Search — The Missing Link

Search marketers have always assumed that some kind of relationship between organic and paid search exists, but we’ve never been able to put our fingers on it exactly. Clients, looking for efficiencies, often question the value of paid search versus organic or natural search because they assume if they get SEO right it obviates the need to spend incremental dollars on SEM.

A team of math guys at Google added a new dimension to this debate by looking at 446 search campaigns in four countries between October 2010 and March 2011. Their methodology was simple. They studied organic campaigns in isolation and counted the click throughs. Then they looked at organic campaigns run in-tandem with paid search and counted the clicks again. They were searching for incremental clicks by drawing a baseline and counting the added impact of paid search.

The objective was to answer a fundamental sales objection. “Why should I buy search ads when my organic search effort will get me the traffic I want?”

By understanding how many clicks a campaign would have gotten naturally and then how many clicks paid search added, Google documents the long standing mix assumptions and simultaneously defends its core value proposition.

The result was … running both at the same time yielded 89% more incremental clicks.

There were slight variations by vertical category. Retail was slightly lower (87%) and healthcare was slightly higher (93%). Interestingly, when an organic search result and a paid search ad appeared in close proximity to each other, the impact was reduced.

This suggests three interesting implications:

A. SEO and SEM compliment each other. The addition of paid search appears to justify itself from a Cost-per-Click perspective.

B. Results in close proximity on the search results page cancel each other out. Seeing two similar results, users pick one, usually the organic version, and get the answers they need. Maybe search planners should run campaigns based on likely projections about organic results. Since high organic rankings seem to negate the results of a highly ranked paid search placement, heavy up the buy if you don’t expect much in terms of natural search results.

C. Brand awareness and media weight weren’t factored into this study. Conceivably better known brands and brands with high frequency or a large number of search campaigns generate different levels of natural search results, which are affected in different ways by adding paid search campaigns.

The bottom line is that both SEO and SEM contribute to driving traffic though the mix and frequency is still a matter for testing and learning.

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