Branded Search: The KPI No One is Talking About

Today’s entrepreneurs, business leaders, and marketers face substantial challenges due to tech platforms’ policy changes. Heightened privacy concerns have led some to restrictions on data sharing between consumers and ad platforms and stop providing lookalike audiences to advertisers. Although research shows that only 37% of marketers allow their customers to opt out of data sharing, the same study finds that four out of five consumers have stopped doing business with a company because of their data practices.

In particular, the Apple iOS 14.5 update has created obstacles for brands looking to connect with and grow their target audience. These changes can make it difficult for businesses to attribute conversions to particular sources, platforms, or marketing campaigns. Founders, media buyers, and executive decision-makers struggle to justify spending on marketing without clear empirical evidence of its effectiveness. Indeed, one study found that business leaders making data-driven decisions are at least 5% more productive and 6% more profitable than their competitors.

At a time like this, how can companies tell if their marketing efforts are actually working? The answer may not be what you assume.

To evaluate their progress, many brands are still hypnotized by key performance indicators (KPIs) like return on advertising spend (ROAS), new customer acquisition, and lowest-cost cost per acquisition (CPA). Many call these “vanity KPIs” because we were so used to reporting on them before the great disruption of iOs 14.5 and, recently, they have in some cases become less relevant and accurate. They can also lead brands from misallocating spending that can minimize top-of-funnel exposure. 

A KPI we are looking at when evaluating the potential and trajectory of a brand is its Branded Search Volume. This Metric incorporates all marketing initiatives, shows us seasonality, can be used to pinpoint growth in geographic areas, and shows us how brands have navigated the changing tech landscape. In an ideal world, a majority of inbound searches would come from non-branded keywords, but the most important data points to analyze are whether branded search trends are growing, flat, or declining.

A few quick examples of some companies’ organic branded search volume include the following: 

1. Growing —

(Figures from

Arcteryx has seen impressive brand growth in the past 24 months, with branded search growing by 218% when comparing December 2020 (823K/MS) to December 2022 (1.8/MS).

2. Flat —

(Figures from

While in the past two years, search volume for branded search seems to have increased (around 9.1M searches a month), when we look at Jan 2023 to Jan 2022, the search volumes are both at 7.5M searches. While the brand search is stable, it is possible that consumer confidence is negatively impacting a more luxury-positioned brand. Conversely, Walmart’s search volume is up nearly 50% from January 2022.

3. Flat — Manscaped

(Figures from

Manscaped has essentially stalled out on global brand search with 550,000 searches per month. This sum spikes around the time of Black Friday/Cyber Monday, driving volumes to 673,000 searches per month. 

4. Declining —

(Figures from

Trendy shoe and clothing brand UNiF is a clear example of a brand that is declining in brand growth. Global search volumes peaked in May 2020, right after iOS 14.5 was launched, at approximately 201k searches per month. Then, it hit this volume again in November 2020. Looking at November of 2023, search volumes have fallen to 110k monthly searches — a drop of 45% YOY. 

What is branded search?

Branded searches occur when someone includes the name of a specific brand in their online search. For instance, “running shoes” would be a general search, while “Brooks running shoes” would be a branded search. In this example, “Brooks” is the name of the particular company that makes running shoes. Likewise, “Nike running shoes” or “Saucony running shoes” would be considered branded searches as well.

Notice that, to run a branded search, the customer already needs to have an awareness of and heightened interest in a particular brand’s products or services. If consumers don’t know your brand exists, or if they don’t know they should want your brand enough to search for it specifically, then your brand’s branded search volumes will be low.

When my team starts working with a new brand, the first thing we do is take a close look at the client’s branded-search volume and whether it is growing or decreasing. That’s because a declining number of branded searches signals that a company’s sales are at risk of drying up, and we need to focus on winning new hearts and minds.

Why tracking branded searches is important

Everything we do in marketing impacts branded search. In turn, branded search provides us with a clear indication of how our brand awareness, brand reach, and how brand growth is doing.

Unlike other KPIs, branded searches take all marketing initiatives into consideration. Whether a campaign is running pay-per-click (PPC), paying to advertise on social media or TV, or raising the brand’s name recognition via billboards, all these marketing engagements will impact the number of consumers searching for the brand’s exact-match keywords. For this reason, branded search provides an accurate gauge of the current traction the brand has with consumers and interested customers.

I use the metaphor of body mass index (BMI) to explain how branded search operates as an overall indicator of a business’s health. The ways you eat, exercise, and treat your body all have an impact on your BMI. This number will fluctuate depending on how often or how rigorously you participate in each area of your wellness. Similarly, your company’s branded search numbers will change depending on the kinds of marketing you do, how effective your campaigns are, and how well you pivot to prioritize growth and an upward trajectory. 

Early-stage companies should anticipate faster branded search growth as they scale up, whereas more mature companies should expect to see smaller branded searches depending on the marketing initiatives of the brand. Another reason it’s important to prioritize branded searches is that they deliver the best performance. Typically, we see the longest time on site and lowest bounce rate from branded-search traffic.

Generally speaking, branded search performs the best for a mid-funnel conversion channel. Typically, we see some of our highest time on-site, lowest bounce rates, and highest conversion rates from organic search. To look deeper at exact match branded search performance, we can easily use the analysis from a branded AdWords campaign to quickly understand that it is the most cost-effective campaign with the highest conversion rates, CTR, and ROAS.  

Neglecting to pay attention to branded search can lead to major problems. While organic search does take up a majority of clicks on Google (90%+), that leaves open another 10% of your clicks that could be bid on by your competitors if you aren’t also covering them through paid search.

In our experience, branded paid search conversion rates can convert 10x+ better than top-of-funnel. We have found that CTR on a well-optimized brand campaign can hit 50% whereas top-of-funnel averages are closer to 5-10%. CPCs can cost 80% less, or more, depending on the industry. 

The limitations of conversion-based KPIs

To the extent that brands focus only on conversion-based campaigns like ROAS and CPA, they risk taking an overly narrow, teleological approach that neglects to build brand recognition in general. This can create a void of consumer awareness at the top of the brand’s funnel, which typically leads to a diminishing branded search in the mid-funnel. In extreme cases, this can sometimes even lead to a void in the mid-funnel.

Put simply, customers who don’t know you exist won’t search for your brand while seeking to fulfill their needs and desires. These people will tend to choose your more generally visible, and therefore more trusted, competitors instead. According to a RedC white paper, 82% of searchers bestow their first click upon a familiar brand, even though the search engine may not have ranked it the highest.

While advertising to a few thousand people and only making a conversion or two might seem like a poor return on investment, consider the long run. That same marketing campaign likely built brand awareness, making members of your target market more aware of your product or service. This increased familiarity can pay dividends in the future.

Brands that only focus on conversions as their most important metric should pivot to a new way of thinking. It’s time to go back to basics.

Incorporating branded search into marketing strategy

If your business has been blinded by conversion-based metrics, I have good news. Effective digital marketing isn’t a matter of trading one strategy for another, since one does not negate the other.

Therefore, there’s no need to pull the plug on your current efforts or turn off conversion campaigns that are likely working. Continue to go out and perform top-of-funnel prospecting.

Due to the all-encompassing character of branded search volume, however, it should be one of the standard metrics businesses use. Start monitoring your branded search volume in addition to Cost Per Mile (CPM) metrics. To determine how a company’s branded search is performing, we normally focus on Cost Per Reach (CPR), which calculates how much reaching a single prospective customer costs, and the Marketing Efficiency Ratio (MER), which divides total revenue by the marketing spend.

Incorporating branded search into marketing strategy

While there’s no single right way to track the growth and trajectory of your branded search volume, the important thing is to optimize your brand’s reach. Of course, the size of a company matters when setting appropriate goals for these numbers. Small-to-midsize companies may shoot for an even higher percentage of annual growth because they have more room to scale up, but major brands may look for a more moderate, steady number.

To incorporate branded search into your marketing strategy, start by looking at your current campaigns and assessing who they’re reaching. How are competitors getting eyeballs on their brands? How can you employ these tactics for yours? Next, minimize CPMs to the targeted audience. Conduct smaller-reach campaigns in top-of-funnel to increase brand awareness.

Remaining mindful of what, where, and how your branded search numbers are doing helps you better direct your marketing efforts. If your product sees a multi-month decline in branded search volume, this is a red flag that prospective customers’ awareness of your brand is lacking and requires intervention.

Of course, this general guideline doesn’t apply to seasonal products. For these, a red flag would be declining branded search volume year over year during the same key time period.

Incorporating branded search into marketing strategy

Measuring and prioritizing branded search volume as a KPI can help business leaders understand the effects of their marketing efforts while continuing to build the brand’s top-of-funnel presence.

At the end of the day, if we’re not introducing new people to our brand, making more introductions today than yesterday, then we are failing at our role as marketers. Our North Star should be finding the right people. Branded search volume enables brands to do this.

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