Balancing Paid and Organic Search Listings

Do you really need both “organic” or “natural” listings, generated by search engine optimization (SEO), and paid placement, aka pay-per-click advertising (PPC), to be successful on search engines?

The answer is an emphatic “Yes!” according to an expert panel assembled at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose to grapple with that very question.

Highlighting the benefits of a combined approach, panelists named higher overall click-through rates, greater penetration of search engine results “real estate,” more comprehensive keyword research, and building credibility as clear reasons to create campaign strategies with both organic and paid listings.

Take a Lesson from Print

“Magazines have been successfully balancing ads and editorial since the 1880’s,” remarked Greg Jarboe, Co-founder of SEO-PR, “and search engines have been balancing sponsored and web results since 1999” he added, pointing to content/ad splits now hovering around 50-50 across all media.

“SEO can be compared to public relations on the Web,” said Stacy Williams, president of Prominent Placement, “and PPC to advertising on the Web.” Use both together, she advised to remain visible to both fast-movers who’ll click on paid listings, and researchers who review only editorial listings.

“Look at it like playing Monopoly,” advised Andrew Wetzler, president of “A primary goal of any search engine marketing initiative should be to control as much real estate as possible on any search result, in a cost effective manner.” With big bucks and high expectations riding on many sites’ marketing, traffic must occur, he stated.

On how to balance spending, David Williams, chief strategist and co-founder of 360i said, “Use both in a carefully managed campaign to complement one-another. A typical strategy is to maximize free listings through SEO first, then augment and round off with PPC placements.” However, he added, PPC helps in the early stages of SEO for must-have keywords while SEO is in progress.

Comparing SEO and PPC

Content optimization for organic results and pay-per-click advertising provide complementary benefits, the panelists agreed. Jarboe described a study at SEO-PR that revealed click-through rates tripled for a site positioned in top spots for both natural and paid listings.

“SEO can be the lowest cost form of traffic, while PPC is an excellent tool to round off natural SEO voids,” said Dave Williams. “Natural SEO positions can generate similar or greater traffic (and conversion) as PPC, while PPC helps to maximize share of voice and search impact.”

Establishing consistent lead flow with multiple channels, said Wetzler. Free (organic) is best but traffic will fluctuate. Paid traffic is more reliable, and though costly, PPC allows more rapid maneuverability than organic listings.

Paid inclusion is a middle ground: though there’s no guarantee of position, you can use it use it to reduce traffic costs on competitive keywords. Focus on conversion; track cost per lead, cost per visitor, and factor in cost per customer acquisition and their lifetime value to find out how to balance your tactics.

Organic SEO requires less ongoing maintenance, according Stacy Williams, and is less costly over time. Optimizing content provides some control over listing content via tags and page text. More importantly organic listings provide high levels of credibility and broad coverage on potentially every search engine worldwide.

Pay-per-click, she continued, can be implemented quickly, and turned on and off as promotions require. Better still, PPC provides tighter control over where listings appear and what they say, making it easy to test search terms, products offer and ad wording.

Williams cautioned that organic SEO requires changes to sites and patience while results build slowly, with no guarantee of what the results will be. Pay-per-click, on the other hand, is ignored by some searchers, and requires monitoring and adjusting constantly, while visibility is limited to pay-per-click engines and their partners.

Daily cost increases in many cases have doubled in a year, according to Dave Williams. These price increases are the principal risk of relying strictly on a PPC strategy. Bidding wars for competitive terms and costs that add up over time can make paid listings expensive, added Stacy Williams (who is, incidentally, not related to Dave).

Top Strategies to Balance Paid and Organic Listings

“Work backwards to arrive at a balance,” said Wetzler.

  • Determine desired search traffic level.
  • Assess current amount of free search traffic.
  • Improve organic rankings and traffic.
  • Pinpoint lead costs for paid placement and paid inclusion.
  • Implement paid placement and paid inclusion.
  • Track conversion rates.

“Blend SEO and PPC” said Stacy Williams, naming four strategies:

  • In a hurry? Use PPC for quick results.
  • On a limited budget? Stick to optimizing content and wait for
  • organic results.
  • Use PPC as “kitchen research” for keywords for organic SEO.
  • Optimize site content for expensive keywords, combine with
  • pay-per-click advertising for dynamic content. “A win-win, since people who
  • search on broad terms want general information, while most searching a more
  • defined terms seek specific information,” she added.

“Combine SEO and a media campaign for clients who can afford an ongoing media campaign and either have good page rank or are willing to make a long term investment with SEO,” said Dave Williams. Consider a PPC campaign alone for clients that:

  • Want to test the waters with search and roll out an SEO and media
  • campaign once they have proven success.
  • Have limited potential organic success in the short term.
  • Have a site that is extremely difficult to optimize, such as one
  • with frames or Flash.
  • Are in an extremely competitive category, and can afford it.

Williams provided an example in which the organic listings drew visitors at a cost of ten cents per click, while advertising cost a dollar per click. Both provided effective results for his client Rivard Rentals, in the very competitive vacation rental category.

Use PPC to target keywords with no competition. “It’s dirt cheap,” said Stacy Williams. “Try it for a month and see.”

“Search engines are often used for navigation,” added moderator Danny Sullivan. “Name recognition is useful.”

“Different people respond to different kinds search results,” said Jarboe, quoting Ziff-David on special interest users who read ads as carefully as editorial.

Forecasting the effect of Yahoo’s acquisition of Inktomi late last year, panelists advised to focus on Inktomi now to prepare for a “wholesale switch from Google” at Yahoo.

A Success Story: Maximizing ROI for McGeorge School of Law

Jarboe illustrated just how effective a balanced campaign can be at mining highly targeted markets by describing his work with the McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, which launched a new section of their website to introduce a collaborative program in international business law with the University of Austria in Salzburg.

While competition for the term “LLM degree” was high, no one was searching for “transnational business practice”, the name of McGeorge Law School’s program. Meanwhile, on the McGeorge Law School site, more than 90 percent of the successful search engine phrases were variations on the schools name, underscoring the need to optimize it for many other relevant terms. Even punctuation counts; as Jarboe was able to prove there are far fewer searches for “LL.M”, which was how McGeorge referred to its Master of Laws degree on it site, than for “LLM”, without the periods.

Optimizing started in March for 10 pages on the site. The pressure was on for must-have traffic to draw interest in the first class Before 90 days were up, the site had two terms in first position and 24 in top positions. Another month brought a dramatic jump in first, top ten and top 30 rankings.

A pilot Overture and Google campaign launched in late March, targeting only 25 highly specific terms, generated 705 clicks, Overture at 11 cents per click and Google averaging 33 cents a click, for a total cost of less than $200. More than fifty visitors downloaded the online application form, results achieved at a fraction of the cost of traditional recruitment methods.

The ROI for McGeorge so impressed Dean Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker that the school expanded search engine marketing, shifting the entire print budget to search. While this might seem risky, the reality was that appropriately targeting print publications for such unique students was a much greater issue.

Anne Kennedy is managing partner of search engine marketing firm Beyond Ink and publisher of industry digest

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