Using Paid Search for Organic Optimization

Paid search has an important place in testing and improving organic search, perhaps in ways you haven’t thought of. It’s great for immediately testing whether keywords and keyword phrases have a reasonably good conversion rate to lead or sale (assuming you have relevant landing pages).

This instant feedback can inform organic search content creation efforts and, of course, internal and external link strategies. However, another oft-overlooked use for paid search is to hone messages on organic landing pages and improve the conversion rate one achieves when top organic listings are achieved.

Should you buy paid placement listings when a high organic position has been achieved, particularly when that top organic position is for a company name or brand? Always test the options using some form of on-off pulse testing along with a good analytics and campaign management platform.

With on-off testing, you can measure the shift of clicks away from the top-ranked organic listing into the paid search channel. Armed with this data, you can calculate the true ROI (define) of the incremental paid listings in the SERP (define). Subtract the cannibalized clicks from the paid click totals, and recalculate the CPC (define) for the remaining clicks.

For example, the paid ad gets 200 clicks at a $.050 CPC, but you would have gotten half of those clicks anyway on your organic listing (because they migrated to the more prominent paid listing). Your true CPC, then, is $1 and can be used to calculate the ROI based on the conversions through the paid channel.

Often the paid-click conversion rate is higher than the same clicks coming through the organic page because, if you’re like most marketers, you’ve optimized the landing page and the offer to get it to convert well. You often don’t get to pick the landing page Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft (Bing) select for a particular keyword or keyword phrase.

If that keyword is your company name or brand, chances are the search engines are selecting your home page as the most relevant for your brand. Your home page serves many purposes, only one of which is sales.

Often, this means home page traffic doesn’t convert as well as specific pages you’ve created for paid search. Paid search landing pages don’t need to follow all the same guidelines as a page designed to rank well organically and can, for example, be more liberal with the use of Flash-embedded content or have shorter copy or leaner navigation (lacking all the navigational choices).

Your paid campaign can also be used to test changes to your well-ranked organic pages at little to no risk of losing that organic position. If you knew a different home page would convert better for brand traffic, in nearly every case you could make significant changes to your home page without losing your top ranking for your brand. But before making any changes, be sure to make the very best changes.

Because there may be inherent differences between the types of searchers who select the paid listings and those who choose the organic ones, this experiment isn’t perfect. But it does control partially for that fact by including your current home page or keyword landing page in the mix as a control. Clone your current top-ranked page, rename it, and put it on your site with either a robots.txt exclusion or a “noindex” meta tag so if the search engines find the page they won’t think it’s duplicate content. (You could also use the newer canonical tag (define).)

If you don’t want to test improvements against thousands of clicks (or if there just aren’t that many clicks available for the keyword you want to test), go with an A/B or A/B/C test. If you’ve got tons of traffic, a fractional factorial test is an option, meaning you can change lots of elements on your test page to find an optimal mix of elements (headlines, images, copy blocks, offers, colors, etc.).

Go live with your campaign, buying clicks that you drive to your landing pages. You can alternate the click stream by having two campaigns that you turn on and off sequentially, or you can write a click router program for your site (to redirect clicks). If you use a campaign management solution that has a built-in click router, you can use that.

If you also want to test ad creative stickiness, you’re best off separating campaigns or Ad Groups so that you can see what titles and descriptions pull best.

Once you find the ad copy and landing pages that outperform the original home page, you can decide how to adapt the organic user experience to mirror the optimal page from your paid experiment. If you want to test messaging, use a layered ad-serving technology to place a message either in a fixed location on the page or as a translucent layer over the page as a whole. There are several to choose from, and I’ve been so impressed with the ones I’ve tried that I have my team building one to integrate into our own technology.

You’d be amazed at how much you can change on a home page or other site page without dramatically changing its organic profile and content. For example, I recently finished rewriting the book “Search Engine Advertising” and had to take over the site from Catherine Seda, who wrote the first version. I approached the home page rewrite very tenuously because the site ranks well already for a basket of important terms.

Amazingly, there’s been no negative impact. Now I’m ready to start a paid/organic test to build a conversion-optimized page. All I have to decide is what other conversions I’m interested in besides book sales.

Kevin is off today. This column was originally published June 12, 2009 on ClickZ.

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