Paid versus natural search: striking a balance

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John Squire
John Squire

Getting the balance between paid search and natural search right can be a delicate operation. Get it wrong and you can waste precious marketing dollars. Get it right and you'll reap maximum rewards in terms of conversion and sales. Keep it right and you'll be the envy of the marketing organization.

There are several common misconceptions about which tool is more effective as part of an online campaign, and here I'll try to clear those up, while offering some solutions on striking the correct balance.

The first thing to consider is that, unfortunately, there is no single magic bullet. Depending on the situation, on the product, on consumer behavior and on the campaign, there are reasons why paid search might be preferable to natural search at one time and vice versa. Or why a combination of the two might always be the best bet.

But first, let's clear up the myths surrounding search marketing.

The first is that that you don't need paid search if you're already in the top 10 for natural search. Well, remember that SEO is a long-term proposition. It takes time for a site's keyword optimization and other SEO features to begin lifting a site's position on the search engines; and it can be a fickle mistress. Traffic is less reliable than with paid search.

You also can't control the message, timing or geographic targeting of natural search. Effectively, it is the “word of mouth” from the “spider.” Paid-search campaigns, conversely, have immediate effect. A site launched yesterday can attract traffic today with pay-per-click advertising. Paid search is timely and excellent for time sensitive, high-impact campaigns, and it fills in gaps left by SEO.

Turning that on its head, let us look at the second common assumption: As a marketer, you do not need to bother with natural search because you can pay to get the top listings you need. Well, consider this: Numerous research studies on search-engine user behavior have found that users prefer organic listings to sponsored listings, clicking on natural listings 70 percent to 80 percent of the time.

So it seems obvious that a blended approach of both paid and natural search is the way to go. But how can a marketer make conclusive decisions based on these assumptions and balance their search budget in the way that makes sense?

The smart marketer will look to analysis to find the insight they need. Using Web analytics, you can easily find out how you're doing in terms of visitors drawn from natural search. Look for a behavioral analytics solution that can help you benchmark against competitors. This gives you a clearer picture of how you should rebalance your budget to bring you up to speed with the competition.

John Squire is senior vice president of product strategy at Coremetrics Inc., San Mateo, CA. Reach him at jsquire@coremetrics.com.

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