Organic search gains as complement to PPC

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Marketers have long favored paid search because of its immediacy and measurability, but that preference has begun to shift to organic search, slowly but necessarily, according to industry experts. Still, these two channels remain locked in a tug-of-war over budget allocation.

Lee Moore, IBM's search program manager, says that organic search needs to be central not just to a company's search marketing but to its entire digital marketing oeuvre. Moore compares a company's digital marketing presence to a target, saying that organic search is the bull's-eye and paid search is the next outer ring, followed by social and the other digital channels.

"When you grow the target, by default the bull's-eye grows in relation. The more you learn from social 
media, the more you learn from paid, the better your organic should get," says Moore, who works with Covario on search. "But your ultimate goal should be the bull's-eye — the organic."

That's easier said than done for many. Industry experts identify a trend toward organic search, but it's a move burdened by inexperience and uncertainty. Paid search has long been the marketing department's domain while the IT department housed the search engine optimization (SEO) operation. This separation created a strategic barrier that further isolated the channels and the goals of their respective owners.

"For the SEO folks it might be a traffic goal or a conversion goal, whereas the paid search folks are held strictly to a certain ROI," says Jared Belsky, managing director of digital firm 360i in Atlanta. "So when there are different fiefdoms and goals, it can get complicated."

The simple response to those complications has been to focus primarily on paid search. The measurability of paid search calcified that focus. Marketers can track click-throughs and conversion on each keyword they target with paid search and can do so with an immediacy unknown to organic search, which is better tracked with a calendar than a stopwatch.

"With paid search, every single keyword has tracking on it, so you know exactly what your return is on a click," says Suzy Sandberg, president of digital agency PM Digital. "With SEO, you could make all these changes, but you couldn't directly attribute any of that to the optimizations that you made."

Results oriented

While paid search may be the favored channel for marketers, consumers heavily prefer organic. An eye-tracking study released by research firm User Centric this past January found that while 91% of consumers view the top sponsored ad on Google's results page, they only do so for an average of 0.9 seconds per keyword versus the 14.7 seconds on average they spend peering at the organic results (see sidebar below).

Google has tried to dilute this dominance by refining the appearance of paid search ads to mimic the organic search results. Alex Cohen, senior marketing manager at paid search vendor ClickEquations, calls this transformation "universal paid search," a play on the system of real-time rankings and multimedia content Google introduced to organic results in 2007.

"Google obviously benefits if they can increase the attractiveness and relevance of their advertising and increase the number of people who are clicking on [advertising] and the amount of advertisers who are bidding," says Cohen.

Nonetheless, some marketers say their paid search campaigns have plateaued to the point where they're seeing only incremental improvement in results, so they've begun to shift toward organic tactics.

"Increasingly people are realizing over time that you might see some fatigue in pay-per-click channels. Meanwhile you have this channel [in organic] that's not entirely free, but you're not paying for the media, you're paying for the expertise and the time to get the right content in the right places, and after that you get free leads," adds Dave Anderson, senior marketing manager at software company Daptiv, which works with Optify on search marketing.

Scott Drayer, director of marketing and business development at men's clothing company Paul Fredrick, says that his company's paid search efforts have matured to the extent that "it's more of an automated process for us at this point." That autopilot approach has enabled Paul Fredrick to allot more attention to organic search. "There's a large opportunity for us [in SEO]," says Drayer, who works with PM Digital on paid search. "There's a good portion of people that ignore the paid advertising and give more credibility to the organic listings."

While the shift in focus to organic did require "some technical remediation," says Drayer, he was been able to use his experience with paid search to inform Paul Fredrick's organic efforts. Drayer says that the integration "has been a newer revelation for us," but it has resulted in more than 200% growth in conversions from natural search in the last two years.

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