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How SEO grows brands: The science behind the service


SEO is an investment in brand growth, not a short-term ROI play. Learn how SEO boosts brand availability and acquisition of new buyers.

Andrew Holland on February 8, 2024 at 9:00 am | Reading time: 10 minutes

There is too much misinformation about how SEO works.
And this doesn’t help to increase investment in our industry.

n this article, we’re going to clear it all up.

You’ll learn exactly why and how SEO supports brand growth, sales, and leads.

Let’s dive in.

How brands grow

Marketing research has made it clear how brands grow.

They grow by acquiring new and light buyers. 

(Light buyers are consumers who make occasional or infrequent purchases of a particular product or service. They may not be as committed or loyal to a particular brand or product category.) 

But how do you increase the rate at which you acquire new and light category buyers?

Again, the research is clear. You increase the brand’s: 

  • Mental availability: The likelihood of a brand being considered in a buying situation.
  • Physical availability: The ease and convenience that a brand can be purchased from.

Marketing leaders widely accept these terms and have been for around ten years now.

But where does SEO fall into this?

Dig deeper: Top 10 SEO benefits of building a brand that people trust

Some SEOs don’t understand marketing 

I recently saw a tweet on X that went a bit like this.

“When people search Google, they don’t care about logos and brands; they care about finding a relevant page and solving their problems.”

It gained 17,000 views, over 200 likes, and 40+ reposts.

And yet, the advice is entirely wrong and is an example of how out-of-touch some SEOs are these days.

Brand, logo, and website quality are not only essential for your marketing. SEO is actually about the delivery of these assets.

Repeated studies have shown that website quality and perception of the brand are used to formulate trust.

Without trust, we don’t buy.

But that’s not all; your logos and branding are how we remember businesses. In marketing, these are known as “distinctive brand assets.”

If you were to think of your website as a package.

Our job as SEOs is to place your website on the shelf. And if we can’t understand this, how can we advise clients?

How buying online happens

As SEOs, we should understand and be able to explain precisely how buying happens.

And here’s the simple version.

1. Trigger

We all receive triggers to search. These can be internal ones, such as a feeling or thought. Or an external one such as advertising or a life event.

At this time, one of two things happens.

We either search for a brand/website directly. 

This is known as a navigational search.

We can also enter a keyword in a search engine or open an app like YouTube or TikTok.

The key to brand growth lies in the need state of the searcher. You want to be found or searched for by people who are in the market to buy.

These are people looking into buying or are ready to buy today. 

And your job as an SEO is to bring your brand to prospects with those two need states.

There is good reason for this.

Reaching those looking into buying with your brand helps build the mental availability we discussed earlier. Reaching those about to buy increases your physical availability. 

2. Exploration

The next stage of search is known as the exploration stage. It’s here where things get messy, and we start researching the category.

And yes, people head to social media apps to research.

It’s at this stage that a fierce battle starts to take place.

The battle for memory.

Buying decisions often take place over prolonged periods.

And this is even longer for the B2B sector.

But you don’t need me to tell you this.

It took me at least six months to pick a car I liked. 

But I didn’t spend six months solidly researching every day. Life gets in the way. We all juggle multiple tasks and demands that interrupt our decision-making.

During this period, we are subjected to retargeting with ads on multiple platforms. And it’s here where advertising largely plays a role.

Businesses with great advertising that reaches people regularly are more easily remembered at the all-important time we decide to buy.

However, I’m sure the vast majority of people reading this work for brands with limited advertising. 

So, showing up organically where your prospects conduct their research can increase the likelihood that you are searched for, recognized, and remembered when buying.

And it’s here we move to the next stage.

3. Evaluation 

After we’ve conducted our research, a few things happen.

You can be directly chosen as a brand, or you’ll be part of a consideration set.

But we often don’t search this way.

For example, here’s how my searches for my car panned out:

  • Searches Google for Kia Sportage lease car deals (I wanted that brand).
  • Find several deals and got told I’d be waiting 12 months to get a Kia.
  • I search for Kia Sportage alternatives.
  • I look at deals for those cars to get rough prices.
  • I searched for articles about the car models.
  • I watched about 4 hours of YouTube videos about the models.
  • I had two makes and models in my mind that I wanted.
  • I searched again for lease car deals.
  • I spoke with three lease car companies.
  • I received countless email marketing messages from these companies.
  • Eventually, the need for a car became so great I searched again for lease car deals and saw a link to a business I hadn’t communicated with in the SERPs; I called them and signed a lease deal that day.

Why did I choose them? 

I knew who they were, as they’d shown up in my research. They are one of the largest lease car companies in the UK and had shown up in multiple searches I’d made.
This is called “transfer rate,” as my friend and awesome SEO JP Garbaccio shared in a 
recent LinkedIn post.


“In 2020, Google ran experiments on 31,000 online shoppers.

There was one deciding factor that influenced ‘Transfer of Preference’ (TOP).

TOP is the process of a customer shifting to buying YOUR brand.

The most influential factor was simply being present in the buying journey.

By just being there, 30% of potential shoppers will choose your brand.

This ranges on a spectrum from 18% TOP, to 44% TOP.”

PPC works like this.

You pay to reach today’s buyers, hoping you can nudge them to you at the last minute.

My car leasing company didn’t pay to acquire me; I recognized them in the organic search listings, clicked, and called, and they were superb at sales.

I’d not watched a single video created by their brand on YouTube or read a single article they wrote.

But I clicked on their site a few times over a few months, and on the day I needed to buy… they were there.

This brings us to the final stage of the search.

4. Purchase

There is a lot of talk online about “TikTok” as a search engine.

However, the real questions are:

  • Where do your customers buy?
  • What is their shopping environment?
  • How can you increase the likelihood of being recognized in these environments?

This is why advertising is so powerful, especially creative video advertising, which helps to link a brand with a category within our memory architecture.

For example, if I asked you to tell me who you first think of when it comes to basketball shoes, chances are you’ll say Nike.

However, for many categories, we are simply unaware of the brands that exist within them until we start to research. As such, we head to search engines and social media apps.

But where we purchase is massively important. 

This is your physical availability.

For example, I’m aware there is a TikTok Shop. But this isn’t suitable for most brands.

And also, TikTok is very difficult to leave. There’s limited to zero external links in organic results, combined with a strong algorithm serving you fresh content.

No, TikTok does not want you to leave.

This means we’ll still return to search engines to buy our goods (I’ll leave Amazon out for another discussion).

And, as we saw both in my example of buying a car and the transfer of preference study, you need to be on the digital shelf to be chosen. Just showing up increases that chance.

And this leads us to the grand finale of how SEO helps brands to grow.

SEO grows new and light category buyers

When a person heads to search to start the buying process, they are doing so because they are open to buying from different brands than they last purchased. Or they have never purchased in this category before.

And this is where we start to showcase the brilliance of organic search.

Paid search is all about efficiency, often in the form of ROAS or ROI.

Organic search is about marketing effectiveness.

Reach as many possible in-the-market buyers as you can.

If we use Ahrefs’ Keyword Explorer feature, we tend to see that most traffic goes to organic listings in most markets.

In the above car leasing example, 44% of clicks go to the organic listings.


What about the term SEO agency? 47% goes to organics.


And here, with a “near me” search for a dentist, 44% goes to organic, with just 4% going to paid search.


However, we know that paid search generates more clicks in some sectors, such as Nike trainers.


But you have to look at this beyond just the clicks. 

When you acquire a customer through a paid search click, you effectively reduce your profits, and very often, they would have purchased from you anyway.

And a huge amount of buyers click on the organic listings.


This is key for growth because brands grow by acquiring new and light category buyers.

Justifying the investment in SEO

Over the years, I have spoken to countless businesses that failed to invest in organic search.

All because they went hunting for the mythical dragon that is ROI.

This is oddly justified with mental accounting such as: 

“If I spend $3,000 per month on SEO, how long before I see results, and what will those returns be?”

As stated in a previous article, you don’t measure SEO performance by ROI; you justify its investment.

If you don’t invest in SEO, you are losing out on reaching vast amounts of potential customers and letting others win them.

At the same time, others are growing their brands; you’re not winning new and light category buyers.

I genuinely hope more marketing managers and business owners wake up to this.

Organic search is competitive.

But all business is.

When you win in organic search, you gain a competitive advantage, leading to more business.

It is that simple.

  • Do you want to grow?
  • Are your buyers using search engines to help them find what you sell?

If the answer is yes to both of those, it’s a case of how much you can afford to invest in SEO and who you’ll hire to deliver this growth.

Once you understand the science, you’ll invest in SEO.

Or not, and your competitors will.

Original article on Search Engine Land…