Q: We are spending a lot of money monthly on AdWords for our brand name, even though we have a #1 rank in Google for the same words. Aren’t we just throwing that money away, because the same people would click on our non-paid listing if the ad wasn’t there? Is there any research on this question?
A: We’re often asked this question! I think we have an especially good vantage point for it, because we provide both organic SEO and paid search management services, rather than just one or the other. Like so many SEO questions, the answer is, “it depends.”
The general SEO/SEM industry consensus is that you will see an increase in traffic by including AdWords sponsorship, even when your site has top organic ranks for the same keyword. In our experience, this is generally true. Paid search results are very prominent and growing more so, especially in mobile screens. In some cases, even a #1 organic rank is pushed out of the first screen of mobile search results, so the only way to have a prominent Google spot is with a paid ad.
Recent industry data has shown large YOY increases in clicks on paid ads, while organic search activity has simultaneously languished. In 2016 and 2017, Google consistently made changes to the layout and contents of search results to favor paid ads at the expense of organic results. This is no big surprise, since Google earns billions from paid ads every year.
Most of our clients are looking for two measures of performance in their paid search campaigns: an ROI measure (Average cost of sale, or a similar metric), and a total volume of sales. If our client will get more total sales with both organic and paid results running for the brand name, and the ROI hits our targets, we’re probably going to recommend keeping those ads running.
That said, we think a good dose of skepticism and experimentation is called for, because of the inherent conflicts of interest here. It’s not surprising that Google has produced studies suggesting that search ads drive traffic that would not be provided solely by organic traffic. See links to past Google research for Mobile and Desktop devices. Full desktop study.
Naturally some people question Google’s data that suggests you are better off paying Google more money. In contrast to the Google studies, some research from eBay with a different conclusion can be seen here.
A main takeaway from eBay research was that their paid search ads were ineffective and cannibalized organic search traffic (Here and Here). However, there is also discussion of eBay’s flawed paid search strategy (Here).
The eBay findings provided a helpful counterpoint to Google’s studies, but they were really only applicable for eBay users’ specific searching behavior and their specific AdWords campaign structure. These studies are also very old. Since then, the search results have changed to increasingly favor paid results, and mobile search has risen to a dominant position. We don’t think the eBay conclusions can be be broadly applied to other businesses and websites.
We recommend cautious experimentation to find your own best course. A test would consist of turning on and off paid search advertising for a select list of keywords that have top organic ranks, and monitoring changes in total traffic & sales (including both organic and paid search). You’ll have to set up these experiments so that they aren’t susceptible to timing factors such as increased traffic on weekends. Because of the potential drop in visibility during testing, we don’t recommend running these experiments during a high season.
Organic search and paid search each have advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. We see a place for both of them in the online marketing mix!