Conversion and Control: Organic vs. PPC Clicks

The best user experience you can provide to a searcher and the highest conversion rates on traffic probably don’t occur on your organic search traffic. That’s where the search engine selects what page to rank and what description to show.

This fact has created an evolution in the way marketers think of search engine traffic. When you first got involved in SEM and SEO, you likely tended to be very position-focused. It’s a natural reaction to a marketplace where top listings deliver scale, and listings below the fifth or sixth position in either paid or organic results achieve far less visibility and drive far less traffic. The point of SEM and SEO is, after all, not to communicate in the listings, but rather on your Web site.

As marketers gain experience in SEO and SEM, many realize the traffic they receive via organic listings may be different than traffic from paid results, particularly for longer search phrases. This in turn gets them thinking about landing page testing and analysis.

If you aren’t already testing landing pages, you’re likely at a disadvantage if your competitors have already completed some landing page tests. The conversion improvements that you (or your competition) achieve through landing page testing result in higher bids in the PPC markets, and more sales for organic traffic. So if you’ve been getting outbid lately, it could be because your competition has steadily improved conversion efficiency.

A second realization many marketers have is the landing pages that work for PPC traffic (convert to positive behaviors such as a sale or lead) don’t necessarily rank high in organic results. This creates a quandary — and an opportunity. Many marketers first engage in landing page testing on high-volume keywords. Those keywords are the ones that benefit most from conversion improvements. You should also test landing pages beyond those that are already part of your site. Start with the very expensive and best keywords (those with high potential volumes and relatively good conversion rates).

When testing reveals the winners, chances are those landing pages are different from one another, and different from the pages on your site that get organic traffic, even for similar keywords. It would be difficult or nearly impossible to initiate changes to your regular site to integrate the winning PPC pages into your site’s content in such a way that those pages also score well organically for the same keywords (unless you engage in black hat SEO).

So if you do have a high position for organic keywords, there’s an opportunity cost associated with the pages that convert at the lower rate than the winning PPC page for the same keywords. If this data pattern holds true for you, there may be a powerful additional reason to buy PPC listings, even for keywords for which you already have high ranking. The organic pages just don’t convert as well.

We’re experimenting with ways to measure the pros and cons of maintaining paid PPC listings when organic listings are highly ranked based on user behavior and landing page tuning. Often, other factors are involved:

  • Some searchers self-select, meaning the type of visitors from paid and organic links differ.

  • You may have high organic position in one search engine, but not on all the search engines in a syndication network. This is becoming prevalent as each algorithmic engine launches a PPC auction. AOL and Google share almost identical SERPs due to their dual relationship with paid and organic results (both are syndicated from Google to AOL).
  • Organic position isn’t guaranteed over time; positions can change.
  • PPC position fluctuates, based on both predicted CTR (Google quality score, for example), bid price, and changes in real time.
  • Both PPC and organic listings will change position as search engines begin to personalize listings.

The solution is to treat organic and PPC traffic from similar keywords as related, but not necessarily as identical. This exercise may require more advanced tracking and analytics than you currently have access to.

The decision whether to move to a higher end platform or to build in-house tracking solutions depends, of course, on the value you derive from acting on the data the tracking, testing and tuning provides. In some businesses, a one-point conversion rate increase on a power keyword is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Other businesses may only see a thousand dollar gain from a one-point conversion lift on their best keyword.

As always, base your decisions on your business and your data. Don’t engage in new strategies that require high-tech campaign management solutions unless a compelling ROI argument can be made. If the costs of the technology and HR are more than covered by the lift in net-search profit, then an investment will provide high returns.

Remember, search engine algorithms frown upon doorway pages for organic search, but inbound orphan landing pages are completely acceptable for PPC search. The greater the divergence in conversion rates between the organic pages and the PPC winning user experience, the more critical it is to execute a more sophisticated strategy.

The challenge? Data determine the divergence in conversion rates between your best PPC page and organic pages. Landing page testing must be underway. So if you haven’t started testing more than just existing site pages for PPC traffic, you may be missing ROI boosts. If you’re serious about PPC search and have enough traffic volume to support testing, get rolling. Test everything, and don’t rely on organic search engine position alone.

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