Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Paid Search Versus Search Engine Optimization

2004 Google Chief Engineer Craig Neville-Manning insisted that Google maintained a strict separation between the search index part of Google and the paid advertising part. Sometimes this separation was referred to as a "Chinese Wall" between organic search engine results and paid search engine results, but this terminology fell out of favor once Google started trying to gain suction in the harshly competitive market in China, and the recent Google in China drama has definitely kept the term buried, but that's another whole story.

The question is, does Google still live up to this separation between paid and organic results? They insist that Adwords is totally separated from organic search engine placement, that the two are in parallel channels and as such will never meet. What exactly does this mean in practice?

Rumors that Google offers tech help in achieving better organic search results placement to those who drop big money on paid search results have long circulated. They appear to have been true, at least in a few situations, according to minutes of technical assistance meetings between Google's engineers and some of its big ad spenders. The bottom line is that the engineers were giving away information that was mostly the kind of stuff you or I might find in the Webmaster Guidelines. Is that information more valuable coming from the mouths of Google's tech wizards than it is coming from the Webmaster tools? It's hard to say for sure.

Is this something the average webmaster should be up in arms about? Maybe not. The big spending advertisers make up most of Google's revenue for paid search. Any business with a brain will do what they can to hang onto their best customers. That's why Google designates an account representative for each major advertiser. It's a bit of a chicken or egg situation: did Google do this to keep its biggest customers happy, or did the big customers feel entitled to technical help, having written checks with lots of zeroes on them?

The big divide, it would appear, is between the advertiser with a small budget and an advertiser with a big budget. If Google is providing face time with its engineers to the big advertisers, is it possible they'll kick in some other perks in the future? While it's easy to go all slippery slope with this, it does make you wonder. If Google, as it maintains, never sells higher ranking in search results, are they indirectly doing it by letting big ad spenders meet with their engineers? Are the big companies getting the recipes with the real secret ingredients, or do they get the same as you or I get from the webmaster tools, only straight from the engineers rather than the help pages?

Most internet users find organic search results much more relevant than paid search advertisements, but "most" doesn't mean 90% - it's more like 61%. In other words, nearly 40% find paid search ads more relevant than organically generated ones. This means that paid search versus organic search isn't so much an either / or proposition as it is a "how much SEO versus how much paid placement" proposition.

Studies, such as one done by iProspect in 2004 teased apart the various sectors of the over all internet user demographic and determined that how much you emphasize organic versus paid search depends on five things:

1. Gender - A higher percentage of women than men like paid search ads 2. Employment Level - A higher level of partially employed, unemployed, and users who did not graduate college find paid search results more relevant 3. Education - The more educated a user is, the more likely he or she will prefer organic search results in terms of relevancy 4. Length of Internet Experience - the more years a person has been using the internet, the more relevant they find organic search results 5. Frequency of Use of Internet - the more often a user gets on the internet, the more relevant they tend to find organic search results

However, it's important to note that in all these categories, organic search results prevailed by splits of 65%/35% to 60%/40%. So no matter what demographic your site targets, you can't discount search engine optimization, even if you put a lot of money into online advertising. You can't throw all your eggs in one basket and hope to succeed at e-commerce.

Here's an analogy. Have you ever been shopping in the springtime for plants for your garden and marveled at the selection of tall, bright flowers that are already blooming? Chances are good that the nursery they came from added lots of fertilizer of the type designed to produce lots of quick growth and blooming. The thing is, the root structure isn't always that great, so you have to be careful transplanting them so that you'll get good root growth, because without good roots, those early forced blooms will fade quickly and not be replaced with the kind gained from long-term care.

Your paid search results can get you some quick growth right off the bat, but if you don't have the root structure of good content, frequent updating, and smart use of keywords and tags, those paid results can't prop you up for very long. Sure, you can always start a new advertising campaign to goose your site's ranking, but that alone isn't enough to get you steady, sustained growth over the long term. It's not an either / or proposition: both are necessary for the best results.

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