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SEO vs. PPC: Response to my friend Krista

Posted January 6th, 2011 by Andrew Goodman

I love that Krista Lariviere over at GShift Labs posted some questions to think about, and some statistics, instead of “predictions for 2011,” regarding organic search referrals and your SEO strategy for 2011.

I actually have some answers to her questions. In my opinion, she makes some of the same mistakes my other SEO-obsessed friends, such as Rand Fishkin, have made in this “debate” between SEO and PPC.

Not to beat a dead horse, but the key disclaimer is, as always: organic search is a key channel, it’s not mutually exclusive to PPC (and vice-versa). And there is always much low-hanging fruit for companies who have quality content and products but who have failed to optimize for organic search.

Yet, Krista gets away with a couple of fast ones here, if we let her. Here are my direct answers to some of the questions she asks in her post:

KL: How does your organic search budget compare to your paid search budget? If you’re aware of a particular keyword phrase that works well in paid search why not optimize for that same keyword phrase in organic search?

Traffick: It sure would be crazy to have products and services that only had a shot at showing up on Google if you paid for AdWords clicks. But there’s a reason folks pay for those clicks. Paid search is much more apropos to many buyers, especially in hotly competitive keyword areas, and you can control your message and placement to a considerable extent on short notice. The problem with assuming you can just blithely optimize a page about orchids for organic search is that Google organic search is not meant to sell your orchids. You may or may not show up on Page 1 for user queries, in the “ten blue links,” and the ads, photos, news results, local results, YouTube results, tweets, blog posts, etc., may clutter things up (for users’ benefit) so that your 2002-era ten-blue-links optimistic-optimization doesn’t get the job done. PPC? If you’re hell-bent on selling those orchids, you can be right up in premium spot where users are looking. Yep, it’ll cost you. Organic referrals from ten blue links are down because Google has created universal/blended results styles. Businesses shouldn’t get their hopes up too high that vanilla SEO will drive the same traffic it did in 2002. So now SEO becomes a comprehensive strategy, too… and that’s hard work. Get ready to roll up your sleeves and take things up to a level of more of a 360-degree engagement approach.

KL: Are you able to determine your conversion rates on your email and paid search campaigns? Imagine an even higher conversion rate on an organic search campaign.

Traffick: First of all, let’s can the notion that there is such a thing as an “organic search campaign.” As noted above, get ready to be engaged in an ongoing way in keeping your digital world in order, and not missing out on any major SEO tactics and trends. A “campaign” this is not. Paid search is actually a campaign!

Now, as for imagining a higher conversion rate… Imagine all the people, living life in peace! An iterative paid search campaign must convert better due to relentless testing, great, tailored landing pages, etc.; that’s a reality because the economics force that reality. We see no evidence that organic search out-converts paid search. More to the point, again, volume is an issue businesses cannot ignore. Ad positions 3, 2, and 1 push those organic results down the page. So do other types of listings. If you’re in 4th or 5th organic spot (a tall order!), you might be at the very bottom of the page. If you’re a bit worse than that, you might be near-invisible on page 2. And there is no quick fix for that. Organic search is great in theory, but in practice the optimization process is uncertain, longer-feedback-cycle, and thus too passive for marketers to rely too heavily on it today.

KL: Exposure to organic search results almost doubles the likelihood that a prospect will visit a web site when combined with a paid search strategy (iProspect & comScore).

Traffick: Search is great, display is sometimes great, and we need to attribute ROI and volume to any of those channels. We cannot always neatly do this, which is when we fall back on “exposures,” “lifts,” and other workarounds.

I don’t know what gymnastics this study is trying to accomplish, other than comScore’s usual mandate of helping its partners sell display ads, but even the way the findings are worded make it sound bogus to me.

Exposure to listings result in visits to a landing page when people click. Period.

If you rank well in organic search, your CTR will be awesome and they will visit. If you heavy up on PPC, you’ll rank well on the page (above organic search results), and they will visit your landing page — period.

Certainly, one can imagine that if you judge “PPC strategies” from hotel companies who rank in 6th and 7th paid position typically, who are fortunate enough to rank high organically on those same queries, searchers will be less likely to click on the less-visible paid result — especially if they’re like 80-90% of searchers, not currently in “buy” mode, so are ignoring the ads!

The study cites “visits” to a website. What about purchases? Informational queries generate a lot of clicks from organic search, but may convert poorly.

Both organic and PPC are good for business. Studies like this, which can be interpreted as pitting one against the other, do marketers a disservice. PPC is not for every business. But it’s wrong to expect organic search to build your business, as it might have done in 2002. There is no need to criticize PPC to make the point that organic search marketing best practices should be followed. It’s good in itself: just not as good as you might hope.

And with that beefing out of the way, maybe now is the time to add that I’m super-impressed with the GShift Labs team and their platform’s contribution to bringing smart SEO strategy down to a meaningful level that the average marketer can implement.

19 Responses to “SEO vs. PPC: Response to my friend Krista”

  1. paisley says:

    please don’t try any more articles about SEO.. please stick to PPC..


    p.s. i’d rather convert 9 out 10 visitors than 110 out of 1000, and if you dont’ understand why, then again please stick to talking about PPC and not SEO

  2. Ah, I see you’re a typical SEO, who is convinced he’s a genius because he only talks to other SEO’s.

    90% conversion rates! Wow!

    Please start making sense or I’m going to have to assume you don’t have a point.

  3. Bill Scott says:

    First lets say for argument sake I am an seo ppc expert google it you will find me.

    When it comes to conversions SEO is better hands down. Try it for yourself. SEO a commercially viable term to the first position and then make a duplicate page using PPC. SEO should convert at least 3X better.

    Does SEO have limitations? Sure! You can SEO keywords and phrases to the top but you can never get all of the different word order permutations and combinations. Plus all of the plural & singular versions of each word. It is not easy to get first position ranking results for the same keywords across multiple search engine. So your not getting complete search engine saturation. SEO is great for your highest dollar value KWs & KWPs. You can fill-in the gaps with the PPC.

    first in organic search and oldest seo company <<< google that too I am there lol but seriously both work and if you only can choose one hire a real seo pro not a wanna be.

  4. Bill,

    Did you just say “SEO a commercially viable term to the first position”?

    “You may say I’m a dreamer…”

    What about the realistic scenario across the typical search term, where you’re in 4th or 5th?

    What about just going into GA and looking at conversion rates and sales volume for paid search vs. organic search… in the aggregate… for account after account after account… or just the one that matters, the one for your business.

    It’s a sterile debate of course, as no one would want to lose either side, if both are working well.

    The difference seems to be that SEO’s prefer to sell dreams and hopes of the holy grail that never quite gets attained; PPC marketers rely on harsher, iterative, costly medicine that does deliver day in and day out.

    Multiple search engines? Google’s at 80% market share in their weakest market! Bill, I would love to visit you on Planet Jeeves, but that ship has sailed!

    As for ranking on phrases that no one searches for, who cares Bill?

    All SEM (paid or organic or both) have many anecdotal proofs of ranking well organically. Some are due to skill, others due to superior long terms strategy or the underlying value of the client’s brand, reputation, and comprehensive campaigns to create signals of consumer interest.

    Bottom line: SEO “anecdotism” should give way to Analytics based trend reporting that truly does address bounce rates, conversion rates, and ROI over time, and it should compare apples to apples (fully optimized, built out PPC campaigns with tailored landing pages, not small, clumsily run ones). No one here said that you don’t get strong ROI from SEO: clearly I believe this. Check out the chart:

  5. Marc Poirier says:

    Andrew how did you attract these 2 to your blog? You must be optimized for “first in organic search and oldest seo company”. And hello to Krista and the Gshift labs crew!

  6. Dharne says:

    Andrew, I especially liked your point about both SEO and PPC being good for business. The SEO vs PPC approach is not correct and there are so many ways these two marketing channels complement each other. I have listed some in a recent blog post but there must be many more ways to use both smartly depending on the specific business.

  7. I’m still confused by this comment:

    “p.s. i’d rather convert 9 out 10 visitors than 110 out of 1000, and if you dont’ understand why, then again please stick to talking about PPC and not SEO”

    Ummm, I think it needs further explanation. If you’re talking about a relevant traffic problem, then that wouldn’t make sense because you had 101 more people convert over the first example. If you are talking about on page conversion rates, then that is a much easier on page optimization fix. Either way I’m pretty sure I would rather have the 1000 visitor traffic that is still converting at 11%…. Just sayin

  8. Andrew G says:

    It made me think he might be an affiliate who cannot even afford to pay 10 cents for a click. :)

    That is the only charitable explanation…

    It’s pretty obvious that 90% is a better conversion rate… for a much smaller cited sales volume. So, so what, right? All hypothetical anyway.

  9. Bill Scott says:

    As for ranking on phrases that no one searches for, who cares Bill? I have a sense of humor don’t get your panties in a bunch.

    Check out the chart: I saw it. Very nice good use of color and arrows but the info is all opinion not based in fact.

    Did you just say “SEO a commercially viable term to the first position”? Yea I said it. Sorry I forgot PPC is the code word for “Algorithmically Challenged”. My bad have an SEO friend do it for you.

    Multiple search engines? Yes, for PPC why not? Do you not have a commitment for maximizing the ROI for clients by advertising on 2nd and 3rd tier PPC engines? I guess 80% or a B grade is good enough eh? Thats cool… I understand we all have our limits..

    ~ I hope you get a laugh I am pretty sarcastic. I understand about the SEO dreams believe me.


  10. Michael balistreri says:

    PPC has it’s place, and that place varies from vertical to vertical, time of year and budget but let’s get real; don’t make ppc appear a better fit than seo as a general rule, nor intimate the few online marketing experts that do exist use ppc as anything more than intelligence gathering for the REAL online marketing work that lays ahead. The numbers of those avoiding ppc ads alone makes it a less attractive medium for experts. And for gods sake, don’t EVER use GA in an article as a baseline and expect to be taken seriously.

    Michael Balistreri

  11. Matt Lambert says:

    This comes up a lot doesn’t it.

    Whenever someone talks about making a choice between PPC and SEO – I always think “why can’t we have both?”

    If x% of people click the paid, and y% click the Natural Search Results, why wouldn’t I want both x+y.

    If we make a profit then we have all the traffic we can, please.

    Of course, it then occurs to me that the people asking this question aren’t necessarily thinking only about traffic that makes a profit, which is why they’re posing the question of course. They’re thinking about spending a budget, instead of the return on the investment.

    It’s a process of discovery, and I know which is quicker and cheaper to do first. PPC to see what works, and SEO when you know it does.

    I’ve just noticed ’2nd edition’ I must get over to Amazon :-) . All the best


  12. Paid search is a $30 billion business driving 100 billion targeted visits per year to websites, as most companies measure their ROI on several segments within those campaigns including keywords, ad copy, and much more. Sounds pretty “serious” to me. All these “amateurs” must be crazy, huh?

  13. Michael balistreri says:

    Not crazy, just a bit zealous as usual about the importance of PPC relative to SEO impacting a client marketing campaign all the while using PPC tools and data to self fulfill a non issue
    (Throwing out numbers spent on PPC is a good example, though not very sexy.)

    With all the self perpetuating tools and data available I can see how easy it is for even newbies to fancy themselves as online marketing experts.

    Michael Balistreri
    Thanks again

  14. Bill, incidentally – regarding the chart. The purpose of it is to provide a framework anyone can use. You’re supposed to plug in your own empirical data or situation to it. Thus, it’s not just “opinion” — it is meant to be driven by empirical reality and to provide background for rethinking decisions.

    No Rockefeller Foundation grants were employed in the creation of this chart. It was just a column for ClickZ.

    All the best,


  15. Michael, are you saying it’s a bad idea to take a mature client’s data and compare in detail the performance of the paid and organic search referrals, using a tool like Google Analytics?

    Yes, there are a lot of newbies in any field. I have trouble understanding how this relates to the current discussion.

  16. Eric says:

    Nice dialogue.The PPC vs. SEO debate on-going…

    Most of your arguements have their point.But below is rather guesses and hunches:

    “I don’t know what gymnastics this study is trying to accomplish, other than comScore’s usual mandate of helping its partners sell display ads, but even the way the findings are worded make it sound bogus to me.”

    It is ok for you to doubt comScore’s source and authority,but any proof?When answering the question,you quoted no sources but your personal opinion,which is very un-scientific…(no offense).

    comScore’s data may be bogus to you,but still,that is only your personal guess.

  17. Andrew G says:

    As a personal guess, it is at least a nice start towards getting you thinking that “science,” when released by a company that is paid to conduct studies, might also be light on disclosure, and manipulative in its presentation.

    Quite simple – once again – all the hard data you need (and can trust) will come from comparisons of conversion rates and the like, in the analytics reports of company results you personally know and trust, assuming both paid and organic were run reasonably close to maximal.

    In the case of aggregate studies I want to know about all forms of bias in the sample, and unless I see the actual campaigns, company names, etc., I remain a skeptic.

  18. /* Andrew Goodman says:
    January 9, 2011 at 12:10 pm
    Michael, are you saying it’s a bad idea to take a mature client’s data and compare in detail the performance of the paid and organic search referrals, using a tool like Google Analytics?

    Yes, there are a lot of newbies in any field. I have trouble understanding how this relates to the current discussion. */

    First, sorry for coming off like an ass… looking at my first comment NOT using a PDA for the first time in over 48 hours I see it looks sort of … Jerk-Ish.
    Second, I simply meant EVERYONE references/uses GA as less a standard and more as the ONLY thing one needs.

    Hey… it’s a nice tool, continually evolving – me with it, I like colors too. But how about directing the largely Google PPC – based reviewers toward the notion other stats programs exist and less than rival GA act as a necessary baseline to objectively supplement ones client data profile – some free too. Also, when GA occasionally goes to reporting hell (for some less than mere technical reasons), why not compare log files, GA and another stats program.

    It’s refreshing… all that 3′rd party data.

    Michael Balistreri
    Thanks once again


  19. Rasel Arnold says:

    There is a long deference between SEO and PPC. I think that SEO is a believable way to earn money, when PPc works instantly. Thanks for sharing…:)


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