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Lies The SEO Publicity Machine Tells About PPC (When It Thinks No One’s Looking)

Posted May 30th, 2013 by Andrew Goodman

As some of us know, paid search works great. It captures users with high commercial intent whether they type in broad queries, specific queries, or something in between. You can budget as little as much as you want. You can customize, test, iterate, and learn at whatever pace you wish. You get search query reports, A/B ad testing data, and much more.

The sense of tight interplay between a business owner’s wish to “go out and get some response from a certain kind of searcher” and the pace of that response can be very satisfying, to say nothing of profitable.

Nearly 100% of pages of Google Search results with high commercial intent show several text ad listings in the most visible part of the page. Think that doesn’t matter? That it somehow doesn’t apply?

Unfortunately, some experts have told business owners just that. The operators of firms that sell trendy tools to help merchants churn out blog posts and the like won’t provide balance in their marketing recommendations, for fear of undermining the value of their tools. They tell business owners that “85% of educated people won’t click on a paid link” or “sophisticated searchers in your industry are clicking on the organic links,” so “PPC is a waste of money.”

So? So? and “Really?”

I never realized until recently that much of the business community is being told flat-out lies about PPC by people who are fundamentally biased towards forms of SEO. Organic search is a wonderful thing — I’d never deny that. But when sold in a certain way, by experts that preach high marketing ideals when all they’re really doing is barely-masked, same-old SEO tactics, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. Everyone can’t get everything for free. There is only so much free to go around. And the tool vendors and evangelists are selling the fairy tale to too many people. The pot of gold has only so many nuggets to spare at this point.

The average small business owner (and by “small business”, let’s make no mistake, that doesn’t mean small dollars: small business owners are often affluent and eager to pursue best practices) is then convinced to spend months committing to a publishing schedule and listening to marketing advice that shapes the pace and tenor of the marketing strategy to the needs of the toolset vendor. Months go by. Targets get missed. Website investments of $35,000+ sit there as expensive, white-elephant fixed assets. The well-off business owner transforms themselves into a “make money in your spare time” content marketing workaholic instead of just investing a few more dollars in variable marketing costs to achieve  the needed balance.

There’s nothing wrong with content strategies, of course. We endorse them. But we endorse them for clients who are neglecting them, and who are currently spending $20,000-$100,000 per month (or more) on paid clicks. They aren’t getting cheated on high-intent paid SEM traffic.

Those who have never done PPC, and who are being told not to do it, are being cheated.

I just talked with one such business owner today. He cited all the statistics about how great organic search is purported to be for his market segment… and how bad PPC should be, if you follow the logic. I said “well, it sounds like you’re trying to create blog posts to generate traffic on some long-tail search terms, which by the way you can also do with PPC [people are often told PPC can't do long tail terms, or that it can only do long tail terms. For some reason, vendors lie a lot about what PPC can and cannot do].”

I continued: “I’d just like to see what actual referral success you’re having with that strategy. Sounds good on paper, but are you actually ranking well on many of these terms, or do you basically not show up on page 1 or 2 of the SERP’s, same as all the other more popular and unattainable terms you don’t show up for?”

He mentioned that when the tool vendor came to him, he had just surpassed 200 visitors a month to his expensive website. He had set a near-term target of 1,000 per month, and wanted to get to 10,000 a month within about a year. With an aggressive effort (something he was accustomed to executing in his long and successful career), he was going to get to 10,000 one way or another.

Then he told me he wasn’t seeing any results from following all the high-flown rhetoric of the “inbound marketing, content marketing” tool vendor. “Last month, I was around 520 visitors. This month, we’re at 587.”

Want to get to 1,000? Work and wait and believe for another year or two. Want to get to 10,000? Forget it.

587 visitors a month. That’s about how impactful “inbound marketing” is on the ground for real business owners who need real results these days. And the intent of the people who stumble into a site to read content about expensive luxury products they cannot afford? It’s non-commercial. It’s non-existent. Tire-kickers enter gibberish into the lead forms, on the rare occasions they do turn into prospects.

Are we selling solutions, or fairy tales?

For 2,000 extremely high-intent visitors, paying a healthy $3.00 per click, you’ll shell out $6,000. Certainly, that’s why many small business owners would balk at the investment, particularly when respected industry experts tell them it’s a waste of money. But what if that $6,000 turns into $75,000 in sales?

You have to at least try it. You could grow old waiting for the inbound marketing fairy tale to come true.

8 Responses to “Lies The SEO Publicity Machine Tells About PPC (When It Thinks No One’s Looking)”

  1. Josh says:

    You’re comparing a bad SEO campaign to a great PPC campaign which is obviously not a fair comparison.

    When comparing apples to apples, a good SEO campaign vs a comparable PPC campaign, the SEO campaign is going to win out every time. 95% of people don’t trust advertising. PPC is advertising. People have advertising blindness in everything from TV (hello DVR’s) to Radio (just switch the channel). People don’t want to be advertised to and they don’t trust you if you try to “interrupt” their day with your pitch which is what you are doing.

    Conversely, 89% of people trust search engines as good or excellent sources of information and they’re not talking about Adwords. They’re talking about the organic listings. People see the organic listings as great sources of information and in fact, the majority of searches don’t even know that yes, this website IS paying someone to be on the first page (SEO). It is marketing but it’s SUBTLE marketing. By and large searchers just think Google is serving up the best businesses in the area #1, 2, and 3. This is not something they believe in with Adwords.

    There have been tons of studies on click through rate, buy intent, etc. and consistently SEO always comes out on top. It’s simply undisputed at this point until the American public changes their attitude on advertising in general (which they won’t).

    However, don’t get it confused, PPC still has great benefits. It’s instantaneous, which is a huge advantage over SEO, and has a better ROI for non-competitive keyword terms where you may be the only advertiser. It is also less risky – meaning you will get at least SOME results vs a scammy SEO company and no results.

    However, if you are on a limited marketing budget and you can find an SEO worth his salt, your ROI for SEO is going to far outweigh PPC.

    PPC is good in certain areas but apples to apples, it’s just not true that it can outperform SEO.

    And that’s no lie.

  2. PPC is now so oft ignored. It is a victim of its previous success whereby affiliate marketers could pay as little as a cent to buy targeted traffic and actually out perform the developers and manufactures of the products they were supporting. Google in particular put a stop to this – and ever since then the IM community has gone out of it’s way to “bad mouth” PPC – often with hilariously convoluted claims of mis-management and malpractice by the SE’s themselves.
    The truth however is far simpler. PPC works if correctly managed. The only criteria you need to measure is you ROI.
    Taking your management and time into account (as well as the cost of clicks/impressions) do you make a profit on PPC?
    If the answer is “Yes” then their really is no other case for it to answer. In most business situations an investment of as little as a couple of hundred dollars/euros/pounds will give you all the evidence you need to see whether this is a profitable income stream or not.
    PPC still offers a potentially great reward for such a small risk.

  3. aaron wall says:

    “The pot of gold has only so many nuggets to spare at this point. … They aren’t getting cheated on high-intent paid SEM traffic.”

    Google’s benevolence knows no bounds. ;)

    Only teasing there.

    Agree 100% that PPC should be an early step. Even if it isn’t immediately profitable, it at least tells you the areas where your sense of smell was accurate & where your presumptions didn’t really match the market.

    Doing that before spending a year running down the wrong path is worth far more than the saving a few grand up front & burning a year of your life that you could have saved.

    The only complaint I would have with the above post…is the association with “SEO” in the headline. If you wrote
    “what the inbound marketing lie machine”…
    I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with it. :D

    Inbound marketing tool vendors don’t want to be associated with “SEOs” because they feel that “SEO” is stigmatized & dirty. Thus when they crap the bed, we should let them keep that label rather than passing it onto other marketing niches like SEO or PPC, IMHO.

  4. Thank you for writing this. You give me faith that somebody on the internet actually knows what they’re talking about.

  5. There’s certain sense in which “inbound marketing” — it seems to me — *is* (wink, wink) SEO. It sounds a lot to me like what SEO was a long time ago. Sell baby clothes? Write “outstanding content” about baby clothes. Watch the search engines love it.

    The indirectness of the approach is maddening, and not just to me, but to business owners like the above. They want to *grab* people when they’re warm or hot prospects – and then, get them on the phone if possible.

    So another thing the tool vendor did was dissuade him from his phone-sales strategy. “Oh, no, no, no… people don’t want you to call them. You need to schedule automated follow-up emails.” Really.

    The funny thing is, search engines can be trusted to rank all sorts of objects as “content” going forward. It will not all have to be of the ilk of “remarkable, interesting content,” like blog posts about baby clothes. If something much more transactional happens to be “interesting,” it too may rank.

    This subject matter is nothing new for me. I’ve wondered often if businesses who have a certain core competency in their industry are really best suited to turning themselves into content companies. Oh yeah… hire a writer, right? To churn out lots of “interesting” “content”? The SEO beat goes on. :)

    Disclaimer: we advise companies to do some of this stuff. It’s important to be interesting and to have a voice. But it isn’t magic beans for ranking. You do what you can. You rarely do it exclusive of other marketing methods.

  6. @Josh, your argument falls apart with the following claim:

    “89% of people trust search engines as good or excellent sources of information and they’re not talking about AdWords.”

    1. How do you know they’re not talking about AdWords? Check out a heat map on any highly commercial search query and I’m sure you’re going to find a lot of interest in the paid listings at the top of the page. When users trust information, they use it. They trust Google as a company that works to ensure relevance in both paid and organic listings. (In my opinion, they should trust Google less now that they exhibit so much bias in featuring so much innate Google content, but that’s another story.) Josh, you started out with data, but then turned around and put words in people’s mouths. Stick with data.

    2. You’ve just proved that world-class information providers should rank well on search queries that are informational in nature. By definition, users with informational rather than commercial intent are worth quite a bit less to a business today than users with high commercial intent. The marketplace for clicks is quite efficient and there’s a reason people are leapfrogging over one another to pay more for the valuable ones: *they’re measuring sales conversions*. So someone who sells wheelbarrows or legal services to high-intent customers is somehow supposed to change their core competency, stop selling that, and turn into a media company that attracts people who aren’t even interested in purchasing anything? That sounds like a slow way to make money. Advertisers who use PPC aren’t crazy. They’re interested in the narrower group of searchers whose intent is highly transactional. Transactional is great.

    You posit that SEO marketers are “subtle.” It’s funny: I’ve never met a subtle SEO. Many of them hilariously believe they are being subtle, though. By calling keyword stuffing something it isn’t, by planting invisible text on pages and thinking that’s so subtle Google can’t find out, by renaming old things constantly and giving them new names (“content marketing” etc.), by setting up link farms and selling people on “safe” “PR4″ links…. the litany of “subtle” SEO tactics is so long it isn’t worth enumerating it, in all of its glorious subtlety.

    I love “quality, original content.” My clients and I love the organic component of their overall marketing mix. But why bash PPC? Sometimes opportunities cost money for a reason.

  7. Steve Hammer says:

    The concept of separation of church and state here might be the biggest fallacy of the shills here. There’s no one size fits all solution, either on PPC or SEO. It takes a real strategy to make it right, and go where it makes sense.

    In traditional marketing, can you imagine using only one single magazine to advertise, or one outdoor board? It takes a mix to do it right. It’s not PPC or SEO, it’s how to blend that and the full suite of online media into a cohesive effort that makes sense for the business.

  8. LOVE the article Andrew!

    I talk to small business owners everyday and they’re skittish about giving my company a try because a lot of them spent lots of money on “seo” or “inbound marketing” or whatever bag of goodies they were sold, and got absolutely nothing in return for it. Because of that sour taste in their mouth, a lot of business owners reach a conclusion that marketing on the internet is a scam.

    the sad part, is that a lot of people that do seo follow the same model traditional advertising follows which is guessing if it works or not. the fact is, how many clicks a website gets or what ranking they have, doesn’t tell the business owner how many actual sales leads they’ve gotten (phone calls, emails), doesn’t tell them if the leads are a good fit (sometimes people will call asking for stuff the business owner doesn’t do) and ultimately doesn’t tell the small business owner whether they’re making money. most people that do seo, have no interest in making sure that their work is equaling the business owner making more money. IMHO, they don’t want to because they’re not confident their seo work is going to make that happen. Because if they were confident, they’d be yelling from the rooftop, “look how much money we’re making you!”

    We’re all marketers. And at the end of the day, it should be about which techniques and strategies produce the best results and help people make the most money for every dollar spent. Period. Whatever works the best. Whether it be seo, ppc, display advertising, social media, whatever. It should be about our clients and helping them make more money.


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