Despite global brand recognition and other well-established benefits that should drive growth, the reality is that having a household name does not guarantee SEO success. In this post, I will explore why large, well-known brands may encounter problems with organic performance, patterns I’ve noticed, and some of the recommended tactics to address these challenges.

What we talk about when we talk about a legacy brand

The term “legacy brand” applies for the purposes of this post to companies that have a very strong association with the product they sell, and may well have been the omnipresent provider for that product in the past. This could mean that in the 20th century they were household names, or it could be that in the early days of mass consumer web use they pioneered and dominated their field. A few varied examples (that Distilled has never worked with or been contacted by) include:

  • Wells Fargo (US)
  • Craigslist (US)
  • Tesco (UK)


Reason 1: Brand

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in the way of the performance of a brand is the brand itself. This may seem a bit odd — we’d already established that the companies we’re talking about are big, acknowledged, household names. That should help them in SEO by itself, right?

The thing is, though, they recognize many of these big household names, but they’re not the one-stop shops they used to be.

Here’s how the examples above are searching for the name-brand:

In general, other dominant, clearly vertical – leading brands in the UK are also not doing so well in brand searching:

There are many potential reasons why this may be — and we’re even going to address some of them later — but there are a few notable ones:

  • Complacency — they may have forgotten the need to reinforce their brand image and recognition, especially for brands that were early web juggernauts.
  • Increasingly credible competitors. As many of these brands once were, when you’re the only competent operator, you’ve had the whole pie. You’ve got to share it now.
  • People have confidence in search engines. Ubiquitous brands decline in many cases, while the generic term is rising.

Check out this for the real estate example in the UK:

Rightmove and Zoopla are and have been for some time, the two largest brands in this space. There’s only one line going up there, though, and it’s the generic term, “houses for sale.”

What can I do about this?

Basically, take a step forward! Many incumbents have been very slow in taking action on things such as top-of-funnel content, or producing only low-effort, exceptionally dry social media posts (I’ve posted some of these tactics here before). In fairness, it’s easy to see why — these channels and approaches probably have the least measurable returns. Leaving a higher vacuum in your funnel, however, is playing with fire, particularly if you are a recognized name. It opens up a chance for smaller players to close the recognition gap — at nearly no cost.

Reason 2: Tech debt

I’m sure many people will have experienced how difficult it can be to get technical changes implemented by larger, older organizations — especially higher efforts. This can be due to complex bureaucracy, aging and highly tailored platforms, risk aversion, and SEO in particular. The inability to obtain senior buy-ins for what can often be quite abstract changes with little guaranteed reward.

What can I do about this?

We meet these challenges fairly often at Distilled. I’ve seen Dev queues spanning for years, literally. I also saw organizations that are completely unable to change their sites ‘ most basic information, such as opening times or title tags. Indeed, it was this exact issue that prompted our ODN platform to be developed a few years ago as a way of circumventing technical limitations and proving the benefits when we did so.

In the SEO community, CDN – level solutions like the edge workers of Cloudflare are also beginning to gain traction.

However, eventually, it is necessary to tackle the problem at the source — by making progress within the organization’s politics. I found that focusing on the downside is actually the most effective angle in large, risk-averse bureaucracies — basically preying on risk – aversion itself — as well as shouting loudly about any, however small, successes.

Reason 3: Not updating tactics due to long-standing, ingrained practices

In a way, this returns to an aversion to risk and politics — after all, legacy brands have a lot to lose. One particular manifestation that I have frequently noticed in larger organizations is ongoing campaigns and tactics that have not been linked in years to improved rankings or revenue.

I remember saying something like “we know this campaign isn’t strategically right for us, but we can’t buy in for anything else, so it’s this or loses the budget.” Great. Fantastic.

This type of scenario can become commonplace when senior decision makers don’t trust their staff — often, it’s a CMO or similar executive leader who hasn’t dipped their toe into SEO for a decade or more. When they do, they are unpleasantly surprised to discover that this week their SEO team is not buying links and, in fact, hasn’t been buying links for quite a while. So their reaction is predictable: “No wonder so poor are the results!”

What can I do about this?

Unfortunately, in the short term, you might have to humor this behavior. That doesn’t mean you should start (or continue) buying links, but it might be a good idea to make sure your strategy has similar – sounding activity while you’re working on proving your project’s ROI.

You may begin moving them in the right direction on the medium term if you can get senior players at conferences (I strongly advise SearchLove, although I may be biased), softly share articles and content that they find interesting, and drown them in success news of any other program you managed to do.

Reason 4: Race to the bottom

I have observed in the past that new entrants need not necessarily match tenured juggernauts like – for – like on factors such as the Domain Authority to hit the top spots.

As a result, it is becoming commonplace to see plucky, younger businesses grow rapidly and, at the very least, increase the apparent level of choice where a legacy business might have had a monopoly on basic skills.

When it comes to price, this is even more complicated. Most SEOs agree that SERP behavior factors in rankings, so it’s easy to imagine legacy businesses that have a premium angle disproportionately fighting for clicks versus attractively priced competitors. Google doesn’t understand or care you’ve got a premium proposal —they’re going to throw you in with the companies competing on the price alone.

What can I do about this?

There are, as I see it, two main approaches. One is abusing your size to crowd out smaller players (for example, targeting disproportionately keywords where they managed to find a gap in your armor), and the other is essentially Conversion Rate Optimization.

Simple tactics such as pricing (ascending), the standard sorting of a home page by default, clicky value – added USP titles (e. g. free delivery), or well-focused post sales retention emails (and not overflowing).

Reason 5: Super-aggregators (Amazon, Google)

The pie is becoming smaller in many verticals, so it is reasonable that the dominant players will face a diminishing slice.

A few obvious examples:

  • Local packs eroding local landing pages
  • Google Flights, Google Jobs, etc. eroding specialist sites
  • Amazon taking a huge chunk of e-commerce search

What can I do about this?

Again, here are two separate angles, and one is much more difficult than the other. The first is similar to some of the above— move the funnel further up and lock it in business before it ever comes to your prospective customer Googling your head term and seeing Amazon and/or Google above you. However, this is just a mitigating tactic.

The second thing that many or most businesses won’t be able to do is jump into bed with the devil. If you’ve ever had the chance to be a data partner behind a Google or Amazon product, you might do well to swallow and take your pride. In a couple of years, you might be the only one of your competitors left, and if you don’t, it’ll be another.