How Sites Can Compete with Big Brands on the SERP

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The In Search SEO Podcast Poll Question of the Week!

Poll Question Episode 11

What you think small to mid-sized brands can do to keep up with the big players on the SERP?! Let us know so that we can feature you on the next episode of In Search! 

Summary of Episode 11: The In Search SEO Podcast


In Search SEO Banner 11

This week we interview Andrew Optimisey and get his take on what small brands can do to compete on the SERP:

  • What role does a unique selling proposition/point play when competing with a multinational brand? 
  • How can you keep up with the link building of big brands? 
  • Where does technical SEO fit into brand competition on the SERP? 

How Small Brands can Compete on the SERP: A Conversation with Andrew Optimisey

[This is a general summary of the interview and not a word for word transcript. You can listen to the podcast for the full interview.]

Mordy: Thanks for coming on Andrew! Tell us about the Cambridge SEO meetups you do?

Andrew: Great to be here. I’ve been running the events in Cambridge that are free to attend for about a year now. We had some amazing speakers: Marie Haynes, Ross Tavendale, JP Sherman. A lot of smart people. It all started with me wanting to get one-on-one time with these people, but that wasn’t going to happen. But if I could get a room full of people for them to talk to then they would be more interested.

SEO can be hard so to get some experts to come along and check your stuff is very helpful.

M: That’s fantastic! So, today we’re going to talk about brands. Specifically, what small-sized and medium-sized brands can do to stay competitive on the SERP.

Where I’m coming from is that Google has some significant bad press to deal with whether it be privacy concerns, fake news, etc. For Google, big brands are safe. Google knows that for larger brands whatever content they put out is going to be safe in that it’s accurate and authoritative. What that premise in mind what “esteem” do big brands hold in the eyes of Google these days? Has their stock gone up? Why/why not?

A: Certainly, I understand that smaller businesses can feel overwhelmed by the bigger brands wondering how can they ever beat them on the SERP. I agree that Google is favoring the big sites, but my take is that Google hates being wrong. So the reason they favor big brands is that it’s a safer bet for Google. Most people are happy with these big brands on the SERP as they have brand familiarity. Some SEOs say, “The new keyword is brand.” People have to know who you are before you pop up in the search results. If users see famous brands on the SERP why would they choose you?

M: And this is the flip side of this as brand familiarity is what the users want.

A: Yes, but then you come to the question of is this what users want or is this what Google thinks they want? And if the users don’t see alternatives how will Google know any different? Now Google does test it, as they will test new pages for a very brief amount of time. So they are constantly running tests to see what is a good result.

And you can see that Google hates being wrong when they show you the “People Also Search” box. Or when Google says we know you asked for these results, but we think you meant to type something else, but if that is wrong and you did mean to spell it correctly then you can search for that too. Google is hedge betting.

Google wants to keep you on their search engine, they want to answer your queries, otherwise, you’ll get fed up and switch to a different search engine.

M: That’s an interesting perspective. Do you then see that (i.e., intent targeting) as a sort of crutch that Google relies on? That is, we generally relate to Google offering such a wide variety of content as being reflective of understanding user intent. But according to what you’re saying it could be looked at as being reflective that Google does not know what a user really wants.

A: There are constantly offering you stuff to refine search views. So Rand Fishkin did a lot of research on zero
click SERPs and the fact that they are increasing. A large part of that is because of refinement. You search for how old is Barack Obama and Google asks you did you really mean how old is Michelle Obama and all of these things are on the SERP (when was
he president, what are the names of his kids, etc.) and all of that is right there for you on the SERP and you never actually go in and click on a search result. You end up just running another search without clicking on anything.

M: What does this mean for small businesses, particularly ones that are not locally based (i.e., a software company) and can’t take advantage of local search (i.e., Local Packs, etc.) to combat a bigger brand’s overall presence?

A: Short answer, it’s really hard. Bigger brands have so many resources to their advantage (PR, content writing, marketing) that you can’t even come near. So what I tell my clients is to find your USP (unique selling point). Why would a user choose your brand instead of one of the larger brands? Why would people buy from YOU as opposed to Amazon? You can’t compete with Amazon on price so you need some USP that will convince users to buy from you. A USP can be you, your service, or the level of knowledge you have in that particular area, etc. And this is something that a lot of businesses have trouble with, not knowing or clearly defining their USP. You need to find your niche. Amazon can be everything to everyone but it can’t be all things, it can’t be the specialist of that niche. So finding your USP is important for any small business.

M: How important is USP compared to technical concerns that are heard in the world of SEO?

A: It’s massively important. If you can’t explain to people why they should buy from you then they won’t. The best test is the elevator pitch. Can you explain your business and USP in 30 seconds? Yes, marketing is important but without a USP why would people choose you?

M: Do you think SEOs fall back on technical as opposed to working on brand identity?

A: Right, that is a problem. Even for myself, if I have a project that I’m working on it’s much easier to tackle the problems I know how to fix and to push off the problems I don’t know how to fix. So it can be easy to tell clients you can fix all their technical issues, but they still have to answer the question, “Why is my business unique?”

M: Do you have a problem with clients who think it’s just a technical issue they need to fix? 

A: Well, of course, if there are technical issues improving them will increase
a site’s traffic. You’ll still get more traffic sales even if you don’t know your USP, but knowing your USP goes beyond the importance of SEO and is a massive issue you need to sort out.

M: If a site does have technical issues, which do you think is more important to fix/improve for a smaller brand: site speed or UX/site design?

A: It really depends on your niche and how bad the issues are. If your site speed is taking 40 seconds to load you can have the best UX in the world yet no one will get there. It also depends on your niche as Google is good at grouping sites together. So if your site is slow, but it’s faster than your competitors, then in Google’s eyes your site is comparatively fast. And it depends on your audience. If the majority of your audience is on mobile phones then they’ll expect it to be fast.

M: Do you have an issue with clients who think that competing with big brands is simply a matter of technical optimization?

A: If you’re in the middle of the pack and your website is a piece of junk from an SEO perspective then will improving things technically help you get more traffic? Of course, it will, even if you don’t know what your USP is. But having a reason to exist is massive, having a reason for your business to exist is massive! And just because you have a reason to exist one week doesn’t mean there is a reason for it to exist the next week.

M: In dealing with technical SEO issues for a small or mid-sized brand where would you start? If a site has to deal with site speed or UX, etc., all things being equal where would start?

A: This is a classic SEO question because it depends. It depends on your niche or how bad specific any issue is. It is, in a
lot ways, about your relative performance, where you stack up technically relative to your competitors. It even depends on the device your users engage with. If your users are on mobile you better be fast.

M: There’s always this talk about links not being as important as they once were, do you buy that? Where do links fit in for a smaller sort of brand? More importantly, how can a smaller player compete with the natural link acquisition big brands seem to have without exerting much effort?

A: Links are still important. There’s no way a smaller brand can compete from a link quantity perspective. With that, one of the most important things becomes the relevance of your links. You don’t need to have links from the world’s biggest sites. The focus should be more on link relevancy. Relevant meaning relevant to the topics you cover, geography (i.e., the countries you’re selling to), etc. Take for example a coffee shop. A coffee shop won’t link to you (being they’re a competitor), but maybe a bakery will link to you. Being on the front of Time Magazine is nearly impossible for a small business. But you can gain good relevant links by using some smart thinking. Greg Gifford had a really good talk at BrightonSEO. He said, Google can see your niche and if everyone in your niche is linked to one site then that link is not useful, but if you can find unique links that your competitors don’t have that’s really great. Even better, if you can find links that your competitors have and you can get those links, then not only do you get a good link, but you’re also making your competitor’s link no longer unique. Dragging themselves back towards you rather than moving yourself up.

M: Do businesses understand links more than the blue link on a page? Do they understand that link building is partially about actual relationships? Using your example, if I’m a coffee shop and have a good relationship with a bakery then there’s the opportunity to develop links right there in that real-world relationship.

A: That’s certainly a mindset thing. The right way I think to approach things is by asking if they (the links) are useful. If a user on a bakery website says, “I really need some coffee to go with this cake” then it’s useful for that site to mention, “If you’re looking for coffee there’s a great place down the street.” That’s useful. That’s sort of a mindset shift, “Where would your customers expect to find you?” You can’t build 200 links to horrible directory sites that are not related at all to your business. One good link is much better than a hundred bad ones.

This goes back to
a business knowing what’s unique about itself. A lot of the time there is a point of your identity that you think is mundane, but that people who are not experts find fascinating. A good example of this is a client of mine who is a wine merchant. His perspective is, “How can I create content other people will link to? What I do is so boring.” But I said to him, “What do you know that no one else knows?” And he can list off things like the most popular wines by country, the most popular wines by what he sold, etc. He created interesting articles that people with
any interest in wine found enjoyable and he got great links.

M: It’s a funny thing that people have a hard time creating a business identity, that they feel there is none for their type of “boring” business. To me though, your business identity is just an extension of your personal identity. I’ve seen this a hundred times, you have your own way of doing whatever it is you do, which comes from who you are as a person. The more you’re tapped into your unique take on what you do, the easier it will be to develop an identity as a brand.

A: Once you get that first example out of them [the business] of how they are indeed unique, where they’ll say, “Oh, I do this thing, but it’s kind of boring and you wouldn’t like it,” but you look at them and it’s gold, then you’re on, then you get going!

Optimize It or Disavow It? – Should Small Brands Chase Featured Snippets or Focus on Paid Search?

M: I have this bit where I give you two options to choose from. These options are either both really terrible ideas or really fantastic ones. You’re
job as our guest is to choose between the two options. I call it Optimize It or Disavow It!

Here we go… Featured Snippet targeting or a paid search campaign. If your client is a small sized brand and you can do either one, featured snippet targeting or a paid search campaign, which tactic would you recommend? If a small brand could do one or the other, which tactic should they undertake? Should they go after the same Featured Snippets a big brand goes after or the same paid keywords? Which one would you recommend to a client (who of course you would never do this too)?

A: That’s mean! I’m in SEO and SEO is better than PPC right? Even though I probably have to hand in my membership to the SEO club since I like PPC and think it can be really useful.

I would have to say Featured Snippets. At the moment I think there are still some great opportunities out there with a lot of search volume for businesses to find that have not been taken up by really big brands. There are Featured Snippets out there where the holders of the Featured Snippets are pretty lousy and it won’t be so hard to take over the spot.

M: Well, thank you, Andrew, for coming out to the show.

A: Thank you for having me.

SEO NEWS & Analysis

DuckDuckGo Added Apple Maps: DuckDuckGo who previously used OpenStreetMap for their map and address searches recently announced that they will now be powered by Apple Maps.

This is a little peculiar to Mordy as it feels inconsistent with DuckDuckGo’s philosophy to choose a corporate brand like Apple and not stick to using OpenStreetMap which is more grassroots.

Google Removes Comments on Webmaster Blog: Google announced that they will be removing the ability to comment on their webmaster blog. This decision was made after realizing the “no follow” link attribute wasn’t working when it came to preventing spammy comments.

This is not a breaking news story, but it kind of shows how Google is in the same boat as us when it comes to spammers.

Spammers Harming Local Search Results: A recent report stated that spammers are taking advantage of using Open Edits in order to hurt their local competitors who have been open for many years. To explain, Google recently gave businesses the option to show when they would be opening and entering the market. Spammers have been suggesting to Google that a competing business is set to open in the near future when in reality that business has been open for years. The result makes it appear that the business in question is not yet open and therefore irrelevant to potential customers.

It is fairly absurd how easy it is for people to suggest such an edit to the open date of a business which has been open for years. Mordy wonders about Google’s obligation to make sure people’s businesses can’t be manipulated in a harmful manner before releasing a feature.

[UPDATE: Google has reportedly resolved this issue. Now, if a business is already opened you cannot choose a future opening date!]

Google URL Inspection Tool Gets New Features: It seems Google has upgraded its Google URL inspection tool by adding new features that give you more detailed insights into your page. For example, you can now see the HTTP response code. Check it out for yourself!

[UPDATE: The URL Inspection Tool, as of this writing, does not show redirect HTTP response codes.]

The Fun SEO Send-Off Question

If you could rename Google what name would you choose for the search engine? 

Jacqueline would rename Google “Wiseguy” while Mordy chose the less mature “Smartypants”. He considers the new name to be accurate, cute, and slightly sarcastic.

Rank Ranger’s New Site Audit Report Tool!

This past week we launched our own in-house site audit report! Our SEO team came to our own dev team complaining that site audits were a bit annoying. There was a lot of data, a lot of great charts, but it was a bit over the top. They asked for something that is both efficient, visual, and deep. To which the development team said, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” So that’s what we did! We made a new Site Audit Report that’s really easy to use and that’s not overwhelming but contains every data tidbit you’d expect to see! 

New Hotel Pack Ranking Tool Inside Rank Ranger!

Due to the recent reformatting of Google’s Hotel Local Pack, we created this exclusive tool where you can track your rankings for Hotel Local Packs that are formatted differently than the “standard” 3-Pack!

About The Author

In Search is a weekly SEO podcast featuring some of the biggest names in the search marketing industry.

Tune in to hear pure SEO insights with a ton of personality!

New episodes are released each Tuesday!

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