Organic Search Results vs. PPC: The Black Hat Wars

How well does organic search perform compared to paid search? Last time, I probed one area: when Web site users enter a query seeking a local business or service, such as “plumber NYC.”

I mentioned that some SEO (define) practitioners veer from simple optimization toward more devious practices that involve manipulating search engine results. Let’s delve further into this topic.

Search engines, which naturally seek to discourage manipulation of results, impose economic disincentives on an ad hoc basis to constrain an optimizer’s activities. Severe penalties can be imposed when an optimizer crosses the line into manipulation and gets caught. That occurred in 2006 when and were removed from Google’s index for practicing deceptive tactics. Both were later restored.

The threat of penalties serves as a disincentive against so-called extreme black hat optimization tactics. Beyond this, the threat does nothing to enhance relevancy in organic results.

As a rule, the more traffic that SEOs get from manipulating results, the richer they will become — even at the cost of harming relevance. This irresistible economic incentive is what drives the optimizers’ behavior, plus the fact only branded domains really care about the downside of moving into black-hat territory.

How Paid Search Compares

At the same time, marketers running paid search campaigns are waging a different battle with another set of economic rules. Here, each marketer seeks the highest possible SERP (define) position at the lowest possible keyword acquisition price. Obviously, only one contestant can win this battle at any point in time, and in a Quality Score ecosystem, bid price is only one factor determining the winner.

Because the engines seek to maximize the number of clicks they sell, marketers serving ads that attract more clicks are rewarded with lower bid prices than those that don’t. In a nutshell, the engines’ auctions provide powerful economic incentives for marketers to produce the most compelling, most likely-to-be-clicked-upon, most relevant results. That this result, which maximizes the engines’ revenues, happens to match users’ desire for relevancy is one of the happier coincidences in the search marketing industry.

In paid search, marketers are penalized for attracting irrelevant traffic. Ironically, marketers seeking to advertise with irrelevant terms or with less-then-relevant creative often attract traffic that’s less likely to convert.

For example, if you work for a law firm that specializes in civil practice, you wouldn’t want people looking for criminal defense attorneys to click on your ad. So it would be foolhardy to bid highly to gain top rankings for the term “lawyer” because you’d be wasting tens, perhaps hundreds of dollars, each day paying the engines for clicks for which a high percentage would never convert into clients. Those non-converting visitors wasted your money and their own time. Consequently, the search engines have established a system rewarding relevance in the PPC (define) search results in order to keep their searchers happy and clicking.

On the other hand, if your firm happened to have high organic rankings for the term “lawyer,” you wouldn’t really mind if 75 percent of your clicks came from people seeking criminal defense attorneys. Nor would you take any steps to “de-optimize” your site to decrease inbound traffic, even though most would never convert. After all, organic traffic is free (once you get the position with or without SEO help).

Consequently, two very different sets of incentives and disincentives operate to produce organic and paid search results. One is biased toward relevancy, and the other forces the search engine to proactively fight to maintain relevancy pitted against an army of Webmasters and SEO practitioners — all of whom want that “free” top spot for their favorite keywords.

While top-ranking organic results are rarely totally irrelevant, SEOs can game the system easily enough to manufacture a phantom sense of relevancy. Because there are no built-in penalties for doing so (except when one crosses the line and is caught), this practice is rampant and degrades the relevancy of organic results.

In paid search, the exact opposite occurs: marketers are rewarded for enhancing relevancy — not degrading it — which enhances the relevancy of paid results. While a marketer who cares only about traffic — and not about conversions or ROI (define) — can run ads irrelevant to a user’s queries in an attempt to cast a wide net, such a marketer would pay an enormous penalty. Thus, few marketers engage in this behavior.

Even marketers seeking to build brand by using paid search will get more for their dollar if content is relevant and engaging. And as the search engines evolve their strategies for battling falsely inflated organic results, due to the inevitable operation of these opposing economic systems across the behavior of thousands of marketers, it is likely this phenomenon will only increase and paid listings’ relevance improvements will outpace organic. That’s when the engines will feel perfectly comfortable adding another ad link or two to the SERP.

Join us for a Search Engine Marketing Training in Boston, November 6 at the Hilton Boston Back Bay. Not only will you walk away with the knowledge and skills to be a successful search engine marketer, you’ll also jumpstart your career and enhance your professional know-how.

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