Brand Awareness, Equity, and Off-Page Strategy

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I read an editorial a while ago on adrants.com blasting SEO for being the gross after-birth of managing brand equity online. Basically it said that SEO is for losers, while building brand awareness is for winners. Now, while I disagree with this conclusion (I'm in SEO, of course I'm going to disagree. Deal with it) I really enjoyed seeing the author getting cut to shreds in the comment section - some of the arguments struck a chord for me at least, when regarding link-building for large companies within certain keyword clusters (think 'jeans', not 'remote access management'). Here are a couple points that the author makes:

1) When people conduct unbranded searches it's a failure of companies to raise proper brand awareness.

Ok sure, whatever. Arguably however, SEO can give brand awareness a major boost by making your brand visible in the SERPs. Get to the top 3 organic Google results and your brand has a giant billboard in the middle of the Internet. Also, what if you are in a niche that no one cares that much about?

Brand Awareness & SEO

Relevant anecdote: We have a client who was expanding into a foreign market where it had zero brand equity and certainly didn't appear in the SERPs for branded keywords. However, the client wanted to make sure that the brand ranked #1 for all branded keywords before embarking on an expensive ad campaign; they didn't want people looking for the brand in Google and not finding it. The only way to perform this was through some on and off-page SEO magic (oh, PS. It was successful btw).

2) Being top three in the SERPs for unbranded keywords looks good but it doesn't drive conversions.

False, the figures state otherwise. Also, one of the great things about SEO is that effects of movements in SERP positioning are relatively easy to measure. Measuring efficacy in terms of sales etc from "brand awareness"? Not so easy.

3) Google is fickle, thus making SEO a dangerous choice if your primary goal is brand awareness.

True, but SEO should be built on the back of a good marketing strategy  or better yet, SEO should be built into any marketing strategy that involves the Internet. Indeed, I feel that brands who are doing SEO as an Internet marketing afterthought may be missing a trick. Or, at least brands that engage in link building may be missing a trick.

Even before reading this article I'd been wondering about off-page SEO and how it fits into building brand equity, and I've basically come up with two lines of thought; one that doesn't get me very far, and one that does...

The first line of thought goes: It's not my job to think about this stuff. My job is to carry out day to day link building tasks like writing high quality content, building competitions and creative campaigns and to find relevant sites to help promote it.

However the second line of thought goes: I believe the above to be an inefficient allocation of both time and treasure when seen in the grander context of marketing strategy. And with Google anemically trying to strangle SEO in favor of PPC, I also believe this to be a losing strategy over the long term. Here are some problems I've been having a hard time wrapping my head around:

1) Guest Posting only really works when bloggers are happy to engage with the brand in that fashion. There is no such thing as a 'sponsored post' since paying for links is against Google law.

2) Link building can be corrosive, especially when you have not so good SEO's posting less than quality articles in dumpy, poorly managed blogs. People hate advertising enough as it is, but there is a deleterious effect spammy links have on brand equity. Even though they may cut Google spider mustard (in the short term), they absolutely make people's (myself included) skin crawl.

3) Asking people for guest posts does annoy some people and I am terrified of annoying an influential blogger. It makes me think long and hard about the relevance to their blog and what they have previously published before I consider contacting them. I've had the odd upset reply (some people understandably get sick of less considerate SEO's spamming them) and I always try to laugh about it (even though a small part of me always dies inside), but for any good SEO the idea of potentially sullying a client's good name keeps them awake at night! It's completely the opposite of what we (as good SEO's) are trying to achieve. I want to be helpful to influential bloggers - not a hindrance!

The point being that there has to be an easier way to develop a comprehensive long term off-page strategy, that leverages brand equity rather than works against it. This is largely where I agree with the ad rants editorial ”brand awareness=a successful brand (duh). However, brand awareness now means having a palpable presence on the internet and as such, would benefit from having an off-page SEO built right into the bones of the Internet marketing strategy.

The Goal is a sustainable approach that supersedes Googles shenanigans, building an optimised link profile as the brand puts itself out on the web and then having that profile build on itself as consumers repost to their own websites or social networks. I suppose what I am saying is a branded and sustained campaign of what might be termed 'scalable linkbait' has the potential to supersede traditional link building activities in terms of efficiency. Simply leverage the customers already engaging positively with your brand to propagate links, and piggy back off-page SEO onto off-page online presence (i.e. a brand's youtube, tumblr, flickr, etc.). 'Simples'!

All thoughts and comments welcomed.