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Paid Versus Organic Search: Which Is Right for You?



{mosimage}The Internet can be used to gain new customers or prospects but navigating through this complex technical tool can be difficult. How then can distributors and manufacturers get their messages to the mass customer base? How can the company be assured that the prospect clicks through until reaching the desired site? And what call of action can the company expect? Certainly the use of search engines is one means to achieve the desired result yet questions must be answered as to which type of search engine to use.

Almost all companies these days are interested in discussing how search can enhance their online marketing programs. According to a new Jupiter Research report, "US SEM Executive Survey, 2006', the number of marketers using search-marketing tools has risen from 19% last year to 26% this year. This growth is expected to accelerate in the coming years.

Search is really two complementary tactics: organic search and paid search. Organic search relies on unpaid search listings that appear when a searcher types in keywords or phrases. Search engines have complex, constantly changing, logarithms to determine search positions and staying "on top" requires an ongoing program. Paid search is exactly what it says: You pay to ensure that your listing is included in search results for specific key words and phrases.

Which type of search program should you use?

The simple answer is that the ideal program will include both organic and paid search results. However, reality often makes this Holy Grail difficult to attain.

The realistic answer depends on what you are trying to accomplish with your marketing program and for whom. Paid and organic search are effective for different tasks, situations and audiences.

Paid search is an effective vehicle for getting your message in front of prospects that are in an acting context—that is, searchers who have already determined that they wish to perform a transaction and are just looking for the right vendor. Studies have found that paid search garners greater click-through when the call for action is an immediate transaction.

In this role, paid search results behave much like contextually sensitive banner advertisements. For example, a prospect might be in the market to purchase copier paper. When executing a search for "copier paper," the prospect gets relevant paid results that might have a call to action that very closely matches the desired transaction: buying copier paper now. Some have argued that increased performance in this acting context is attributable to the fact that paid search results typically include very direct call-to-action text.

This is a point that is brought out again and again in search-related studies. So it pays to say it again: A clear call to action in your search result description garners greater click-through rates. This holds true for both paid and organic search, but applies most to paid search results based on the "act now" mindset of the searcher who is more likely to click these results.

"Each type of search program has specific strengths and weaknesses."
Enquiro Search Solutions recently published a study that finds women are as much as nine times more likely than men to click a paid search result. No assumption of the reason for the difference is given, but a 2004 study by iProspect noted that women find paid advertising more relevant than men. These differences vary greatly by search engine and seem most pronounced on Google. Other studies note that men are more likely to use a search engine in a given day, so perhaps men have become slightly more desensitized to paid search results. Admittedly, this has more of an impact with consumer goods or retail but may have some bearing on foodservice decisions as well.

In addition, paid search provides guaranteed top placement, gets your message in front of searchers quickly and provides the flexibility to adapt your marketing message. If you have a message that requires immediate action or transaction, paid search is probably a good option.

Alternatively, organic search is the more effective option for a considered purchase. If your prospects need to gather information for a purchase that will require more than one step or actor in the buy cycle, organic search is more likely to engage them.

For example, a user that is trying to determine which hosted CRM system would best fit his company's needs would likely conduct a number of searches to investigate various aspects of a candidate's offerings. This user would be more likely to click within organic search results.

While most web users view paid advertisements with a fair measure of skepticism, organic search results increase their confidence that the information represented is more trustworthy. Also, as noted above, studies have found that men are more likely to click an organic search result link.

The downside of organic search—given that results ranking is directly related to their indexed relevance to the triggering search terms—is that it can take months to gain traction. This slow reaction time requires that you develop your search strategy well in advance of any goals you are trying to achieve, giving you little flexibility in your program.

SO WHAT IS THE BOTTOM LINE? Paid search is the place to concentrate if you have immediate search goals or have a desired behavior that involves an immediate, single-step action. Paid search is also the path to consider if you need a search program that must be flexible enough to react to relatively quick-changing market conditions. In both cases, search results perform better when the content description includes an active call to action.

Organic search is the search strategy to consider if you are trying to support a purchase decision that will involve a number of steps and is likely to take awhile. This should also be a consideration if your target audience is primarily male. Organic search restricts your flexibility but enhances your results by increasing your prospect confidence.

Each type of search program has specific strengths and weaknesses. Most marketing communication programs have goals that call on the strengths of both tactics. Therefore, the question should not be "which of the two should be chosen," but "how much of each one will be needed" and "what immediate call-to-action" should you use to achieve your marketing goals.

Tom O'Connell is a member of the ID Advisory Board and president of Marketing Concepts, a firm that offers strategic direction, business development, market research, and marketing direction/execution.

Rich Dettmer is senior vice president of Digital Strategy at Slack Barshinger, an exclusively business-to-business integrated marketing communications company based in Chicago. In 2002 and again in 2004, the Business Marketing Association named Slack Barshinger its national Agency of the Year for its ability to create a sustainable competitive advantage for its clients. Crain's BtoB magazine has twice named Slack Barshinger its Top Small Agency of the Year and in 2005 named it Runner Up Mid-Size Agency. Slack Barshinger is a partner in strategic direction, business development and overall marketing with Marketing Concepts, Inc.

For more information on search engines, e-mail Tom O'Connell at Tom@marketingcpts.com or 608-798-1444.

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