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Thorntons beat Sony, Nike and Microsoft in the Brand Search rankings. What's their secret?

Global confectioners Mars and Nestle need to drastically improve their online presence to compete with high street brands like Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat, results from search marketing specialist Epiphany Solutions reveal.

Introduction:In our recent study into the online performance of the top 100 Super Brands, somewhat surprisingly, Thorntons, the UK based chocolate maker came out on top, beating the likes of Sony, Nike, Microsoft and even internet giant Google in terms of online visibility.In this article we aim to discover whether Thorntons truly deserves its position at the top of the Brand Search rankings by taking a detailed look at the online chocolate confectionery marketplace, and analysing how Thorntons is performing, in terms of organic and paid search, when compared to some of its main competitors, including industry giants Mars, Cadbury and Nestle.We would expect to conclude one of the following predictions:Thorntons has performed so well due to:a) A successfully implemented paid and organic search marketing strategy,b) A lack of competition within the online chocolate confectionery niche.c) The online chocolate confectionery market as a whole is outperforming the other sectors.d) A combination of the above.Market Overview:The UK confectionery market is worth an estimated £4.4bn, with chocolate confectionery accounting for nearly 3 quarters of sales by value. The chocolate confectionery market is extremely oligopolistic in nature, with the top 3 firms, Mars, Nestle and Cadbury accounting for 81% of the total market share. So how, in such a hugely competitive marketplace, dominated by global SuperBrands has a relatively small player, Thorntons, managed to dominate the online market?Rationale:In order to answer this question we need to take a look at the online chocolate confectionery market. To do this we initially selected the biggest brands in the industry to compare Thorntons against, these are Mars, Nestle and Cadbury as well as a leading online chocolate confectioner, Hotel Chocolat. We then selected a set of keywords to use for the comparison; these are the most popular "chocolate" related key terms searched for in the UK search engines based upon high volume keywords that most relate to key areas that these brands target.Keywords:ChocolateChocolatesDark chocolateMilk chocolateChocolate hampersLuxury chocolatesChocolates by postChocolate giftsChocolate boxWedding chocolatesBrandSearch Ratings:So how do these brands fair in terms of search engine rankings for the selected keywords? We compiled our BrandSearch ratings based on how sites rank for each keyword in the top 3 search engines. 30 points are scored for a 1st position ranking and it's a sliding scale down to 1 point for 30th position, these scores are then weighted by the relative market shares of each search engine to produce a final scoring that is then turned into a percentage based on the maximum score available to them.

Online Chocolate Confectionery Organic Visibility

As you can see above, the results were surprising, with the much smaller brands Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat drastically outperforming the 3 industry leaders in terms of organic search visibility. Amazingly Mars and Nestle achieved no top 30 rankings for any of the chosen chocolate related keywords. These initial results are already suggesting a lack of awareness of the potential of the online marketplace by the industry leaders and a possible misguided reliance on their strong brand names.

Online Chocolate Confectionery Paid Visibility

The paid visibility results were even more surprising than the organic with none of the 3 industry leaders participating in any form of paid search advertising for their websites. This total lack of paid search again suggests that the 3 Super Brands, Mars, Cadbury and Nestle are not attempting to utilize the online marketplace.In drastic contrast, Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat have implemented large scale paid search strategies across all 3 major search engines, Google, Yahoo and Bing, with Hotel Chocolat just coming out on top in terms of Paid Search Visibility

Overall Online Visibility

The results of the Online Visibility analysis, highlights a definite divide within the online chocolate confectionary market.On one side are the traditional market leaders, Mars, Nestle and Cadbury, who dominate the offline chocolate confectionery market but are yet to impact the online space. Whether this is through a lack of awareness of the potential of the online market, through misguided reliance on their strong brand names or through a strategic decision not to enter the online market is as yet, unknown.On the other hand are the lesser known brand's, Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat, who appear to have identified a potential gap in the market where they can dominate the traditional market leaders in the online space.In order to gain a better understanding of how Thorntons have achieved this online dominance over the huge Super Brands we carried out a detailed analysis of their search marketing strategy and compared it to that of their competitors.Thorntons Search Marketing StrategyTo analyse the search strategies being implemented by the online chocolate confectioners we looked at the following factors:
  • Backlink Profile Analysis
  • Anchor Text Distribution
  • On Page Architecture Analysis
  • Paid Search
Back-link Profile VisualisationA sites backlink profile is one of the most influencing factors over its organic online visibility. At epiphany we have devised the following method of visualizing and comparing the backlink profiles of web sites by analysing and graphing the following metrics.VisibilityVisibility represents the online presence of the competitor with regard to the aforementioned keywords. Each keyword is assigned a weighting based on its estimated traffic levels. Positions 1 to 30 within Google.co.uk are assigned a weighting relating to their estimated click-through rate. These weights are then used along with existing ranking positions to calculate a visibility score.Domain TrustDomain Trust is a measure of the trust or authority of a site depending on how close it is linked to by a "seed sites". Seed sites are human selected websites, chosen because of their high level of trust or authority. Examples of seed sites could be www.bbc.co.uk or www.dmoz.org.# Unique linking domainsThe number of unique domains linking to the site.# Incoming LinksThe number of unique URLs linking to the site.The following graphs are visualisation of Thorntons backlink profile compared to its competitors.

Thorntons vs Mars

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Thorntons vs Nestle

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Thorntons vs Cadbury

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Thorntons vs Hotel Chocolat

The above graphs show that Thorntons have developed a strong and balanced backlink profile, outperforming the 3 major brands, Mars, Nestle and Cadbury in nearly every area, which is inline with the organic visibility graphs. In contrast Hotel Chocolat outperforms Thorntons in 3 of the 4 backlink profile metrics, again reinforcing the relationship between a sites backlink profile and its organic visibility.Although it is likely that the Thorntons backlink profile has been created through implementing search marketing strategies these graphs do not provide sufficient evidence to make this irrefutable. Therefore we need to look deeper into the sites backlink profiles, specifically at the anchor text distribution of the profile which can provide a much better indication of whether a site is implementing search marketing techniques.Anchor Text DistributionAnchor Text distribution is an extremely important part of a successful Search Marketing strategy. By the term "Anchor Text Distribution" we refer to the spread of anchor texts used for the inbound links to a website. It is vitally important to achieve a well balanced and varied anchor text distribution in order to create a link profile that is both targeted to your chosen keywords yet still organic in nature. To do this a mix of brand and non brand terms should be used.The below images are visual representations of the Anchor Text Distribution of Thorntons and its competitors.

Thorntons Anchor Text Visualisation

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Nestle Anchor Text Visualisation

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Cadbury Anchor Text Visualisation

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Mars Anchor Text Visualisation

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Hotel Chocolat Anchor Text Visualisation

The above Anchor Text Visualisations provides an excellent insight into the search marketing strategies being implemented by the competing chocolate confectionery sites.At a glance it is obvious that Thorntons are aggressively targeting the high traffic driving terms within the niche such as "Chocolate Hampers" and "Chocolate Gifts" whilst maintaining an organic looking profile by also utilising their brand name and URL. This would suggest to me definite evidence that they are actively and successfully using SEO techniques to improve online visibility.In stark contrast Nestle, Cadbury and Mars have solely used brand terms in their anchor text distributions and made no attempt to target other non brand keywords. In all likelihood these Anchor Text Distributions are genuinely organic and have had no attempt to manipulate them through using Search Marketing.These results again highlight the divide in the online chocolate confectionery niche, with the 3 huge global brands making no attempt to improve or manipulate their online visibility and in contrast the smaller brands, Hotel Chocolat and Thornton are aggressively implementing Search Marketing strategies in an attempt to improve visibility and dominate the niche.On Page OptimisationOn page optimisation is another hugely influencing factor to the visibility of a website. Although the process of optimising a website can be extremely detailed the following tables asses a number of prominent on page optimisation factors in an attempt to ascertain whether it seems likely that search marketing techniques are being implemented and to what degree of success.

Thorntons

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Mars

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Nestle

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Cadbury

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Hotel Chocolat

The above analysis of on page optimisation factors further backs up the previous results and the theory that Mars, Nestle and Cadbury are not using search marketing techniques due to the presence of several basic but major on page optimisation issues.Again Hotel Chocolat and Thorntons performed much better with Hotel Chocolat having no on page issues and Thorntons only one issue with semantic mark-up. Again this lack of on page issues would suggest that Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat are implementing search marketing techniques in an aim to improve rankings.ConclusionThe online chocolate confectionery industry is one dominated, not by the huge international SuperBrands that dominate the offline market, but by small online specific businesses, with relatively small brand recognition. This has lead to Thorntons being the most recognised and biggest brand name within the online chocolate confectionery market- kind of a big fish in a small pond syndrome in terms of brand recognition. This however does not mean that this niche is not a competitive one; in fact it has resulted in the exact opposite.Without big and recognisable brand names to rely on, the businesses competing for a slice of the online confectionery market have had to utilize something else- search marketing- making this niche an extremely competitive one in terms of online visibility. This is the reason why, even though Thorntons are not leading their own niche, due to the need to use search marketing to compete in this market they have come out on top across the other Super Brands.Each aspect we have analysed; Link Profiles, Anchor Text Distribution and On Page optimisation have shown that the other Super Brands; Nestle, Mars and Cadburys are not using any form of search marketing but Hotel Chocolat and Thorntons almost definitely are resulting in Thorntons and Hotel Chocolat dominating the niche.