Understanding the difference between branded and unbranded terms, and how to rank for them in organic search, is critical for marketers looking to build domain authority and capture search share online. After all, over 3.5 billion searches are conducted each day on Google alone.
When we talk about branded versus unbranded search, it isn't an either/or proposition. Both are important. But to rank in search results at moments of high intent, a business must have a strong grasp of each search type's value — and where along the customer journey people are more likely to search for unbranded versus branded keywords.
Use unbranded search to win new customers.
Unbranded keywords are search terms that do not refer to a specific brand or business name (e.g., a Google search for "romantic restaurants with valet parking" or an Alexa search for "best tacos in LA"). Consumers making unbranded searches are more likely to be new prospects unfamiliar with your brand — or brand-agnostic shoppers making a general search. This is an opportunity to boost discoverability, win new customers, and begin to establish brand trust.
Unbranded keywords often have higher search volumes than branded terms, so identifying the relevant terms for your business and strategies to rank for them should be a top priority. It also means that bidding on these terms in paid search will likely be more expensive than bidding on your brand name, so focus on optimizing for unbranded terms as part of your organic strategy.
Here's how can your business win at unbranded search.
Manage your business listings.
To show up at the top of SERPs for an unbranded search — particularly in Google's local pack — the fundamental rules of local SEO still apply. Your business needs to be listed correctly, everywhere, so that new customers making a general local search can find you at moments of high intent. This means managing your listings so that your address, business category, hours, and other important details are correct and consistent.
To rank for the unbranded local search "late night eats," for example, search engines must be able to identify both:
that your restaurant is near the user's geolocation ("near me" is now implied in many searches, both unbranded and branded)
your operating hours
Having accurate and consistent information about your business, across listings, will provide these details to search engines.
Optimize for unbranded keywords.
It's equally important to think about the entities that are fundamental to your business. Ask yourself this question: What products or services might a customer interested in your business be looking for? If you're a bank, the keyword "bank" is an obvious start — but what about customers searching for ATMs, mortgage advice, and other financial services?
Optimize for these essential keywords. It's critical to have clear copy and structured data identifying your fundamental business attributes, both on your local pages and across the many digital services where your brand information appears. Without copy and structured data specifying that each of your bank branch locations has an ATM, search engines won't be able to find this information — and therefore, neither will your customers.
Emphasize branded keywords to generate repeat business.
Users searching for a brand name paired with a product, service, or store know what they want, and are closer to taking action than those performing unbranded searches. This is where you should leverage your paid search budget and focus on strategies prioritizing conversion, loyalty, and retention.
All of your work to optimize for unbranded search will come into play here, too. By optimizing online listings and your website for the products, services, locations, and other entities that you offer, you're providing search engines with the information they need to deliver structured answers to specific questions customers are asking about your brand, like "where is the nearest TD Bank ATM?" or "Which Courtyard Marriott in Lexington, Kentucky, has a pool?"
Winning business today means understanding that customers have grown used to searching for exactly what they want — meaning products, services, and attributes — and receiving structured answers in search results for their increasingly specific queries.