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Buying vs. Leasing Search Engine Traffic

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When considering search engine marketing strategies, it's important to consider both short term and long term approaches, or "buying" vs. "leasing" web site traffic.

Is search marketing ideally a combination of both search engine optimization (SEO), which focuses on tuning a web site for peak performance, and purchasing Pay-per-Click (PPC) links from search engines? Perhaps. It's important to weigh the pros and cons of various search engine PPC programs to determine how much of a search marketing budget, if any, should be allotted to this strategy. The topic has been re-energized lately with the LookSmart change in financial model, from a one-time 'lifetime" payment for inclusion to a PPC of $.15 per.

Of course, the granddaddy in PPC is Overture, with Google's AdWords Select program coming on strong, and numerous other players to consider such as FindWhat and Sprinks. LookSmart is just the new kid on the block.

There is an overriding question, however: how valuable is PPC and should expenditures for that strategy be allowed to cannibalize the SEO budget? A more common purchase decision can help to put this into perspective.

Acquiring web site traffic via SEO is similar to acquiring a car by purchasing it, whereas spending money on PPC programs is more akin to leasing it. The primary benefit to leasing a car instead of buying it is that the monthly payments can be lower with a lease, and you often have less in up-front costs. The drawback is that, once the lease is up, you no longer have anything to drive. However, the purchased vehicle, once paid for, is yours to enjoy for the foreseeable future.

The same is true for SEO. While your initial cost to optimize your web site for the search engines can be higher than the cost of a short-term PPC campaign, you are strengthening your web site for improved performance for the long-term: in effect you will own the source of traffic that you are building, because it is drawn to your site as a direct result of your content. On the other hand, with a PPC campaign at Overture, Google, LookSmart or others, the traffic spigot is turned off the second your funds are exhausted. In essence, your increased traffic numbers were on borrowed time.

Clients who have participated in both SEO and PPC report that a properly executed SEO campaign delivers sales at a lower overall cost than a PPC campaign with comparable results, sometimes as early as 4 to 6 months into a campaign. Over the term of one year or longer, the disparity is even stronger, leaving no question of the superior value of SEO for generating cost-effective leads that convert to sales.

This is not to dismiss the value of PPC: if the client's budget can encompass more than site optimization, then it makes sense to also leverage the keyword strategy developed for the SEO campaign by applying it systematically to keyword buys that are PPC at Overture and elsewhere -- in other words, leasing a second vehicle if one can afford it!

Obviously, one of the attractions of PPC to many web marketers is that the set-up is quick and the results are highly controllable. When you supplement your traffic through PPC, getting traffic to your site isn't at the mercy of the most recent search algorithms of AltaVista or Lycos. PPC buys can provide fast, informative results for testing titles and descriptions, as well as evaluating the conversion power of particular destination pages. PPC buys can also be useful in moving inventory in a timely fashion. Some clients bid up on keywords to catch the wave for products that will soon be out of season, for example, lowering the bids when stock is running low and removing the bid when stock is depleted.

However, participating in PPC has several downfalls, the most obvious of which is that the traffic goes away when you stop paying. However, another aspect to PPC to consider is your ability to measure your return on investment (ROI) for any PPC strategy. Many web sites do not yet have the ability to track from unique visitor to conversion point, or sale. Accordingly, these sites may be making PPC purchases that are costing them more than they are earning.

For many web marketers the best search marketing plan may well be one that integrates an aggressive SEO plan with PPC support. However, if you can afford only one campaign at this time, choose to "purchase" traffic through an investment in SEO. It pays dividends -- qualified leads delivered to your web site day after day, month after month, year after year.

Susan J. O'Neil is the CEO of @Web Site Publicity, Inc.

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