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How to (and Why You Should) Optimize Your Brand SERP (Webinar Highlights)

23 min read

Everything you wanted to know about brand SERPs but were afraid to ask. Jason Barnard (The Brand SERP Guy) sat down with MarketMuse co-Founder Jeff Coyle to talk shop. After the show, Jason spent time in an ask-me-anything session in our Slack Community, The Content Strategy Collective (join here). Here are highlights followed by a transcript of the AMA.
These are the highlights; you can view the entire webinar here.

Jeff Coyle: [00:00:00] Welcome to another MarketMuse content strategy webinar in our series. My name is Jeff Coyle. I’m the Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer for MarketMuse.  In today’s discussion is going to be really exciting. And we got an amazing guest host today. It’s going to be titled how to, and why you should optimize your brand SERP.

I’m going to introduce our guests today. Jason Barnard, he’s the founder and CEO of Kalicube. He’s also the person, if you need any information about brand SERPs, thank you for joining us.

Jason Barnard: [00:00:31] It’s an absolute pleasure, Jeff. I’m really happy to be here. Anybody who wants to talk to me about brand SERPs and I love to share your war stories. I’ve got loads of war stories and the more I collect, the more I learn. War stories are possibly the best source of information for me.

My obsession, it’s complete obsession is I want to understand how we can manage what appears when somebody Googles your exact match brand name, that’s your brand SERP, and how we can trigger knowledge panels for brands and people and other entities in fact. Products, music groups, podcasts, the list goes on and on and how we can control it.

How we can influence it and how we can correct it. And we talked about rabbit holes earlier on. When I started doing this work seven years ago, I was doing my own brand SERP because some guy in the UK had driven down the motorway 157 miles an hour and that was ranking for my name. And the other problem was that I used to be a blue dog in a cartoon.

And when I talk to clients, when I said, “Oh, we’re going to do this wonderful work together.” They would, then I’d walk out of the meeting. They would be going “Yeah, great! We’re going to work with Jase. That’s wonderful!” And then they would Google my name and it would say, Jason Barnard is a blue dog in a cartoon and all my credibility went straight out the window.

So, I had to correct that and make sure that it showed me as a digital marketing expert. And it took me two months to actually get some kind of traction. And I thought I’m a good SEO, I will do this in two months in a night and put it to one side and forget about it and never do it again. And seven years later, I’m still digging down that rabbit hole and every single day I’m learning something new.

I’ve got a database of 70,000 brands with 10 million brand SERPs and I dig through it in a spare moment and think, “Wow! I didn’t know that.” And. I, it’s mad and I get overenthusiastic. So, during this conversation, if I get too enthusiastic, please do tell me to calm down.

Jeff Coyle: [00:02:29] No, I love the example that, you had somebody with your name, do something completely wild that you would never want associated with yours.

The one question I always like for differentiation on brand match, you touched on it  is that you’re talking about exact match query. And so how do you often, do you get a lot of folks who are confusing, branded SERPs, variants , different intent profiles with exact match? What types of things do you say to make sure people know the difference?

Jason Barnard: [00:03:00] It’s really difficult. It’s very interesting that as soon as I say brand SERPs, almost everybody starts going off onto all the different variants, brand name plus reviews, brand name versus brand name alternatives.  And I’m saying I’m not interested in that and, or I am interested, but I’m trying to avoid getting involved in it because it would just explode my brain.

It’s already difficult enough as it is. And everyone says to me, “But what you’re doing is so simple, so obvious.” And it really doesn’t fly very high. And you’re saying, “But you’re wrong. And your problem is you think of the exact match brand SERP. You think I’m ranking number one, I’ve managed that we can move on to something else.”

Jeff Coyle: [00:03:39] So why is it so important to own your brand SERP and not just own it, but understand everything that’s on it, what you can influence and what you can’t.

Jason Barnard: [00:03:48] That’s a delightful question. It’s controlling your brand. So, if you control your brand SERP, you control your brand message. That anybody who’s Googling your brand name and anybody who’s Googling, your brand name is a phenomenally important part of your business. They’re the top people you want to really convince. Their prospects who are about to convert.

Bottom of funnel people. They’re existing clients, they’re journalists, they’re potential hires, they’re all of these people who are potentially very important to your business or very important for your business. And control is the fundamentally most important thing. The quality is great, but if you’ve got control, you can create quality.

If you don’t have control, you cannot create quality. And you touched on the idea of geo location. Now, brand names because of copywriting, trademark, and company house rules or whatever it would be, within individual regions they will tend to be relative non ambiguity between brand names. But for people it’s completely different.

And so for a brand you have this regionalization and for people you also have this regionalization. But the regionalization is based on Google’s understanding of what is, who is likely to be the most relevant probabilistic person you’re looking for in that particular region. And that’s a whole rabbit hole.

As soon as you start going down, that it goes completely nuts. I invite anybody who’s interested to look up Mary Moore. In Australia, the UK, US, France, Germany, or Canada. And you will see that not only do you get different Mary Moores across the world, but a different number of them, different presentations of them, they’re different people.

And that’s the name I found that has the most variety across the world for some obscure reason. And for brands though, you have much more stability and it’s much easier to control. People is one big bag of fish, rabbit hole thing, and brands are another rabbit hole bag of fish thing. And I am realizing more and more that I need to separate them.

Jeff Coyle: [00:05:55] Do you manage your brand SERP for every entity that you own or that you desire to own?

Jason Barnard: [00:06:01] No, you, you’ve absolutely now the, I call them brand SERPs because people can get their head around that, but it’s actually entity SERP and it can be anything.

It can be a music album, a music group, a podcast, an event, a person, a brand, a product, anything that’s an entity. You need to, if it’s important to you as a brand, so we’re going to talk about companies and people. You need to control it so that you can make sure it’s qualitative, it’s accurate, positive and convincing, which is my favorite triplet to say.

Yeah. It’s entity SERPs and entity SERPs. What we’re seeing now with entity-based search is that it’s coming in more and more in terms of not only the results that appear in the blue links, but the rich elements, the SERP features that appear. And the related entities that we’re saying, which are the incredibly obvious, visible version of this entity relationship that Google seeing it in its brain, let’s say.

But it goes much beyond that. A really nice example that I quite like is People Also Ask. I study these brands – I’ve got 10 million of them in my database. Thirty-three percent of brands have got People Also Ask. Now that implies that Google has understood who they are and what their core businesses who their audience is, because it could not identify the questions if it didn’t have some level of understanding of who they are. Because the questions are about the brand and around the brand or the brand’s core topics. So that’s for me, the implicit understanding of the entity, which isn’t as obvious as the knowledge panel or the related entities people also search for underneath the knowledge panel or the entity boxes at the bottom.

Jeff Coyle: [00:07:41] Nice. Yes, those are great observations.

Jason Barnard: [00:07:44] And if we come back a step to brand SERPs the, I call them your Google business card.

It’s the result that your audience sees, what your audience sees when they Google your brand name. And that’s really important because it puts in your mind that this is your business card. It’s the message, to your audience, that Google is projecting that you have to control. And the People Also Ask is a very interesting case because in my super-duper database of 10 million brand SERPs there are 33% of brands who have these on their brand SERP and 9% have any sort of control, ie. they provide any of the results. So, brands are not answering questions about themselves.

And that’s completely insane. And now I’m going to scare you.

And this is a scary rabbit hole is I wrote an article for Search Engine Land. Because I suddenly in October, the People Also Ask moved into the knowledge panel. I’m calling them entity statements ’cause they’re not questions. They’re statements like, how much does it cost? What is the mission statement? Who is the CEO?

And there you’ve got exactly the same problem. It’s not even 9% are answering them. So you have this knowledge panel, which is Google saying, this is fact. And the brands are having no possible control over it, simply because they’re not answering their own questions.

Jeff Coyle: [00:09:07] Exactly. Or they don’t know what a knowledge panel is generally.

So, I think the most common mistake or the most common failure to differentiate is, Hey, this is just about local and Google My Business. And so what do you typically see with that kind of confusion? How do you make sure people can differentiate? Because your Google My Business, you can put posts, you can control the imagery, you can control an image sequence that’s on your right rail.

You can control if you have a map drop, if you actually have a map box, as well as your right rail in control with your GMB. How do you get. How do you get people over that this isn’t just about local or that it’s actually a combination of knowledge panel and local?

Jason Barnard: [00:09:51] The Google My Business is not knowledge.

It’s a business listing. It’s like Yellow Pages or whatever you would call it in the us. It’s basically you giving Google information that it then displays. But it’s business provided information like posts and telephone number and website, as long as you control it, which is great. The knowledge panel is machine, a machine understanding that humans do not control.

So, this is the machine understanding who you are, what you’re doing, who your audience is, whereas Google My Business is you expressing to Google and to Google’s users who you are, what you do and who your audience is. And that’s fundamentally different because one you can edit, the other you can’t. One Google employees can edit the other, they can edit parts of the knowledge panel. But even if they edit it, the machine will switch it back if the machine thinks they’re wrong. The machine has control. It’s the machines understanding, and that’s where we’re going. And that’s scary if you don’t know what you’re doing. I find it super exciting.

And the Google My Business question, I did a webinar this morning with a Aleyda Solis and we would, I’d mentioned it in passing. And I was saying, “to brands for this year, one of the most important things you need to do” because you can separate rich elements SERP features into the local near me ones, which is Google My Business, basically the entity based ones, which is People Also Ask potentially the Knowledge Panel, entity boxes, things where Google needs to understand who you are and what you do.

And then the content ones, People Also Ask is between the two video boxes, image boxes and the Google My Business one is incredibly interesting because some companies say “I’m a national or an international company. I don’t care.” Totally wrong because somebody who searches your brand name near your company, offices will see that Google My Business.

Number one. Number two is it’s a means for you to inform Google who you are, what you’re doing, who your audience is, and that’s always good to take. And if you misrepresent your company in your Google My Business. Because even if you’re an international company, you have one of these, or you have multiple ones and national business, same thing.

If you misrepresent yourself into Google’s brain, it’s injected into its brain. It’s looking at one thing and saying, I’ve understood this, but they’re saying this. Never confuse a machine. Machines are not good at being confused. And I like to give the idea it’s like educating a child. If you give this machine contradictory information, it will never get to grips with who you are, what you’re doing, who your audience is.

And if you give it corroborative information that is consistent across the board for multiple independent, trusted sources, like a child, it will understand, it will learn. And it’s as simple as that.

Jeff Coyle: [00:12:47] Yeah, and it’s on the money and that’s really the origin of authority in the search engines as well.

It’s the, building that not getting in too much detail, but building that authoritativeness matrix of understanding, is this site, is this part of the site, is this section of the site? Do they have authority? Do they have is it clear that they are experts and such that I should trust them?

If you get corroborating information that can influence these listings, you start to be able to drive the bus for yourself. No, I think that’s really awesome.

Jason Barnard: [00:13:21] Google’s looking for that original source. Google wants you to tell it what you’re all about, and it doesn’t have any reason not to believe you, but it will only truly believe you if you can corroborate through these independent, trusted sources. So, the art of this whole thing is say my website or one page on my website is the home for this entity.

And I’m obsessed by the idea. Every entity needs a home. Google needs to know where that home is. It goes to that page. And I say page and not website. You need to find the page that represents the entity. Describe the entity clearly to Google and then point to all the corroborative information and Google will believe you.

And Google will represent you as you want to be represented. As long as the way you want to be represented is truthful and factual.

Jeff Coyle: [00:14:08] But what that ties to is the common misconception on Google My Business often ties to thinking that’s the only way you have control. But what other ways are, or is knowledge panel data found? So what, for someone who’s just getting into this and just wanting to get focused on. What are the ways that you can influence? What is that kind of method for getting that data planted firmly in place, such that then Google can learn from it?

Jason Barnard: [00:14:39] Step number one has to be that page on your website about us, about me. It’s a page that says clearly who you are, what you do and who your audience is in a factual manner. And I was talking to youngster valcke about that. And I was saying, you don’t want it to be your homepage. Your homepage already represents your website, potentially your company, potentially it’s a webpage. It represents multiple things. You want one page that represents your entity, which is for a company about us, for a person about the employee. And the problem is, or the interesting thing is that on that page, you can be factual.

If I force you to be factual about your entity on your home page, you’re going to bore the pants off your audience. So you don’t want that kind of conflict. And the second thing, basically. So you need to identify where the home is. You need to express clearly who you are and what you do. Step number two is Google My Business for a company and Andrea Volpini from Word Lift has done loads of research into this, and he’s worked a lot on that.

And he’s basically demonstrated that this is one of the stepping-stones towards the knowledge graph. Those two together will not trigger a knowledge panel. It won’t make your company, your brand, understood by Google. You then need to go further and people immediately say, “Oh, I want a Wikipedia page.”

Don’t do it. Unless you are a notable company where somebody else has the super idea to create a Wikipedia page for you, because you are truly notable and they really care. You’re going to (A) spend a lot of time trying to convince everybody that this is worth it (B) annoy an awful lot of Wikipedia editors and (C) the page will be deleted.

I’ve got multiple examples – 20 minutes is the record for being deleted. Two weeks is a decent, and if you last two weeks, that’s pretty good going. But two weeks is worthless in the bigger picture and it also sends a negative message to Google. Google sees the page and it sees that it’s been deleted by human beings because it’s rubbish.

So that’s a really bad idea. Wiki data. Next step down, they have a less high measure of notability. So you can be less notable. You still need a certain level of notability and you need to prove that notability. You can’t just put any old rubbish in there because they don’t want to clog it up with everybody.

And that brings me on to the point that Google actually doesn’t have, for its knowledge graph, notability measurement. It doesn’t care if it just wants to understand. So Wikipedia has a high level of notability. People have to want to search for you spontaneously. Wiki data, slightly lower. People have to be in some way interested in you and it has to be useful for the Wiki community in some way or another. Next level down is everybody else. And everybody else is the majority of the world, most brands, most people. So we’re all sitting around that and that’s all about, I said, you’ve got your home and the corroboration doesn’t need to be Wiki.

It can be simply relevant trusted sources within your industry and within your geolocation. On I’ve actually got a free tool where you can look at what the trusted sources appear to be within your industry. Obviously, we don’t have the facts, but I’ve got a good guess which they are within industry. And you can dig down by country and then the platform, that I’m currently building out, that I’ve got out of the fridge three or four weeks ago, actually digs down into your brand and analyzes what Google is looking at through your brand, even before you get that knowledge panel. So the idea is to say, you can look at what Google’s looking at. We don’t know if it trusts it yet, but it’s certainly looking at it and definitely paying attention to this within your industry. It’s paying attention to this and appears to trust that’s where we focus.

That’s what you need to make happen for you in that corroborative consistent manner that you point to, your sign-posts from your entity home, and you now have gone right round the whole story. You now think my entity needs a hub.

I think thank you for being so incredibly polite in the way that you told me to stop talking by flashing up the big, thank you screen at the end, which was probably the most politest, the most polite shut up I’ve ever had.

Jeff Coyle: [00:19:03] Alright! See you guys later. Bye.


What have you been reading lately that you’d like to recommend to the community?

I have been reading Andrea Volpini. He is writing more this year than previously and has a lot to say on this topic. Obviously Bill Slawski (hopefully we’ll see more from him soon). I love talking to Mordy Oberstein, He’s well worth talking to. Very, very smart.

How has your brand SERP strategy changed in light of 2020? Did you do anything different due to the pandemic and how that changed the way people approached brands?

For my active experiments, it didn’t change much. But what did happen is that for local businesses in particular, the blue links changed significantly Generally Brand SERPs are relatively stable but for local that changed. Also, the right rail changed a LOT. GMB often dropped to the bottom of the right rail.

Not an answer to a question but thought I’d mention: One nice thing about Brand SERPs is that algo updates rarely have much effect. So much of the time, the SEO chatter about them is ‘noise’ that is only indirectly relevant.

How do I get a knowledge panel and keep it?

The ones that trigger and disappear tend to be ones that don’t have a ‘home’ or are spam (bought pseudo Wikis, typically). Start with your home and build out.

What are your thoughts on bidding on your own branded SERPs via Google Ads?

It is real estate that you own, right at the top. If you have an awesome Brand SERP, then you have no need to buy unless a competitor is on there.

Is it worth bidding on your competitors’ branded SERPs?

Rarely would that pay (although it can). Trying to steal clients at the bottom of funnel is always a tough ask, especially if the competitor has a trusted/strong brand.

What’s your take on Google Ads in relation to brand SERP?

Typically, brands pay way over the odds.

What can you do to handle competitors that bid on your brand terms?

You SUPER optimise and drive them off! If you can drive your CPC right down to the floor, their CPC goes up and their campaigns become less profitable/not profitable. Even if you have a QS of 10/10 you can still drive that CPC down. I have managed 30% savings AFTER hitting 10/10. I teach this in my online courses: Fundamentals of Brand SERP Optimisation.

What are some lesser known brand SERP techniques that we may be missing in our strategy?

The obvious strategies are controlled sites/pages – your own website. The less obvious are content on third party sites such as video boxes and Twitter boxes.

How crucial is it for your brand to have a Wikipedia page/wikidata to get into the knowledge graph?

Wikipedia is the source Googel trusts most and so will almost always trigger a KG presence. Wikidata is second in line but neither is necessary. You can trigger knowledge panels without either Wikis… and arguably that is better since you retain control. It is harder, and takes longer, but ultimately you have control. If you CAN get WIkidata (ie you are notable enough), then I 100% advise leveraging that. I tend to avoid Wikipedia since it is ‘boggy ground.’ I’ve triggered (literally) hundreds of knowledge panels. Two years ago, we needed WIKI but now we don’t. Lastly, avoid pseudo (pay-for) Wikis as they are, essentially, spam. 

Another general comment – I just replied to an agency who want help with Brand SERps for a client. I replied this None of this is very complicated once you have understood the principles. The Kalicube platform will provide the advice / cheat sheet that any half-decent SEO can turn into a system for themselves after using it for one client. The long term value of Kalicube will be that, although the advice is always very similar, the tool can extract the juicy parts and prioritise them for you, thus saving time and wasted effort (at least that is what I am betting).

How do you handle a major change in a brand (name/logo change, acquisition/merger, etc)?

Dave Davies (Oohloo) did exactly this with changing the company name. He did a very good job. It all comes down to being fast and efficient and presenting a coherent, consistent change…. starting with the ‘entity home.’ And (importantly) ‘explaining’ the change on the entity home both in the content of the page and in the schema markup. He hasn’t written about it. He took my course, and did it …. but I think, like me, he thought it wasn’t such a big deal. It isn’t complicated, it’s just time consuming and requires phenomenal organisation. It’s all in the execution and almost all of it is common sense.

Any advice for someone launching a new business, new to building/maintaining a website/seo/content?

Choose a unique brand name. Build a simple website that explains who you are, what you offer and who your audience is. Keep that simple. Initially your aim is to create that ‘home.’ It can be a simple cabin that you build out to be a mansion/castle. But start with a cabin. I think we all get carried away with the bells and whistles and want to say everything all at once.

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Jason Barnard ( The Brand SERP Guy) LinkedIn Twitter

Kalicube – help expand the 77000 entities in Kalicube’s DB (it’s 100% free to add your entity / brand for tracking since this is research)

Fundamentals of Brand SERP Optimisation – a course taught by Jason.

Jono Alderson LinkedIn Twitter

Dixon Jones LinkedIn Twitter

Mordy Oberstein LinkedIn Twitter

Bill Slawski LinkedIn Twitter

Andrea Volpini LinkedIn Twitter

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Stephen leads the content strategy blog for MarketMuse, an AI-powered Content Intelligence and Strategy Platform. You can connect with him on social or his personal blog.