DM News' Essential Guide to Search Engine Marketing: Good Organic Rankings Aren't Enough

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People sometimes ask me why they should invest scarce marketing dollars in paid search instead of relying on organic rankings alone. "After all," they say, "I'd be a fool to pay for traffic that I can get for free."

I've heard this question so many times that I now have a standard reply, which comes in the form of a different question: "Tell me," I ask, "do you need to eat or breathe to stay alive?" As everybody knows, you've got to eat and breathe to stay alive, and in search, you need to have world-class search engine optimization and world-class search engine marketing to thrive.

Unfortunately, the way the search engine marketing industry happens to have evolved tends to obscure this basic truth. Many firms specializing in search engine marketing preach that all you need is search engine optimization (SEO). And many firms specializing in pay-per-click campaign management will tell you that SEO is irrelevant (and even dangerous, because over-aggressive techniques can get your site banned by the engines).

Search Engine Guide Cover

[Clicke the image for a PDF of DM News' Essential Guide to Search Engine Marketing]

Many of our own clients have wondered what would happen if, once they had achieved their SEO objectives (No. 1 organic rankings on the keywords which drive most of their traffic), they simply shut down their paid campaigns and pocketed the money they were spending on keywords. Again, why pay for traffic that you can get for free?

When this question comes up, we do our best to point out that it's a very bad idea. Still, the client is always boss and so if they really want to "go dark," we'll oblige, shut down the paid ads, and give the company a chance to see what happens.

What happens? Well, conversions decline by about 60 percent. That's right, 60 percent. Remember, we're talking about clients with excellent SEO, top rankings and branded keywords which typically convert measurably better than unbranded ones. Sometimes it only takes a few hours for a client to see how big a mistake the company's made, at which point the client contact calls me up and begs us to turn the campaign back on.

Now, I'm not slamming SEO here. The fact that SEO has refocused attention on Web site usability is a blessing, because many companies still haven't deployed sites that are both search-friendly and user-friendly.

My point is that marketers need to overcome the kind of tunnel vision that blinds them to an accurate understanding of the relationship between good organic rankings and good paid positions, and start thinking about organic and paid as two sides of the same coin.

It's clear that the challenges which marketers face when running paid search campaigns are becoming deeper and more complex.

Fluctuating and escalating keyword prices, increasing competition, unpredictable changes to the search engines' algorithms, and unquantifiable evils such as click fraud are enough to strike fear into the heart of even the hardiest marketers. So perhaps it's no wonder that so many persist in the comforting idea that a paid search strategy is optional and that SEO alone will do the job.

This idea, while comforting, is a dangerous fantasy, and if you don't believe me, just ask FTD, which decided to go dark with its own PPC campaign during the critical 2005 holiday shopping season because of high keyword prices. Did FTD save itself money? Well, I suppose it did. Unfortunately, going dark caused a dent in the company's bottom line that was big enough to warrant the firing of the managers who thought they were doing their company a favor.

The evidence couldn't be clearer: organic rankings alone won't achieve your business objectives. Make sure your in-house team or SEM agency can separate fact from fantasy, or you'll be leaving money and opportunities on the table for your competitors to grab.

Dave Pasternack is president of, New York. E-mail


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