was a home run actually hooked foul by a few feet. So it’s just a long strike. But I can get back in the batters’ box and try to do something with the next pitch. That is, use the appropriate IBM channels to start making contacts with the organizations that rank better than than IBM for that word. It’s like what we advise in our book: If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. That’s what social media is all about.
James Mathewson is the editor in chief of IBM.com. Among other things, he is responsible for search and social media leadership for the Smarter Planet digital initiative. He’s co-author of Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content, due out in April from IBM Press.