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Make Search Work: Paid vs. Natural

Kevin M. Ryan
Make Search Work: Paid vs. Natural Kevin M. Ryan

The search world has been at odds with itself since the invention of the sponsored link. Pure and natural search listings were forever corrupted by those despicable advertiser links. One of my favorite quotes about the confusion of paid and natural results came from noted industry pundit Bob Garfield at the Yahoo Search Brand Summit back August, 2005. Garfield said that people hate having to scroll past those paid listings to get to the real results.

Garfield's comment epitomizes the general public's perception of search. As far as Joe Searcher is concerned, those annoying paid listings can really get in the way of finding the information you need. "Information" is the operative word, here.

Paid listings are great for buying, and natural listings are super spectacular for non-commercial interests. We think. Perhaps there is a bit more to the equation. As usual, confusion leads the way in search marketing, but there is a great deal to be learned from the study of how searchers are interacting with links-- wherever they may be.

Irrevocably linked, often misunderstood
Ever wonder why paid listings are so conspicuously labeled as advertising or sponsored? In a nutshell, when paid listings first made an appearance, searchers couldn't tell the difference between paid listings and natural (a.k.a. organic) listings. The good people of the internet community were getting hornswaggled by the search engines.

Later, when paid search really took off, Ralph Nader decided to fight the good fight for the searchers. Letters were sent to paid search providers asking them to comply with labeling guidelines, and the sponsored listing label requirement was born.

Today, there are literally mountains of research pointing to the benefits of paid listings over natural search and vice versa. Early research from search providers pointed to the benefits of paid search. Purveyors of natural search engine optimization (SEO) services claimed that paid search listings were a nuisance or even ignored.

How could searchers be ignoring sponsored listings if search engines are pulling down billions of dollars on click based fees? Heading back to a June, 2005 Harris Interactive study on search behavior, data indicates that  56 percent of those surveyed do not know the difference between natural and paid search listings, and 51 percent of the search engine users who do know the difference prefer natural results.

Whatever your perception might be, there is a great deal to be learned from the study of paid and natural search listings from your brand's perspective.

Paid hand feeds the natural...
Paid search is quick and efficient. Bidding on terms will bring you delicate insights into what works best for your brand and how searchers interact with your site. Comparatively speaking, achieving similar results with natural search takes a long time-- months or even years.

Messaging elements (text listing copy) in paid search can help you determine if changes are needed in site architecture with tags, e.g. title and keyword tags. In other words, the code on your site that is read by search engines as the robots crawl it may need adjusting if more favorable text is discovered in the paid search realm.

You can use a similar methodology with evaluating landing page creative and messaging as well. Paid search empowers you quickly to assess what is most effective with target terms and adjust content accordingly. This discipline can also be carried forth with images, video and other assets such as white papers and value-added content.

...And vice versa
There's a mountain of information within your analytics package, and over the past two or three years the analytics world has dramatically become more sophisticated. Many providers have even built integrated paid search management tools. We have learned to live with disparities in numbers reported by analytics and ad serving technologies, yet knowledge gained from natural search can still be applied to paid search efforts.

The first point of analysis lies in referring keywords identified in analytics reporting. There are obvious terms users execute to find you in the search engines. Compare these keywords to the ones used in search advertising campaigns. They won't all be winners, but taking a closer look at converting keywords from natural search can help drive revenue in the paid realm.

Close scrutiny of search positions in natural search for top performing keywords can help you save money in the paid world as well. You may be able to reduce spending and positions. I say "may" because, depending on your needs and financial wherewithal, you may want to own top performing keywords in both worlds.

If you build something...
Somebody might find it. Or they won't. One thing you can be certain of in today's internet marketing world that if you botch it somehow the bloggers will be all over it.

Bloggers have changed search engine marketing tactics in recent years as well. Many third party technologies allow a brand to determine which keywords send traffic into user-generated sites. Good, bad or indifferent content from third parties now greatly impacts the way users find and interact with you; the entry point for this information is quite often the search.

The good news is you can use tools from both sides of the search world to help you identify opportunities, avoid complications and above all put more greenbacks into your pocket.

The only caveat is that you actually have to use the tools available to you.

Kevin M. Ryan is Chief Executive Officer at Kinetic Results. .


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