Is Organic Search Enough?

One topic that continues to capture the attention of both in-house search engine marketers and those at agencies is whether organic rankings can replace paid placement rankings. Weaning oneself from PPC (define) search listings when top organic listings have been achieved seems like a no-brainer. However, today I’ll illustrate how pulling PPC ads after achieving high organic position may, in fact, be a very bad idea.

Many SEO (define) practitioners pitch that with their help, you, the marketer, can achieve a top organic position for your most valued keywords — and kick the PPC search habit forever. It sounds very tempting, and getting top organic positions does have huge incremental value. This is particularly true if the page that ranks well contains a clear offer leading to a good conversion rate and site stickiness. Knock yourself out and engage in SEO because, unless your landing pages are horrid and result in a high abandonment rate, you’ll benefit from the visibility and “free” traffic that only costs hours of work to achieve. Remember, however, that the ability to achieve top organic placement above any universal search elements is increasingly in doubt, except perhaps for a brand search.

Also consider that SERPs (define) are no longer a one-size-fits-all scenario. Personalized search will increasingly diverge search results and, therefore, rank. Plus, different syndication partners display listings differently (some even customize the algorithms for organic display). So you may feel as if you’ve got a high organic rank when your true visibility is nowhere near as good.

Even if you were to apply the old-school mentality and assume great SEO is consistent across all usage instances and decide to turn off PPC search for that keyword in those engines, you should consider the following:

  • Competitive mix. What’s the mix of paid and organic listings? Are competitors surrounding your paid and organic listings, or are the surrounding listings those of channel partners? If you’re surrounded by enemies, PPC visibility is likely more strategically important. Competitive mix analysis isn’t a matter of black-and-white distinctions, because some of your channel partners may not be exclusive to you or may result in a lower immediate and lifetime profit than capturing the customer yourself. Don’t get too scientific in this analysis because, as we’ll see, the decision may be a slam dunk either way.
  • Messaging differences. What’s your organic link’s messaging? The organic title and description displayed are at least partially under your control, as is the copy on the landing page associated with the high rank. As you well know, messing with any on-page elements after achieving high rank is dangerous. So if the marketing messages on your organic pages aren’t conducive to converting visitors, you may need to rely on paid placement titles, descriptions, and landing pages to effectively communicate your message and offer to site visitors. Even if your organic listings have spot-on messaging and the landing pages are great, do you have more than one offer or more than one target audience?
  • Conversion differences. Here’s where things get interesting. You have far more flexibility with ad copy and landing pages with PPC search, so consider the conversion rate differences during your analysis.

The above issues aside, the ultimate proof is in the test. To test the additional PPC listing’s true value, you must determine the net additional costs and the net additional benefit or profit. The test my team uses is the “pulse test,” structured as a one-week-on and one-week-off test wherein PPC listings are paused. You’ll want to keep a close watch on all key post-click metrics for both organic and paid search.

Let’s Do the Match

For most marketers, the match would be conversion to lead/sale and (in the case of an e-commerce site) revenue/profit. Some lead-generation success metrics include scores, indicating the projected quality of the lead, so you may need to measure this, too.

If you already run paid campaigns, use them as your baseline. If not, use the organic-only traffic, conversion, and revenue/profit/lead quality numbers as the baseline. Run the test for a full week and collect the data. If you’re a smaller marketer and a week doesn’t result in a statistically significant number of orders or leads, run the test for a couple of weeks or longer.

The next step is to switch states. Turn the paid search listing on or off, and look at the delta in overall clicks as well as the clicks from each source. The first calculation you’ll want to make is the net click gain. You may find there’s some cannibalization, wherein a paid listing takes clicks from your organic listing. But the net clicks delivered by the paid listing is used to calculate true CPC (define). That is, you add the cost of the cannibalized clicks to the net gain of clicks to determine true CPC.

Finally, calculate the difference in total conversions and revenue/profit/lead quality between both states. Pay particular attention to the differences between the organic and paid channels as well as the net gain. You may find paid search brings in a different customer.

When I’ve tested this with clients, these calculations always showed high ROI (define) for the PPC campaign, even with cannibalization factored in. The better the paid landing page, the higher the net gain in ROI. So far, I haven’t found a single instance where organic is enough.

But I’ll keep testing.

Want more search information? ClickZ SEM Archives contain all our search columns, organized by topic.

Related reading

Screenshot shows a Google search for outdoor grills, the shopping ads shows images with “in store” showing the product is available nearby.