In SEO, Keywords and Branding Don't Mix

Ian Lurie

I’m gonna get a lot of flame comments on this one. All I ask is that, before you start cursing me, you read the entire post.

Keywords and branding do not mix.
Let’s say you own your own business. Or you’re a marketing exec who works for someone who owns their own business.
For years, you’ve invested time, energy and various internal organs getting folks to think of you as, say, an ‘internet marketing agency’. Because dammit, that’s what you are.
When you’re face-to-face with a potential client, the concept works. You say ‘internet marketing agency’ and they nod sagely and pull out their checkbooks (hah).
Problem is, no one searches for internet marketing agencies. They search for Seattle search engine optimization companies, or PPC management companies, or whatever they think you should be.
So you keep optimizing for ‘internet marketing agency’, which gets 0 searches/month, and the world just passes you by.
Yup, you showed them.
That is why, for companies not named ‘Nike’ or ‘Coke’ or ‘McDonalds’ or ‘Blackwater’, keywords and branding do. not. mix.
Keywords are what bring people to your site. They are what give you the opportunity to set ’em straight. If they never find you, you don’t get that opportunity.
If you think you sell ‘footwear’, you still need to rank for ‘shoes’.
If you think you sell ‘classic automobiles’, you still need rank for ‘muscle cars’.
And, if you think you’re a ‘psychoanalyst’, you still need to rank for ‘therapist’.
Of course, if you sell a product, you want to rank for your product name. But you shouldn’t have to optimize your site for your own product name. You should rank for it naturally. If you don’t, something’s very wrong with the way your site’s built, or the way you’re writing about your product.
Which I will probably need after the world is done ripping me asunder for this post. But, I’ll say it again:
For 99% of companies, keywords are traffic drivers, not branding tools. In SEO, keywords and branding do not mix.

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Ian Lurie
CEO & Founder

Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent and the EVP of Marketing Services at Clearlink. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). He's recorded training for, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Follow him on Twitter at portentint, and on LinkedIn at

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  1. Well played Ian – It drives me batty when a customer demands they rank for what they think their customers are using to find them.
    Ultimately I have to find a happy medium so that I continue to rub their bellies while also bringing results.
    In the end, I still get punched in the neck, so what’s the difference…

  2. I won’t flame you, Ian–because I think you’re right. I think that keywords and branding can mix, but not 1:1. I think that you have to think of keywords that will drive traffic to your site without necessarily running counter to your brand.

  3. Heck, I’ll go even farther. I don’t think e-commerce and branding mix. Leastwise they don’t mix as much as the Brand folks think they do. Thereby hangs a tale, but it would be indiscreet to ventilate it here. (Not that that has ever stopped me….)

  4. Excellent points…you need SEO keywords that differ from brand strategy in order to rank effectively. SEO isn’t branding, but branding can and should help guide it.

  5. When I talk with clients that are concerned with brand I tell them that brand is like reputation, the kind you want is one thats built up naturally by quality products and services.

  6. Good post. I agree that creating a search term that has no top of mind retrieval is useless and developing a niche term would probably cause more confusion among everyone involved with your company. I think what is more important is differentiating yourself through your service offering and reputation, that in my opinion is a more important communications issue that everyone needs to be on the same page with.

  7. My latest vision of this is Denims Vs Jeans and the old Sofa Vs Couch debate comes up at least twice a year. nice post. Great to find some vitriol at lunch time on a Monday

  8. This is why you don’t refer to your agency as something stupid like “internet marketing agency.” Not only are you losing out on keyword traffic and leads from that traffic, but you are also conducting a business that no one understands (unless you are part of this industry).

  9. Re denims vs. jeans — LOL, don’t even get me started! How about “pant” vs. “pants” or “short” vs. “shorts”? I guarantee, anyone searching for “pant” is NOT looking for an apparel item.
    Then there’s “tank” vs. “tank top,” “tee” vs. “T-shirt,” “capri” vs. “capris” or “capri pants.” The apparel industry brims with this sort of stuff, precisely because so many fashionista types in Marketing and Creative are enamored of the cool, hip, fashion-y way of saying things. (As opposed to: the way customers actually think, talk, and search!)

  10. Then there’s my personal favorite: “jean” vs. “jeans.” Because we all know that Real Live Customers routinely talk exactly like this: “I am going to put on my Deep Indigo Jean in order to go down to the mall to buy a new jean. But should I buy another indigo jean? Or maybe a Midnight Jean or a Pale Mushroom Jean? Should I try a Bootcut Jean or a Crop Jean? Decisions, decisions.”
    Ack! It’s enough to make me want to throw out my pant, my short, my crop, my capri….

  11. OK, I’m on a roll now. Just remembered lingerie!
    Does anyone outside of the skivvy industry know that a “hi-cut” is a pair of panties? Ditto for a “hipster”?
    Would it cross a normal person’s mind that a “wirefree” is a type of bra?
    The examples are endless. But I’d better stop now before I alienate all my buddies in merch and marketing, LOL!

  12. Good post. But to drive the point home with a stubborn customer, just run a simple keyword analysis and show them what people are looking for. That’s the beauty of SEO & SEM–the metrics. The numbers don’t lie!

  13. @Rob if you have clients who are persuaded by numbers, I envy you. I find that no metrics withstand a determined barrage of corporate groupthink.

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