Ostensibly, the very easiest terms to rank well for in Google results are those searches that include your own company’s brand name. At my office, we actually separate these into buckets: branded search vs. non-branded search. The SEO team focuses specifically on the non-branded variety, because that’s where the competition is. The Marketing team is in charge of branded.
This division of responsibility is all well and good for prioritizing how you go about spending your day choosing target keywords, but it is also a false dichotomy. Without the brand, the SEO would suffer. This is sometimes spoken about as a “no-brainer” in SEO circles. There are others who claim brand has little to no impact on SERPs, because the brandless little guy can still compete if he has killer content.
Here’s how I see it.
Brand names in the domain/URL
The “Vince” update was an algo change in March 2009 to give big brands better rankings for their own brand names. The idea here is for a brand name to be able to edge out competition in organic search rankings for branded search terms. This only impacted brands that Google recognized as “big”.
Technically speaking, the Vince update is still included in the Google algo, but hundreds of algo updates (Panda, Penguin, etc) have overshadowed its effects. This means that organic ranking is still a fairly even playing field among big brands and smaller sites.
However, it also means that
(a) Google still looks for and recognizes big brands and if all things are equal between two articles, the engine will display the bigger brand’s result above the smaller one.
(b) Remember that every single search result now is personalized based on previous clicks, previous searches, etc. So if someone searched for a brand, or clicked on that brand’s result in a previous search, and then performed another relevant search later with those cookies in place, it’s more likely that that brand’s site will appear higher in that user’s personalized results page.
Brand names included in search term phrases – When search terms include brand names, it indicates that real people are aware of the brand and trust the brand’s content. It also indicates that users appreciate the quality and relevance of brand’s results.
Click-through rates on one domain over another – While this is not a direct 1:1 causation indicator of brand trust, Google could easily use the correlative data to show whether brand recognition and interaction impact CTR.
Brand names in the link anchor text pointing from other sites back to your site – Quality brand links that are anchored on the brand name give Google a clear brand-to-brand conversation to follow.
Social signals of brand love, trust and awareness – A brand facebook page that is active and used, and links on the homepage or footer that point to it, links from facebook back to the homepage, Google +, Twitter, Pinterest – All of these show brand signals, brand interaction, trust and interest with users.
In my mind, brand and SEO are intertwined. They build upon one another, and rely upon one another.
If I were creating a startup website, I would spend money on brand awareness and create a brand name early on, and then reduce my marketing and ramp up SEO traffic slowly over time.