Hi everyone and welcome to another episode of Ask, Learn, Grow. The show where the Reef team answer questions and share insights and updates from the digital marketing industry.
Joined today with Matt Dove, one of the leadership team members here at Reef, and we’re going to be talking about why you should combine SEO and PPC.
In a lot of cases, SEO and SEM are still viewed as separate channels – organic search and paid search.
Why do you think that SEO & SEM are still viewed as completely separate entities, even today?
Yeah, thanks, Scott. Good to be back again. I think it’s probably for two main reasons.
One, I think it’s probably because it’s one of those things that’s just been inherited from the way that traditional agencies always managed advertising.
It’s the idea that there’s a sort of linear campaign strategy with a media buying plan born out of it.
That plan is then handled by media buyers before it’s executed across various channels. Each of these channels being a different line item, often managed by more than one team or channels being completely independently managed.
In Search, I think what happened was that we ended up with paid Search being managed by a PPC team and organic rankings managed by an SEO team or a technical web team.
Due to the two being seen as mutually exclusive, you then have copy, creative and content handled separately too.
The second reason is because I think it’s more straightforward for agencies and businesses to think about these linear conversion paths and channel specific return on investment.
We invested ‘this much’ and in return we got ‘this much’, rather than the reality which is a complicated blend of multiple channels and customers, let’s be honest, behaving quite erratically during the buying cycle.
Yeah Google recently released an in depth guide or white paper on this and refer to it as the ‘messy middle’.
So we often hear about traditional approaches that aren’t quite right for digital, but why isn’t it right for Search as a channel?
What this siloed management style doesn’t really account for is the more nuanced way that specifically Search works.
The same applies to the wider digital landscape really, but particularly with Search, it doesn’t account for the role it plays in the modern customer journey or that kind of messy middle that you mentioned.
I mean, it’s just after midday and I’ve already ran about 20 search queries already. I’m sure you have too, as I’m sure anyone watching has and who knows how many more I’ll make today.
So because Search is such a dynamic environment with so many different ways to interact with it, including:
- Paid Search ads
- Organic listings
- Sponsored maps listings
- Featured snippets
- Knowledge graph
…and the fact that really anyone can be present there on a global level, your ability as digital marketers or rather your effectiveness to be able to seize the attention of audiences predictably, fluctuates on a daily, if not an hourly basis.
So there’s that.
Now I also think that it seems easier for businesses to split channels up and look back at historical data and say, “Well we expect this to happen and that to happen. So we’ll give $X amount of budget to this channel or $Y amount of budget to that channel and off you go, good luck.”
Now there’s more predictability with paid than organic, for sure, but it’s all controlled by several incredibly complex algorithms, which is hard for even the people at Google to predict, because there’s just so many variables to it.
By its very nature, it’s not like, Sundar Pichai is sitting over in Mountain View in front of a big control desk, twisting dials and pulling levers.
There’s a lot of ambiguity with Search, which means while it’s one of the most lucrative growth marketing channels, it’s also challenging to manage properly long term, particularly if you’re aiming to continue that growth trajectory.
So what are some of the things that can influence the performance of Search, specifically that are perhaps, outside of our normal view of control? What kind of impact does that have?
I think it’s things like the weather and temperature, through to politics, new legislation, market forces, even things like changes to regulations, whether for a particular industry, geo-location or national and global.
That’s before we even get to competitors, absolutely capsizing an auction field and in some cases almost redefining the barriers to entry in certain categories because they’re simply willing to suddenly out bid everyone else.
Before, you know it, the ROAS just isn’t even there anymore because the CPCs have gone through the roof, although Google does a better job of managing that these days.
I mean, just with Google ads alone, you’re really dealing with a kind of economic environment worth about $130 billion swirling around in it globally. That’s the same GDP of some small countries, so good luck predicting that as a marketing person.
I mean, even with all of the modelling in the world, it would be near impossible to do so with any degree of accuracy, really.
I mean, there are tools out there, but if we look at organic search, it’s things like core algorithm updates.
Some are barely noticeable and cause only a low level of fluctuation reports, while others are, let’s be honest, catastrophic for some businesses.
Particularly if there’s been some underhand SEO tactics that have been used to gain quick wins and then rankings suddenly drop.
I’m not talking about penalties here, but that’s a risk too, which is why you really need to keep an eye on top of your link profile and make sure who’s managing it knows what they’re doing because it’s really important.
I’ve spoken to lots of people who have fallen victim to really ugly backlink acquisition and it’s not good.
There’s also first party changes too, that may go unnoticed by marketers. These are things that are kind of within your control or as a company, within your control.
It could be things like technical infrastructure of the website, CMS updates, site migrations, or even seemingly quite innocuous updates to page content that might appear as simply a styling thing, but it could really be a bulk update or global changes, which can all just leave you wondering “What on Earth happened to my traffic?”
Again, that’s before we look at competitors.
So with organic search it’s just as pertinent. People launching strong SEO strategies, technical SEO, content marketing, and really aggressive link building, are a threat.
Also competitor brands experiencing a surge in media exposure can result in them generating significant brand signals and increased relevancy, making them suddenly, hugely more visible.
Even something unintentional like a blog post that’s just suddenly gone viral for some reason or a new product launch that the market picks up and really starts running away with.
You just can’t assume that what worked last quarter or last year will work again.
When we’re looking at search channels on a singular level, that’s really important.
So when you hear about people testing paid versus organic search, it just seems a bit strange to me.
I mean, sure there’s going to be exceptions there, like for example, certain fields can have exceptionally expensive keywords, so it’s just not worth it for some businesses, that I admit because the return on advertising spend just isn’t there and over time it doesn’t really change.
Really though, if Search is where the attention of your audience is, then you need to be there as frequently and as meaningfully as possible.
Which means approaching paid and organic as an integrated strategy is really a no brainer in most cases.
So the point with all of this, is that if we look at people just running paid search, you’ve got so many factors influencing the performance of that one channel alone, even though it’s essentially the same channel – Search.
There’s really an element of risk involved in either only using this one channel or not thinking about the other lens that people, your customers or prospective customers, are actually viewing the search results through, which is in this case, SEO.
So it sounds like in most cases, running both paid and organic search together is probably the best option for the majority of people.
What if running paid and organic search isn’t possible, due to budgets, red tape, resource allocation… whatever it may be?
How would you make the case for running both together?
Yeah, I think it’s a good point and I think a lot of the time it’s making whoever you report to, the more senior people within the business or the business owner, or the board, more aware of the situation and opportunity.
Its really important.
No matter how great you are at PPC, you’re going to be haemorrhaging opportunity if you don’t also have a strong organic presence too.
The same is true of SEO, but arguably to a lesser extent in some cases.
So I guess it really just comes down to how comfortable you are with this and for how long.
If there isn’t someone dominating a category, it’s only a matter of time before someone does start taking share of search. Perhaps with an awesome content strategy in terms of organic search, or they really start scaling paid search, maybe with newly acquired investor funding.
So if you’re running paid and not organic, and that’s because you tried it and it didn’t work for some reason, I’d say try and try again.
Find someone new to help you do it differently because unless you’re an outlier, you already have the business case for SEO, otherwise you wouldn’t keep spending money on paid search.
That’s why you’re far better off not separating them out or only running one of them.
I think from a financial standpoint, you’ve got to look at kind of two variables here.
- One’s the cost of the keywords that you currently don’t rank for organically. There’s opportunity there in ranking for key words that you think will generate conversions.
- Then the second is the cost of the clicks that you’d pay for those keywords with paid search.
So depending on what you have running right now, you can look back at historical data, take into account the fluctuations that have occurred, the CPC growth trajectory, seasonality, and other things and get a very rough estimate of what your future PPC might look like.
There’s a few tools out there that can do this for you, or you can use Google Keyword Planner to help with it.
You could just do it yourself, but you’ll want to make sure you’re able to incorporate some level of statistical analysis in this, to get a clean data set to work with and then extrapolate from.
Now the advantage of course, is that you’re able to incorporate the data you choose, which means you can blend organic and paid data together to get a clearer picture of where you’re heading.
But now, I suppose I should circle back to my earlier point in that all the modelling in the world isn’t going to tell you exactly what’s going to happen.
Realistically, you’re not going to know what’s going to happen and there are some really important things to understand.
So I think when you’re looking at making a case for both SEO and SEM, one point has to be:
The longer you buy traffic, the more you’ll spend over time, and you’ve got to ask the question of whether this is sustainable? What if the price of traffic or your CPA increases?
I think two, you’ll eventually hit a ceiling with paid search, which means your return on advertising spend will eventually begin to decrease and you’ll have to invest disproportionate additional budget and time to make it work.
Thirdly, you’re going to remain very much exposed if you’re relying solely on paid, for all the reasons that I mentioned earlier, with all the different variables and components that are involved, that are outside of your control.
So I think the ideal outcome here is that we integrate paid and organic search into a single strategy.
You might not be able to do it today, but I think keep chipping away at whoever holds the purse strings.
It needs to evolve over time, so that’s regular reviews and adjustments, probably quarterly in terms of strategy, not management and optimization, obviously that’s much more frequent.
Obviously there’s exceptions there with major red flags and events and the like, that can throw it out.
There are a whole bunch benefits to this.
So, number one, you diversify your risk in Search by building a much stronger presence in Search across both paid and organic, which offers some protection against the changes we spoke about.
Two, you’re going to be able to control and improve your overall blended cost per acquisition or cost per lead, which over time is going to give you a far better performance outcome.
What I’m really talking about here is not looking at six months performance in isolation, but two, three or even four year performance… which you should be doing if you’re really taking this stuff seriously, or the business should be doing as a whole if you’re taking it seriously.
Another point would be take up more of the search results page as well. This is valuable real estate and you start to build serious presence in the categories or topic areas that are most relevant to the business and audience.
So that’s really the way to look at it.
You can stop worrying about ranking for a handful of bottom of funnel keywords and start thinking about how you are going to dominate niches and build out towards wider areas.
Oh, and I’d say the other thing as well is your conversion rate is likely to increase because you’re sending more targeted traffic to your site from a greater number of touchpoints.
It’s likely to give you a much better quality of visitor that your conversion optimization activity can then take advantage of.
Finally I’d say you also get an edge on your competition, because believe it or not, many people aren’t viewing and managing paid and organic search in an integrated manner.
So it’s a great opportunity and even if your competitor has, on the surface, a huge amount of organic presence and enviable rankings, integrating your search strategy like this can really help you drive the growth that you need.
So I think that the key takeaway is that firstly, it’s not rocket science, it’s just about being efficient and structured and not getting too bogged down or stagnant with how you approach paid and organic search.
I think it’s definitely worth thinking about what the impact of this might be on what you’re really trying to achieve.
Yeah, thanks Matt, you’ve given people quite a lot to think about there I suspect and I presume people might have questions too. Feel free to send them in and we’ll be happy to help and answer anything that you may want to discuss.
If you want to put a burning topic or a problem to the team, feel free to send those in too and we’ll see what we can do for a future video.
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