Searching Beyond the Paid

Friday, May 27, 2011

PPC Costs Less than SEO

I know, you probably think I’ve lost it. How can PPC cost less than SEO? SEO traffic is free, but PPC costs money for every visitor! You’re right. But if your SEO isn’t informed by PPC, it can cost you a lot in terms of lost opportunity.

In order to get all that free SEO traffic, your website needs decent search engine rankings. If you’re not ranking for anything, you might be tempted to spend your time and money on SEO first, to improve rankings and thereby traffic.

You’d be right that you need to optimize your site if you really want to get the most out of search engine traffic. But how do you know what terms to optimize for?

By now you may think I’ve really lost it – you’re thinking, “Of course I know what terms to optimize for – the ones that describe what I’m selling! They’re the same terms I’d be bidding on for PPC! Just pick the keywords with the most search volume and get on with it!”

On the surface, you’re right: you definitely want to focus on keywords that describe what you’re selling, and they may well be the same terms you’ll bid on in PPC. (And I probably have lost it, but that’s another post.)

Here’s the thing, though. The number of keywords you can bid on in PPC, at least theoretically, is nearly unlimited. It’s not unheard of for large advertisers to be bidding on hundreds of thousands of keywords. SEO is different: each page on your site can only be realistically optimized for about 5 keywords. So it’s critical to make sure you pick the right 5! How do you do this?

Use PPC to test them first. A well-crafted PPC campaign will start generating traffic, and ideally conversions, on the very first day. After a week (or two or three, depending on your business), you’ll have a treasure trove of great data – not only data on what keywords are driving the most traffic, but also the most conversions. And conversions are the name of the game.

SEO is time-consuming: it takes a significant amount of time to review the website pages, meta tags, navigation elements, anchor text, alt text, and other critical SEO elements. It takes additional time to prepare optimization recommendations, and even more time to actually optimize the pages. And once you launch the optimized page, it usually takes 3 weeks just to see if your rankings changed, much less determine whether traffic & conversions improved. Furthermore, if you’ve optimized for the wrong terms – terms that don’t convert well – you’ve spent all that time and effort (and money, if you hired an SEO consultant) obtaining rankings for keywords that don’t increase your sales.

Let me illustrate. Let’s say you sell low-priced widgets. Your keyword research unearths the following keywords:

Wholesale widgets, 50,000 searches per day
Cheap widgets, 25,000 searches per day
Discount widgets, 10,000 searches per day
Clearance widgets, 500 searches per day

You could do one of two things: You could optimize your main pages for “wholesale widgets” and call it a day. Or you could set up a PPC campaign with all 4 keywords (and many more, ideally), and get real data on (1) which term drives the most traffic to your website and (2) which term gets the most conversions.

Your PPC test may reveal that after a month of testing, “wholesale widgets” was the right term after all. Or, you may find that it had 1,000 clicks and one conversion; and “discount widgets” got 900 clicks and 50 conversions. Which term would you choose now?

An oft-quoted statistic is that 70% of clicks on a search engine results page come from organic listings. If you had chosen to have your SEO expert optimize for “wholesale widgets,” all the SEO rankings in the world likely wouldn’t net you many sales (like, maybe 10 per month). But having your SEO expert optimize for “discount widgets” would, by the formula, net you 250 conversions in that month.

Tell me again which was cheaper?

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