Domain Bias: Why Branding & Search Marketing Cannot Be Separated

Let’s say you’re visiting Phoenix, AZ for the first time. You head to Google and type in a search query for “best restaurants Phoenix,” and start a process like this:

Signals like the snippet and position are important, but you’re biasing your clicks based on the brandname of the domain and the perceived trustworthiness of that brand.

Thanks to some exceptional research from Microsoft earlier this year, we now know this story is far from unique.

Here’s a quote from the conclusions section of the paper that helps explain why the findings are so significant:

The new phenomenon discovered in this paper is that user preferences of certain domains to others is beyond what can be explained due to relevance, and creates a bias similar in spirit to position bias [11] and snippet bias [23]. The bias manifests itself as leading a user to perceive the same document as being more relevant when it is attached to a more reputable domain than a less reputable one. Its existence is established beyond reasonable doubt through a series of carefully controlled experiments in Sections 4 and 5.

You can see the findings illustrated in the graph below:

(to get fair results, the researchers swapped titles/descriptions to test the impact of the domains alone)

Given that a substantive portion of clicks on search results are driven not by the perceived relevancy or ability of a page to provide potentially useful information, but rather the brand associations with the source.

Building a brand name people trust matters for SEO (and paid search/SEM)). And given the trend of increasing domain-bias over time, it appears this will only become more important. To my mind, there’s five substantive takeaways for those who practice search marketing:

  1. Branding helps SEO & PPC, and not just because search engines may have brand signals, but because users have brand preference
  2. If your domain name doesn’t obviously represent the brand you’ve been promoting, you may experience less of a boost from branding activities
  3. Brand satisfaction and perception data may need to be linked to SEO/PPC reporting in order to determine whether negative/positive perception deltas are impacting search traffic
  4. Unbranded sites may be losing significant amounts of traffic vs. their better-branded competition. Choosing a “keyword-match” domain seems like a worse decision than ever.
  5. Click-through-rate may not be directly tied to rankings, but given that many clicks lead to sharing activities (both organic links and social shares) which are used by the engines’ ranking algorithms, branding/CTR are indirect impactors of positioning

This knowledge has always been intuitive to sophisticated marketers, but the data confirms this long-held truism and indicates it may be even stronger than many of us had guessed.