Coordinating Organic, Paid Search Efforts

It’s always tricky to decide how much resources (time, effort, money) should be invested in your search marketing efforts versus other online activities. This decision will depend on a variety of factors, such as your key marketing objectives (awareness vs. action), your target audience’s behavior (e.g. search engine usage), and your company’s comfort level with various online media.

Even once you’ve decided what kind of investment you’ll make in search marketing, it becomes more difficult deciding how to split this budget between organic and paid search activities.

This column aims to help guide you when attempting to make an appropriate allocation between your organic and paid search initiatives.

Conventional wisdom might ask: why would you pay for a ranking when you can get one for free? That may have held true in the days where all you had to do was throw some keywords in your meta data and you scored a great position. However, these days, it requires much more work and dedication to secure and sustain strong organic search rankings.

But does that mean you should abandon organic SEO all together?

Before we decide, let’s look at the pros and cons of paid vs. organic search:

Paid Search Organic Search
Key Advantages You can “buy” your way in (guaranteed placement).
More control over editorial.
Enables testing and optimization of various messages.
Instantaneous results (campaign live within minutes).
You don’t pay for clicks (no on-going media investment).
Users may more readily trust organic listings.
Organic search tends to generate a higher conversion rate.
Key Disadvantages More expensive; paying each time someone clicks.
Requires ongoing tweaking and analysis for success.
Sponsored ads may be seen as less trust-worthy by some users.
Cannot guarantee placement.
Lack of editorial control.
Requires long term, ongoing efforts.
Unpredictable environment (search-engine algorithms changing, etc.).
Off-site tactics difficult to influence (e.g. in-bound links).

This table unequivocally demonstrates that neither paid nor organic search efforts come without risk or reward. Both of them offer distinct advantages. But if that’s the case, then how do you choose one over the other?

The answer is: you don’t. In my opinion, you employ both. Paid and unpaid search can work together in harmony to produce a well-rounded search presence.

There are several ways you can employ the two to create a well-balanced search strategy. Here are some suggestions to leverage them together:

  • Try using your paid search for either very broad, short-tail terms or extremely niche, long-tail terms, and then optimizing organically for medium-tail terms that have a strong search volume but a moderate level of competition. For example, if your company marketed a cholesterol drug, you might choose to bid on the terms “cholesterol” (short tail) and “statin medication to treat high cholesterol” (long-tail term) for your paid search, and then use a term such as “cholesterol treatment” (medium-tail term) for your organic search optimization.

  • Optimize your Web site for your corporate or brand terms and use paid search to capture those “industry” or “category” terms that are more difficult to gain an organic placement for.
  • Conduct keyword research to develop themed keyword lists related to each of the content areas or pages on your site. Choose one to three terms per page of your Web site to optimize for, and use the rest in your paid search campaign.
  • Run a short paid search campaign with the potential keywords you are considering for SEO. See which ones have the highest response rate and use those in your on-site optimization.
  • Use your paid search campaign to test out various messaging and employ the most effective copy within your meta-description and page titles.
  • Hire one firm to perform both your paid search and SEO activities, or do them both in-house if you have the expertise. Ensuring these two aspects work together will prevent any overlap and potentially enable you to create synergies that would otherwise have been missed.

There are countless ways that paid and unpaid search efforts can complement each other and work together. Therefore, you can exploit the best of both worlds by employing both to some degree. So whether you split it 50/50 or 80/20, it makes sense to leverage both search strategies to achieve a desirable and profitable online search presence.