Search versus Search

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This post was based on a presentation I delivered recently outlining the differences between paid and organic search in marketing, and areas where they can work together.

Search v. Search

There are very few marketing channels where the user communicates their intent as clearly as in search. These signals include both what the user is explicitly telling us from what they type into the search box to other signals such as when and where they search and their choice of device. Google uses other signals such as past behaviour for delivering better results through both targeting a user’s context and through personalisation. Some aspects of this can be used in a limited fashion when advertising through Adwords.

Many search queries fall into three broad groups: navigational, transactional and informational (Broder, Andrei. “A taxonomy of web search.” ACM Sigir forum. Vol. 36. No. 2. ACM, 2002.).

  • Informational
    • Informational queries indicate research activity with no clear indication of action. These kinds of queries are associated with general search phrases around finding information.
  • Transactional
    • Transactional queries indicate a desired action explicitly like ‘buy’ or ‘book’ or implied by detailed information for the product or related commercial terms such as ‘special’ and ‘last minute’.
  • Navigational
    • Navigational queries are made with a specific destination in mind. Most of these are likely to be branded search like ‘google’ or ‘facebook’ but would also include references to article titles or phrases referencing to something the user is already aware of.

This model is a very useful tool for analysing user behaviour and for targeting Search Engine Marketing (SEM) efforts. Combined with a keyword and landing page theme approach for optimisation of paid and organic search activity, this model is far more effective than a simple keyword list (landing page keyword themes are also a sound strategy to address SSL search). Even Google says that 20% of search terms entered into the search engine have not been seen before.

Paid and Organic

Managing and optimising for visibility and traffic with both paid and organic listings are just two different aspects of search marketing. Both are displayed to the same audiences and both have their own set of strengths and weaknesses.

A few of the benefits in using paid search as a part of your search engine marketing mix include:

  • Easy to gain visibility for new keyword themes quickly
  • Greater flexibility in what landing page to serve the user
  • More control over the content presented in the search results plus access to different tools such as image ad extensions
  • Campaign cost can be controlled and optimised to reflect the value of the traffic
  • Greater ability to target users by context (location, time and device)
  • Tools to target users based on assumed attributes and remarketing

Paid search also has a number of limitations, though these can be managed:

  • Costs money to scale. Each additional click has an incremental cost
  • Paid search is an auction, and costs are influenced by the actions of competitors

Organic search has a number of benefits that are not shared with paid search advertising. These include:

  • Both supports and derives value from most other digital activity such as social media, other marketing channels and content development
  • After initial development and promotional investment, organic traffic can scale independently of incremental investment
  • Web development required for effective Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is also required for other reasons (e.g, responsive design, site speed and crawlability/ease of navigation)

Organic search as a marketing channel also has some of its own unique challenges:

  • Optimisation projects take time to implement and take effect
  • Changes to how search engines work can have a significant impact
  • Increasing lack of transparency on traffic

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are other differences these two mediums have, such as ease of testing, the tools required to effectively manage campaigns and the kinds of data generated by activity. Despite this, both are focused on the same users who are performing the same kinds of tasks.

Integrating Search with Search

One of the most obvious differences between direct response driven paid search activity and organic search optimisation can be seen in how the keywords they target fall within the Informational/Transactional/Navigational model. Paid is often very biased towards Transactional and Navigational (brand) keywords. These are the most effective for conversions, and the metrics tracked most often support this activity. As a result organic search frequently provides most of the informational traffic, both before and after Panda.

Paid and organic search marketing are often treated as two completely unrelated mediums, but there are real opportunities for integration. Both forms of search marketing have complementary strengths and weaknesses. While it is a significant investment in time to put an organic search campaign together for a new keyword theme, with paid search you can start to gather information and test fast. Certain products can be inefficient to advertise on with paid search, but are worth targeting with organic.

Organic and paid search activity do not exist in a vacuum. Both of these mediums are targeting the same people performing the same actions. It is the differences between these two that create the opportunities for integration. As tempting as it is to see this model and actual user behaviour as linear, it isn’t. A typical user’s search session can include multiple refinements and iterations as they either try to find what they are looking for, explore the subject further or simply drift off topic.

Other channels have an impact on what a user looks for and often what language they use. Branded search queries might be inspired by a very specific offer in a TV ad. A user who came in on an informational query might only transaction through an eDM they subscribed to on that first visit. Paid search should not be be treated as a single media channel, and neither should organic search. Both can be used to deliver better results together as much as search in general should be use as a part of an integrated online and offline marketing communications strategy.

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