I am a huge proponent in thinking about and sharing SEO performance at an aggregate level. This means that strategies and tactics should always be targeted at improving search visibility across the board for all URL’s and all keywords. This is the flip side of granular SEO which is focused on efforts around improving very specific keywords and on a select set of URL’s.
Generally, I believe that using any sort of position tracking is not a useful KPI because it is not aligned with overall business performance unless the business somehow manages to monetize visibility on Google that doesn’t even require a user to click. Positions on Google may be indicative of SEO performance, but it is not a KPI in its own right. Keyword level SEO may cause a business to be blind to their growth opportunities.
They may be doing poorly on the keyword they had hoped to be visible for, but not notice how well they might be doing on other even better phrases. As a result of their tunnel vision, they will inevitably miss out on opportunities for improvement in places they are already doing well. Viewing SEO performance from a holistic level means that all traffic is good and worthy of being measured.
However, there is one area that I strongly believe should be measured on a keyword level and that is splitting out branded vs non-branded traffic. Branded traffic is organic clicks that come from queries that contain the brand name or a misspell of the brand name. Non-branded traffic is anything that does not contain the brand name.
Measuring brand vs non-brand
If a brand does not rank for its brand name that is a huge red flag. Google’s worst penalty will demote a website far into the results for a search of its own brand name. A friend who worked at Google on the search quality team told me that internally it was referred to as the “Black Penalty”. Assuming there is no penalty issue, a brand not ranking for its own name will indicate that there is a technical issue that needs to be addressed, but once that is fixed there likely will not be continued growth on brand terms beyond the natural growth of the brand itself.
Branded traffic is great but it is not really SEO – this traffic is the result of brand efforts such as PR or word of mouth. Non-branded traffic is SEO which is the net result of your strategy, tactics, and effort. For the most part, this bucket of traffic is the ROI of your SEO investment
To reveal what is actually non- brand traffic, you will need to filter out all brand traffic. This will include variations of the brand name so you will want to distill your search for branded keywords down to the lowest common denominator. For example, when I was at SurveyMonkey my brand filter looked for only the keywords “mon” since that even picked up the misspell of “survey money” and of course picked up the most common brand terms of “survey monkey” and “surveymonkey”.
Having worked on the SEO campaigns of a number of massive brands as well as startups with no brand, I believe that a healthy brand vs non-brand ratio should be somewhere between 40-60% . This is a wide range, but a primary driver is how big the brand is relative to the space. That being said, if branded traffic – even for an incredibly well known brand is north of 80%, there is inevitably a lot of traffic being left on the table.
When I first joined SurveyMonkey in 2012, global branded traffic was over 90% and over my tenure there we were able to bring that into the ideal range even while branded traffic itself grew double digit percentages year over year.
Whenever I start working on a new SEO project the very first thing I do is get a sense of brand vs non-brand traffic. Millions of impressions per month is not indicative of a great SEO strategy if most of the queries driving those impressions are branded. I don’t just stop at impressions as people need to be clicking those URL’s for the traffic to be meaningful. If the brand vs non-brand ratio is very different when sliced by clicks, then the non-branded visibility might be the wrong kinds of queries to acquire users.
When I find that the brand vs non-brand ratio leans too heavily to the brand, I add improving this ratio to my list of KPI’s that SEO should be measured by. This means that I will check in on how this ratio is changing on a fairly regular basis.
For those that have never looked at this metric before, here’s a quick primer on how to do so. The data source to use for this is Google Search Console, so you can either access this data via the user interface or the API. Obviously, the UI is a far easier option but beware that there may be data inconsistencies when you do a lookup where the sum of all the parts does not equal the whole. If this happens to you, you can fallback into using the API.
- Within the UI, choose a relatively short time period like the last month.
- Open up the query lookup box and choose “contains” and then put your shortened brand term.
- Grab the total of brand clicks
- Grab the total of brand impressions
- Go back into the query lookup box and this time change the option to “not contains” and keep that same brand term in there
- Grab the total of non-brand clicks
- Grab the total of non-brand impressions
- Divide either of these by your total clicks before filtering and this is your brand/non-brand percentage.
There may be no action at all that you can take from this data, but knowledge is still power. This is a quick temperature check on whether you have SEO traction – or not. You can use this number to make additional budgets, get a raise or find queries worth optimizing for. I believe this is one of the most important metrics in any SEO effort and it should be measured on a regular basis.
In addition to the lookups above, I have built some Data Studio dashboards which might be useful for you and I would be happy to share. Reach out and let me know if you would like to copy them!