Having led marketing at several large advertisers, we have had the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with the teams from both Google and Bing. We have been invited to strategy sessions at their headquarters, had their teams on site for bi-annual “search summits”, held weekly strategy and status calls with account teams, etc. When you spend (or have the potential to spend) significant dollars with them, the vendors pull out all the stops to make sure you have what you need and are getting great service. One trip to Google’s HQ really stands out to me as it cemented to me the importance of a balance between SEO and PPC.
Several years ago, I was invited to Mountain View to discuss go-forward strategies, alpha and beta test opportunities and ways that my company could partner more effectively with Google. At the end of the day, they shared some emerging capabilities and tests they had in market at the time. One test that was mentioned rather casually and just in passing was a new SERP layout that was in market in Spain for the travel vertical. The test involved a layout that included nothing but paid ads on page one. Yes – the entire page was a combination of PPC, Meta search (a price comparison auction that’s endemic to the travel vertical) and paid placements on the Google map – no organic links at all until page two.
Time has gone by now and the test doesn’t appear to have been rolled out more broadly (at least not yet) – but it got me thinking about what the implications might be for the future of search. Many enterprises have spent years investing in organic optimization – the “free” traffic – while opting not to invest in an ongoing Paid Search program. If Google were ever to roll this kind of update out more broadly or across different verticals, years of work on ensuring organic visibility would be impacted in one fell swoop.
Does this mean that companies should stop investing in SEO for fear of some sweeping change Google (or Bing for that matter) might make? Absolutely not! Investing in SEO and ensuring that your company ranks well for the terms, themes and topics that drive your business is critically important. Our belief is that Google, while interested in making tons of money for themselves and their shareholders, also needs to continue to be relevant. The utility and usefulness of any search engine would drop significantly if all it did was serve ads and reward those that were willing to pay to be there. That hearkens back to the early days of search when click arbitrage was still rampant and clicks on paid ads just led to another search engine that, at times, was nothing but more paid ads. Google has no interest in killing the very thing that brings people to the site in the first place – customer utility.
Smart marketers are investing in both SEO and PPC and covering both bases. Investments in SEO are foundational – it’s must-do, always-on, table stakes but requires innovation and adapting to change. You must have good content that is relevant to your industry, stays fresh and brings engaged readers to your site. You must have rock solid architecture that lets engines crawl your site and more importantly, allows your visitors to easily navigate and transact with you. Your SEO strategy should adhere to the specific guidelines that Google puts out frequently about what sites will and won’t be rewarded in search. You should earn links from trusted, relevant sites related to your industry that reaffirm to Google and your customers that your site is trustworthy and your content relevant. All of that is “must do”. That said, investing in PPC and understanding how it works and when and where to use it is also critical. Marketing organizations need to test and learn their way into the space to develop a mastery of Paid Search. Understand the value of protecting your own brand terms. Understand what keywords drive the most qualified traffic to your site. Understand what kind of incremental traffic you can drive by being present in both PPC and SEO. In our minds, search marketing is not an “either/or” proposition. It’s a “both/and” channel where sophisticated marketers can win in both channels.