Is brand traffic a proxy for Product-Market Fit?
Search demand for a brand and direct traffic can be proxies for Product-Market Fit and help companies understand where they are.
Product-Market Fit, the degree to which a market craves your product, can be measured in several ways: retention rate, NPS, or word of mouth coefficient. In fact, a combination of qualitative and quantitative metrics is optimal.
One of the strongest indicators of demand is direct traffic, i.e., users visiting a site straight from their browsers instead of searching on Google first. However, many people use Google to navigate to sites either through google.com or the chrome search bar. That behavior is common enough to use brand search demand as a proxy for Product-Market Fit. In plain words, we can use direct traffic and brand search volume as Product-Market Fit proxies.
No metric is perfect. I wrote plenty about the flaws of search volume. "Techy" b2b brands and enterprise startups might go after a narrow market that's too narrow. For everybody else, however, brand search volume over time can be very indicative for Product-Market Fit. Let's look at three examples.
3 examples of startups with growing PMF
Descript, founded in 2017, allows you to edit audio and video editor through text. The first stop to assess brand searches is Google Trends. It shows a small inflection point around January 2019.
I could have used Google Keyword Planner, but its values are too broad and averaged over the last 12 months. Not very helpful to measure trends. But Google Trends is not the only way to look at search volume over a time span longer than 12 months.
Ahrefs shows search demand over the last 5 years (see the second box from the left that says "Volume" at the top). For "descript", we can see linear growth in search demand starting around January 2019. What's very interesting is that Ahrefs shows increased paid search activity starting around October 2018 (see the yellow bars in the second box from the right), signifying commercial or brand user intent.
It makes sense: brands bid on their brand keywords. How much Google Ads for brand keywords collide with Product-Market Fit is hard to say.
Substack, which started in October 2017, is a platform for newsletter creators that handles subscription management, payments, and distribution. I used to be on it as well.
Google Trends shows an upward trend starting around the beginning of the year.
Ahrefs shows the inflection point starting much earlier: around December 2017.
The challenge of Google Trends is that values are normalized, meaning we only have relative comparisons. A workaround is to look at direct traffic estimations from SEMrush (see below).
We can clearly see that direct traffic accelerates around February 2019. That's when Substack introduced a new paid podcast feature (source).
Miro, which was called "RealtimeBoard" before March 2019, is a whiteboard collaboration tool. Ahrefs shows us how search demand for "RealtimeBoard" quickly dried up when the company changed its name.
Surprisingly, the search volume for "Miro" remained steady until March 2020 and then increased. That's because an artist named "Joan Miró" had search demand before the software company adopted the name. That's also when we see increased Google Ads for "miro".
March 2020 is also when SEMrush shows an inflection point for Miro's direct traffic.
When to go beyond brand traffic
Brand traffic, the traffic coming from brand and brand combination keywords, can be a good proxy of Product-Market Fit. As soon as the company has reached strong PMF, it's time to switch into Growth mode! For SEO, that means going beyond brand traffic and target generic keywords.
SEMrush estimates descript.com to get 86% non-brand traffic, which is pretty good! The domain ranks on top positions for keywords like "video transcription", "overdub", or "deepfake voice".
Substack swims in the same waters: 85% of traffic is non-branded. The platform banks on UGC (user-generated content) that ranks for all sorts of topics.
Lastly, Miro gets "only" 58% unbranded traffic but also started to climb up the ranks for topics like "mind map", "whiteboard", and "concept map".