Different Intents and Effects of Listings in Paid Versus Natural Results

The AOL data in demonstrated that natural results get the lion’s share of clicks. Further data from the Enquiro, Didit, and Eyetools eye-tracking study shows which organic results users notice when looking at a search results page. Similarly, this shows the percentage of users that look at each of the top paid results when viewing a search results page.

Notice this data shows that the visibility of a listing in the natural results is double or more (up to six times) of the visibility of the same position in the paid results. For example, only 60% of users ever even notice the natural search result in position five, but the paid search results fare even worse, with only 10% of users noticing the result in the fifth position. With the advent of Search, plus Your World, the visibility of the paid search results is even further reduced. Paid search advertisers will have increasing incentive to appear in the paid results that appear above the organic results, and advertisers that do not appear there are likely to receive even less traffic.

Here are some additional things to take away from the Enquiro et al. study:

  • 85% of searchers click on natural results.
  • The top four sponsored slots are equivalent in views to being ranked at 7–10 in natural search in terms of visibility and click-through.
  • This means if you need to make a business case for natural search, assuming you can attain at least the #3 rank in natural search for the same keywords you bid on, natural search could be worth two to three times your PPC results.

Clearly, the PPC model is easier for companies to understand because it is more similar to traditional direct marketing methods than SEO is. The return on investment (ROI) of PPC campaigns can be tracked and demonstrated more reliably than that of SEO campaigns; thus, to date it has been considered more accountable as a marketing channel. However, as budgets are tightening and the focus is shifting to the highest ROI search investments, the focus is increasingly on SEO.

Interaction Between Natural and Paid Search

iCrossing published a report in 2007 (http://www.icrossing.com/icrossing-search-synergy-report-natural-paid) that showed a strong synergy between natural and paid search. The study shows what happens when you incorporate natural search into an existing paid search campaign and compare its performance to the performance of the paid search campaign on its own. Summarizes the improvement in the results.

Figure 1-13. Interaction between natural and paid search

The marked improvement in click-through rate intuitively makes sense. For years marketers have known that the number of impressions a consumer is exposed to will have a dramatic effect on metrics such as retention and likelihood to buy. Google’s January 2012 announcement and release of Search, plus Your World will, of course, impact this significantly. It will provide marketers with three different opportunities to create an impression on the user, in the organic results, the paid results, and the Google+ Brand Pages results on the top right of the SERPs.

A search page provides you with more than one opportunity to put your name in front of the user. You should take advantage of this if you can. It is also useful to understand the difference between natural and paid search. Although some users do not understand the distinction between natural search results and paid search results, it is a common belief in the industry that the majority of users recognize paid search results as advertisements.

However, this viewpoint is not universally accepted. Stephan Spencer wrote an article for Search Engine Land that showed the results of an SEO campaign that had a PPC campaign running. As shown in Figure 1-14, organic search traffic went up when the PPC campaign was turned off.

Figure 1-14. Interaction between organic search traffic and PPC campaigns

Google also did a study on this, published in July 2011, that showed that organic search traffic did go down when a PPC campaign was also in effect, but that the combination of the organic plus paid search traffic was higher (http://searchengineland.com/google-study-ppc-ads-do-not-cannibalize-your-organic-traffic-86972). One can also expect that it will take time for searchers to fully understand what the Google+ Brand Page results are, and how they differ from the organic and paid results. Figure 1-15 shows an example of a Google result including Brand Pages.

Figure 1-15. Google+ Brand Page for the NFL

Search has penetrated the very fabric of global society. The way people work, play, shop, research, and interact has changed forever. Organizations of all kinds (businesses and charities), as well as individuals, need to have a presence on the Web—and they need the search engines to bring them traffic. As our society moves ever closer to a professional consumer (“prosumer”) economy, the ways in which people create, publish, distribute, and ultimately find information and resources on the Internet will continue to be of great importance. This book will investigate further just how search, and therefore search engine optimization, is at the center of the Web and is still your key to success in the new web economy.

In this chapter, we will begin to explore how search engines work. Building a strong foundation on this topic is essential to understanding the SEO practitioner’s craft.

As we discussed in Chapter 1, people have become accustomed to receiving nearly instantaneous answers from search engines after they have submitted a search query. In Chapter 1 we also discussed the volume of queries (more than 6,000 per second), and Google reported as early as 2008 that it knew of about 1 trillion pages on the Web (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2008/07/we-knew-web-was-big.html). It is likely that this number is now low by one or more orders of magnitude, as the Web continues to grow quite rapidly.

Underlying this enormous data processing task is the complex nature of the task itself. One of the most important things to understand about search engines is that the crawlers (or “spiders”) used to visit all the web pages across the Web are software programs. Software programs are only as smart as the algorithms used in implementing them, and although artificial intelligence is being increasingly used in those algorithms, web crawling programs still don’t have the adaptive intelligence of human beings.

Software programs cannot adequately interpret each of the various types of data that humans can—videos and images, for example, are to a certain extent less readable by a search engine crawler than they are through the eyes of humans. These are not their only limitations, either; this chapter will explore some of their shortcomings in more detail.

Of course, this is an ever-changing landscape. The search engines continuously invest in improving their ability to better process the content of web pages. For example, advances in image and video search have enabled search engines to inch closer to human-like understanding, a topic that will be explored more in Vertical Search Engines.

In the search marketing field, the pages the engines return to fulfill a query are referred to as search engine results pages (SERPs). Each engine returns results in a slightly different format and will include vertical search results (specific content targeted to a query based on certain triggers in the query, which we’ll illustrate shortly).

Understanding the Layout of Search Results Pages

Each unique section represents a snippet of information provided by the engines. Here are the definitions of what each piece is meant to provide:

Vertical navigation

Each engine offers the option to search different verticals, such as images, news, video, or maps. Following these links will result in a query with a more limited index. In Figure 2-3, for example, you might be able to see news items about stuffed animals or videos featuring stuffed animals.

Horizontal navigation

The search engines also offer other types of navigation elements. For example, in Figure 2-1 you can see that Google offers the option to limit the date range of the content returned in the search results.

Search query box

All of the engines show the query you’ve performed and allow you to edit that query or enter a new query from the search results page. Next to the search query box, the engines also offer links to the advanced search page, the features of which we’ll discuss later in the book.

Results information

This section provides a small amount of meta information about the results that you’re viewing, including an estimate of the number of pages relevant to that particular query (these numbers can be, and frequently are, wildly inaccurate and should be used only as a rough comparative measure).

PPC (a.k.a. paid search) advertising

Companies purchase text ads from either Google AdWords or Microsoft adCenter. The results are ordered by a variety of factors, including relevance (for which click-through rate, use of searched keywords in the ad, and relevance of the landing page are factors in Google) and bid amount (the ads require a maximum bid, which is then compared against other advertisers’ bids).

Natural/organic/algorithmic results

These results are pulled from the search engines’ primary indexes of the Web and ranked in order of relevance and popularity according to their complex algorithms. This area of the results is the primary focus of this section of the book.

Query refinement suggestions

Query refinements are offered by Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. The goal of these links is to let users search with a more specific and possibly more relevant query that will satisfy their intent.

In March 2009, Google enhanced the refinements by implementing Orion Technology, based on technology Google acquired in 2006. The goal of this enhancement is to provide a wider array of refinement choices. For example, a search on principles of physics may display refinements for the Big Bang, angular momentum, quantum physics, and special relativity.

Shopping search results

All three search engines do this as well. Shopping results incorporate offers from merchants into the results so that searchers that are looking to buy something can do so quite easily.

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