The Most Destructive Lie In Search Marketing

The biggest lie in search marketing is that paid and organic search are separate channels. From the customer’s perspective, paid and natural search are nearly identical. In fact, according to this study done by Performics last year, around a third of all searchers don’t even know the difference between a paid and a natural search listing.

This lie wouldn’t be a big deal except that it causes advertisers to under-optimize their search marketing programs. There have been several studies done to show that having a paid and organic listing on the same SERP can either cannibalize or have a synergistic effect on traffic.

The problem is that most companies don’t know which one is happening for their listings. This ignorance means that companies are either leaving money on the table by not having both listings present, or wasting money cannibalizing their own traffic.

The solution to this dilemma is to think about, organize your team around, and set goals with the idea that paid and organic search are the same channel.

Let’s first explore team organization and setting goals to help explain why paid and organic should be considered the same channel despite the obvious differences in how they are executed.

If your natural search and paid search people are not currently reporting to the same boss, it is very likely that these teams rarely communicate. I have even seen paid and natural search teams within the same company using destructively competitive tactics so that each team can reach its own goal.  This competitiveness is just a simple fact of how organizations work.

Until these two groups are on the same team, you will be fighting an uphill battle to get them to collaborate. If your search analysts don’t all currently report to the same person, start the process now to combine these two teams.

Once all of your search marketers are on the same team, you can then set a combined goal for everyone involved with getting your listing on the SERP. With combined targets, it is in each person’s best interest to maximize the performance for the entire search experience.

It will become natural for the specialists to develop collaborative strategies to achieve that goal. Most search managers try to achieve this collaboration by just telling the analysts to collaborate, while setting goals that undermine that collaboration. Search managers need to walk the walk. If you want your team to collaborate, you need to set up the goal structure so that collaboration helps your team achieve their goals.

Here is an example of the difference between having separate goals and having a combined goal. Let’s say we have Jack and Jill on our search team. Jack is working on paid search and Jill is working on SEO for a particular program.

Scenario A (Separate goals)

Jack has a budget of $10,000 dollars and a revenue target of $30,000 while Jill has a budget of $2,000 and a revenue target of $40,000. The problem with this scenario is that there is no motivation for Jack and Jill to work together. They both go their separate ways to achieve their goals and leave money on the table.

Scenario B (Combined Goals)

Jack and Jill are given a combined budget of $12,000 dollars and a revenue target of $90,000 to use in whatever way they find is most effective in driving revenue. This scenario may seem like a minor change, but it reflects a major shift in how we approach optimizing our SERP listings.

This shift motivates Jack and Jill to figure out ways to minimize cannibalization and maximize synergies between paid and organic listings on the SERP. The increased revenue target reflects the belief that having a combined strategy will succeed in directing Jack and Jill to find these opportunities.

One counter argument that I have heard against combining paid and natural search, is that it removes the accountability for those working on the separate programs. This is a valid argument and one that needs to be addressed carefully.

If Jack and Jill both have a shared goal, then it would be easy for one of the two to slack off and let the other work to achieve the goal. One solution for this challenge is to have them develop a plan for how each is going to contribute to achieve their performance targets.

Once this plan is approved by each person and by the manager, it can be used to hold each person accountable. This challenge can actually have an added benefit because it will make planning a more essential part of the search marketing process. It will take extra time up front, but it will pay off in the long run.

I am consistently surprised by how little paid and organic search marketers communicate. This lack of combined strategy adversely affects the experiences of those searching for information and causes a large majority of companies to have immature search strategies.

I believe that the reason we in the search industry leave so much money on the table is due to an improper perspective of paid and natural search.

In other words, we are lying to ourselves. It is easy to see why we have split them up. They are very different when it comes to execution and how they are funded, but the reasons for combining them are much stronger than the reasons to split them up.

Developing unified search teams, search goals, and search strategies will allow you to fully optimize your company’s marketing initiatives, and create the best experience for your customers.

Photo from Klearchos Guide to the Galaxy. Used under Creative Commons license.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Search Marketing | In House Search Marketing


About The Author: is an MBA candidate at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Prior to heading back to school full time, he was a worldwide search marketing manager for Adobe Systems.

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  • Brittany Highland

    Richard, thanks for the article. It can be easy to compartmentalize in the workplace and miss out on opportunities or – worse yet – waste time and resources. I am actually interested that so few searchers (1/3) differentiate between ads and organic results, but that certainly doesn’t take away from your argument.

  • Ron Coachman

    Richard, slightly off topic but wondering – what are your thoughts on having separate landing pages for ppc and seo? And also separate ppc landing pages for different keywords

  • Fritz Barnes

    Excellent insights. I’m embarassed that I had never thought about the synergy vs. cannibalization question. I’ll be sure to consider these issues moving forward. Thanks.

  • Brian Shindurling

    Great article, Richard. I’ve known for years that Paid Search and Organic Search are most effective when they are managed as one unit. The task at hand is in measuring the influence of Paid Search ads on Organic Search performance and vice versa. We know that CTR generally increases on both listings when a company has above-the-fold rankings in paid and organic search–but how can we attribute organic revenue to paid search’s influence on the organic traffic?

  • dirigodev

    I agree a wee bit that paid and organic search are close
    relatives.  But, the same channel?  I have been digging deep into a proprietary
    analytics system that I’ve been running for almost 10 years.  I’ve found some interesting dynamics for my health
    information site that sells products. 
    Looking at >50K sales and more than 50MM visitors I’m astonished by the
    interplay between organic, PPC, remarketing, social, and e-mail marketing.  My grand plan is to figure out how to
    attribute order attribution to more accuracy advertising spend.  I have several thousand hours invested in the
    project which, IMHO, provides competitive advantage.  I’m horrified by the accuracy of programs
    like Google Analytics that misallocate, in our case, more than 74% of the order
    attribution.  This is because the cookie
    duration is too short and because prospects are using multiple devices in the
    path to conversion (e.g. home computer, work computer, smart phone, and
    tablet).  It is also interesting to note
    that it is not uncommon for a prospect to use 2-4 different email addresses
    with common SoundEx
    or fuzzy search characteristics (e.g.,, are the same user because they share common cookies or other use
    characteristics).  If you are able to marry or stitch cookies
    together the landscape looks completely different.  I’m able to “stitch” cookies together using
    e-mail address because we have a robust newsletter and website toolset that
    requires the use of an email address. 
    Any site with a login is positioned well to use advanced tracking

    In my data I’m picking up on a trend.  PPC users are much more likely to only use
    PPC, readvertising, and non-referrer (e.g. coming directly to the site).  The same is true of organic (e.g. organic and
    non-referrer).  The intersection of
    purchasers who use both PPC and organic on the path to conversion is less than
    10%.  This counters your argument in a big way??  Most of the time (e.g. 90%) PPC and
    organic are distinct channels (e.g. there is no crossover).  Anyone else have rich data to backup this

    One more little tidbit. 
    I don’t use advertising budgets. 
    Instead I use CPO targets.  As
    long as I’m achieving an acceptable CPO I’ll continue to spend.  This is the direct response model. Budgets
    are for folks who don’t understand marketing or who have other constraints like

  • janet bartoli

    I find it amazing that Performics came up with this case study, meanwhile when their client begs/urges for this to be done, they ignore. Yes, of course, this surprises me too that it’s not top of mind in most agencies. They MUST work together! 

  • Dylan Whitman

    Can’t really agree with this at all…. you should have different layouts and landing page variations for paid vs search and your cost structure is obviously totally different and you measure ROI in a completely different way. 

  • Hilary St Jonn

    Don’t all teams in Internet Marketing need to work together? Does the social media management team not need to speak to the paid and organic search teams? It seems that while they are separate channels in general, all of it is interconnected.

    It also surprises me when I speak to clients about PPC that some of them really have no idea that the pink ones are paid.  Sometimes we work in this field so much we are blinded and don’t realize what everyday non Internet Marketing people see!

  • Alfredo Almeida

    That’s a good article…maybe some guys from Adsense and Adwords see it to ;)

  • Luigi

    Integrated marketing is true not only as part of an overall marketing strategy, but also in targeted marketing campaigns as mentioned in Scenarios A and B.  With in-depth and qualified reporting, it is easy to see where the budget should be spent and the ROI on each marketing spend.

  • Richard Carey

    I think the ideal situation is to have the same URL, but have dynamically generated content depending on where the person is coming from. This way you can test different variations of the page on different traffic sources, but you can minimize the number of different URLs that you need. 

  • Richard Carey

    Hi Hillary – thanks for the comment. I agree that all channels need to communicate, but he difference I see is that from a user perspective paid and organic search are nearly identical.  Getting an email and searching are very different.  If I am one user doing a search I see the paid and the organic listing on the same page and I can only click on one of them.  

  • Richard Carey

    Hi Dylan, thanks for sharing your thoughts.  I agree that paid and organic search are executed and even funded very differently.  I think you can still have different landing pages for paid and natural even if the teams working on them are held to the same goal.    

  • erikeric

    I’m sorry but this all seems pretty non-specific. What would be an example of an actual specific difference in managing these together, other than talking about landing pages? Unless you are assuming that the majority of the time one cannibalizes the other, you’re going to have less exposure. For instance, if you stop bidding on a keyword because you rank high naturally for it, I think you are doing it wrong. Just step back a second and ask yourself: “Is having more visual presence on Google better or worse than having less?” Of course being more visible on Google is better! So why ignore your opportunity to get even more traffic for relevant keywords? 

  • Paul Kienker

    This article does have some good points behind it Richard, but from experience in small business, many clients don’t necessarily have the budget to cover their SEO in both realms (PPC and SEO). As a result, the majority of businesses would rather build sustainable placement rather than pay per click. At one point, I thought one of our clients was suffering from cannibalism in that they were ranking in the top two positions on Google as well as the top position on Google Adwords. 

  • Mike Williams

    I never click on paid advertising. Im surprised 1/3 do not know the difference

  • PatricioFilellaLok

    Keyword analysis has to be done with both departments together before both campaigns.Long tail keywords can be maximized with articles if not competitive, therefore maybe, and just maybe, we will not need to spend on paid links for those specific keywords. Truth is, it’s the strategy we are talking about, and this has to be done with both of the departments altogether at the very beginning. A lack of communication in a specific scenario of a trending topic between these two will definitely end up in a lost opportunity.

  • Heather Physioc

    I agree with the key point of the article. Our PPC and SEO temas work very closely together to try to achieve common goals, and ultimately what matters is the bottom line. I’d be interested to read more about what to look for to identify cannibalization vs. enhancement, and either fix or improve accordingly, though. Have you written anything about that?


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