Classifying Brand and Generic Keywords

This article originally ran on ClickZ on February 6, 2009, but it remains highly current, because being able to group keywords in branded and non-branded categories is still a very useful practice.

I recently discovered that many of my readers are somewhat new to paid search and to my 300-plus columns, archived under “Paid Search Strategies.” In addition, many marketers aren’t necessarily familiar with intermediate topics. Therefore this week, I’ll cover keyword classification.

Keywords (and keyword phrases) are the foundation of a search engine advertising campaign and represent a searcher’s needs and desires. Each search represents the searcher’s best attempt at converting those immediate desires into something the search engine can understand to yield a positive user experience. Within the millions of searches performed daily are concepts that represent a specific advertiser’s business. The keywords you select define when a specific ad is eligible to be served.

Many search marketers fail to classify their keywords into buckets along the continuum from brand to generic. These classifications are a continuum, not set in stone.

Keyword terms and phrases are more than the foundation of any paid search engine advertising campaign: they are a bridge to the other form of search engine marketing: organic search, also known as natural search or SEO. Whether you show up in the paid advertising listings, the unpaid results, or both depends on your keywords.

Another common theme between SEO and paid search is that for those words to perform optimally in either case, your site’s pages must be relevant to those keywords or you’ll lose search visitors seconds after they arrive.

Keywords can be broadly defined as branded and nonbranded keywords, but different marketers define these two segments differently. In reality, the break between brand and nonbranded is more of a continuum. Define brand and nonbranded keywords based on your business in the same way that other marketers do. The primary reason many marketers choose to put keywords into brand and nonbranded buckets is that they often assign different success objectives to brand words. Doing so may include setting different ROI parameters, translating into different position preferences.

To illustrate the diversity of keywords that can be defined as branded, let’s use, a site I founded that creates online marketplaces or malls for nonprofit causes, as an example site. Building such marketplaces involves a process where each cause gets its own URL. In this instance I could define brand keywords very narrowly, so that only the terms “we-care,” “,” and “wecare” qualify, reasoning that those are the only brand names specifically tied to the corporate name and permutations thereof.

But a broader definition of branded keywords for would include the names of all the nonprofit causes for which we have built marketplaces. Those might include single keywords in some cases (where the cause name is one word) or phrases (where the full nonprofit name is also a phrase or where portions of the domain name or broader phrases include the nonprofit’s name). For example:

  • save the children
  • savethechildren
  • support save the children
  • donate to save the children

Another way to look at brand keywords in a paid search advertising campaign for would be to consider bidding within the search results for the names of the merchant stores within the marketplace, as well as relevant phrases that include those, such as:

  • Best Buy
  • David’s Cookies
  • Brooks Brothers coupons
  • Expedia deals

However, in many instances the trademark prohibits brand bidding, and this may be the case with your business as well (even if you have the right to sell the product in question). For example, Marriott currently prohibits online travel agency brands such as Expedia,, Orbitz, and Travelocity from bidding on Marriott trademarks.

The next set of keywords that might be classified as brand keywords for the campaign go one layer beyond the merchants. It is quite possible that one might want to bid on names of products carried by the merchants participating in the marketplaces. As you might imagine, that list of products and services is huge. Unless one thought it possible to provide a better shopping experience with regard to landing pages than provided by the merchant site itself (or a similar experience with a higher conversion rate to sales), it would be unlikely that such a bidding strategy would be successful. This is because one would be competing with all those merchants eligible to sell the brands in question within the search advertising auctions.

Finally, some marketers include their competitors’ brand names as brand keywords. Those brand names might include the name of the competitor and the middle portion (between the “www” and the “.com” or “.net”) of that competitor’s domain name. Again, using as an example, one might include the following competitors’ keywords in a campaign:

  • I Give
  • Igive
  • One Cause
  • Onecause
  • Good search
  • goodsearch

Another reason so much time is taken in defining and obsessing over brand keywords is that searcher behavior is different when it comes to brands. All other things being equal, search result listings for branded URLs get a higher click through (percentage of clicked ad listings) than nonbranded URLs. Similarly, when searching for a brand, consumers are generally very close to making a buying decision (most often for a product or service associated with that brand), but they may be open to persuasion in the last stages of their purchase decisions. Brand search clicks are coveted by the brand owner, the marketing channels for those brands, and competitors who can pull a double whammy if they capture a competitor’s customer just before that customer is about to buy.

When you put your keywords into buckets, think about whether those keywords are a brand for you and whether they are a brand in general.