Friday, September 30, 2011

Branding in the Age of Search Engines: Practical Guidelines for Professionals, Startups, Businesses

You are not what you are; you are not even what you think you are; you are what Google says you are. When people look for you, your company, your products or pretty much anything else the first thing they usually do is to turn to Google. This means that if you are not easy to find you will probably not be found. If you can't be found by a human searching on Google then the internal search functions that websites use to organize information will also not work.  The dominance of search engine algorithms in today's business means that branding has become at the same time more complex, but also more pervasive as people actively manage their personal brand. This means that everyone needs to know some basics about branding, even if they don't plan a career in this specialty. Here, then, are five things you need to know -- a mixture of technology-driven techniques and traditional methods.

1. BRAINSTORM MULTIPLE IDEAS.  Brands can be unsuitable for many reasons. Maybe someone else has already registered the name, maybe it means something offensive in Japanese, maybe the domain name is impossible to get, or maybe another awesome startup has an almost identical name. For this reason you should never choose a single idea and fall in love with it. Start with a list of ideas and progress them in parallel so you always have an alternative to switch to when there is a problem.  You will probably have to create unique new words, since practically every normal word has already been used -- even rude words, as I explained in this post from 2010 about the practice of registering offensive names.  In the old days it was enough to avoid a conflict with competitors in your area, but since search engines are global even a rival on the other side of the world is a problem.

2. CHECK EACH NAME ON YOUR LIST.  Now you have a list of candidates to screen for suitability. The simplest and most important test is to check each with major search engines. If a search returns thousands of pages then your name is probably not going to be a good idea, unless all of the other uses of the word are very low profile. For example, the Twitter scheduling tool "Buffer" is hard to find while the networking site "Zerply" and the internet telephony site "Voxio" are very easy to find. What you dream of getting is a zero return from Google, but it's also important to look at what the returns are if there are a few. Watch especially for something small that could be big one day -- a rising star or startup, for example. Try also a Google instant search to see what comes up as you type in the letters; what you don't want is for a competitor's name to come up half way through typing yours. Testing brands you will quickly find that it is best to stick with strings of alphabetic characters as names with spaces or non alphabetic characters are not always interpreted correctly, so a product named "Fun++" would be confused with "fun". Ironically Google had the same problem with Google+ initially.

3. CHECK WITH TRADEMARK REGISTRIES. A Google search identifies obvious conflicts in a very practical way -- if you can't find it your customers can't find it -- but sooner or later you will need to check with the trademark registries. When you want to register marks you will probably be safer with professional help, but you can at least check candidates using the trademark search page of the US Patent and Trademark Office. There is a similar service in Europe at the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market.  A zero return from these searches is a good sign, but beware because a competitor can object to your brand even if it is just similar -- that's another reason to always have backup names. When you find your candidate already registered this is not necessarily a problem. Maybe the competitor is not in your field or maybe there is no conflict and an agreement can be reached. This is when you need help. Sometimes you can make a deal with the company owning the registration and this is, in fact, something that often happens -- remember Apple Computer's famous deal with Apple Records?

4. CHECK DOMAIN AVAILABILITY. You could in theory launch a brand even if you can't get the appropriate domain, but it does not look very serious. This means that if I want to register the brand Qaz I would check for the availability of qaz.com. You can do this by just typing the name into your browser to see what happens, or check with the "Who Is" domain registry at Network Solutions. If you are lucky the domain is free, and in this case you should register it before you mention the candidate name to anyone. Sometimes it has been registered by someone and not used; in this case you can try to buy it. In some cases it is in use but still for sale, so it could be worth asking. It is better to solve problems like this when you are still small; if you wait until your business is already successful it will be more expensive.  These days short URLs like zerp.ly and vox.io are very popular, but you still need to .com domain as a backup because many people will type that.

5. REGISTER YOUR BRAND ON SOCIAL, SHARING SITES. Finally, you need to make sure that you register accounts on all of the popular and potentially popular websites using your chosen name(s). At the very least you need to be on major sites like Twitter, Facebook, GooglePlus and YouTube. Registration is free and fast, so this is easy. The problem is that you cannot predict easily which will be the next Twitter, so it is good policy to register your brand on as many new sites as you can, just to make sure nobody gets there first. This is actually quite hard to do if you don't work in communication, so you might find it useful to get help from knowem.com, which monitors more than 500 sites and, for a fee, can even do the registration for you. Alternatively you could also some expert to do this. Since communications people routinely register their own name on every site it is easy for them to open a few other accounts at the same time. Having your brand name or personal name as your account ID is important firstly because it looks good (Netflix was ridiculed for failing to get the Qwikster Twitter ID), but in addition it helps boost your ranking in search results and blocks hostile groups that might use it against you, as I explained in Sign Up Now: Joining New Networking Sites Boosts Brand Reputation.  In addition to all the social networking sites I also recommend you register on photo and video sharing sites because this is also good for your online reputation, as explained in Why Having and Account on Photo Sharing Sites is Good for Your Image.

In addition to these essential steps, when you are working on your own personal branding you will also need to decide between using your own name, a variant of your own name or a professional name. In the entertainment world this is easy since you can pick any name you want, so Archibald Leach became Cary Grant. In business this is less common, possibly because changing your name looks suspicious, so people choose instead a name for their business and promote that. Personally I believe that a real name brand is much simpler because when I was buying consultant services I could never remember which consultant was associated with each brand, but if you have the same name as someone famous you may have little choice.

Finally, if you dream of a global business you had better also check your candidate names to make sure that they will work in other languages. Many brand ideas are rejected because they mean something offensive in another language, as I explained in the note about offensive trademarks. In some cases names are changed after launch, as when the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China started as CACC but became COMAC after it was ridiculed in many articles like this one.  As far as I know there is no effective automated way to do this search since it depends on subjective evaluation of the similarity of sounds, but maybe this will come. (There is a business idea for some startup, perhaps). At present the best way is to ask a sample of people from around the world to give an opinion on each candidate.

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Lectures, Workshops & Coaching

For one-to-one coaching, lectures and workshops on this topic see andrewhennigan.com or contact me at conseil@andrewhennigan.com or by phone on 0033 6 79 61 42 81.

Related posts on Branding and Reputation Management:

Choosing Pronounceable Brand Names: Lessons from the Cuil Saga
Five Simple Steps to Improve Your Online Reputation
Branding in the Age of Search Engines
Why Having Accounts on Photo Sharing Sites Is Good for Your Image
Sign Up Now: Joining New Networking Sites Boosts Brand, Reputation




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