Organic Versus Paid Search

  |  December 22, 2008   |  Comments

If you have $1, should you invest it in organic or paid search activities?

It's an argument we often have in the search world: If you have $1, should you invest it in organic or paid search activities?

The question is simple; the answer, not so much.

My gut reaction to this question is almost always: do both! Test both these approaches, and see which performs the best for you. But when purse strings are tightened, you often have to choose.

If you need a quick refresher on the differences between organic and paid search, revisit my previous column "Coordinating Paid, Organic Search Efforts," which summarizes the key pros and cons of each approach. Ultimately, each tactic carries both potential risk and reward. Your unique situation really decides what will be the primary focus.

To answer this question appropriately for your situation and help you make this difficult choice, consider a variety of factors, including your Web site, goals, and industry.

Your Web Site

Is your site in a position to be efficiently and painlessly organically optimized?

If your site is done entirely in Flash or frames and hasn't a drop of readable search engine fodder, SEO (define) will be extremely time-consuming and expensive (should you require an outside agency). In this case, employing campaign landing pages for paid search might be an easier way to enhance your search presence.

Alternatively, if you're planning a site redesign, revamp, or overhaul in the near future, now might be the best time for SEO, and you might want to wait until your new site is in prime condition before you begin any paid search activities.

Likewise, if your site is HTML text-based, has a strong internal linking structure, and offers valuable content or resources, SEO may be a relatively low-effort undertaking for you.

Your Goals

The objectives you have for your Web site will influence your search strategy.

For example, if your main goal is to drive high volumes of traffic to your site, then organic search might be the most cost-efficient option, as you have to pay each time someone clicks on a paid search ad.

However, if your goal is to drive a specific action on the site, you might benefit from the direct response nature of paid search. In paid search, you control which keywords you bid on, what appears in your listing, and which page you drive traffic to. You have greater ability to influence user action than with organic search.

In addition, paid search enables flexibility you don't necessarily have with organic. If you find certain keywords or content aren't converting, it's harder and slower to effect changes to your Web site than it is to adjust your paid search campaign.

Your Industry

Are you in a highly regulated industry that provides strict guidelines about direct-to-consumer advertising (e.g., pharmaceutical industry)? In such cases, paid search may pose some challenges and force you to be more inventive to ensure regulatory guidelines are met. Organic search isn't paid media, so it isn't considered advertising and the same rules (in theory) wouldn't apply. That means you may be able to get your brand in front of consumers in a more meaningful way through the organic listings than through paid listings.

If you're in a highly competitive industry or category, investing all of your resources in organic search likely isn't the best approach. For example, in the travel, gaming, or health information categories, it's often extremely difficult to get anywhere near the top of the organic results for competitive keywords. Therefore, paid search may be your only option if you want to have visibility in the results.

Also, remember that you're at the search engines' mercy with organic search. Therefore, if you have a seasonal product or offering and your key time of year is quickly approaching, SEM (define) may be the quick win you're looking for to capture prospect leads.

The advantage of SEM is that once you develop the campaign, it can be launched right away and your listings will start showing immediately. Search engines can take weeks to re-index your content, and it may take months for you to see a perceptible difference in your rankings (if any).

I hope these few considerations will help you determine the best approach for your search marketing program. Whatever you choose, always make sure you have a strong measurement program in place to evaluate campaign effectiveness and make the case for future investment.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julie Batten

Julie is a member of the senior strategy team at Klick Health, focused on online media and digital. Julie initially established and led the media practice at Klick for several years, relinquishing leadership to expand beyond media into additional digital tactics. She brings a wealth of experience in search marketing, digital media, and all facets of digital strategy to bear, helping Klick's clients develop innovative digital solutions. As her role has evolved, so have her contributions to ClickZ, which she has been writing for since 2007.

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