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SEO Tips

Balancing Paid and Organic Search Listings

By Anne Kennedy Guest Writer, to Search Engine Watch 

Do you really need both "organic" or "natural" listings, generated by search engine optimization (SEO), and paid placement, aka pay-per-click advertising (PPC), to be successful on search engines?

The answer is an emphatic "Yes!" according to an expert panel assembled at the Search Engine Strategies conference in San Jose to grapple with that very question.

Highlighting the benefits of a combined approach, panelists named higher overall click-through rates, greater penetration of search engine results "real estate," more comprehensive keyword research, and building credibility as clear reasons to create campaign strategies with both organic and paid listings.

Take a Lesson from Print

"Magazines have been successfully balancing ads and editorial since the 1880's," remarked Greg Jarboe, Co-founder of SEO-PR, "and search engines have been balancing sponsored and web results since 1999" he added, pointing to content/ad splits now hovering around 50-50 across all media.

"SEO can be compared to public relations on the Web," said Stacy Williams, president of Prominent Placement, "and PPC to advertising on the Web." Use both together, she advised to remain visible to both fast-movers who'll click on paid listings, and researchers who review only editorial listings.

"Look at it like playing Monopoly," advised Andrew Wetzler, president of Morevisibility.com. "A primary goal of any search engine marketing initiative should be to control as much real estate as possible on any search result, in a cost effective manner." With big bucks and high expectations riding on many sites' marketing, traffic must occur, he stated.

On how to balance spending, David Williams, chief strategist and co-founder of 360i said, "Use both in a carefully managed campaign to complement one-another. A typical strategy is to maximize free listings through SEO first, then augment and round off with PPC placements." However, he added, PPC helps in the early stages of SEO for must-have keywords while SEO is in progress.

Comparing SEO and PPC

Content optimization for organic results and pay-per-click advertising provide complementary benefits, the panelists agreed. Jarboe described a study at SEO-PR that revealed click-through rates tripled for a site positioned in top spots for both natural and paid listings.

"SEO can be the lowest cost form of traffic, while PPC is an excellent tool to round off natural SEO voids," said Dave Williams. "Natural SEO positions can generate similar or greater traffic (and conversion) as PPC, while PPC helps to maximize share of voice and search impact."

Establishing consistent lead flow with multiple channels, said Wetzler. Free (organic) is best but traffic will fluctuate. Paid traffic is more reliable, and though costly, PPC allows more rapid maneuverability than organic listings.

Paid inclusion is a middle ground: though there's no guarantee of position, you can use it use it to reduce traffic costs on competitive keywords. Focus on conversion; track cost per lead, cost per visitor, and factor in cost per customer acquisition and their lifetime value to find out how to balance your tactics.

Organic SEO requires less ongoing maintenance, according Stacy Williams, and is less costly over time. Optimizing content provides some control over listing content via tags and page text. More importantly organic listings provide high levels of credibility and broad coverage on potentially every search engine worldwide.

Pay-per-click, she continued, can be implemented quickly, and turned on and off as promotions require. Better still, PPC provides tighter control over where listings appear and what they say, making it easy to test search terms, products offer and ad wording.

Williams cautioned that organic SEO requires changes to sites and patience while results build slowly, with no guarantee of what the results will be. Pay-per-click, on the other hand, is ignored by some searchers, and requires monitoring and adjusting constantly, while visibility is limited to pay-per-click engines and their partners.

Daily cost increases in many cases have doubled in a year, according to Dave Williams. These price increases are the principal risk of relying strictly on a PPC strategy. Bidding wars for competitive terms and costs that add up over time can make paid listings expensive, added Stacy Williams (who is, incidentally, not related to Dave).

Top Strategies to Balance Paid and Organic Listings

Use PPC to target keywords with no competition. "It's dirt cheap," said Stacy Williams. "Try it for a month and see."

"Search engines are often used for navigation," added moderator Danny Sullivan. "Name recognition is useful."

"Different people respond to different kinds search results," said Jarboe, quoting Ziff-David on special interest users who read ads as carefully as editorial.

Forecasting the effect of Yahoo's acquisition of Inktomi late last year, panelists advised to focus on Inktomi now to prepare for a "wholesale switch from Google" at Yahoo.

Anne Kennedy is managing partner of search engine marketing firm Beyond Ink and publisher of industry digest SEONews.net.