Is Organic Search Cannibalized by Paid Ads?

I was reading an interesting article the other day on why companies advertise their own brand items when they are already ranked no.1 for those items. It is during the course of my reading that I finally got some insight on whether paid search advertisements cannibalize traffic from their corresponding organic listings for the very same keywords.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that the relationship between organic search and paid search is grossly misunderstood by SEO professionals. There are times when companies are on the top of both paid as well as organic listings and there really is a symbiosis between the two marketing channels. It is interesting to note that the click through rate of a top ranking organic listing can be increased if you have a corresponding sponsored advertisement placed on top of it or to its right. By showing up twice on the very same page, the top ranking does get twice the number of clicks it would get either for organic or for paid listings alone! Any eyebrows rising on negative synergy between the two would be null and void.

Truth is, organic and paid searches do interact. However, in most cases flawed attribution modelling misinterpret returns on investment by associating conversions or sales with the wrong Internet marketing program.

Whether PPC is cannibalizing organic searches can be answered by a simple illustration. In a multi-touch situation, a visitor may visit a website through an organic listing but may exit without amounting in any conversions (that is without buying anything). A few days later, the same visitor visits the same website through a paid listing. Only this time, he buys something too. If you assign 100% value to the transaction on the last click, paid listing or PPC would obviously get the credit. In an alternate scenario, where you attach the entire value to the first click where the visitor entered through a natural link, the organic listing gets all the credit for its heavy lifting.

Such attribution inaccuracies make PPC appear as if it cannibalizes or pulls searchers away from organic listings, which could have otherwise been clicked. A highly paid PPC creative declaring it to be the ‘official website’ is the best example that illustrates this thought.

Attributing a certain amount of the overall value to all touch points with greater importance to the first click will ideally create a win-win situation for both PPC and organic click, leaving neither to be overshadowed by the other.

The return on investment in the case of PPC is further magnified as the URLs in paid searches are tagged with tracking parameters, whether or not the user interacts with a paid listing in the buying cycle. The URLs in organic listings are not tagged since this is considered to be a bad SEO practice, which leads to content duplicity or PageRank dilution.

A lethal combination of high organic ranking, a very strong brand and very similar organic and paid listings differentiated from competitors pave the way for conflict and ‘cannibalism’.

So, what are the best practices that an SEO professional can implement?
- Get better idea of the actual ROI derived from organic search, at the keyword level.
- Ask your PPC counterpart to reduce his CPC on keywords that have high conversion rates and high paid cost by almost 60%, while still retaining the ad.
- Test calls-to-action displayed on the ‘official site’ of your paid search and measure the impact on the synergy.

These steps will not only help a company to optimize its ads and rebalance its paid search expenditure based on actual ROI where synergy is duly taken into account but also clear all doubts about PPC cannibalizing organic searches.

Haukur Jarl – PPC Nordic eMarketing

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