#229 aligning organic and paid search is more important than ever (feat. Rex Gelb)
“Interaction between two different organisms living in close physical association, typically to the advantage of both.”
Google Search is a $180b ARR ecosystem in which organic and paid search teams can either compete or collaborate for mutual benefits.
Using paid Search for SEO and vice versa isn’t new, but more important today than ever before for 4 reasons:
2/ Advertisers get less traffic for their money. A recently leaked email from IAC founder and CEO Barry Diller to Google’s Phil Schindler, Google’s head of sales and operations, explains that VRBO got the same amount of traffic from Google, but acquisition cost has almost 15’xed between 2016 and 2019. It might be even worse today, not just in the travel sector. (source)
3/ Google’s Search results have become a feed where classic organic results are just one of many answers. The separation of organic and paid results crumbles, with ads now showing up between organic results.
Rex Gelb, Sr. Director of Advertising and Affiliate Marketing at Hubspot was so kind to share his expertise for this Memo:
The SERP is going to look very different in 2024 – it’s going to evolve in ways that we’ve never seen before and has the potential to throw a lot of teams off their game.
4/ New Google ad formats like Discovery or Performance Max allow you to validate topics across many corners of Alphabet (Gmail, Discover, YouTube, Search), which you can use to inform your SEO strategy. AI allows you to quickly a/b many ad variations and transfer learnings to organic snippet optimization.
7 synergies from mutualism
This headline could happily live in a BCG slide deck and cost thousands of dollars, but it correctly hints at the long laundry list of benefits from cooperating.
Organisms can live in one of four symbiotic relationships:
mutualism: both organisms benefit
commensalism: one organism benefits without harming the other
parasitism: one organism benefits and harms the other
competition: both organisms compete for the same resources
There are likely more, but it comes down to 7 main ways for mutualism between organic and paid teams:
Paid Search can quickly validate whether keywords and topics convert. What can take SEO months might take PPC a few days.
Quick validation is critical when a company has long sales cycles (think: enterprise) and a great way to de-risk SEO projects that could swallow time and money but spit out nothing.
2/ A/B testing
Paid teams can quickly a/b test and iterate on copy and creative. Google recently announced generative AI for assets in Performance Max campaigns, letting you create and optimize ad creative. (source)
SEO teams need a minimum amount of organic traffic, pages with the same template and time to get the same results.
Paid Search also doesn’t deal with the challenge of constantly moving ranks and can keep the position constant with varying spend.
3/ Quality score
When organic and paid teams use the same landing pages, Google’s Quality Score can be a valuable signal for SEO. Quality Score measures expected click-through rate, user intent fit and landing page experience at a scale of 1-10 on the keyword level. While it’s predominantly a tool for paid Search, it can be a swift way to prioritize landing page optimization for SEO as well.
4/ Longtail keyword opportunities
Search Console impressions are the ultimate 1st party source of truth for search demand. Google Search Console can surface attractive longtail keyword opportunities not reported in Google Ads to the paid team (a good regex gets you there in minutes).
5/ Incrementality testing
To answer the question, “How much more business can we generate by bidding on keywords we already rank for organically?” companies run incrementally tests.
Classic incrementality testing consisted of shutting all advertising down and measuring how much business a company still got without it. Modern testing is shutting paid Search down for keywords you rank for organically and measuring how much more business comes from SEO. You can also shut paid Search down in a country and measure the effect on SEO.
6/ Cross-channel attribution
By understanding and tracking the customer journey across both paid and organic Search, teams can gain valuable insights into how these channels interact and influence each other.
Users will often discover a brand through organic Search and pull the trigger through paid Search because so many more ads are displayed for keywords with high buying intent.
Instead of aligning the channels toward competition, smart Marketing / Growth executives understand that they’re complementary and use attribution models that reward both for a conversion.
7/ Increase ROAS
SEO can make paid spend much more efficient. Companies can generate the same amount of traffic at a lower price by having paid and SEO teams go after the same keywords.
3 strategies for growing ROAS
Companies can run paid and organic search in 3 forms of alignment:
Paid and organic Search go after the same keywords with the goal of maximizing traffic and business.
Upside: maximum amount of traffic and business from Google.
Downside: companies might overspend because some customers would have clicked on and converted through organic Search without ads.
Google ads reduce organic CTR by 10 percentage points, but I often see traffic cannibalization of ~30% between paid and organic. Very tolerable in most cases. (source)
The higher a domain ranks in organic Search for a keyword, the less money the paid team bids on that keyword.
Upside: more efficient spend with equal or higher ROI.
Downside: the business might leave some customers on the table because they clicked on paid ads from other companies.
Once again, the best way forward here is to test the incrementality of paid Search from ad groups to countries.
3/ Divide and conquer
Paid and organic Search go after separate keywords, divide and conquer style. This is the least favored and common alignment because it misses out on so many opportunities.
Downside: no use of synergies between the channels.
When to bid on your brand
A cornerstone decision companies have to make is whether or not to bid on their brand. In my experience, the underlying question is whether your brand is strong enough that competitors can’t steal traffic.
At Atlassian, for example, we had a portfolio of known and lesser-known brands. Incrementally tests showed the returns from bidding on known brands like Jira or Trello are minimal. On the other hand, lesser-known brands like Confluence or Bitbucket benefitted from higher-paid spend because they didn’t have strong brand recognition.
“There’s a question in paid advertising that’s as old as the practice itself: should you be bidding on your branded terms? While some experts have a strong opinion on this in one direction or another, by partnering up with your SEO team you can figure out what makes sense for your business. There are a couple of approaches you can take, but one that I’ve used in the past is turning off the keyword(s) in question on PPC for a period of time and then collaborating with the SEO team to see if the conversions you were generating would have happened anyway. They can tell you how many extra organic clicks you received with the ads off (in other words, how many clicks the ads were intercepting), and then by using your own data and conversion rates, you can figure out if it was worth it.”
Measuring and optimizing incrementally is harder without the clear separation of organic and paid results.
In 2011, a Google report concluded “89% of traffic from ad clicks is incremental to what organic search results deliver”. (source)
Since then, the ecosystem has changed. Companies like Chase, Uber, eBay, and Procter & Gamble turned of hundreds of millions in USD of ad spend and saw - wait for it - NO change in business outcomes. A hasty conclusion would be that paid Search doesn’t work. A much better diagnosis is that strong brands can save significant costs by better aligning their channels. (source)
In 2021, ten years after Google’s report on incrementality, Airbnb decided to minimize performance marketing in favor of brand marketing and SEO. They didn’t completely stop advertising but reduced performance marketing to a minimum.
However, PR is Airbnb’s “most important” channel, Chesky has said. Indeed, some 600,000 articles were written about the business in 2022 and nearly 90% of the platform’s traffic remains direct, he confirmed on a call with investors last night (14 February). (source)
The effect is strong: marketing and sales (M&S) make up less and less of revenue over time. M&S was 23.6% in Q2 and 13% in Q3 of 2021. 2023, it came down to 19.6% in Q2 and 11.9% in Q3.
Airbnb is the blueprint for building an apex predator: its strong brand allows it to align paid and organic Search for efficiency while growing the business.