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I’ve recently been making a point of plunging myself deeper and deeper into the murky depths of SEO.
It’s a fascinating place that can be filled with deeply satisfying victories, bafflingly contradictory advice, black and white hat gunslingers and requires dogged determination, nerves of steel and a strong sense of routine discipline.
While writing various beginner’s guides to SEO and paid search over the last year, I realised that I still had many more questions to ask, in particular how these two disciplines relate to each other.
And what’s the best way to seek enlightenment? Ask a bunch of experts that know way more than you, and pass off their advice as your own!
Thank you to the following panel of experts for their invaluable guidance:
- Malcolm Slade the SEO project manager at Epiphany Search.
- Andrew Girwood the media innovations director at DigitasLBi.
- Kevin Gibbons managing director of BlueGlass.
- Mags Sikora, an SEO consultant who I interviewed earlier this year on the current SEO landscape.
Does PPC have any effect on SEO?
Anything that raises brand awareness has a positive impact on SEO. Outside of being a great revenue stream in its own right, PPC is a great way of making customers aware of a company’s product or services.
This generates an initial interest that over time turns into increased brand searches and increased brand + keyword searches.
You can use PPC to send people to great looking content pages. If those pages are able they can earn links and other quality signals that have an effect on SEO.
That’s a better SEO strategy than just publishing the content and not trying to show it to people.
Equally, brand building is possible through PPC. You can introduce new brand or even product and service ideas in response to keyword searches even if that might be an expensive approach.
Google will tell you that organic and paid search teams are completely separate and there's no correlation between advertiser activity/spend and organic search rankings/traffic. Personally I have no reason to doubt this.
However, there is likely to be an indirect benefit - due to the fact that you are building a brand. The more brand trust and signals you can have, the better for Google.
If PPC is part of your marketing mix, you're obviously increasing your audience via this channel, and in turn increasing the chances that people will come back again. This all helps towards creating a more rounded and multi-channel strategy for your brand.
What are the benefits of combining a PPC campaign with SEO?
The most obvious is visibility. Even if you reach the first position for the most desirable terms in organic search, it doesn’t guarantee maximum coverage for your site, especially if you run a business in a competitive space.
Your online rivals will definitely bid for most of those keywords to attract at least some of the traffic from search. In these situations, when terms attract high quality traffic (traffic that converts) it definitely makes sense to maximise your visibility in Google.
It's hugely beneficial - both in terms of key learnings and historical data which you can apply both ways. In order to get the best results, I would suggest it's now essential to align your SEO and PPC strategies.
We approach content strategy and PPC account structure building in the same way - each should be prioritised by value and demand to maximise ROI.
Obviously as you get deeper there are additional considerations, such as CPC prices vs. the competitiveness of ranking organically, balancing landing page search/quality score optimisation vs. conversion - but the starting point is the same.
Ideally, you don’t want to buy PPC traffic that your SEO will collect anyway. It is true to say that a combined PPC and SEO campaign can drive more traffic than two separate campaigns though.
A long-time favourite of mine was an ecommerce site that had good SEO listings for product names and used PPC messages (roughly) beside the organic listing to give a sales and discount message.
Searchers tended to click on the organic links as they matched the search term and conversion was greatly improved.
Are there any drawbacks in running both at the same time?
The two skill sets are very different. I would argue that PPC is an expert layer on top of biddable media whereas SEO is an expert layer on top of social media.
If brands cannot find agencies or in-house teams expert at both then it may be awkward to manage and coordinate. Running an SEO campaign and PPC campaign in conjunction inevitably leads to conversations around attribution.
Conversations about attribution inevitably lead to hair pulling and sanity loss.
The only downside may be if you end up paying for traffic that you would have otherwise received naturally.
There's lots of case studies which show you're likely to receive an uplift here because of the additional on-page real estate - but if the spend is a significant proportion of your budget, I'd definitely recommend you dig deeper into proving the value of this.
Otherwise, the learnings should only benefit you - and in theory you should be able to spot trends quicker within paid search, which can later rolled out to your organic strategy.
There is always the conversation about brand terms. Should we bid on brand keywords since we usually reach first SEO position for that term?
The problem is if we are not present in PPC space especially for brand extended terms, there is a possibility that our competitors may take advantage of that. Can we really afford to lose the most valuable visitor, the visitor who comes to us directly?
Do you think it's obvious to conusmers that PPC links are adverts rather than natural results? Should there be more clarity, or is that detrimental to a successful campaign?
I think they’re pretty clear. In Google right now, for me, there are obvious yellow squares with the word “Ad” in them. On Bing the ads have green backgrounds and a less obvious ads label in the corner.
I don’t worry about clarity detracting from a search campaign. I would worry that the sort of clarity needed for those stuck in the slow lane would significantly impair the search experience for the rest of us.
I think they are visible enough myself, but I also know what to look out for. Last year 40% of consumers were reported to be unaware of AdWords ads. I'm sure Google will be happy with these figures, as they always like to mix things up here - keeping CTRs high is good for the advertiser as it generates you more traffic - and of course makes Google more money!
It is difficult to judge when you work in search marketing. I recently watched my parents searching for some holiday information on Google. They knew that the right hand side listings in SERP are the actual ads, but didn’t notice the difference between the top ads and the first SEO listing.
I think it is even more controversial on mobile, where very often ads cover almost the entire screen. Google tests its landing pages all the time. When an online company runs tests on its site, the most common goal of the exercise is to increase CVR.
There must be some correlation between the way Google’s search results pages changed through the years and the financial results Google announces each quarter.
What do you think are the reasons behind the removal of author photos from search results?
Google is a test and learn machine. I speculate that Google was not happy with the cluttered look of the search results, about the quality of some of the author bio photographs or about the type of content that was managing to qualify for the feature.
I think Google said that it decided to take them off to clean up the SERP in order to improve mobile experience, but maybe there was another reason?
Rand Fishkin from Mzz tweeted that the profile pics distracted too much from ads and lowered amount of clicks on the PPC listings. The truth is, if the CTR increases on some listings in the SERP, the CTR somewhere else has to go down.
If it harmed the ads, the profile pics had to go.
We ran some tests on this last year and were surprised to see a significant drop in click-through rates reported in Google Webmaster Tools for organic listings where authorship appeared.
At the time, we put this down to the fact that Google is inflating the rankings of content due to a combination of both authorship being linked up and personalised search connections to the searcher.
What the searcher wants to see is the best results for a given query, so if these listings don't deserve to be listed in their own right - perhaps the negative impact to CTR is more explainable - as is Google's decision to pull this from search listings.
I’m not sure what Google was trying to achieve with having author photos in the first place. Part of me thinks it was solely a ploy to get more people using authorship mark-up and Google+. Give them some obvious benefit from making the effort kind-of-thing.
Presumably this didn’t work or was never planned to be long term as the inclusion of author photos in SERPs will most definitely have had a negative impact on PPC CTRs.
I’m still a firm believer in the long term benefits of authorship and stand by everything I said in Google and authorship, more than just a picture.
What are the differences between running a PPC campaign on mobile and on desktop? What factors do you have to consider?
Mobile search behaviour is completely different than desktop. We all know that people like to browse on their mobiles on the way from/to work to finally convert on their laptops or tablets when sitting comfortably on the sofa and watching latest episode of Game Of Thrones.
There are however many great tools we can use to target the most relevant user especially for location related searches. You can create mobile preferred ads, utilise bid modifiers for mobile devices, time or even geography, and when you enable some of the available ad extensions, your ad can become a really powerful marketing tool.
For instance you can bid higher for users who are within a mile from your shop and show them an ad with an offer message to make them come to the store.
Ultimately you have to consider your mobile and desktop audiences as separate. It is very likely that your mobile audience and desktop audience want different things out of their journey.
This should be reflected in the landing pages you use. Mobile user -> mobile optimised landing page.
I think the main consideration is behind the user intent. Mobile usage has significantly increased of course, but you'll often find that queries are more research based. That means you need to capture traffic at all stages of the buying cycle, which is where providing great informational and educational content can come into play, with the call-to-actions perhaps less directly revenue focused and more on providing value and capturing user information - so that they can convert further down the customer journey.
The search trends are different. Mobile searchers tend to use shorter phrases. The biggest difference is in how people interact with pages on mobile and desktop.
Speed of loading is very important for mobile, for example. Sites that perform badly on mobile for user experience and conversions will always do badly in mobile no matter how clever the PPC campaign.
Searchers are very often logged into apps running on their phone – apps like Facebook or Gmail. As a result, mobile visitors have a different data value to desktop visitors.
What do you think the SERP of the future will look like?
Google is clearly looking more towards the knowledge graph and entities in where it's heading. Providing searchers with information in the fewest amount of clicks is the main goal here.
Many verticals have experienced this already and this is only likely to be rolled out more heavily in the future in my opinion.
The other thing Google is doing already is the re-writing of SERP snippets. For example, try performing a query for 'shoes' and you'll see PPC ad descriptions consolidated onto a single line description for top ads, domain names included within headlines, sitelinks inserted:
You can learn a lot from this, because Google knows what gets the best CTRs - so it can write better copy than you for a specific search.
It's also doing the same in organic search, not just with sitelinks and descriptions (which often get pulled from the page, if that's more relevant than the meta tags), but also testing with re-writing your organic SERP title tags - definitely keep an eye out for this!
I don’t see much change in the near term – although Bing still has plenty of its more sophisticated features to roll out from the US. In the longer term I think we’ll see more cards.
Cards are smaller snippets of data which are better suited to smaller screens or which act as supplemental data. Right now we talk about artefacts like the OneBox but in the future we may just consider that another Card result.
Google Now is a good example of a card based results page (with implicit search rather than explicit).
While I don’t ever think Google will go 100% paid, I do think we are on the cusp of most if not all of the above-the-fold SERPs real-estate being 100% controlled by PPC.
Especially now we see more waterfall/infinite scroll usage where in reality there is no bottom of the results.
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