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SEO Analytics 101: Understanding the difference between branded & non-branded keywords

If there’s one thing that gets me frustrated, it’s a client that looks at aggregate organic search traffic data and thinks that its an indicator of SEO.

If you’re one of those people, I’ve got news for you; it’s not!

Let me explain.

When someone hands you an analytics dashboard that shows aggregate organic (aka “natural”) search engine traffic data, said data includes two basic kinds of keywords:

Brand and non-brand.

A “brand” keyword or phrase includes your brand name(s) or some variation thereof, like a misspelling or domain name. A “non-brand” keyword does not include your brand name (or any variation thereof).

So for example, brand keywords for this site would include things like:

Hugo Guzman




More or less any other keyword that doesn’t reference the brand name would be considered “non-brand.”

This is a critical distinction, particularly for enterprise-level brands. Why? Because for large brands, brand keywords can make up the lion’s share of organic search engine traffic, and equally as importantly, these keywords are not a function of SEO. The reason why they are not a function of SEO is two-fold:

  1. First and foremost, 99.9% of the time said brand’s site has always and will always rank No. 1 for any and all brand keywords, so there is no “optimizing” going on. Any referred traffic (or conversion or revenue) is not a function of “search engine optimization” because you can’t do any better than first place.
  2. Secondly, brand terms are a literally a function of brand recognition or affinity. In other words, those types of searches are navigational in nature. They imply that a searcher is specifically looking for said brand (which means that they’ve been exposed to said brand already and are simply typing in the brand name to navigate to the site). It’s virtually the same as someone that types the brand’s domain name right into their internet browser (does anybody still do that?)

Therefore, if a client (or boss) is interested in gauging the health of their SEO efforts, they must drill down a bit deeper into the analytics data and focus on just the traffic that is referred via keywords of the non-brand variety. Otherwise, they’ll be led on a wild goose chase filled with trends and fluctuations that could have little to do with actual SEO (and the higher the percentage of brand keywords, the wilder the chase).

P.S. If you have clients (or bosses) that are stuck in this misleading train of thought, remember that:

a) It’s your fault for failing to educate them properly.

b) You must come up with a lucid presentation that explains that aforementioned concept in a simple and straightforward way, because more often than not, SEO success is more about client education than technical expertise.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Hugo – agree on this. However, with one minor caveat/frustration of my own: what I also hate is when clients try to claim every last thing as though it is their brand.

    For example let’s take a hypothetical situation (and this is a bit of a reach because I don’t want to whinge about any particular clients) but if you are an energy drink company that sponsors extreme sports and Formula 1 drivers you should not expect to rank for [and count as your brand] the drivers name, the generic extreme sport, or the location where said event is held. Just because you play an integral part in something does not mean you can treat it as your brand.

    Along the same lines, if you are the own a certain route on a railroad (i.e. all trains from London to Brighton are operated by the same operator) it is still unrealistic to expect to rank for these terms automatically particularly if they are commercial terms.

    It is essential to consider brand and non-brand but also important to educate clients that association != brand and often requires more dedicated resource and should be counted amongst targets met or any KPIs based on non-brand traffic uplift.

    Thanks and sorry for the complaint, both extremes annoy me… but both have the same solution: expectation management and training/education.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment, Sam! One thing I would point out is that the terms you’re alluding to don’t meet the thresholds I established in the post; particularly the part about how a brand has always and will always hold the No. 1 spot for their brand terms. If that’s not the case (e.g. they don’t rank No. 1) then said term is a function of SEO (and not a function of branding) because there is an opportunity to “optimize” for said term and improve its positioning. Now whether or not said terms are worth optimizing for (in terms of measurable ROI) is another story…

      • Anonymous

        Very valid point, sorry I did miss that distinction. It looks like you’ve gone even one step further than I have done in the past (though I do find it outrageous how many brands take your distinction for granted and don’t rank for [brand + product] and even rarely for the pure brand term).

        Thanks for clarifying and sorry for the speed read. Looks like you’ve potentially suffered some of the same issues I have then 🙂

        • Anonymous

          You’re very welcome and indeed I have!

          • Az

            Hi, I have a question regarding brand vs non brand. one of your posts states that non brand should be 30% of overall traffic and we can gradually increase it from there.

            The situation I am having is that, the work done to optimize traffic for non brand and brand is not of the same effort. For brand, we are strengthening it by having radio ads and tv ads which should really increase the traffic for brand organic search (as well as direct) . For non brand, its just 1 or 2 guys doing onsite and offsite optimization(manually) without using any tools to automate the process. From here I notice the gap between non brand and brand organic search widens.

            What or how then would be a good indicator of our non brand performance in comparison to brand keyword performance?


          • hugoguzman

            Hi Az! Good question. I’m not sure that there’s such a thing as a perfect ratio between brand and non-brand. Every business has different variable that will impact this ratio.

            As far as what you’re currently doing:
            1) continue those brand building efforts because growing your brand awareness (and the amount of times people search for your brand name) will pay huge dividends in search as well as for your business in general
            2) Non-brand is where your SEO (and paid search) team earns their money so push them to figure out ways to scale and automate processes and provide them with the budget they need to do so.

            Hope this helps.

          • Tirthankar Chakravarty

            I would say that if you looked at the raw traffic trends, then it would seem that branded organic traffic is doing better than non-branded organic traffic, but this is also a function of the investment behind each. You should scale the traffic by the amount of investment behind each channel to understand which effort is really working better at the margin.

  • http://twitter.com/louisventer Louis Venter

    Just had this exact converstion when pitching. When i saw what the previous agency “achieved” i was shocked. Branded was over 300k visits a month, non branded 1500 visits and the client was happy as they had never segmented this in any of the reporting. Daylight robbery!

    • Anonymous

      I’ve seen similar highway robberies. Thanks for the anecdote, Louis!

  • http://williamalvarez.com William Alvarez

    I totally understand your point and somewhat agree that most of the times the brand name will rank in top positions bringing the most organic traffic with branded search terms. But there are verticals that are exceptions to this statement. For example, Pharma is one of them and usually e-tailers and other informational websites like WebMD outrank the brand name’s own website, say [aspirin] for http://www.aspirin.com. It currently ranks in position 6 (at the time of writing this comment on a non-personalized browser). Pharma companies have a policy of not reaching out to external websites for the purpose of asking for a link or even optimizing an existing one (for “liability” reasons). So, it’s never guaranteed that they get position 1. I have a good number of examples like this one.

    Other instances include those websites that have never optimized their pages, just because they are not familiar with SEO. I’ve had cases when a client has built an entire branded site in Flash and a blog in WordPress and none of their products rank in top positions, e-tailers do, however all the non-branded terms in the blog rank decently well (for search terms related to recipes, tips, events, answers, ingredients, etc.). In this case they do not rank with branded terms for their products in the catalog, but they do with a higher number of terms that are non-branded.

    Thanks for keeping up with the SEO 101 series.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the added insight, William! I am painfully aware of the challenges that Pharma SEO brings to the table. It’s the worst vertical by far! As for the other instances you mentioned, that’s almost never the case for larger, well-established brands. Even if they do little or no SEO, the weight of their inbound links will ensure that they rank No. 1 for brand terms 99% of the time.

  • http://twitter.com/billrowland Bill Rowland

    I couldn’t agree more. When our SEO team works with clients we’re careful not to include brand-related terms when calculating impact.

    But what about store brands? For example, a brand like Sam’s Choice which can only be found at Walmart. Generally I consider those as brand searches too.

    • Anonymous

      Great for offering up that nuance, Bill! There are some special cases where “exclusive products/services” associated with a brand can also count as “brand” traffic even if the keywords don’t include the actual brand’s name.

  • http://twitter.com/TheGonzoSEO Don Rhoades

    Spot on Hugo! I will say that I should take responsibility for not educating properly, however some geniuses cannot be taught if they are unwilling to be. Another difference between in-house and agency experience is that agency clients want/need the help and education and will accept a lucid presentation. Whereas, in some of my experiences in-house, I have discovered some C-levels are self-proclaimed marketing masterminds and cannot be convinced of anything sensible. Thanks again for this post!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the comment and compliments, Don! Glad you found the post valuable. I think that some of those self-proclaimed masterminds you alluded to can be equally difficult to work with for employees and agencies alike.

  • http://twitter.com/ljcrest Laura Crest

    Well said! I could say that most of my work as an SEO is in client education, and yes, we are responsible for doing just that.

    • Anonymous

      You got that right, Laura!

  • http://twitter.com/miguelsalcido Miguel Salcido


    • Anonymous

      Thanks for chiming in, Miguel! I dig the keyword grouping methodology. Smart stuff.

  • http://twitter.com/GarethB Gareth

    This is something that I think does need explaining as it’s not obvious and beyond that makes me question how valid, at the top level, the different traffic sources are: email can come under direct and referral, direct can have visits from secure sites etc.

    It’s a good point though and one that I make sure that my reporting reflects.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for chiming in, Gareth! There’s no doubt that properly filtering and attributing analytics data is key. It’s not just an SEO thing.

  • Andrew

    Great points.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the compliment, Andrew.

  • http://www.geekpoweredstudios.com Guillermo Ortiz


    You bring up a good point about educating the client. Too often numbers like these are easy to skew and fool clients into thinking they are getting tons of traffic from SEO.

    • Anonymous

      Good point about how this data can be used to skew perspective on how a program is performing. Thanks for chiming in, Guillermo!

  • Pingback: Google encryption of organic keyword data could spell end of branded vs non-branded SEO keyword reporting | Hugo Guzman

  • Abernard

    Are there any benchmarks for what percentage of the total traffic driving terms non-brand should represent? Brand will always dominate, but wondering how much non-brand most SEOs strive for.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for chiming in, Abernard! Unfortunately, there are no established benchmarks. What I suggest is taking an initial baseline measurement (ex: non-branded makes up 30% of all organic search queries) and then striving to improve that percentage on an ongoing basis. The sky’s the limit.

  • Rick Sanchez

    I’m studying analytics. What do you do in the case of brand name that has become a generic name (Kleenex or Band-Aid or Popcicle…) and when you segment by brand names, do you include all of the varieties and mis-spellings of the names i.e. Coke, Coka Cola, Coka-Cola, Coca-Cola, etc. ?

    • Anonymous

      Good question, Rick. Yes, you would include all varieties and misspellings in the “brand” bucket since those are essentially navigational searches (e.g. the equivalent of typing in the domain name into the URL browser).