How to Compare Paid Search and Organic Search Without Sounding Like a Dumb

How to Compare Paid Search and Organic Search Without Sounding Like a Dumb pixelwork

How to Compare Paid Search and Organic Search Without Sounding Like a Dumb


Which search channel is better: paid or organic? There is no simple answer to this question, despite what some practitioners may want to believe.

Last week, I had the misfortune of coming across perhaps the most misguided thread on digital marketing I've ever seen on Twitter, in which an SEO unequivocally stated that “Organic search traffic outperforms paid traffic in every metric. “

To me, these statements seemed outrageous and even inflammatory. But to my surprise, many SEOs delved into this, too Rand Fishkin who said Barry has a good point in saying that and his data backs it up.

I'm not sure what data can really support these claims that organic search performs above paid search on every metric. And Rand's answer doesn't address the real problem with this thread.

In reality, some searchers will click on the ads. Others will click on organic links. Marketers should try to capture both.

Let's talk about the current landscape and dive into that there are better, more nuanced ways to look at performance comparisons between paid search and SEO – without all the grandstanding.


Paid search growth has long outpaced organic growth

It's no secret to paid search and SEO folks that Google has constantly made updates over the last couple of years that have directly damaged organic traffic such as adding a fourth text ad above the organic results in the desktop version, and on the mobile version a third and then a fourth ad, moving local results to the top of the search results and other things.

As a result, overall organic traffic has declined over the past few quarters, as shown in this chart made from the Merkle Digital Marketing quarterly report (subscription required to view).

You don't have to take it for granted – you can take a look at the company's earnings report. Google Q1 2017, which demonstrated a 53% increase in paid clicks on Google properties. Even though it includes other channels, the vast majority is search, and if you think that's not coming at the expense of organic – well, you'd be wrong.

I'm not saying this because I'm a paid search hack trying to sell you a PPC service. Our management agency also does SEO – and does a fantastic job. I even praised the strong organic growth we were seeing a couple of years ago in a presentation at SMX Advanced about Google's decline in paid search click growth at the time. If we were seeing great organic growth overall, I would be shouting from the rooftops and telling all my clients to invest all their resources in organic.

Unfortunately, that's not the case – because again, Google has been constantly making changes that directly hurt organic search and help keep paid search growth strong.

So right away, we have a metric that paid search has an advantage. This is going to vary from brand to brand, but in general, this is the way things are moving for most sellers.

But what about all those other metrics that are supposedly amazing for organic and terrible for paid search? Anyone who understands how to make such comparisons correctly would be careful to provide nuance and specificity when explaining how performance metrics should be analyzed. Unfortunately, Twitter is not suitable for such details.

Here are two tips for anyone looking to derive meaningful comparisons between paid search and SEO.


Segment and Device Query Types

If most of your organic search traffic comes from your own branded searches, but a smaller proportion of your paid search traffic comes from branded queries, performance will vary. Impressive, I know. As such, you should segment brand vs. non-brand traffic and conversion performance, as well as segment at the category level.

This has been made more difficult by the obfuscated rise of [not provided] organic queries in analytics packages, but is still possible using tools like Google Search Console.

Similarly, organic and paid search could derive different shares of traffic from different device types for a given brand. Device types tend to perform differently on all types of metrics, from click-through rate to conversion rate to bounce rate. This would therefore eliminate any overall performance comparison and require metrics to be broken down by device.

In the case of an analysis that declares some overall winner with zero nuance about how the data was segmented, it is almost guaranteed that the individual did not bother to make such segmentations. Declaring that such general results apply to every brand in existence is simply ridiculous.


Leverage both paid and organic search, and measure incrementality

But it's not just about measuring how paid and organic search metrics compare on a given day. Also It is important to understand how they work together.

Every merchant wants to rank organically for every keyword they might consider in paid search, preferably in the first place. but simply it is not possible for every site to rank on the first page of organic listings for every query that can generate value for them.

Likewise, every brand would love to have an ad at the top of the page for every relevant query, but the economics of paid search are limited. It is not economically feasible to bid to the top position for each term, and in many cases it is not even feasible to bid to the first page of results given the expected performance for a particular query.

So we have a situation where brands would love to be listed on both paid and organic (since users will inevitably click on both types of ads), but where it is impossible to achieve perfect visibility on both. Understanding how these two types of visibility work together, then, is the key.

In the case of branded keywords, it is certainly possible that a site may be able to collect all the paid search traffic it is receiving from branded ads through its organic listings. Of course, this is going to depend on factors such as whether competitors are bidding on the brand's keywords and how many first-page organic listings are occupied by the brand, but it is possible.

Still, we found that the vast majority of brand retention tests show that organic links don't pick up all the traffic going to branded ads, so branded ads have incremental value. There is no way to say that organic trumps paid search when it comes to this incremental traffic., whether you get it through ads or you don't get it at all. Spot.

In the case of a non-branded query where a site doesn't even rank on the first page, virtually all traffic from a paid search ad is incremental. Should you try to rank organically for that query? Absolutely, but it doesn't mean you should give up on paid search just because you heard organic search is better in every metric.


Conclusion: Get rid of search partisanship

What I'm trying to get at here is that Marketers should be aware of as many different types of search visibility as possible, whether paid links, local results, or just plain old organic ads. Just choosing one marketing channel over another based on vague statements is ridiculous and really hurts the discussion by completely ignoring important nuances.

What's worse, pitting one channel against another is incredibly detrimental to advancing the conversation about how the two channels work together. Given the complicated relationship between paid and organic search, which varies from query to query, such partisan search is only good for those who specialize in one channel to justify their specialty.

In that sense, I'm glad to work at an agency that handles both paid and organic search optimization, so that we can feel free to praise the benefits of both and talk about the challenges and concerns in equal measure. We are working on all channels to squeeze all the possible value from search, whether paid or organic, while other people are betting everything on the only channel they know how to handle, whether organic or paid.

Botton line: Be open-minded, think critically, and understand the nuances of comparing paid and organic search.