Guest Post: 8 Tactics for Defending the SERPs when Synergy is not an Option

Today I’m introducing a guest post from Michael King. Mike is a fellow NYC-based SEO who has become a good friend over the past few months. His posts on SEOmoz over the past few months have been extremely popular, and he has whipped up this excellent post in under 24 hours. I only asked him to do it yesterday afternoon! Now over to Mike...

Sigh…I work on a lot of big brand clients and to say that they oftentimes just don’t get it is quite an understatement.  The emotions that overwhelm me as I think about the opportunities missed due to lack of respect for the Search capabilities could only be properly conveyed in Oatmeal comics or scenes from American Psycho. Alas Distilled asked me for a post less than 24 hours ago so all I have is data.

That said I have encountered a client in the Consumer Packaged Goods vertical that runs traditional media ads as well as digital campaigns such as homepage takeovers and banner ads but simply does not believe in Search. Let’s call them Brand A. The issue Brand A doesn’t understand is that their advertising results in an uplift of unbranded Search volume for related terms. The competitor (Brand B) owns the SERPs in this market so while the Brand A does get an uptick in traffic Brand B benefits even more – from our client’s campaigns!

Both Share of Voice analysis and Search volume comparisons of a branded term [brand name] [product] show that the competitor dominates the mindshare of this product market.

Furthermore the near mirroring of peaks and valleys coupled with the dates that Brand A ran its campaigns are indicative of vagueness of the creative in these campaigns. If it was clear that it was Brand A then Brand B’s branded terms wouldn’t get so much extra search volume during Brand A’s campaigns. Brand B also implements aggressive Paid Search strategies in response to Brand A’s campaigns. Brand B maintains the distance by dominating mindshare with their product, dominating Organic Search for unbranded terms and then aggressively bidding on Brand A’s branded terms.

It’s an impressive strategy on Brand B’s part as both graphs are pure pwnage but it’s also pretty maddening for me as I sit on the sidelines watching my pals in Analytics and Paid Search run full speed into exposed brick. Godspeed my friends—Godspeed.

The basic issue is that your hands are tied. Your client is running media campaigns before SEO can prepare for them or perhaps you have been brought in to do SEO at the last minute and Search is at the cusp of a deluge of traffic. You must defend your brand.

The following are eight tactics to help you quickly occupy the SERPs with branded content in order to defend the brand. Most of them assume big brand resources but the concepts can basically be applied to any site.  Man your battle stations.

Ramp Up Paid Search

To paraphrase my friend Eppie Vojt (@eppievojt) typically Big Brands don’t believe in SEO because it falls outside of how they are accustomed to purchasing advertising. When big brands want magazine ads they reach into their bottomless wallet and slap X-amount of dollars on the boardroom table now they have a magazine ad. When they want a TV ad they spend X-amount of dollars and get a commercial. When they want banners—you get the point. Truthfully, Organic Search is more like Public Relations in that you hire a firm but they may not be able to get you on the cover of Rolling Stone even though you pay them X-amount of dollars. Conversely, Paid Search does operate the way that big brands are accustomed to and therefore they are much more willing to allocate funds to it.

Turn the dial on your Paid Search strategy up to “aggressive” and kick those CPCs up to $1 and $2 in order own that number one spot in Paid for your branded keywords, unbranded keywords and even your competitor’s branded keywords. Your competitors will likely fall back into just defending their keywords shortly thereafter and they will win because their quality score will support the terms but in the short run you will let them know they are in for a fight if they come after your terms in Paid Search again.

Ramp Up Local Search

If the brand has local presences of some sort ramp up your efforts in that arena.  For example a brand such as Starbucks which is both a coffee shop and an in-store brand is well-served to add target keywords to its Local profiles to improve visibility and push out competitors since local results tend to take up a large amount of SERP real estate. A less obvious example would be a brand such as T.G.I. Fridays which is a both a restaurant and a brand that sells microwave foods such as buffalo wings.  Adding keywords such as a “hot wings” to their local profile will increase visibility.

Leverage Universal Search

The goal is to create more opportunities to occupy SERP real estate and have those properties point back to the client’s website by leveraging image, video, and news content. Ideally I would include product feeds and recipes since they have been dominating the SERPs as of late but if you had enough control to implement microformats I imagine you could just optimize the site. So let’s focus on the big 3.

  • Video – The beauty of video is that it can’t be seen and therefore you can use it to occupy multiple positions particularly in branded SERPs. This is a great time to use TubeMogul’s OneLoad solution because syndicating your videos across the various sites creates more opportunities for you to rank and also in some can in cases builds links. ProTip: Search Engines use video length as one indicator of difference between videos, if you’re targeting unbranded SERPs with video it is useful to shave a few milliseconds off the beginning and ending of the video when placing them on different properties with different user names. Post a few of the shaved videos to sites manually with unique meta data for a better chance at ranking more than once in the SERPs for the same video. If that’s not white hat enough for you open up Sony Vegas or Final Cut and add some sort of Adult Swim-esque text-based intro to the video.

  • Images – Read this post on image optimization as there is currently a disturbance in the force with images. Since you don’t have proper access to optimize the site you will have to host and optimize these on offsite brand experiences.
  • News – Tell your brand to make news and then fire off press releases or align with the brand’s PR team and get high profile news coverage. Be aware that News SERPs are typically quite fleeting and therefore this is not the most sustainable of the Universal Search tactics. Making news is so underrated. News is so much better than advertising. “Make news” sounds vague but this is a great opportunity to get creative. Suggest events, charities. Suggest the client invite influencers out for a free conference; get them to publicly release some awesome study. Make. News.

Leverage Hosted Communities

There are a ton of sites offering hosted communities and hosted wikis out there with decent  domain authority just waiting to give you a free website but I suggest you take advantage of one whose root domain has an SEOmoz Domain Authority of 100.

Why yes Google, I am thinking of creating a website


I love the idea of the snake eating its tail and therefore I’d suggest Google Sites as the first choice when trying to build some sort of external branded property to rank rapidly. I know what you’re thinking. Surely Google is accounting for this….right? I promise you they are not. Take this magnificently designed website for instance (brace yourself):

Here it is #1 in the SERPs for the query “journal of physical therapy:”

Surely “journal of physical therapy” must be an uncompetitive term with no search volume, right? Wrong.

Ok, so surely they must have a decent backlink profile, right? Wrong again.

None of the whopping 10 links are impressive.

What is impressive of course is the number of links to the subdomain – a sexy 342k from 233,228 root domains according to Open Site Explorer. Contrary to what we might expect Google is not devaluing Google Sites and therefore building branded experiences or content wikis there is an awesome way to defend a client that is otherwise failing in Organic Search.

Some other sites to consider building branded keyword-relevant content experiences are:

  • Google Knol
  • Wetpaint
  • Hubpages

Leverage Authoritative Expert Communities

For as much flack as Demand Media and their ilk have caught for building content farms Google’s Panda ate lightly at their harvest. In other words, sites like and eHow still rank competitively for highly competitive terms.  Beyond that general guest blogging on other expert communities (such as I am doing right now) is a great way to occupy high positions in the SERPs. For example my outreach link building post on SEOmoz has very quickly reached #1 for the competitive query “outreach link building.”

In short, write posts for other sites for the purpose of ranking rather than just inbound links but also provide an obvious graphical (if possible) link back to the client’s site above the fold to effectively block the competitor from getting the traffic and redirect the traffic back to the client’s site. Some sites to go after are:

  • [any authoritative site in the niche]

Keep in mind that About, eHow and Examiner have writer screening processes and therefore it is likely to be a much more agile move to just seek out guest post opportunities. Quora is also an awesome resource because you can just build a profile for the brand and answer a ton of questions about the brand and then the profile becomes an authoritative landing page in the SERPs for the brand.

Leverage Partnerships

Building a branded keyword-relevant content experience on authoritative partner sites is great way to shoot up in the SERPs. A partner that already ranks well probably has a good sense of content marketing and will be very open to a lightly branded content experience to help them continue to build traffic and visibility.

Client A is really into things like homepage takeovers and since they are in dealing in food it would make sense for them to do a deal with the FoodNetwork where they build a branded experience that lives on  Client A could also partner with a website such as and create a content section that consists of recipes that appear on the packaging of Client A’s products. Any number of ideas is worthwhile and fits into Client A’s modus operandi as long as the goal of creating an authoritative branded content experience on another authoritative site to drive back to Client A is met. Oftentimes the client already has an existing partnership and it will be up to you to push this tactic through with the Media and Creative teams involved on the site.

Leverage Social Media

Search for any brand and once you get past the 6-pack what you are likely to see next are Facebook and Twitter. These are great launch pads for all of the off-site content you will be building but most importantly they are easy mediums for nearly instant rankings.  This tactic is effective for branded terms.

Keyword Opportunity Brainstorming

As always keyword research leads the way for determining SEO opportunities.  Let the keyword suggestions drive the creative process.

For example if I’m doing work for Post cereal it quickly becomes obvious that people are looking for coupons and therefore the next step is to reach out to a high ranking coupon site and offer a coupon and brand experience.


Your client is a bonehead but at the end of the day your job is about results so building content off site to defend the brand serves several purposes that will help your client understand why they need to be putting more money and effort into Search.

  • It’s Link Building – All of these efforts ultimately result in more content rich properties that link back to the client’s failed website. Once they give you that inch to make a few changes you already have the link equity to improve rankings.
  • It’s Traffic – Ultimately all the efforts result in referral traffic and traffic to the website is the center of the venn-diagram between you and the client.
  • It’s Results – Proving you can achieve rankings for the target keywords using these off-site properties acts as a case study for what you can do if you got control of the actual site. Showing the client these results will help push through any subsequent recommendations and SEO campaigns.

SEO is not a switch you can just flip and unfortunately many executives that are high in the sky may never understand its complexities; these tactics are ways to cater to the things they do understand. You may also consider putting Conversion Rate Optimization at the forefront of the digital strategy as a doorway to SEO. At the end of the day digital strategy starts and ends with people, play to those people understand with creative initiatives until they believe in the power of Search because synergy may not be an option but neither is failure.

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  1. Josh-u-a

    Another killer post sir.

    Your frustration is well understood I think. SEO is still new enough that most big brands only realize they need it; they're not entirely sure why yet.

    It doesn't help that tracking the value of a keyword isn't always the most straightforward thing; as an industry we haven't adopted enough of the traditional marketing metrics to make the transition easy for the suit and tie sorts.

    I think that's one reason there's still so much emphasis on SERP positioning as a KPI... Raw SERP Visibility is satisfying and doesn't need a lot of explaining.

    Your tactics are a great way to build some rapport out of the gate with a client; demonstrate results and gain credibility with the client as a true expert, so you can hopefully educate them and guide them towards a more viable and comprehensive strategy.

    Failing that, at least you know you gave it your all and achieved some viable results.

    As always, thanks for taking the time!

    reply >
    • We always harp on education but the problem is a lot of big brand clients don't care to understand SEO. They are so focused on ad copy and brand guidelines that they don't want to hear that you have to WORK to make your site rank. Also in a big agency environment the account team doesn't always understand what goes into this nor do they have the wherewithal to sit through the minutia even at a high level so in some cases you are really left to trojan horse off site efforts in the ways I've described.

      You're absolutely right, ranking is an easy KPI to understand that's why so many people in the past tricked their clients into thinking they've achieved results by showing they got to #1 for some random keyword with no search volume. What really helped was when one of my clients got hit by Panda and all of the sudden they became very focus on the recommendations that I'd made months prior that had been collecting dust and similarly I had to sell them on the idea of a microsite since their main site is so poorly optimized.

      At the end of the day it's just another challenge that allows me to come up with a creative solution and if it wasn't for that I probably just wouldn't be in this business now would I?

      Thanks for the support Josh!


  2. VERY interesting anecdote about the Google site.

    My favorite thing about this post is how it presents a practical and actionable strategy for moving SEO through a REAL LIFE scenario. Having the most genius linkbuilding idea ever means almost nothing if you can't get it moving. The fella that can get shit done and give stakeholders what they want so they feel comfortable getting behind his SEO initiatives will always win harder than the fella who seizes up with frustration.

    As a follow up post, would love to see how you'd roadmap and prioritize all this ;-)

    reply >
    • Glad you liked it Dave, real interested to see the post you were working on late that same evening.

      I try to only bring the actionable stuff just because that's what I like to read.

      LOL "give the stakeholders what they want" is one of those phrases that we joke about that gets said in the office all the time. A few other ones: "we should take a phased approach," "circle back and give us the 10,000 ft view" and "what's the low hanging fruit."

      Low Hanging Fruit brings me to the next point.

      For the setting I'm currently in each of these pieces would require some sort of buy-in from the client so I can get the resources from Creative to make this happen. The easiest buy-in would be ramping up Paid Search since they already understand that and it's just another SOW to sign and another check to write -- Done.

      Most clients already have social media profiles so that's as simple as aligning with the team there to get some keyword-relevant posts out of the campaign. Ideally we would already have this in place.

      From there we would look into leveraging partnerships because that is something they understand and will pay for in which case we are again using a trojan horse tactic where I'd align with the Creative team to deliver something the client understands but built from Search.

      The thing is we may not get a buy-in to build the off-site branded experiences on Google Sites so what would have to happen is I'd have to get my boss to buy-in on the leap of faith which we still wouldn't be able to allocate much resources to and therefore the content created for the partner sites would be re-purposed in the form of the branded experience on Google Sites. At that point I'd go after universal search.

      Certainly if it was a site that I was working on in a less restricted fashion I would start with the branded experience on Google Sites at which point I'd pitch the idea of double/triple serving paid search to both the client's site, Google Sites property and the Partner's site. Then I'd follow up with Universal Search, Social Media and mining more ideas from Keyword Opps.

      Thanks for reading Dave, looking forward to your talk at SearchLove NYC.


  3. Create a web in google sites it's a good tip!

    reply >
  4. Hola Mike...

    to confirm your suggestion about Google Site, I suggest you also to not forget the old classic: Blogger.
    I am not so sure there in the USA/UK, but one thing did surprise me somehow when Panda went alive here in Spain and in Italy: how Blogger conquered % of visibility.
    I investigated a little (but not so much to say that it was a scientific analysis) and what came out is that tons of blogger sites, many absolutely not SEOed and quite naive, were occupying the space before held by Wikio and others blogs aggregators.
    Similar happened with YouTube... therefore to create cool and especially "alive" YouTube pages can be another solution.
    Ah... and to not talk just about Google, what I noticed is also that Facebook has gained a lot of visibility, especially with Pages ranking more and better. Therefore, my suggestion should be to create as many pages as possible with all the variations of your brand. For instance, Hugo Boss it is not just Hugo Boss: it's Boss Black, Boss Selection, Boss Orange...

    great post Mike... you have to jump the pond and visit us here :)

    reply >
    • Always great to hear from you Gianluca. I've been all over Europe in my touring but I've never been to Spain or Italy so I will definitely make it a point to come visit!

      You know I didn't realize you could do custom templates in Blogger now -- that is a great call! I thought about Blogger as I was compiling my list but I assumed you couldn't create an actual branded experience there. Good to know that the site is very strong in the SERPs.

      Registering all the variations of the brand in Social Media is another great call. That is definitely a tactic we employ, however it is hard for brands to keep track of their many properties and keep them up to date and live as you said. Since we are doing the white hat thing here, we have to make sure that we are building content hubs with utility for the user to future-proof these tactics. So definitely build out the profiles but stop at the point where you don't think will have enough brand support to make them worthwhile.

      Great insights Gianluca!

      Thanks for reading.


  5. Awesome article and tips, thanks for sharing.

    reply >

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