Organic Search Results vs. PPC: The Relevance Wars

Organic search results are as pure as the driven snow. Just ask any SEO (define) professional or any marketer who ever hired an SEO company.

OK, so perhaps there’s a big area of wiggle room there. After all, for most non-brand term search queries, a searcher will probably be equally satisfied with any of the top decile of relevant results. When there are potentially thousands of relevant results, SEO practitioners do their best to give their clients the edge by moving their relevant results above nearly identically relevant results. So, how relevant does that really make organic results?

That question extends to paid search. Many Web users have long assumed that the organic results served up by search engine algorithms are more relevant to most users’ queries than the paid results. Search engines have largely manufactured this perception because each engine seeks to endear itself to users as an honest broker whose neutral algorithms will unerringly separate the wheat from the chaff. Although the idea that organic results are pure is inherently appealing, in actuality the situation is much more complicated, and, in many instances, paid listings actually provide better, more useful results than organic ones. The more likely the query is to have commercial intent, the more often paid search trumps organic.

The Geotargeted Relevancy Gap

Paid listings consistently provide more relevant results than organic listings when a user makes a query with local intent, such as “plumber” or “office cleaning services.” In this case, the search engine’s ad server automatically geotargets paid results based on the user’s IP address, which is mapped against a location database. So a user making such a search from New York will see paid listings for New York-based plumbers and janitors. Some engines also supplement the IP address geotargeting with profile-based targeting by using user-volunteered data. This can also be accomplished with reasonable accuracy by watching searchers’ behavior over time and determining which geographies they select.

Organic listings, however, don’t reflect the user’s location unless the user types in an additional term to indicate one, such as “plumber NYC” or “plumber New York.” Of course, the fact that organic results aren’t geotargeted may not always produce less relevancy. If I’m researching the history of plumbing or whether U.S. plumbers belong to a union, I won’t care about plumbers in my neighborhood. But for certain queries that clearly demonstrate a local intent, geotargeted paid listings may deliver more relevancy than organic ones. Unless the primary search engines implement a reliable geo meta tag or do a better job with the local results, paid listings will often be more relevant. Already a specialty of SEO is manipulating the local results that come up as part of the universal SERP (define).

The second instance in which paid listings may provide better relevancy than organic results is subtler. And it’s a phenomenon caused by systemic structural biases affecting the way organic and paid listings are served. Organic results are, of course, subject to manipulation by wily SEO practitioners who are paid by their clients to secure the best ranking positions for their clients’ sites. No one who practices SEO optimization likes to be labeled as a cheater or a manipulator, because many do provide a useful service to their clients by guiding them toward improving the search-engine friendliness of their sites and breaking the virtual tie between pages of nearly identical relevance. But many freely admit that they practice tricks and tactics that go beyond simple optimization and into the zone of manipulation. For them, the ends (getting top rankings for their clients) justify whatever means they use to trick the engines into thinking that a given site is more relevant than it actually is.

Next time: How paid marketplace rules enforce relevancy.

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