Search as we know it is changing. With Panda, the concept of site and domain quality over mechanistic keywords was born. And with Hummingbird, Google “smartened up” the search process by focusing on the intent of the search engine user rather than the exact words and phrases in the query!

The focus for search engine marketers is now on quality, authority and context, because these are the factors that will help you stand apart from your competitors.

Then vs. Now in the SEO World

We all remember the days of keyword stuffing. When content was written more to please Google bots than to inform and educate the readers. Marketers and search engine experts had just woken up to the prospect of powering their way to the top of SERPs and moderation was in short supply.

After a few years of this mayhem though an “audience first” mentality emerged. Matt Cutts’ pearls of wisdom informed the world that “good SEO is very similar to good marketing” and focused on the end goal of offering people a productive and useful experience.

In 2016 and beyond, this rudimentary understanding will have to be taken to more advanced levels. Performing well on SERPs is no longer a matter of “quality content” and judicious use of keywords. Business owners must cultivate a very strong brand presence that engages visitors and offer the search bots lots of context around their site because in the world of SEO, “context and authority” are geared to be the new “keyword.”

So what is the part that you as a marketer or a business owner can play in aiding Google’s quest? SEO consulting firms such as ours are increasingly advocating building a strong and unique digital brand presence, and baking it into your SEO efforts.

Defining a Brand

First and foremost, what is a brand?

It is not just your logo or your site colors or even the “tone” of your content. A user remembers only how you make him or her feel. And this starts from the click on the SERP to your site and continues through their entire buyer lifetime.

A brand is a journey. It is the prospect’s perception of who and what you are, gradually built up over countless interactions. Your company manifesto may say that you are a customer service conscious brand. But if your reps do nothing to lend weight to and validate this assertion, you as a brand are poor at after sales support. It is as simple as that!

Before you can go ahead and craft your SEO strategy to give your brand its fair share of attention and prominence, try to create detailed buyer personas for your target markets. Not because everyone is doing it, but because it will help you think like your customers – that is exactly what Google is striving to do.

Once you’re clear with the ins and outs of your brand, this is what you do with your SEO to bind up the two forever…

Keyword Research

This should be familiar territory to most people. But keyword research has outgrown its previous avatar. Do not log in to the Google Keyword Planner and try to pick options. Google’s tool is for PPC advertisement and the tendency is to push phrases that result in the maximum profits for the platform and its network partners.

Instead, take a look at your buyer persona.

What are its biggest pain points? What is a persona likely to search for on Google to mitigate these pain points? How will search queries evolve as the prospect goes from being aware of the problem to actively seeking a solution to deliberating over a particular brand?

There are a few ways to do this. One of my favorites is to look for questions around my niche on forums. Say I’m in the “make money online” business…

forum

Another great way to spot under-exploited keywords is to set the attribution modelling on your Google AdWords account to linear or decay. This technique can uncover some gems that sparked initial search interest in your products, sustained it and led up to the final conversion.

Leverage this gold to create custom FAQ sections on your site that answer the queries. If done properly, you might even find a place in Google’s answer box.

These practices not only lend your site a unique personality (which makes it a breeze for Google to understand what you and your services stand for), but also make you a destination for engaging, focused and relevant content. Two birds with one stone.

Links & Mentions

A word for your PR folks: Just as inbound links do not equal more credibility, neither do more mentions. Link building and digital PR is about providing Google bots with pathways to sites that are already ranked high on its list of authority domains in your niche. So that you can bask in their reflected glory!

There are a number of ways you can go about acquiring backlinks and mentions:

Scrutinize the backlink profiles of your closest competitors with a tool like Ahrefs. Stay on top of the links that they build and lose. Build a comprehensive series of snapshots of the sites linking out to your industry peers. Since these entities are interested in what competitors have to say or offer, they can very well shift their affiliations to you if given better content and gamification. Make a list of the most respectable domains and put in place a strategy to reach out and build ongoing relationships with them.

Search for broken links on cornerstone pages of .org sites. Who are the “authorities” and “influencers” in you niche? Do they have a weighty .org or .edu domain? Most of these sites sport key content in your industry. And they do not have the time to update their links. You can spot broken links with a dead link checker and reach out to the webmasters with an offer to link to better content on your site instead. It is worth a try!

Create written instructions for your customers on how they can leave you reviews on the most important business directory, service listing or product review sites. Reviews are not just a great way to get authority for ranking in local results, but also boost your site’s domain authority and products’ brand factor.

Link out to your website from these review platforms. They have immense credibility, and even if you can gather 10 to 20 positive reviews over a period of time, your website will get the necessary authority to stay afloat in the SERPs and social proof for instant respect from your prospects. Here is Moz’s take on how important reviews are for your business.

moz chart

Don’t worry about having to deal with negative reviews, because in general, the pros far outweigh the cons. Just set up Google alerts for your brand, so that you can implement damage control practices as soon as one that is unflattering to your business pops up. Here is a quick guide to online relationship management.

Branded Personalized Search Results

This should have caught on like wildfire because it brings pizazz to boring text based search results. Structured data has been doing the rounds for quite some time now! You might have seen SERPs featuring something like this:

nexus

Such a listing instantly catches the eye. Depending on your industry and business, you can add rich snippets varying from aggregate ratings to brand logos using Organization markup.

You can further personalize results for your prospects by demoting inner sitelinks that you do not want displayed when a brand name search is conducted. Choose links that represent your brand and are the best points of access to deeper content on the site.

microsoft

Add Calls-To-Action to your meta descriptions. Like billboard advertisers, use every last vacant part of your online real estate.

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Many experts might argue that SERP branding tactics in do not have any direct impact on rankings. But, they do generate interest and allow for a sustained increase in CTR. And that is ultimately what Google is looking for to gauge the authority and usefulness of a site.

Wrapping Up

Great SEO is not complete if it doesn’t have elements to propagate the uniqueness of your brand and the competence of your services. Pick a few techniques that suit you, or use them all in conjunction to make it easier for search engines to understand what you as a business are all about and how much your users love you.