The debate over the proper utilization of branded and non-branded keywords has been rehashed in digital marketing meetings for eternity (ok, maybe not that long). There are two sides: those who argue non-branded terms will perform badly no matter what, and those who argue poorly performing non-branded terms are a result of lack of brand awareness. The pay-per-click (PPC) master himself, Larry Kim (founder of MobileMonkey), published an article on Search Engine Land weighing in on this highly contested issue. Click here to read the article.

Some context:

Branded keywords are keywords that are related to your company, brand, or product and are commonly known to produce high click-through rates (CTRs) and high quality scores within paid search.

However, the ugly ducklings known as non-branded keywords, which include keywords that are tangentially related to your product, your company, or even your competitors, often produce results and conversion rates that may be considered "good," but pale in comparison to branded keyword campaigns.

The simple dichotomy of branded vs non-branded keywords has caused marketers to skew marketing dollars and budgets to branded terms instead and ignore the reason behind non-branded terms' poor performance.

When marketers see their branded terms skyrocketing with high CTRs and low costs-per-click (CPCs), the non-branded terms get pushed to the side without any question or investigation as to why they aren't performing well. For companies that have an agency, or small team, or even a single person dedicated to search marketing, it may be easy to point the finger at them for the lack of performance of these non-branded terms, when in fact the issue goes much deeper than that.

Larry Kim goes on to state, "The propensity to click on your paid or organic search listings is often based on pre-existing brand affinity. Put simply: searchers are more likely to click on you if they've heard of you before." The success of paid search campaigns depends on the brand affinity and awareness of your company or brand much more than paid search tactics.


Attributing poor PPC performance to "low brand affinity" is an easy answer, but it may not be true. Digging deeper into the types of search queries users are performing can show whether it's irrelevant keyword targeting or if it's low brand affinity that's causing the poor performance. If users' search queries are general but relevant to your brand, low brand affinity may be the culprit.

"Stop thinking in terms of branded vs. unbranded. There are just queries and the native amount of awareness you've been able to create." - Larry Kim

For example, if you are bidding on a general, non-branded term in hopes that people searching this term will stumble across your ad, become enthralled with your brand, and click on to your website, you may be disappointed in the paid search performance. If your campaigns containing branded terms are doing exceptionally well when compared with campaigns containing non-branded keywords, it means you need to focus on building more brand affinity. The larger the difference between non-branded and branded campaigns, the more work there is to do.

How to Determine Effectiveness of Keywords

The easiest way to determine your brand awareness relative to non-branded keywords is to test it. Much like a scientist testing single variables, separate branded and non-branded keywords into separate campaigns, but leave the campaign settings the same. Here's a quick guide to get up and running.

  1. Determine which keywords are non-branded (broad terms that don't contain your specific destination's name in the keyword string).
  2. Split non-branded and branded keywords into separate campaigns.
  3. Allow 30 days to get a full idea of how keywords are performing.
  4. While the campaigns are running, check your ad rank. Ensure there is not a large variance between the two campaigns as lower ad rank may artificially lower CTRs.
  5. After examining CTR and CPC between the two campaigns, look at conversion rates and cost per conversion.

So Now What?

After you've tested out your branded and non-branded keywords, perhaps you'll find that your non-branded keywords could use a lift. The simple answer is "increase brand affinity," but of course to "increase brand affinity" is easier said than done.

The good new is that you can increase brand affinity using a variety of mediums that aren't search-related. Some great options include:

  • Banner ads
  • Paid social ads
  • Traditional advertising methods such as radio and TV

Once brand affinity and awareness begins to increase, you'll see CTR and conversion rates increase for non-branded campaigns as well. As Larry Kim simply states, "Go after users before they ever search for your stuff!" Start by thinking about what your potential customer wants to see, what they're interested in, and where they're consuming content. By using other advertising mediums, you'll end up seeing your paid search results for non-branded terms increase.