Search Engine Marketing: Natural/Organic Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) vs Paid Search

Search Engine Marketing:  Search Engine Optimisation and Paid Search

The opportunities for businesses to promote their businesses via search engines are Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Paid Search.

Search Engine Optimisation

Search Engine Optimisation is the process of configuring a website to appear higher in the natural or free search engine results for searches relevant to your business. These are the results to the left of the Google results page generated by the Google search algorithm. Google takes no payment for positioning in these results, and rank is based purely on Google’s assessment of a page’s relevance to a query.

A website will need to appear at or near the top of the first page of the search results to get significant traffic. Obtaining a high search result for a business is hugely valuable as it has the potential to dramatically increase website traffic and, therefore, sales and brand awareness.

Google does not publish its algorithm, and techniques for improving website performance are a matter of much speculation. This lack of clarity has led many charlatans to sell expensive, ineffective solutions for improving rankings to unsuspecting businesses.

While only a few people know exactly how Google and the other engines produce their results, the influencing factors are broadly accepted. These techniques can dramatically affect traffic (see the section on ranking factors below).

Search Engine Optimisation is often overlooked in favour of Paid Search as increasing natural search engine ranking is a lengthy and uncertain process. However, overall, it has the potential to be one of the most cost-effective and important sales channels for your business.

Paid Search 

Paid Search refers to the adverts which appear to the top, bottom and right-hand side of the natural search results. Paid Search programs, such as Google Ads, have the potential to provide highly targeted, measurable and cost-effective traffic to your website. Typically, the adverts are charged on a pay-per-click basis, meaning that the advertiser only pays for traffic driven to their site.

To place an ad, an advertiser specifies a list of targets (traditionally keywords but these days also products and webpages) for which they want the advert to appear, the advert’s text and the price they are happy to pay for a click. When a user enters a search term, Google displays a list of adverts next to the natural search results, triggered by the user’s search term. The adverts’ order is decided by the cost per click the advertiser is willing to pay and the advert’s past performance. This is known as the quality score.

Unlike Search Engine Optimisation, Paid Search campaigns can be set up quickly and generate sales and traffic within hours. Furthermore, after a few days, there will be enough data to tweak the adverts to improve performance. We will consider Paid Search in detail in the next chapter.

SEO Vs Paid Search

Research has shown that whilst users tend to click on the natural search results about two-thirds of the time, companies tend to spend two-thirds of their search engine marketing budget on Paid Search (Source: Moz). This is for three reasons:

  • Speed of results. Paid search campaigns can generate traffic quickly, while natural search campaigns can take months to show any results.
  • Transparency. Whilst natural search traffic is at the grace of the search engine’s algorithms, with Paid Search, the system is transparent with a direct relationship between spend and traffic.
  • Tracking. With Paid Search, it is easier to calculate the return on investment of the advertising spend as it is possible to track sales from when someone clicks on an advert through to checkout completion. This allows return on investment and cost per conversion to be calculated with great accuracy.

I would encourage companies not to forgo investing in Search Engine Optimisation in favour of Paid Search as, in the long term, it can provide an excellent return on investment. Search Engine Optimisation is cost-effective as the search engines do not charge for inclusion in their listings. Costs associated with natural search are due to the cost of the initial optimisation and ongoing optimisation costs. However, investment in SEO should be a gift that keeps on giving as performance will improve over time. Furthermore, these costs are fixed, while Paid Search is a variable cost.

The following table summarises the differences between paid and natural search.

 Natural SearchPaid Search
CostFixed: Cost of optimisation. No charge for listing.Variable: Charged per click
Timescale for resultsMonthsImmediate
Control of traffic volumeUnpredictable – depends on search engine algorithmDependable – traffic volume depends on budget
Technical requirementsYes – Require changes to website and site architecture.None – No changes to site needed
FlexibilityInflexible – Any changes made to a page will take several days for the search engines to registerFlexible – changes to a campaign appear at once
Return on investmentDifficult to measureEasy to measure

Search Engine Optimisation and Paid Search can also be helpful for different things. SEO is good for gaining traffic from generic terms that are often searched and can generate a high traffic volume, e.g., ‘convertible car’. These key phrases tend to be unsuitable for Paid Search as they have a high cost per click and do not often convert into sales due to their general nature.

Paid Search can be effective for targeting many low volume keywords. Popular searches like ‘car’, known as the search head, get a significant traffic proportion. However, the sum of all the less frequent but more specific searches such as ‘BMW 3 series convertible’ make up a similar or greater volume. This is known as the ‘Long tail’.

Keyphrases in the long tail are likely to have a lower cost per click and have a higher conversion rate as they are more specific. (compare ‘car’ with ‘2006 MW 3 series’).

It is impractical to optimise a website for the wide variety of key phrases that customers might use when looking for your products or services. However, with Paid Search, there is no (practical) limit on the number of keywords that can be targeted. Using Paid Search to target the search tail can be a very economical way of driving targeted traffic to your site.