Brand or SEO? Guess What, You Don’t Have to Choose

As always, use your common sense. And ask yourself some questions.
There’s a lot of posturing on both sides about which should take precedence in a website, brand or SEO. Some numbers people with their neat formulas and their metrics believe that increasing traffic to a site is the only thing that matters – sales and loyalty automatically follow. Branding proponents assert that following SEO “rules” leads to homogenous, uninteresting sites that kill creativity and don’t present brands in their best light.

Who’s right?

Neither. And both. SEO can be extremely creatively constraining if you’re hell-bent on exactly following every single recommendation, exactly as it’s presented. Yet a site that’s beautiful, emotional, even engaging isn’t worth a nickel if it’s never seen. So what do you do?

As always, use your common sense. And ask yourself some questions.

– Who are you?
If you’re a medium to large company with great brand recognition and everyone already knows what you do, then you’re lucky – you’re probably already pretty well optimized. People probably search for you by name, or by product name. Nintendo, for example, probably doesn’t need to optimize for wii, whereas a retailer may want to.

– Who do you really want to reach?
If you’re a company that specializes in a niche item, like antique Gibson guitars or a specific type of pottery, you really don’t want the entire universe of fledgling guitar players or casual pottery buyers to come to you. You want to target specifically, so you optimize for one or two key phrases, like “1960’s Gibsons” or “Pewabic collectibles.”

On the other hand, if you’re a brand new online retailer, offer a wide array of products, or have some heavy-duty competition in your service sector, then you’ll want to optimize wide and deep. Make sure you understand how your potential customers search for what you offer and what’s important to them, whether it’s the best price on a flat screen or a private kindergarten that offers a full-day program. Then optimize to those people in every way you can.

– What about all those “rules”?
The old adage “rules were meant to be broken” certainly applies here. Some SEO companies like to nitpick every aspect of a site, insisting that it always be written in 3 columns, with the logo in the upper left corner, all keywords on the home page at least twice and redundant navigation at top and bottom. But these are really usability issues – and in an ever more web-savvy world, I’d contend that you can stretch these rules, sometimes quite a bit.

Sometimes SEO “rules” are even in direct opposition to accepted usability rules. For example, in SEO, redundancy is key. The more keywords used more often on more pages, the better the web crawlers can peg the relevance of your site. But every web site usability book you’ll read says to cut copy in half. Then cut it again. Then cut it again. So? Choose your words very, very carefully.

On the other extreme, you can’t create a web site oozing with emotive visuals and chock full of puffery and high prose and expect it to work. You can’t put in precious little icons that require some kind of code book to interpret, or build your site with the most cutting edge software and expect a potential client with a 5-year-old PC to be able to even read it. On both sides, use your common sense.

And while we’re at it, use common sense about your copy, too. Make sure you write your site to the people you want to use it – not the universe. While some sites should be written at an 8th grade reading level, tops, if your site is targeted at scientists, researchers or prospective clients who are mostly PhDs, don’t talk down to them.

So, what’s new?

Everything. Constantly. Which is why we need to constantly come up with newer and better ways to make sites work better.

SEO isn’t a big mystery anymore. Everyone in marketing should have at least a passing knowledge of SEO, PPC, SEM and all those other acronyms. Every communications and graphics company should be building them into their plans almost without thinking at this point.

But just because something isn’t “new” doesn’t mean it’s not valid. Look at branding, for instance. We’ve been chanting that mantra for oh, a millennium or so. And it’s still very, very valid. Because if you can’t make a consumer understand and value what your brand stands for, no amount of optimization is going to change that. It will just make your shortcomings more visible.

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