Branding in SEO. How 9 Agencies Approach Building Their Brand

Pawel Grabowski
Pawel Grabowski is a B2B copywriter working primarily with SaaS and Technology companies. He helps them attract new visitors and turn them into buyers through seductive website copy, stimulating blog posts, irresistible landing pages and other content types. For more information visit smashingcopy.com

    Do you think clients recognise brands in the SEO industry?

    Is this something they use as a reference when hiring an agency?

    Do you wonder how other SEO agencies work on their brands (and if so, how)?

    I recently began to ask myself these questions. And to find the answer, I decided to survey some people behind successful SEO companies.

    Who Responded

    What is a brand

    Before we dive in to the research, I want to discuss one more thing — what I understand as a brand.

    To many, brand is a logo and collection of corporate colours. In fact, that’s how American Marketing Association defines it. According to AMA, a brand is

    a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers. The legal term for brand is trademark. A brand may identify one item, a family of items, or all items of that seller. If used for the firm as a whole, the preferred term is trade name.

    Marketers around the world have disagreed with this definition. A renowned marketing professor Stephen Brown in 1992 defined brand as

    nothing more or less than sum of all the mental connections people have around it.

    Seth Godin says:

    A brand is the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.

    Jay Baer, co author of The New Revolution defined brand as

    the art of aligning what you want people to think about your company with what people actually do think about your company.

    Cheryl Burgess called it

    a reason to choose.

    Overall, it’s hard to limit brand to just graphical representation. It encompasses all experience customers have with your company, product or service. And that’s how I approached it in this research.

    [Research] Branding in SEO

    Q1: Do you think clients recognise brands in SEO industry?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    Yes
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Yes
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    Yes
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    Yes
    • Matt Fielding (Custard)
    No
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    Yes
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    Yes
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    Yes

    Q2: Can you recount the last time your brand was recognised by a non industry person? Please describe it.

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)

    Depending how far from the industry they are, we get everything from “you guys run Google” to “online marketing, right?

    • John Ring

    People in business / marketing have often heard about our company as we’ve been around a long time so they’re not well au fait with SEO but have still heard of or are aware of us.

    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)

    Last week I was interviewed by a “business expert” for his next book.

    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)

    Non-industry’ being people who don’t work in SEO — a few people in the wider business and marketing arena got in touch when we were acquired by St. Ives…

    …but non-industry being outside of the digital marketing sphere entirely, a few people I’ve met have read our blog after seeing us on the Verge, TechCrunch and the WSJ.

    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)

    A university professor thought of our brand and invited me to speak in front of marketing students. Two ended up as interns, one got a job at another company and later signed up as a client.

    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)

    I don’t think we’re recognised much outwith the industry as it’s where we focus most of our marketing efforts (aside from the word of mouth marketing we precipitate) like writing for industry publications and talking at events like Brighton SEO which has worked really well for us.

    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)

    Most of the reasons I can think of are due to our distinctive name or tool, which you could argue are elements of branding. But I do think it’s difficult for ‘brands’ within the industry to be identified outside in a traditional sense obviously like a consumer brand. I think most outsiders wouldn’t recognise even the largest brands in the industry.

    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)

    One of directors does a lot of local public speaking so that is where the non industry recognition come from.

    Q3: Do you think branding helps to overcome the perception of SEO as spam?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)

    Yes. Branding is all about perception. To the extent that we can shape people’s perceptions of what we do, we can shape perceptions of the broader space.

    • John Ring

    No. The perception of “SEO as spam” is really only an industry thing. Most business people haven’t a clue and even those who do know about SEO still don’t view SEO as spam in our experience. It’s mainly the technical SEO’s who view it as spam whereas more advanced marketing managers are slowly starting to see the importance of content which can’t be spam to work long-term so branding is rarely an issue as “SEO as spam” doesn’t exist as a concept among brand / marketing managers we talk to.

    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)

    Yes. Most SEO’s are spam.…but if a company has built a brand, and has been around for years, I’d figure they must be doing something right.

    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)

    Yes. Brands are required because they reflect what clients want to achieve. Clients don’t need rankings as much as they need a partner they can trust to have their backs in a fairly turbulent channel, and having a reputation you need to protect shares some of the risk.

    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)

    Yes. This only helps with more sophisticated clients of those with experience dealing with SEO agencies.

    • Matt Fielding (Custard)

    Yes. A good reputation helps overcome the fear that you’re dealing with a dodgy supplier; but in the SEO industry, I would only expect this to apply to referral business. Very few people outside of the marketing world are aware of the industry leaders in SEO, in my experience.

    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)

    Builtvisible (formerly SEOgadget) do a great job of this by promoting their great client base and successful content and campaigns including demonstrating their in-depth knowledge of the technologies used which sets them miles apart from any low quality spammy agencies.

    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)

    Yes. I think building a brand can help make an individual or company authentic and distinct fly by night operations certainly.

    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)

    Yes. The thing with the spam side is that those companies lack brand. At the end of the day I think the bigger companies are investing more in digital agencies that have built up a brand. If Google’s recent clamp down on spam has done anything, it has taught big companies not to use cheap, non entity vendors.

    Q4: Do you use term SEO in your marketing?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)

    Yes, but sparingly. “Optimisation” is a poor word for anything we do so we tend to talk more about the actual activities we undertake and the organic search outcomes we can achieve.

    • John Ring

    Many companies in a small country like Ireland still don’t understand SEO so we generally talk about “Google Rankings” as it’s an easier concept for non-SEO people to grasp. But we also need to use SEO as it’s something that bigger clients are very aware of.

    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)

    Yes but we also use phrases like “Digital Marketing”..depends who we’re talking to.

    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3) — Yes
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO) —  Yes
    • Matt Fielding (Custard) — Yes
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach) — Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog) — Yes
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online) — Yes

    Q5: Which of the following documents does your company have (Value Proposition, Brand Guidelines, Brand Personality)

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    Value Proposition, Brand Personality
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Brand Guidelines, Value Proposition
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    Brand Guidelines
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    Brand Guidelines
    • Matt Fielding (Custard)
    Value Proposition
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Value Proposition, Brand Personality
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    Brand Guidelines, Value Proposition
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    Brand Personality
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    Value Proposition

    Q6: Does every new employee get a copy of them?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    No
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    No
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Yes
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    No
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    No
    • Matt Fielding (Custard)
    No
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    No
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    No

    Q7: Do you educate new employees about your brand?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    Yes
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    Yes
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Yes
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    Yes
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    No
    • Matt Fielding (Custard)
    Yes
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    Yes
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    Yes

    Q8: Do you provide specific brand training to your sales people?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    No
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    No
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Yes
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    No
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    No
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    No
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    No

    Q9: Do you monitor your competitors brand building activities?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)
    Yes
    • John Ring (Tinderpoint)
    Yes
    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)
    Yes
    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)
    Yes
    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)
    Yes
    • Matt Fielding (Custard)
    No
    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)
    Yes
    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)
    No
    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)
    No

    Q10: What are the 3 top things you ask your staff to do to create a better perception of your brand?

    • Will Critchlow (Distilled)

    Over-ridingly: stay on top of their game. Responsibility for your own personal development is a big feature of life at Distilled. Write for our site and around the internet on topics that interest them and in which they are interested. Speak at conferences (our own and others’)

    • John Ring

    We help people. We never sell. If we can’t help people, we’d prefer to not work with them rather than take their money. Read and research non-stop on what’s new & what works for others

    • Jim Boykin (Internet Marketing Ninjas)

    1. We ask them to focus on what our business achieves for our customers…and to make sure that we’re delivering what our customers want.

    2. We ask them to take ownership of our brand. Though we need to pay attention to our customers’ needs, while also controlling what we want our brand to mean to our clients.

    3. We ask them to continually look for opportunities to make improvements in our branding and services. People can’t be afraid to make changes to reflect shifts in the way things have been done, we try to shift with new trends in the internet marketing industry.

    • Stephen Kenwright (Branded3)

    1. We encourage all our staff to write on our blog, attend conferences and speak at our seminars. We like to share our insights and everyone here is a specialist in something.

    2. Network. SEO isn’t just about SEO; you’ll find Branded3 staff at grassroots events around Leeds and London, from UX and Design to Data and CRO.

    3. People who own websites hold the keys to links; respect how busy they are. We don’t ask for coverage unless we’ve got something we think deserves covering and something that would be of interest to that particular site’s audience…and we don’t email people to remove links. Disavowing is enough to remove a penalty and we don’t want to involve ourselves or our clients in the bad PR that comes with the territory.

    • Dan Petrovic (Dejan SEO)

    1. Show clients you’re smart. Provide intelligent solutions to solve problems and impress clients with creative, technical and strategic skills.

    2. Be helpful and active in the online community.

    3. Engage in speaking opportunities and events.

    • Chris Gilchrist (Hitreach)

    1. Take really good care of our customers. 90% of our business comes from word of mouth referrals and we work hard to keep it that way. Those leads arrive at the discussion from a place of trust and much further down the funnel.

    2. Write for leading industry publications. It’s hard to make time for it and easy to fall out the habit but writing for Econsultancy, Search Engine Watch and so on always brings in leads and increases brand awareness to a large audience.

    3. Do the best job they can. Obviously this helps with the direct word of mouth when we’ve done a great job but a great site build or piece of content is seen by lots of people and speaks volumes to potential customers.

    • Dan Sharp (Screaming Frog)

    First of all, during out recruitment we try to ensure individuals will fit into our company culture here, which is really important.

    I believe this helps with branding, as our team live to our underlying brand values and morals internally, which is then delivered externally to the outside world and clients.

    I’m not a massive fan of rigid brand guidelines (although we do have some), so building a culture we all believe in and having a clear ethos and understanding of our indentity is key in my opinion.

    Some of the things we do as a team include, being open and honest in everything we do, helping others solve problems and having fun along the way.

    • Wayne Barker (Boom Online)

    1. Be transparent

    2. Be helpful

    3. Be honest

    Pawel Grabowski
    Pawel Grabowski is a B2B copywriter working primarily with SaaS and Technology companies. He helps them attract new visitors and turn them into buyers through seductive website copy, stimulating blog posts, irresistible landing pages and other content types. For more information visit smashingcopy.com

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    • Thanks for the honest answers — as an agency owner I’ve found that a lot of this falls to the wayside being that most of the time is spent focusing on clients. I also don’t do a ton of SEO for our brand, however I do try and blog a lot which I find to bring in enough inquiries to make it all worthwhile. 

      The main thing I’ve been working on personally in this year is getting our brand guidelines defined across different websites. For instance making sure everything “matches” across Facebook, our website, sites like Yelp, etc.

      The one question..or actually the answers that really surprised me was from the question “Do you think clients recognise brands in SEO industry?” 

      I get a chance to talk to a lot of clients, and I find that most of them don’t know the names of other SEO companies, but I think that is because a lot of people don’t even know that our industry exists!

      • Pawel Grabowski

        Hey Patrick, thanks for the comment. You know what, to me that was one of the most important questions in the survey 🙂 I wish I could ask actual customers that but it’s not possible (at least with my resources). I’d really like to find out what’s the level of knowledge about SEO brands among B2B customers.

      • As you can see from my response Patrick, I’d agree that clients don’t recognise brands in the SEO industry. In my experience the only clients that have even heard of Moz are those with in-house SEOs.

        Other agencies like Distilled never ring a bell when mentioned in client meetings, although I suspect that has a lot to do with the level of client these bigger agencies work with. Our SME clients probably don’t reflect the audience to which those agencies market themselves.

    • Most agencies spend their time deleting solicitation email from other agencies…lol