Organic Search Conversions Nearly Match Paid Search

If you gathered the opinions of 100 paid search practitioners, and compared that to 100 organic search optimization experts, you’d find persuasive arguments for each method being superior at driving conversions. A new study from WebSideStory will justify the arguments of both sides.

The study looks at traffic and conversion data from 20 business-to-consumer e-commerce sites during the first eight months of 2006. Paid search had a median order conversion rate of 3.4 percent, while organic search results produced a conversion rate of 3.13 percent. The data set included more than 57 million search engine visits.

There are arguments to support both sides, Rand Schulman, WebSideStory’s CMO, told ClickZ.

“On the one hand, because you control the message of paid search, you’d expect higher conversions. On the other side, because people value the ‘editorial integrity’ of organic, you’d expect higher conversions,” he said. “Ultimately you need to do both. I think the eye-opener here is that neither side has a significant edge.”

In the case of paid search, marketers have better control over the ad’s message, the landing page and the ability to eliminate low-converting keywords. For organic listings, users often perceive them as “independent,” which can increase click-throughs, but the lack of control of what the search result says, or what page it links to on the marketer’s site can decrease conversions.

There are many factors on both sides of the argument, which ultimately balance each other out, according to Dana Todd, executive VP of interactive agency SiteLab and president of the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization (SEMPO).

“Most visitors are not looking past the top three paid search ads, and the top three organic results. At that level of quality sites, you’d expect to see conversion rates that are close,” she said.

In addition, organic search’s higher volume of clicks, which tends to be 1.5 times higher than paid search volume, is balanced by the recognition by users that paid search ads are ads, which leads to a self-selection by users who have a commercial intent to their search, Todd said.

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