I was on one such panel at the Online Marketing Summit last week, but I didn’t talk about why you would use PPC instead of SEO or even how PPC helps SEO.
Instead, I focused on one important development that’s redefining the search engine results pages (SERPs): the shift in the balance between paid and unpaid listings.
Putting it another way: Paid search as your organic competitor.
Paid Search as Your Organic Competitor
To illustrate this concept, let’s use the example of Norton Antivirus — makers of PC protection software. Consider three different queries:
- Brand Search Query: [norton antivirus”
- Head Search Query: [anti virus software”
- Long Tail Search Query: [adware removal program”
Brand Search Queries: [norton antivirus]
There are two paid search competitors with seven total lines of ads, before the first organic Norton Antivirus result.
- Norton’s paid listing is the most prominent result.
- There are now sitelinks offering four targeted opportunities to capture the click (e.g. “Winter Savings — 50% Off”).
- The paid search title that looks like an organic listing: “Norton Antivirus — Now starts, scans and runs faster.”
- The ad title is more relevant than the corporate page title: “Symantec Downloads: AntiVirus, Anti-Spyware, Endpoint Security, Backup…”
Head Search Query: [anti virus software]
In this example, only two of the results above the fold are organic search, AVG Free and avast! We see the same standard results in the premium positions above the organic results with Norton Antivirus in the top position.
Now we see image ads for the first time in the search results in the form of the Google Product Listing Ads, which appear in the top three positions on the right column. In case you were curious about how much of an effect these ads can have on which result people will choose, consider this statistic from Google:
“We found that people are twice as likely to click on a Product Listing Ad as they are to click on a standard text ad in the same location.”
Reread that quote. Now, let’s wonder, “If they click on a paid search result, will they click on an organic result?”
Long Tail Search Queries: [online virus scan]
By comparison, these results look pretty tame and almost antiquated. It’s business as usual in both the paid and organic listings.
No ads earn the premium position above the organic results and no new ad formats or text ad features distinguish the ads.
Local Search and Google Boost
Updates to the search results have changed the PPC vs. SEO dynamic in at least one other area: local search.
Ads could always be displayed for search queries with a geographic intent and Google Tags made some results stand out more clearly with offers.
It prominently displays:
- A 7 pack like result in the first position above the map, but below the PPC ad.
- Extra ad description not featured in other map results.
- A distinct blue pin on the map.
- An extra link for the advertiser’s Google Place Page.
Are we sensing a theme here?
You Only Get So Much Pie
There are a finite number of clicks that can occur when someone searches. We know that, in general, results that are more prominently displayed above the fold are most likely to get clicked.
Searchers may click paid results or organic results. They may click both. They may flit back and forth between pages and results.
The specifics of how people will behave aren’t as important as understanding the context in which we are now marketing.
I’ve always thought of Google as a publisher and each search results page simply as content they need to monetize. These changes are similar to a news site stacking on more ad slots or increasing the size of their ads.
But, where a traditional publisher’s ads don’t really compete with the content, Google’s ads do. Paid search ads may now draw attention away from organic listings and push natural results further down the page.
In essence, paid listings may be getting clicks at the expense of organic listings at an increasing rate.
At the very least, it puts more pressure to be among the top organic listings as they lose prominence in the results. It also adds important context for your SEO analysis, essentially a new set of competitors with new tactics.
On the flip side, paid search ads now offer an increasing number of ways to advertise in the SERPs. There are more levers to pull, formats to try, and offers and messages to test. If you’re weak in the organic listings, these new controls may give you an edge.
What’s clear is that SEOs must be aware of the changes in paid search results for, at least, their brand and head keywords and consider those changes in their analysis.
For another perspective on these changes, along with great historical SERP photos, I recommend you read “A More Organic Experience.”
One final note: not every industry will be affected by these changes equally. In some cases, there are few, if any, paid competitors. For example, media and entertainment searches such as [justin bieber” or [somewhere movie” are dominated by video, image, news, and real time results among the usual organic listings.