<< Continued from Part 3: BROWSING BEHAVIOR (What people are looking at)

Once upon a time, the Internet was the Great Level Playing Field of Commerce. Businesses large/known and small/unknown could compete for the same online visitors without spending seven figures on marketing.

Those days are long gone. Increasingly, Google is pushing web-based business and marketing into an elitist realm reachable only by those with deep pockets—not unlike brick-and-mortar commercialism. Even Google’s recent jump into local search is beginning to reek of exclusivity based on marketing spend. It’s understandable—Google is a for-profit business with demanding shareholders. But the changes come at great cost to the little guy.

The new generation of organic search is no exception. Google plans to separate branded websites from “generic” websites in its search results. That’s because known brands tend to produce happy searchers, whereas generics often lead to poor user experiences.

As webmasters and supporters of small self storage business on the web, we might not like it. Yet as Google searchers, even we can admit that big brands almost consistently produce good websites.

What does brand-driven search mean for self storage?

It may seem unfair, but in the new generation of search, companies with well-known brand names like Public Storage, Extra Space, U-Store-It, Uncle Bobs, et al, will likely have a decided advantage over smaller self storage players.

Truth be told, there’s some conjecture that this has been the case for some time—remember the New York Times expose regarding JC Penney back in February? (Google it.) Some SEO experts speculate that Google favors big brands and major Adwords clients over lesser ilk—or that Google at least turns a blind eye to big brands’ black hat trickery until they’re called out on it.

What can you do about brand-influenced search?

If you’re a big name in self storage, just keep on being a big name. If you’re not a big name, you can try to play the web game like one.

One way is to tie in with a national brand. According to Tom Cox, web visibility expert at Red Nova Labs, a few different options for non-ownership affiliate branding will come onto the self storage scene this year. These include 877-Self Storage, National Self Storage Alliance, and possibly a third (“I’ve heard whispers—this has definitely been a hot topic in the industry, especially at the ISS and SSA spring shows,” said Cox). And of course there are existing big-brand-plus-management solutions like U-Store-it and Uncle Bob’s.

If you want to stay brand-independent, it is possible to pump up your self storage name on your own. Self-sufficiency may be less expensive than affiliation, but bear in mind that it’s also a lot more work.

To start, it will help you to know what metrics and sources Google might employ to determine if a website belongs to a trusted brand. Be aware that the search algorithm can look at dozens, possibly hundreds of brand-related inputs, so this is just a surface sampling. Big brands typically have:

  • Social network pages on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn

  • People working for them (on LinkedIn people list their employer)

  • Clear and complete “contact us” and “about us” pages

  • Affiliations/memberships with trade associations and affiliate groups

  • Search volume for their name (i.e. people are typing the brand words into Google)

  • Physical address(es) that can be located and verified via Google Local

  • Citations (references that may not actually be a link, like a phone number)

  • Offline, integrated marketing campaigns

Be sure to balance your on-page and off-page web efforts for consistency across all of these search indicators.

Certainly, as with every other signal, there will be methods of cheating the brand trust system. That’s why Google will always collect and use many ancillary data points, including today’s SEO-gold of inbound links and anchor text. For this reason, linkbuilding remains number one in our SEO book.

At least for now.

No matter which techniques you choose for your web strategy, keep in mind that SEO is a long-term project. The next generation of search (with social signals, clickstreams, and brand trust) may be coming together faster than any generation before, but the only way to maintain superior search ranking all the way through is to provide a good, stable, user-friendly website. The human web user will always, always come first with Google.

After all, it’s the human who keeps Google’s – and your – lights on.

This story was coauthored by Carrie Royce and Robert Zhou. Major sources include SEOmoz.com, SearchEngineLand.com, SMX West 2011 conference speakers, Quora.com (answer by Edmond Lau), SeoByTheSea.com, Econsultancy.com, and GoogleBlog.BlogSpot.com.