The One-Two Punch: SEO and PPC

In March, my company partnered with WebSurveyor, Strategem Research, and Survey Sampling International (SSI) to field a survey on search engine user attitudes and behavior.

The just-released results are interesting because actual search behavior was measured by search engine, counting clicks on either paid search ads or natural search results. These reveal volumes about how Internet users actually search.

The survey displayed a screen capture of an actual SERP. The SERP contained hot spots that tracked where respondents clicked on the page, whether on a paid search advertisement or natural search result.

Respondents were first asked if they used one search engine more than any other and, if so, which. Ninety percent of respondents answered Google, Yahoo, MSN, or AOL. The WebSurveyor tool then dynamically served an SERP screen capture for the sample query “used cars” from respondents’ preferred search engine. Respondents clicked on the result they found “most relevant” to the sample query.

Note: All respondents were served results in their preferred search engines. Had respondents been served results from only one engine, their clicks may have been influenced by their inexperience with an unfamiliar interface.

The key finding? Sixty percent of all clicks occurred in the natural search results. Among the individual engines, this varied a bit:

Engine Natural Search
Results (%)
Paid Ads (%)
All engines 60.5 39.5
Google 72.3 27.7
Yahoo 60.8 39.2
AOL 50.0 50.0
MSN 28.8 71.2

MSN results were nearly opposed to Google’s. AOL users are evenly divided. The clarity with which each search engine discloses paid search ads surely influences click patterns, as do search engine demographics and brand.

What does all this mean for your search engine marketing (SEM) campaign?

I spoke with Charlene Li, principal analyst at Forrester Research and Gary Stein, online advertising and marketing analyst at Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division), for their insights.

Charlene believes metrics help clients paint a clearer picture:

I ask people all the time, what percentage of your clicks are coming from natural? And they say, “Oh, we don’t know, we only track paid….” And I say to them, “What, are you crazy? Without a baseline, how can you know that paid is making any difference? If you are showing up well in natural search results, and you have paid search results showing up on the same page, how do you know that you’re not paying for people who would have clicked on your natural results anyway?”

Gary concurs that pay-per-click (PPC) and natural search are needed for a complete picture:

[Your] study findings are similar to our research in that they demonstrate marketers have to look at how they are represented as a result of an inquiry. And today, that means the whole search results page.

The study results clearly indicate SEM must include both paid and natural SEM to reach the entire audience.

Though it appears intuitive, many companies engaged in natural search engine optimization (SEO) resist investing in paid search advertising. And many companies engaged in paid search advertising aren’t yet pursuing an SEO strategy.

Often, marketing departments treat paid and natural search efforts as separate campaigns with separate owners, sometimes even with separate agencies. Charlene reports many companies give SEO short shrift. “They say, ‘That’s somebody else’s job.’ Usually, the site design people who have a different budget.”

Two years ago, paid search was less a factor for marketers. That’s changed. Charlene agrees and believes at issue is the marketing mix. “[The study results] say that marketers have to pay attention to both sides of the page. They have to work at [SEO] and work with paid listings. The two have to go hand in hand.”

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

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