How Recent Organic Search Changes Will Affect Paid Search

Search marketers were pitched not one but two curveballs recently which have forever reshaped the landscape of search engine optimization (SEO).


The industry saw the first one coming a mile away as Google began encrypting organic search queries two years ago. Now, there’s almost zero visibility into the organic keywords which drive visitors to websites (other than what is offered in Google Webmaster Tools).

Understanding the granular relationship between a website and its organic keyword traffic has been the core of modern SEO. Without this deep level of insight, it becomes clear that organic search marketers will have to adjust their approach.

The other major change crept up on the SEO community as the Hummingbird algorithm was live for a month and was a virtual secret until Google announced it in September. This is rather unusual as SEOs have been quick to notice previous, major algorithmic changes the moment they have been introduced. For example, when Google released the Panda update a few years ago, some sites immediately experienced a major drop in traffic and publicized their woes.

Hummingbird focuses on better understanding the concepts within a query rather than relying strictly on the alphanumeric characters and matching them up.

Google provided fairly transparent rationale for both changes. Consumer privacy concerns were at the root of organic search keyword encryption and prompted a larger discussion over what kind of data Web publishers should share outside of their own walls. With Hummingbird, Google hopes to improve search engine results by better discerning the concepts behind a search than ever before. It reportedly works much better with mobile search where consumers using voice search generally input longer queries than typed searches.

The Impact On Paid Search

A complex relationship has existed between paid and organic search ever since the rise of search engine marketing in the late 1990s. The most successful brands have found ways to integrate the two disciplines and connect them as one holistic search engine marketing program. These elite marketers operate with an understanding that when one lever is pushed, it pulls on the other.

One of the initial assumptions discussed in the SEM blogosphere was that these recent natural search changes may drive some SEO budgets to pay-per-click (PPC) search. Well-known search marketer, Eric Enge, CEO of Stone Temple Consulting, hasn’t yet noticed this shift. “While some people may do more PPC as a result of the recent Google changes, we have not seen any mass movement in that direction among our clients,” says Enge.

Advice Interactive Group’s VP of Media, Shelley Ellis, feels there may have been some business motivations behind some of these moves. “Shortly after the first time SEO encryption was announced around May of 2010, I predicted that part of Google’s reasoning behind that decision might have something to do with the future of search remarketing on Google AdWords,” Ellis explains. “I found it interesting that Google’s recent announcement or update on this element of SEO coincided with Google’s search remarketing coming out of beta (now available to all advertisers).”

Will Budgets Migrate?

Only time will tell if some portion of SEO budgets will migrate to paid search campaigns. For now, SEOs seem to be contemplating how their approach needs to change in order to roll with the punches. One of the action items is to get more integrated with PPC counterparts to supplement the data loss from encrypted search.

“It used to be that SEO pushed keyword information to PPC but, with SEO keyword encryption, now the SEO teams are asking for information from the paid media teams,” says Ellis. “Through analytics and matched search queries, we can now break down the types of keyword searches that brought a searcher to specific PPC landing pages.”

Paid search marketers may find their approach evolving as well. With Google now matching search queries slightly differently than before, there could be some useful insights from organic search on how to best to target and message consumers.

“Hummingbird’s push toward better understanding a user’s intent during a search may cause publishers to focus more themselves on building pages and PPC campaigns around user intent, as well,” says Enge. “That won’t happen overnight, but I can see it happening over time.”

There’s no doubt it’s key to tap into Google’s deep understanding of what consumers really want from their searches. Before Hummingbird, it was all about matching alphanumeric strings, so many paid search marketers may not have paid much attention to user intent. Now, as Google applies its Knowledge Graph for better organic search results, paid marketers can leverage these insights as valuable market research.

Paid and organic search are the yin and yang to the bigger puzzle that is search engine marketing. Whatever impacts one, may impact the other. Although the long-term effect that these recent organic changes will have on both may not be known for some time, search marketers can only act in the short term and hope for the best. It would make sense for each side of the lake to stay connected – there’s a good chance that the ripples and waves from one will certainly be felt by the other.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEM | Google: Hummingbird | Google: Secure Search | Google: Web Search | Paid Search Column


About The Author: has been a search marketer since 2003 with a focus on SEM technology. As a media technologist fluent in the use of leading industry systems, Josh stays abreast of cutting edge digital marketing and measurement tools to maximize the effect of digital media on business goals. He has a deep passion to monitor the constantly evolving intersection between marketing and technology. You can follow him on Twitter at @mediatechguy.

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  • Adam Dince

    Great post. As long as the majority of clicks keeps coming from organic search, brands that move budgets to paid will find that their missing out and will eventually re-allocate budget back to organic.

  • Larry Kim

    who cares if the majority of clicks come from organic search if the intent of those searches are not commercial. (eg: informational queries). The vast majority of clicks from high commercial intent keywords (i.e. people wanting to buy something now) come from the sponsored listings.

  • Adam Dince

    LOL! Keep focusing on transactional terms. I’ll be happy to convert the visits who come in top to mid funnel. Have fun.

  • Tyson Downs

    Yeah I agree, it doesn’t matter so much if you are getting organic traffic, if it isn’t bringing you leads or sales. Heck, or a while on my site I was getting organic traffic from the search term ‘new’ lol. It was because I forgot to rename an image and I was getting image searches from it. lol

  • Jayne Reddyhoff

    “…Before Hummingbird, it was all about matching alphanumeric strings, so many paid search marketers may not have paid much attention to user intent….” Really? Are so many paid search marketers so short sighted?

    If that’s true,it explains why several of our customers prefer working with us!

  • Shelley Ellis

    I think there’s a time/place for organic and for paid. A lot of brands that were just beginning to understand “SEO” are confused at the changes in how things are ranked now. The reality is that they need to understand the overlap now across all their online marketing and how it affects SEO. They would do better to focus on an integrated marketing strategy where all their marketing works together towards a common goal and understanding that some of their marketing will target early researchers and some marketing efforts will hit those ready to buy. If someone thinks they can throw up a website and just survive strictly on paid search…that’s a very expensive marketing strategy to live by.

  • Adam Dince

    You rock!

  • danielle

    I dont see this as being true for experienced SEM folks. Maybe it is true when you are just starting in SEM and don’t necessarily understand all the variables involved. In general though, this would make for some very expensive, non relevant campaigns with insane CPA’s otherwise ….

  • Adam Dince

    In response to some of the comments above, don’t blame organic visitors landing on your pages for poor keywords on the organic channel. It may well be the quality of the optimization of your content and images. In a recent post on Conductor’s blog,!. they call out MarketingSherpa’s report that Organic Search conversion rates are killing most other channels. I’m by no means saying that organic is more important than paid or any other channel. I agree with Shelley’s comment that a smart digital marketing strategy is holistic and not focused on one channel.

  • Larry Kim

    knowledge graph is going to crush informational queries

  • Adam Dince

    Aye—I really hope you have a better understanding of semantic search than that. I’ll take a leap of faith that you do and you’re just being snarky.


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