Organic search gains as complement to PPC
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 orientedWhile 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.
The integrated approach adopted by Paul Fredrick is one that many industry experts advocate. "When your pay-per-click doesn't communicate with your SEO, you're flat out leaving chips on the table," says Michael Mothner, founder and CEO at search marketing firm Wpromote.
One way that marketers are using their paid search campaigns to communicate with their SEO is to engage paid search's precision targeting and real-time results. Restaurant.com employs paid search as a placeholder on keywords for which the site doesn't come up in results organically, says Phil Volini, senior search marketing manager at the restaurant couponing site. Volini's team will then examine how the paid campaigns perform in order to see if the keyword is worth targeting organically. If a keyword is deemed of value, "we'll put the pedal to the floor on both channels," says Volini. "When we do catch up on the SEO side, we'll take a step back and look at how we're working together on that keyword bucket and how aggressive we need to be on the paid side."
By using paid search in this fashion, Volini's team is essentially putting a down payment on a keyword that will require relatively few future funds but can generate consistent returns. Rob Garner, director of search at digital agency iCrossing, says that "an ongoing natural search campaign can easily have a 10 to one ROI and can grow as time passes because that same content deployment would still be producing for years to come."
The integration of paid and organic can also boost a brand's credibility. The integration is necessary, says Performics CEO Daina Middleton, because there is "a little bit of a confidence hit in the mind of the searcher" when a brand doesn't appear in both paid and organic results. She says the new perspective needs to be "how can I take advantage of the whole owned, earned and paid space on the entire search engine results page."
Searching for friends
Today, even the integration of paid and organic doesn't fully account for the deluge of factors that affect search rankings. To ensure a successful search marketing strategy, search marketers must enlist entire marketing departments and their customer base.
"We're past the time where the occasional summer intern can help you track what your top 10 search rankings are," says Anderson. "It's a more complex world that requires better tools and real-time information."
One such tool is social media. Paul Elliott, partner in consumer products and retail at interactive marketing agency Rosetta, says that integrating user-generated content from social media "opens you up to keywords and copy that go beyond a brand's professional writers or marketers." These cues can even be used to inform paid search via organic results, further integrating the two channels.
For an example of how significant it is for companies to tie their social marketing to SEO, one can point to the proximity of Restaurant.com's search marketing manager and social media manager: their desks are side-by-side. Volini says that the closeness allows them to coordinate conversations taking place on the social networks with keywords that the site's landing pages are optimized for.
"Now we have this 100,000-plus focus group to help inform us on what keywords we need to go after on the search results page," says Volini.
Search marketers are also employing complex data tools that are finally lifting the fog surrounding SEO and companies' bottom lines. "One of the reasons why paid search has been so successful is it works and you can measure the heck out of it, so much to the point that companies invest in paid search at a loss just because it's so measurable," says Seth Besmertnik, CEO and cofounder of SEO platform provider Conductor.
Analytics vendors such as Conductor and online intelligence providers have enabled companies to eliminate inefficiencies in their search marketing by identifying landing pages and keywords that would garner better results than those that marketers are otherwise targeting. "A good landing page can convert at 2.5% whereas a homepage against that same keyword will probably convert at 0.5%," says Besmertnik. Rich Stokes, founder and CEO of AdGooroo, adds that by analyzing competitors' inbound links, marketers are able to eliminate more than 95% of underperforming pages.
PM Digital's Sandberg notes that the rise of precision analytics has allowed marketers to more directly attribute their organic results. "There's finally a broad understanding that you can look at your analytics and your referral URLs for your natural search traffic and you can get the trends and the uptick in revenue after you execute changes on the SEO side," she says.
Difficult as the integration and the data-diving can be, the hardest slog for search marketers is the one up to the boardroom. Volini says that having company-wide support is crucial to the success of search marketing, particularly SEO. "You have to be an evangelist for the channel to get the company to understand what an SEO strategy looks like, that it's slower and needs to grow and evolve and it's never done," he says.
Other marketers say that the improved ability to measure performance in organic search has enabled them to communicate the opportunities in organic search to the senior executives at their companies, which has resulted in more support and investment in SEO.