Branding probably doesn't make many SEO's shortlist for how to level up. This article challenges all SEOs to remember that at the core, we are marketers, and the better we are at marketing - the better we will be at SEO.

What’s Covered in this Article

When we put our content calendar together earlier this year, it took restraint to not jump straight into this topic. It’s an idea that I talk about often, just not usually in these exact words. For years, part of our agency pitch has included me saying something to the tune of, “Exact match domains and solid SEO used to equal rankings.” But, over the last 10 years, Google has rewarded authoritative brands more than ever. Today’s digital marketer must be technically excellent AND on brand. 

I usually use this pitch to help connect the dots for prospective clients that our agency “gets it” and begin to build trust that their brand/creative teams know that our SEO content won’t be trash but rather will be something that represents their brand well and achieves the SEO objectives. When the title for this article hit me, I realized that behind that pitch I’ve been giving for years is this belief — that every SEO should study branding. (I’m just talking about SEO today, but in my opinion, you could replace SEO with any of the other digital marketing channels like email, PPC, affiliate, etc).

To dig in, I’ve focused on three reasons that I believe SEOs should study branding:

  1. Because we’re all marketers
  2. Because Google sniffs out mediocre brands
  3. Because understanding a brand unlocks strategy

All SEOs are marketers

After giving up my pursuit of being a professional golfer in 2012, I found my way into a sales job at Red Ventures in Charlotte. I’ll forever be grateful that I developed an early foundation for how to sell, and through that, when I later joined the sales support team as an SEO analyst, it gave me a unique perspective to translate keywords and hero messages into what I knew customers were actually talking about on sales calls.

When I started talking to some of my new peers in SEO, I was shocked that most of them didn’t really seem to understand the products or the DNA of the customers that were buying those products. Don’t get me wrong, I was working with people that were MUCH more brilliant than I was, but we had had very different experiences up to that point. The problem I had was that I wasn’t a very good SEO yet. One of the first projects I ideated and owned start to finish was launching On sales calls, I knew a big selling perk was the ability to take even the home modem to other locations. What I failed to realize wasn’t smart — that I was building a site based on a keyword with very little search volume! (Side note: I think this is a testament to the encouragement of ownership and learning mentality that Red Ventures facilitated.  They were willing to let me fail in a controlled environment to accelerate my growth).

I bring this story up because I feel fortunate to have had experiences that made it obvious to me that in order to be great at a very specific thing (SEO), I need to understand the macro thing (marketing). Unfortunately, I have often felt like the exception when interacting with SEOs over my last 10 years in the niche. Being a great marketer at the macro level includes a couple key buckets of mastery.

Marketing strategy

I wrote extensively about this in my article on defining marketing strategy, which I’d encourage you to check out when you have a few minutes. In short, though, the best SEOs understand marketing strategy at all three levels:

  • Channel Level Strategy – this is the SEO excellence
  • Operations Level Strategy – this is knowing your funnel and how it impacts SEO
  • Leadership Level Strategy – this is connecting your actions to the mission/vision

If you want to be one of the best SEOs in the world, I’d encourage you to flip these upside down. Spend more time learning your leadership-level strategy and your operations-level strategy, before getting lost in the nuances of SEO. Don’t get me wrong, you have to be great at the various aspects of SEO, but if you can’t contextualize it, you won’t maximize your results.

Communication skills

World-class SEOs are also world-class communicators. They know how to communicate with peers, with people below them, and to people above them in the org chart. They know how to speak the language of different disciplines — i.e. branding — and they’re expert translators of all things marketing.

One of our clients, CCL, has coined the term  “boundary spanning” which is the skill to build strong partnerships with people outside the boundaries of your everyday job function. Some of the very best SEOs from my days at RV are now VPs and CMOs today, and every single one of them was exceptional at the boundary-spanning skills that differentiated them from the average SEO. Eppie Vojt, Christina Wells, and Jason Persinger are some of the few that come to mind.

Google sniffs out mediocre brands

As SEOs, we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get into the “mind” of Google. We study algorithms and we obsess over the articles written by algorithm analysts. If you were in SEO 10 to 15 years ago, you still remember what used to work — i.e. exact match domains (hence the idea). If you’re still in SEO today, you mourn the days when it was, well, just easier to rank sites.

In my opinion, the biggest reason that ranking sites is more difficult today is that Google values a strong brand more than ever. Whether you’re building an affiliate site, running e-commerce, or trying to get leads for a lawn care franchise, the authority that your website (aka your brand) wields is your most valuable asset. 

It’s easy as an SEO to simply focus on the domain authority or domain rating aspect of your brand’s authority, which we often correlate to the backlink profile, but if you’ve studied EAT much over the last couple of years, you know there is much more to it. Now as SEOs, we have to craft brands that demonstrate expertise, authority, and trust, and this is an all-encompassing endeavor. I actually think EAT is the best thing to happen to SEOs who want to be CMOs one day, because it has forced us to think more like marketers and brand builders. 

The bottom line is that Google sniffs out crappy brands. So, if your design isn’t up to snuff, if your positioning isn’t top notch, and you’re not standing out as an elegant brand in your space, Google won’t reward you if you just have good content and a few solid links (at least not for an extended period of time). So if you must create an exceptional brand to win in SEO, what does that look like?

Understanding a brand unlocks true strategy

If you’ve never managed a brand-building project before or at least observed a team building a visual and messaging identity, then you’re missing out. I got lucky and married an advertising major, which helped nurture a love for branding in me. This led me to discover my own love for copywriting, messaging, and branding at large. 

Over the years, what I’ve come to realize is that when you understand who a brand is and what a brand stands for at a fundamental level, you unlock a new level of strategic thinking. It’s almost like you break through into the fourth dimension. Maybe I sound a little crazy, but if you know you know.

If you don’t, then let me first try to boil down a few bullets on what it means to understand a brand at a fundamental level.

  • You understand their why
  • You know who their customer is and what matters to them
  • You can articulate how the brand’s why and what matters to the customer intersect

I could spend a lot of time going into each of those three, but for time’s sake, I’ll link up more on those as we have relevant deep dives on each. For now, a challenge that every SEO should take is to spend a day in the shoes of their copywriter. See if you can write an article that passes a brand’s creative director, and pick the client that is most protective of their brand!

Turning brand knowledge into SEO strategy

If you were able to graduate from your copywriting challenge, then you’re one step closer to playing chess vs. checkers as an SEO. Now is the time to combine your well-developed technical SEO, keyword research, and link-building prowess with your newly found (or renewed vigor) for your mastery of all things brand.

Here are some of my favorite ways that I believe being a brilliant brand strategist can be applied to your everyday SEO work:

1. Link-building asset creation 

If you have done much link-building in your SEO career, you know that your success is only as good as your pitch. What is also true is that your pitch is only as good as your asset. It requires resources and time and money, to create a high-quality asset. And, it often requires some buy-in and alignment with the rest of the marketing team.

When you’re able to think from both a brand and an SEO perspective, you have a huge advantage. First, because you understand the why and the customer, it’s easier to come up with an idea that gets you and others excited. Second, since you can think like a brander/marketer, you can get others to buy into its value by connecting its value to the leadership-level strategy of the company.

The result here is better ideas, faster buy-in to build them, and better results when you pitch for placements.

2. Keyword identification

If you ask me, doing exceptional keyword research is an underrated skill for SEOs. It’s one thing to aggregate a keyword list by compiling lists from competitors. It’s another to really scrutinize that list and narrow it to the ideal set of keywords to target for your brand. Winning so often comes down to prioritizing the keywords to execute on. If you pick the wrong terms to pursue, it doesn’t matter how well you execute, you won’t get the best possible results. Being able to connect the dots between the brand and the keywords increases the likelihood that you will tackle the right things in the right order.

On an entirely different note, sometimes keyword research has to be more creative in nature. If you’re building a new category, or pursuing a niche that is more fragmented, you have to be able to get creative with your research. This is where SEOs who are great marketers can flex their branding muscles and create a keyword list from a blank sheet of paper. When you know the customer and what matters to them, you can find different angles for content and identify keywords that might be less competitive and available for an innovative approach to win those SERPs.

All said, lots of people do keyword research. The best SEOs leverage an intimate knowledge of their brands to build and refine keyword lists that prioritize a winning set of keyword targets.

3. New content approvals

There are more than just three advantages to being great at branding, but for the third one I’ll highlight today, I thought I’d pick a slightly different topic. The last advantage I’ll showcase is that well-rounded marketers are often the best at getting their ideas sold within the organization.

It may feel obvious after how much I’ve pounded home the point in this article, but when you can connect to the company’s why and understand how to span boundaries in the organization, you become a natural salesperson by default. Why? Because you clearly see how to connect everyone’s roles to the greater purpose.

Working in the agency setting for nearly 10 years, I’m no stranger to hearing clients be very protective of their blogs for “branding purposes.” SEOs seem to scare them, often times because they haven’t spent time with a next level SEO before. It’s a terrible feeling to know that you have a content idea with a high likelihood for success, but the brand team won’t give you the real estate on the site to publish content. I promise, if you prove yourself as a branding strategist, your success rate on getting approval for your new content ideas will increase dramatically.


So, I’ll ask you this question — do you see yourself as a great marketer? Not a digital marketer or an SEO, as a marketer in the broadest definition of the word. If you don’t, I’d encourage you to use this blog as a jumping-off point for falling in love with branding and marketing at large. Whether you intend to stay in the SEO discipline for your entire career or you want to become a broader marketing executive, discovering a passion for branding will be a secret weapon that propels you past your peers.

If it feels like a stretch to say you could ever be passionate about branding, I’ll leave you with this thought. One of the most memorable quotes that I recall after spending time with Ric Elias while at Red Ventures was this. Many people know that Ric loves basketball and he said that oftentimes people would come up to him and say “You’re so lucky to get to do something that you’re passionate about.” Ric’s response forever redefined passion for me. I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to the tune of, “Passion isn’t something you are born with or gifted, passion is developed through hours and hours of investing your time, energy, and resources into something. Over time, this investment develops passion and you can soon find yourself loving something that you never imagined you would.”

So if you don’t feel passionate about branding today, take it from Ric. If you want it badly enough, you can develop it. As always, I would love to hear other thoughts, reactions, or comments. Feel free to leave them in the comments below or shoot me an email at I’m happy to grab a drink — virtual or in-person — to talk shop about leadership and marketing!


Alex Johnson Founder, CEO

Alex has been leading The Grit Group for 9 years to consecutive years of growth and transformation. He writes about digital marketing, leadership, and culture, with a passion for connecting mission & vision to your day-to-day work.

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