Why you must know your brand/non-brand traffic mix

Tom Shurville | 11th April 2016 | Analytics

First, what do I mean by brand / non-brand?

Brand traffic is essentially any search term that includes the brand name. We like to think of brand traffic as Customer Retention.

Non-brand traffic is any search term that does not include your brand term. We like to think of this as New Customer Acquisition.

Generally speaking, many SEOs tend to not really put much thought into brand. After all, SEOs traditionally deliver incremental value by driving non-brand keyword performance. The brand will usually rank number 1 for brand terms, so there’s limited growth to be had in Brand SEO. It makes sense not to pay it much attention other than to update the meta description to increase click through rate.

So why care about Brand SEO Metrics?

Simply put, you are blind to the true performance of SEO without brand and non-brand splits taken into account. Yet, it’s not a common practice.

Understanding brand traffic is essential to a business. It can be used to derive the following:

  • How well known is your brand?
  • How is our brand marketing activity performing?
  • Are we more popular than last year?

This is just the tip of the iceberg and it’s all nice to know information, but SEOs can’t really drive this nor take credit for the traffic. Hence, it gets deprioritised when reporting.

Is it time to re-assess what SEO data really matters?

From an SEO point of view, brand / non-brand is a great metric for understanding what incremental traffic we are responsible for driving. But over the last year or so, it’s become critical for understanding a general traffic lull reported across the industry.

A significant portion of your website’s traffic will be brand. This will vary depending on how well known your brand is. Most businesses’ brand traffic might make up around 50% of the total. Household names will have as much as 70% brand traffic and beyond.

The Brand / Non-Brand Split is Really Important. Here’s why.

No one likes to see a downward traffic graph but it happens. Based on traffic alone, you might decide that SEO isn’t working if traffic isn’t growing which is totally understandable.

But scratch beneath the surface and there could be a very different story.

You simply can’t know what’s going on without understanding brand and non-brand traffic. After all, 50%-70% of your traffic will likely be branded. So where’s the decline really coming from? And why?

By understanding the makeup of your traffic, you can begin to unravel what is really going on. You may just discover as I have, that your SEO campaign is more effective than is being reported.

Here’s an example: Let’s assume your traffic is down YoY

The obvious place to start an investigation is to look at ranks, but unless there’s something seriously wrong, your ranks are probably in a good place. Great, it’s probably not an SEO ‘problem’ – phew!

Often the investigation ends here but you’re still left with “I don’t know what is causing the numbers to be down”.

Let’s assume SEO health is in a good place and all else is equal, i.e. no major changes to the website. What else could be happening?

You have to consider the comparable. Is traffic down or was it just an inflated comparable?

Some possibilities:

  • World events – any large cultural events?
  • Local events – did you present at a conference and tell everyone to Google your business?
  • Was there a huge promotion last year or TV ad?

You might find answers here, but it’s fairly anecdotal.

Something has impacted the traffic of every online business, whether they’re aware of it or not, and caused the decline of traffic they would otherwise have had.


Not so long ago, Google updated the SERPs to put a 4th ad at the top of the page. So the SEO no.1 slot was effectively the equivalent of position 2. On paper this is going to cause a decline in SEO traffic. On mobile devices, this impact is further amplified.

This is why understanding brand is so important.

Over the last few years, more and more customers are becoming “mobile first”. Customer behaviour is different on mobiles to desktops computers. People scroll less, so are more likely to click on PPC listings, especially if you are running brand PPC activity. They search for shorter queries, making the top spots even more sought after for primary keywords. Your location becomes a more important factor in how well you rank.

Also, when someone searches for your brand on a mobile device, they’re probably out and about, trying to find you. Or get a phone number. They don’t need to enter the website to get this info.  Google displays more info in the results pages, such as maps and reviews.

All of this is going to cause a decline in brand traffic (unless increased impressions is counter-balancing this).

But hang on a minute…. This is a good thing!

The phone will still ring. Customers will still find you. Your customer search experience will be improved.

SEO is not all just about ranks because ranks are fairly irrelevant to brand performance (probably around 50% of your traffic). Brand and SERP optimisation is a key part of a quality, well-rounded SEO campaign. It will result in better listings on Google. You’ll be included in maps. Customers can call you directly from the search results pages. Your shop’s or office’s local visibility will improve.

But, this will also result in a decline in traffic driven by brand keywords. If you only look at the top line number, you will think SEO isn’t working, when in fact it’s working harder than ever.


So much has changed over the last year or so which is impacting your YoY comparison right now and like most relationships on Facebook, “it’s complicated”.

Overall, you should see more relevant traffic. Quality, not just quantity. This stands to reason when you consider Google’s main aim is to improve user experience and making sure the traffic it sends you is relevant.

“Total SEO traffic” is nice to know, but doesn’t tell us what is going on and it shouldn’t be looked at in isolation. Arguably, the most significant metrics for judging a natural search campaign are:

Non-brand Click-through rate % YoY vs. Non-brand Impressions % YoY

It measures traffic increases driven by ranks, in the context of the brand and non-brand split. Using Google Search Console, you can even attribute traffic to long tail keyword variations that you probably aren’t even tracking. This can only be achieved with a robust understanding of brand / non-brand data.

However beware! The place to get this data is Google Search Console who only hold the number for a few months. So start collecting your data now, because one day, you might need it.

Final thought

Good search marketing takes research and insight. The above is just one example of how natural search data and insight can support your business’ strategy and understanding of your customer’s behaviour. Dedicating resource to understanding the customer experience enables you to put their needs at the heart of your business.

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