SEO vs PPC
by Scott Smigler
Still not sure about search engine optimization (seo) or pay-per-click (ppc) programs? Well, you’re not alone. Ask ten companies whether they have a search engine marketing strategy and nine will say no. Ask the same people how they find information for the products and services they need and they’ll tell you they use a search engine. So why do they expect their prospects to be any different?
CyberAtlas Research found that search engines and directories provided over 40% of all sites surveyed with 50% or more of their traffic. Furthermore, these visitors represent a targeted highly qualified prospect that likely would not have found these sites if a search engine marketing program had not been implemented.
OK, you’re now convinced that search engines are important. So should you spend your scarce marketing dollars on optimizing your website to achieve higher rankings? Or should you use the pay-per-click paid listings programs? What about doing both?
The SEO versus PPC “controversy”
On the one hand some argue that search engine optimization and paid inclusion is a waste of time. Optimization firms can't do much to improve a Google ranking and with search engines having prominently positioned paid results SEO will be a thing of the past.
Others argue that while search engine optimization may take longer to achieve results and can’t guarantee placement it is a long term, very cost effective investment much like public relations and should be an important part of your marketing mix
The following discussion will help settle the controversy.
Traditional search engine optimization
First let’s define traditional SEO. Search engine optimization is the process of fine tuning (i.e. optimizing) your web site to reflect specific keywords and phrases that are relevant to your business and for which you want to attract visitors to your site who are searching for such words.
This optimization relates to a variety of elements, not only on your web site's homepage, but its sub pages as well. Those elements can include things like meta tags, link structure, link popularity and the content of the site itself.
Once your web site is properly optimized, the goal then is to make sure that each of the top crawler based search engines find your site and add as many pages as possible in their indices. These engines will usually start with your home page and then work their way to other pages of the site.
Search engine optimization also involves making sure your site is listed in the major directories such as Yahoo and Open Directory to name a few. Other elements of SEO include monitoring you’re positioning in the search engines, making adjustments as necessary to your site to stay in the top positions and submitting to new engines or directories that come along as well.
Pay Per Click
Pay per click or PPC is a service in which an advertiser selects specific keywords or phrases and then creates a listing that will show up when someone searches for that phrase.
The advertiser selects an amount they are willing to pay for each click on their listing that results in a visit to their site – thus the term “pay per click”. If other advertisers have selected the same keyword or phrase as yours, you then compete against them for the highest position. Whoever is willing to spend the most shows up first with the others following in order.
What makes PPC attractive is that paid listings are distributed (syndicated) to other partner sites. In fact, if you bid for one of the top three positions at Overture (as an example), your listings will also show up at some of the leading search engines including Yahoo, MSN, Alta Vista, HotBot, Infospace, iWon, Lycos, and others. Therefore if you bid for top placement at Overture, you will show up at these partner sites as well.
What PPC has allowed you to do is instantly “pay” your way to the top whereas traditional SEO takes time and effort.
The Case For SEO
First of all you must understand that PPC will never help improve your positioning in the regular editorial search results. PPC results always appear in a "Sponsored or Featured" area, which is usually at the top or side of the regular search results.
While it is nice to “show up first” there are still a lot of users that do not click on the "paid" listings but rather will search through the regular editorial search results. The only way to get optimized (high) rankings in these regular editorial results is through an effective SEO program. In most cases, once you have good positioning in the regular search results, you will continue to receive “free” traffic. Obviously, when you stop paying for PPC, it disappears and so does the traffic it brings.
Consider search engine optimization the same as you would word of mouth advertising or public relations. It’s exposure that comes with a very high degree of credibility and trust. Traffic coming from traditional search listings tends to have high conversion rates.
There’s another advantage to traditional search listings. They are considered unbiased and non-commercial. Traditional search performs very well at certain points in the buying process. When consumers are gathering information about a purchase, they show a marked preference for traditional search listings. When they are ready to buy online, they seem to have less bias against paid placement listings and their likelihood to click on one of these listings increases.
Perhaps the most compelling reason not to exclude SEO from your online marketing strategy comes down to dollars and cents. The following case study provides a very compelling argument for traditional SEO:
This Company has been an aggressive search engine marketer for a number of years. A few years ago they discovered Overture and aggressively bid for keywords.
About a year ago, they were ready to drop their traditional SEO campaign, feeling that it wasn't really effective given the new PPC environment. Before they did that they decided to continue with SEO and to track the traffic coming from traditional SEO compared to the PPC traffic. The results were surprising.
In one thirty day period, for the company received a total of 5,538 visitors from search engines. 2,552 of these came from his PPC advertising on Overture, Google AdWords and other engines, which cost a total of $2,169.20 for the one month. The average cost per visitor? $0.85. With his traditional SEO, he received 2,986 visitors, at a monthly cost of $533 (including all related submission fees), and an average cost per visitor of $0.18. What's more, the traditional SEO visitors had a higher conversion rate than PPC visitors, at 2.3% vs.1.4% respectively. This client is now a firm believer in the power of SEO.
While in the example above it is clear that SEO was the better performer, there are two major drawbacks to traditional SEO. It often takes a number of months to achieve initial results and it’s not an easy strategy to control. That said, while it may not be quick and easy, it is still possible to influence search engine rankings (even Google’s). How? By simply giving the search engines what they want to see.
Don’t let a web designer dictate your marketing strategy. Web site designers often have no idea how search engines work or what their capabilities are. They have other goals in mind when designing their sites, such as:
- Presenting the site in an interesting and unique way.
- Getting the maximum impact from the available screen real estate.
- Using available design techniques to get their message across.
- Handling content in an efficient manner.
All very important objectives, but often at cross purposes with effective “search engine friendly” design.
Designers will often use Flash, java or DHTML navigation tools, frames, dynamic content management or other techniques to get the most out of their site design. Each of these presents a challenge to search engine spiders. Most of the sites we look at have not even considered the basics in search engine friendly design during their construction. Content is completely hidden from search engine. Search Engine Optimization can help you maintain the site’s appeal while improving its performance with search engines.
A final advantage of search engine optimization is that a better site and more extensive content will make it more likely it is found not just for your primary key words but also many secondary key words. This incremental traffic doesn’t have the same conversion rates as the traffic that comes looking for your main words, but it’s also free.
The Case for PPC
While SEO does not put you in the driver’s seat, Pay per click (PPC) gives you the ability to have complete control over your search traffic. With PPC programs you select the keywords and write the listings. You control where you’re listed and what the listing says. You decide what your budget is and can adjust your spend rate based on results or events (e.g. announcements, promotions).
By tracking results from a PPC campaign, you can build up a knowledge base with respect to your business, including which messages perform the best, which search terms have the best conversion rates, and what destination URL is best for specific users to land on. Over time, this knowledge can help you to improve and define your business.
Tracking also allows you to understand your ROI from a specific marketing initiative and gives you confidence to spend money and drive volume. You may have thought that spending $10,000 a month on a PPC campaign is way outside your budget, but once you measure the ROI, you may realize that it’s well worth the investment.
Check out many of the search providers (e.g. MSN, Alta Vista, Lycos) and you have to do some scrolling before you can find their editorial (i.e. free) results. Their first page is dominated by their own and Overture’s paid listings. Search engine providers depend on advertisers for their revenue. Paid search listings will continue to command more and more real estate on search results pages across the web because they make the search engines money.
Why would a user click on a paid result when they could be clicking on an unpaid (more objective) result? While it’s often true that when a user is searching for information they may prefer unpaid results, when that user is interested in acquiring a product or service a relevant paid result is just as appealing, if not more appealing.
Finally, PPC programs give you immediate results. Once you’ve selected your keywords and written your copy it is only a matter of hours or days before your site is placed and the leads start coming in. And you can terminate the listings anytime you want.
PPC or SEO?
Actually, that depends. If you need to improve the quality and quantity of your lead flow as soon as possible then PPC is the right answer. If you want to insure that you have the highest ROI, enhance your branding and get an optimized conversion rate then SEO makes a lot of sense. For most companies it will be a combination of the two. SEO and PPC are complementary. In fact, a PPC program can help identify the most successful search terms, copy and call-to action and can then be used to optimize the site. PPC budgets can be adjusted up (and down) based on results, including the improvements delivered through SEO. The bottom-line is that you should spend your marketing dollars on the venues that deliver positive ROI. A campaign that includes both PPC and SEO helps you to saturate search result pages with your listings. As long as both remain profitable (which is easily trackable), both should remain a priority.
The Bottom Line
Search engine marketing, Whether through SEO or PPC or both, should be a fundamental component of your overall marketing mix. Search engine users have chosen to use the Internet to research an issue or solve a problem. They are the ultimate in qualified prospects. These visitors are well along the sales cycle as a result of having taken the initiative to use a search engine to solve their problem. These are buyers.
After spending tens of thousands of dollars or more developing a website, businesses often discover that the site is invisible to the major search providers. Failing to take your website's visibility into consideration when making development decisions is expensive mistake, both in real dollars and opportunity costs. By recognizing both the importance and the need of search engine marketing in the development of your website, you hold a significant advantage.
Only one of two outcomes is possible each time a prospect performs a search:
- They will find your website.
- They will find a competitor's website.
I think I know which outcome I’d prefer.
ABOUT THE OTHER: Scott Smigler is the President of eXclusive Concepts, a mid-sized web design and search engine marketing company based in Boston, Massachusetts. Scott is a recognized expert in the field of online marketing, having worked with hundreds of companies over the past 8 years to improve their online sales and lead flow. Most recently, he spoke at the Kelsey Group's Local Interactive Marketing Conference in early November. Visit Exclusive Concepts at http://www.eXclusiveconcepts.com
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