Sam Crocker, samuelcrocker.com
This question is of particular interest to me – as I am quite fortunate to work with big brands in my day job. I think it’s quite clear that Google has showed a continued and considerable preference toward brands and if anything I see this becoming a larger impact as +1’s from across the web become a ranking factor at a brand/website level, reduce PPC costs, etc.
With that said, I think it is possible to win against the major brands, I just don’t think it will be done in the way it was done up to this point. In the last few years a number of companies built up brands off the back of SEO success (lots of them through some pretty aggressive link buys and anchor text manipulation) – this is the part that I think will no longer be viable.
Don’t get me wrong, I think building a brand and investing in SEO/web strategists from an early stage is a big step but my personal view (if I were trying to take on a brand) is that you should really look at their weaknesses and try to gain a first mover advantage in some respect. In order to usurp a brand you’re going to need to get creative… if the brands in your space are no good at mobile – start there, if their technology and design are horrible – go after them there.
Also, getting creative from an early stage is something in which I believe strongly. If the product is good enough and the site/webmaster/client cares enough about their customers they will find a way to succeed in whatever channel is viable and eventually the SEO success or brand effect should come.
Adam Melson, SEER Interactive
Absolutely! Having a David succeed over a Goliath makes my day. While there are some nimble ones, most major brands take far long to approve projects, budgets & recommendations. When they are finally implemented, it might only be 40-50% of the original recommendations.
It's not going to be easy, but there are high quality links to get whether you're a national chain or a single store. Yep, having your site optimized for the right keywords is the first step, but then finding legitimate linking opportunities and continuously building them for months at a time can help lift a small site above a major brand.
Jane Copland, Ayima
It depends on the query. A small affiliate won’t easily outrank, say, Marks and Spencer for a massive, sales-driving query. But they most certainly can rank for slightly longer-tail things. For instance, if you search for the type of running shoe you want (a very buy-centric query: you are obviously aware of a specific product you want), often the brand website (Adidas, Nike, etc.) won’t rank quite as well. A smaller stockist will.
The smaller site isn’t built on some terrible, Flash-based platform, and can more easily make changes for the benefit of SEO. They can move a lot faster. This isn’t to say the merchant won’t rank at all, but smaller sites have more of a chance when the query is slightly less competitive. And there is still plenty of traffic there.
Kevin Gibbons, SEOptimise
Totally possible, but you’ve got to take advantage of the benefits of being smaller. You need to be more agile and flexible. If you see Google offering greater exposure to brands using microformats you’ve got to jump on those opportunities, cause it’s going to take bigger organisations much longer to make those changes. Looking for opportunities and being nimble is your strength never ignore it.
Neil Pursey, Web Growth
Yes, if the small business is strategic in it's campaign. Obviously larger websites will have more incoming links and infrastructure to build content from but as a small business there is no reason to focus on niche areas and build on that. If a small business can look at it as a 2 – 3 year business development plan and stick to their strategy, they will do well.
We see a lot of small businesses stop working on their SEO after 6 – 8 months. This could be small business mentality and their life cycles of strategy don't go too far but those small businesses who think strategically and cost effectively can overhaul larger businesses, they just mustn't think it's going to happen over night.
We have found that small businesses who stick to their SEO also develop their businesses in other areas, i.e. research, customer feedback, content generation (which puts them into a thought leader position and gives them natural public relations) and competitive analysis.
Paddy Moogan, Distilled
Totally. But in terms of SEO, the smaller businesses need to know what they are up against. Its also important for them to focus on their product, particularly if they are a startup. If they build a cool product, it makes the job of the SEO a lot easier. Cool products with the right marketing can win against bigger brands as long as they target a certain niche first before trying to go too big.
Dixon Jones, Majestic SEO
It is possible to compete, but if a major brand REALLY wants to win then they have some significant advantages. However, the creating a unique angle and working in a niche that does not allow a large brand to be nimble enough is very effective. Brand loyalty also can be a powerful ally, as big brands can suffer from bad publicity as well as good.
Paul Rogers, GPMD
SEO is one of the few remaining areas that does allow SME's to compete with the big brands, especially as one creative and quirky project can generate enough links and media attention to significantly improve search engine rankings across the board.
Some of the best rankings that I've recorded have come off the back of a few creative ideas and lots of compelling content – natural tactics still works. I've also seen small companies who are very active within their industry rank well because of the relationships they have with the bloggers and other media sites within their niche, this is often overlooked by bigger brands who have a broader product offering.
Grant Whiteside, Amber Green
It’s like pushing water uphill. Theoretically it is possible, but with no age, authority, social presence or news sources talking about the small brand it is a very difficult for competitive keywords. Long tail keywords are possible.
Barry Schwartz, Rusty Brick/ SMX
Brands win because people often seek out those brands in the search results. Brands win because they get more attention from the press, media and bloggers. Brands win because they get more links from quality sites.
For a new business to win, they need to think about how they can become a larger brand.
Peter Handley, The Media Flow
Yes, with hard work, and in some particular niche’s where big brands either seem not to be able to optimise sites effectively, or are not doing much in the way of SEO/SEM. I’ve worked on some projects with some brands that have had inherent problems in how systems and processes work that mean it is considerably more challenging to get what you need done on a website.
However, I have seen the number of times this has happened reduce more recently as SEO becomes more mainstream. However, new or small business can often be more flexible about getting work done more quickly and take advantage of opportunities as they arise in a considerably more agile way.
It is also useful to look to carve out niche’s and specialisms within a sector that you are working in. Set out your differentiators from big brands, add the personal touch and there can be plenty of space for you to grow into.
The way to win against the major brands is threefold: 1) carve a highly specialized but profitable sub-niche that you can own 2) offer personalized and memorable service 3) out-do the big brands in your creative marketing efforts.
Neil Walker, SEO Mad
I think this is really based on strategy, big brands do rank well, but not for everything, often they have more limitations with scalability of their web platforms and this is particularly where smaller business can make progress. Long tail is still a good approach which can help drive revenue to then aim for more competitive phrases, however some sectors this can be very difficult.
Steve Lock, Analyticsseo (iseo)
It’s certainly becoming much more difficult! There is evidence in the SERP's which suggest that developing low quality backlink profiles, even for some really competitive terms, can still work. This is especially apparent when analysing domains that seem to be ranking well with poor quality links and aggressive optimisation of anchor text.
However, major search engines are increasingly forced to use brand signals, recent updates and trends suggest this will continue, making things even tougher for smaller businesses.
Social media could become an even bigger opportunity for smaller businesses, with examples like willitblend.com initially only costing a couple of hundred dollars and yielding the biggest ROI in digital marketing I am aware of!
Content marketing and online PR / blogger outreach, executed in a similar way to the big brands, could become essential for almost all SEO campaigns. This approach is certainly one smaller businesses can use to compete against larger brands, especially if built into business development strategies, such as contacting bloggers for product reviews and competitions.
Will Critchlow, Distilled
Sure. But only with a differentiator. If you are behind in brand, budget, product and agility, you're screwed. If you have something genuinely better or can execute in rapid innovative ways, you can absolutely compete. You just have to look at the disruption caused by start-ups like hipmunk and creative brands like OK Cupid to see that it is possible.
Having said that, I don't believe that you can do this from the outside – if someone comes to an agency behind on all those counts, it's unlikely we can turn them around single-handedly.
If you choose a battleground where the major brands cannot navigate swiftly and precise, then pick that. Then you can win. This means that the bigger a major brand is the less ability it as to detect and react on opportunities.
As a local SEM advertiser it's easy to compete as you know the local needs, customs and ways a lot better than a centralized Adwords Campaign run by a Global PPC consultancy bureau.
Richard Baxter, SEO Gadget
Yes – absolutely! You only need to take a look at how startups like AirBNB have established themselves (at least in part) by building so many natural, high quality links.
They've acquired links from large volumes of money saving and frugal tips blogs and reader offers, for example: “Roomorama offers TNW Readers 25%”. They've hosted regular meet-ups and events for home owners and holiday makers. AirBNB have used PR well, for example: “AirBNB’s 1 millionth night booked". Even more links via partnerships with sporting events and conferences. They're featured in hundreds of top lists for students, places to stay near universities, sports team tour websites, academic resources and disabled travel guides. They even have partnerships with events sites, conferences and hack days.
At SEOgadget, we specialise in helping our clients understand what makes for a successful online product and how they can use link building strategy to best effect.
Shaun Anderson, Hobo-web
Smart people will always find a way to compete. Sure – the way Google treats brands these days – it's harder. If Google is proving difficult for you – there's always social channels to focus on.
Tom Critchlow, Distilled
Yes absolutely, but not necessarily quickly. Although we’re in a real-time environment people need to appreciate that SEO success doesn’t happen overnight. I think the advantage of being agile and adopting new technologies is one example of how smaller operations can beat larger brands.