Search: Walking Google's Highwire
Search continues to evolve and marketers must adapt to gain the greatest rewards and competitive advantages. Search engine optimization (SEO) and pay per click (PPC) are both key components of the online marketer's tactical arsenal; however, balancing the use of these two essential tactics remains a challenge.
The basic blocking and tackling stays the same, but savvy marketers must leverage the unique and evolving differences in each tactic.
SEO is a process whereby the visibility of the website in the unpaid results of search engines is affected through activities and actions that optimize for how search engines rank pages and search engine users search. The content, code and even design of the site, and how each interacts with the search engine's algorithms, can play a role in the success or failure of your SEO program. There are a lot of moving parts, and it is time-consuming and requires patience. The marketer must also monitor and respond, as needed, to continuous changes in the search algorithms.
PPC is more direct and immediate. Advertisers pay the search engines to display their content and the traffic follows. The marketer must optimize response and performance.
Both tactics are powerful vehicles for bringing prospects to the site. The line from the Kenny Rogers song "The Gambler" applies to both: "If you're gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right." Marketers must learn how to make SEO and PPC work together most efficiently and effectively within the constantly evolving search ecosystem.
In the end, the marketer's success will be measured against business goals. So, no matter how the traffic is brought to the site, unless the visitor is enticed to take some requisite action, the tactical execution will be a failure. Marketers must not get lost in the tactics, but instead focus on the results.
Here are five must-do activities that will help you successfully balance your SEO and PPC efforts while focusing on the business results:
1. Develop and Hone Attribution Models
To fully understand and balance the contribution of SEO and PPC to your marketing success, you must develop solid attribution models that consider all the channels involved in your online marketing.
As more elements flow into the mix, including traffic and sales that are assisted by social media or from mobile apps, you must go well beyond last-click attribution to adequately fund each marketing effort. If you don't, it's easy to overstate the value of paid search and undervalue other referring sources, which lack the tracking capabilities of paid search landing pages. This is far from a trivial task, and there is no school solution.
2. Determine Incremental Gains From PPC
Recent research challenges the thinking that there is an absolute synergy in the interaction of PPC ads appearing on pages where you have high-ranking terms. They can interact negatively. A 2011 study by Google found 89 percent of traffic from paid search ads is incremental.
A subsequent Google study has shown that this percentage varies relative to SEO success for the same terms. This means you must carefully evaluate the SEO performance of your site for a broad range of key terms, particularly if your site has strong SEO results.
3. Pick Keywords Holistically for SEO and PPC
Avoid "silo thinking," where you separate your paid search activities and results from your organic search. Use the data from each type of search to benefit the other.
In October 2011, Google stopped providing the organic keyword referrer from signed-in users of Google's organic search. Initial estimates were that this change would impact less than 10 percent of searches. This estimate considerably understated the actual impact of the change. A year later, many site owners have experienced double-digit losses of keyword referrers.
This means no matter how good your site analytics are, you are only seeing a sample of the organic keyword referrers. Because the referring keyword is still visible in paid search, you need to mine this data to help verify any keyword models used for your SEO.
If you have not built a keyword model for your SEO program, now is the time to do it. Keyword models need to consider clickthrough rates and conversion rates for each significant keyword in each set. Are you ranking organically on very competitive terms? Are you adjusting your SEO keyword targets to reflect current PPC efforts? If you don't question your efforts in SEO and PPC, you will not balance your programs or maximize your results.
4. Test PPC Landing Pages to Improve SEO
Landing page testing and optimization is routinely used to inform and improve the performance of PPC. However, the results of your tests can impact and improve organic search if you use what you have learned from PPC landing page optimization to improve the design of your site.
For example, by optimizing the design of your product pages for conversion, you automatically and systematically can improve the efficiency of your SEO program. Use heat map data from tools to confirm your results.
Similarly, if you have a solid SEO program delivering a substantial volume of traffic, you are missing a huge opportunity if you don't increase the efficiency of your site's pages.
5. Integrate Social and Organic Search
Don't neglect the growing role of social media in search, particularly visually oriented social sites like Pinterest. If yours is an e-commerce site, visibly watermark your images so you can expose your brand on these visual social media. This also makes it more difficult to steal them (if you paid to have a product image taken, you surely don't want to see it on another site's product page).
With search engines emphasizing their visual resources, consider using an image sitemap to better index your images. This will improve organic search and help provide a more balanced overall program.
To play the game right, it is increasingly essential that you look for new ways to leverage the strengths of PPC and SEO. If you are looking for the best way to balance these essential marketing tactics, you must look at them holistically and leverage both programs off each other.
Amanda G. Watlington, PhD, owns Charlestown, Mass.-based search and marketing communications consultancy Searching for Profit. Reach her at email@example.com.