SEO vs. PPC: Response to my friend Krista


I love that Krista Lariviere over at GShift Labs posted some questions to think about, and some statistics, instead of “predictions for 2011,” regarding organic search referrals and your SEO strategy for 2011.

I actually have some answers to her questions. In my opinion, she makes some of the same mistakes my other SEO-obsessed friends, such as Rand Fishkin, have made in this “debate” between SEO and PPC.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the key disclaimer is, as always: organic search is a key channel, it’s not mutually exclusive to PPC (and vice-versa). And there is always much low-hanging fruit for companies who have quality content and products but who have failed to optimize for organic search.

Yet, Krista gets away with a couple of fast ones here, if we let her. Here are my direct answers to some of the questions she asks in her post:

KL: How does your organic search budget compare to your paid search budget? If you’re aware of a particular keyword phrase that works well in paid search why not optimize for that same keyword phrase in organic search?

Traffick: It sure would be crazy to have products and services that only had a shot at showing up on Google if you paid for AdWords clicks. But there’s a reason folks pay for those clicks. Paid search is much more apropos to many buyers, especially in hotly competitive keyword areas, and you can control your message and placement to a considerable extent on short notice. The problem with assuming you can just blithely optimize a page about orchids for organic search is that Google organic search is not meant to sell your orchids. You may or may not show up on Page 1 for user queries, in the “ten blue links,” and the ads, photos, news results, local results, YouTube results, tweets, blog posts, etc., may clutter things up (for users’ benefit) so that your 2002-era ten-blue-links optimistic-optimization doesn’t get the job done. PPC? If you’re hell-bent on selling those orchids, you can be right up in premium spot where users are looking. Yep, it’ll cost you. Organic referrals from ten blue links are down because Google has created universal/blended results styles. Businesses shouldn’t get their hopes up too high that vanilla SEO will drive the same traffic it did in 2002. So now SEO becomes a comprehensive strategy, too… and that’s hard work. Get ready to roll up your sleeves and take things up to a level of more of a 360-degree engagement approach.

KL: Are you able to determine your conversion rates on your email and paid search campaigns? Imagine an even higher conversion rate on an organic search campaign.

Traffick: First of all, let’s can the notion that there is such a thing as an “organic search campaign.” As noted above, get ready to be engaged in an ongoing way in keeping your digital world in order, and not missing out on any major SEO tactics and trends. A “campaign” this is not. Paid search is actually a campaign!

Now, as for imagining a higher conversion rate… Imagine all the people, living life in peace! An iterative paid search campaign must convert better due to relentless testing, great, tailored landing pages, etc.; that’s a reality because the economics force that reality. We see no evidence that organic search out-converts paid search. More to the point, again, volume is an issue businesses cannot ignore. Ad positions 3, 2, and 1 push those organic results down the page. So do other types of listings. If you’re in 4th or 5th organic spot (a tall order!), you might be at the very bottom of the page. If you’re a bit worse than that, you might be near-invisible on page 2. And there is no quick fix for that. Organic search is great in theory, but in practice the optimization process is uncertain, longer-feedback-cycle, and thus too passive for marketers to rely too heavily on it today.

KL: Exposure to organic search results almost doubles the likelihood that a prospect will visit a web site when combined with a paid search strategy (iProspect & comScore).

Traffick: Search is great, display is sometimes great, and we need to attribute ROI and volume to any of those channels. We cannot always neatly do this, which is when we fall back on “exposures,” “lifts,” and other workarounds.

I don’t know what gymnastics this study is trying to accomplish, other than comScore’s usual mandate of helping its partners sell display ads, but even the way the findings are worded make it sound bogus to me.

Exposure to listings result in visits to a landing page when people click. Period.

If you rank well in organic search, your CTR will be awesome and they will visit. If you heavy up on PPC, you’ll rank well on the page (above organic search results), and they will visit your landing page — period.

Certainly, one can imagine that if you judge “PPC strategies” from hotel companies who rank in 6th and 7th paid position typically, who are fortunate enough to rank high organically on those same queries, searchers will be less likely to click on the less-visible paid result — especially if they’re like 80-90% of searchers, not currently in “buy” mode, so are ignoring the ads!

The study cites “visits” to a website. What about purchases? Informational queries generate a lot of clicks from organic search, but may convert poorly.

Both organic and PPC are good for business. Studies like this, which can be interpreted as pitting one against the other, do marketers a disservice. PPC is not for every business. But it’s wrong to expect organic search to build your business, as it might have done in 2002. There is no need to criticize PPC to make the point that organic search marketing best practices should be followed. It’s good in itself: just not as good as you might hope.

And with that beefing out of the way, maybe now is the time to add that I’m super-impressed with the GShift Labs team and their platform’s contribution to bringing smart SEO strategy down to a meaningful level that the average marketer can implement.

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