It is not only branded keywords I am referring to here either (although they’re an important area of focus). The power of your brand has an effect on non-branded keywords too as it has a secondary and indirect impact on other ranking factors, such as social signals and co-citations.

And when I call brand identity a ranking factor, what I am really saying is that your brand strongly affects actual ranking factors, as opposed to being one itself.

There are various ‘brand metrics’ which SEOmoz included in their 2011 Search Engine Ranking Factors report, but many of them are strongly connected with other factors without necessarily being ranking factors in their own right.

Google+ as an identity network

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, famously remarked in August 2011 that Google+ wasn’t primarily built to be a social network but an identity network.

This raised a number of concerns that Google+ was less of a way for users to benefit and more of way for Google to collect better data about you.

While the latter point is entirely correct, Google can collect much more valuable information about you with Google+ (and more broadly, by having a Google login and using it), Google+ is still a valuable service for users and as time continues it will likely become more so.

So how does Google+ influence the idea that identity is a ranking factor? Well, Google is going to significant lengths to remove the anonymity of the internet by making individuals accountable for the content they produce (and likely other actions we are less aware of).

The introduction of the rel=”author” attribute allows a writer or publisher to credit a piece of content with an actual individual, going beyond simply adding an author name to the post as the author name is verified on Google’s own identity network. In doing so, the snippet in the search engine results pages is changed and rankings can actually be altered based on the authors connections and circles.

The image below shows an example of a ‘rich snippet’. It is the search result for a blog post I wrote for Search Engine Journal and the inclusion of the Google authorship markup means that extra features such as my photo, name and inclusion in others’ circles shows up instead of the standard boring result.

rich snippet showing Google authorship markup

This benefits both publishers and authors, and the introduction of AuthorRank will boost the effects of Google Authorship in significant ways.

Currently, the primary way that Google+ can affect your rankings is based on the people that have the author (or publisher) of a particular web page in their circles.

What you see in the above image, under the result, is “You +1’d this”, telling me that I +1’d that page on Google+. Let us suppose that one or more people in my circles +1’d a piece of content (not written by myself) – the result for that content would have a similar message saying “John +1’d this” or “10 people in your circles +1’d this” for a more popular piece of content.

These results can display higher up on the results pages as a way for Google to personalise your results based off of your friends and connections.

In the case of the post written by myself above, people who had me in their circles might see the post higher in their search results (if searching for something relevant) – the same goes for publishers you follow or websites you have +1’d.

All of these affect the way Google can serve you results as you may be more interested in or trusting of something from a source you are already familiar with or enjoy. In all the examples given above, it is your and others circles that are influential, meaning that the more influential your brand (whether personal or business) is on social networks, the more likely you are to display in other peoples search results.

I mentioned AuthorRank above and it is with this Google is really going to incorporate Google Authorship directly into its algorithm. AuthorRank will be a metric attached and given to an individual, as opposed to a web page.

It will be used to determine the quality of an individual’s content output, their influence on social networks, their level of engagement with the community, among probably hundreds of other signals – all in an attempt to build a picture of what effectively is your online, personal brand identity.

AuthorRank will be used as a ranking factor by Google like any other, which will result in publishers looking very favourably on individuals that have spent time building their personal brand as it will directly benefit their website.

I only hope that this change won’t make it more difficult for newer writers or those that haven’t spent a lot of time specifically working on trying to boost the likely AuthorRank signals to get themselves published. But I suspect that a fantastic piece of content will trump AuthorRank any day.            

Brand association and co-occurrence

The idea of co-occurrence is not exactly new, but it is largely under discussed and talked about, especially in comparison to traditional link building. Co-occurrence is when your brand name occurs, with or without a link, with a particular keyword phrase.

This goes beyond just the traditional consideration of anchor text in links as your keywords don’t even have to appear within the anchor text.

It has been known for a long time that the words surrounding a link influence it, not just the text used as an anchor, as do the words on the page the link appears. All of this amounts to what we can call “brand association” – your brand becomes associated with particularly words and phrases by frequently occurring together on the same page.

This is important because this sort of association means that people don’t always have to link to us – or at least – link using the primest of anchor texts. It is enough just for your brand to be spoken about, in a natural and organic way.

Now, I’m not suggesting that links and anchor text are no longer important or that you should cease pursuing links in more traditional manners – but what I am saying is that the building of your brand and getting people talking about you is as much a part of SEO as traditional link building techniques. Sometimes the two overlap, but they don’t have to. 

Don’t underestimate the power of branding

I hope that by getting to the end of this article you’re convinced of the benefits of brand building in SEO, and why your personal brand can be just as important. We must continue to break down the barriers between what have in the past been considered separate disciplines (e.g. social media, SEO, branding) because they are continuing to increasingly benefit each other in profound ways.

How do you feel about the development of AuthorRank? Do you think that this will cause search results to be too biased towards already authoritative writers?

And is brand association going to become the new link building?