The difference between paid search and organic search
Paid search vs. Organic search:
What’s the Difference and Which Works Best?
If you run a business and are looking to understand ways you can increase visibility, you will probably have come across terms like paid search and organic search. So what do these mean, how do they work, and which is right for you?
In the 1990s, when the Internet was younger, there was a simple way to get web pages listed in search engines. That was to produce pages whose headings, meta tags and content were perceived by search engines as a good match for the content of Internet-users’ search queries. Whether you used Yahoo, AltaVista, Lycos, Excite, Ask Jeeves, Netfind, Webcrawler, or another of the fledgling search engines that were popular before Google and Bing, the idea was that they would crawl pages on your website and show the most relevant sites to people searching.
Influencing search engines by taking steps to persuade their algorithms of the relevance of your content to search enquiries and of the general importance of your website is a process known in digital marketing as search engine optimisation, or SEO. This art has been around for as long as search engines themselves, but whereas in the 1990s and early 2000s it was quite simplistic, for instance getting links from a high-profile website and directories to your home page, in recent times search engines have become much more sophisticated and wise to artificial linking and poor-quality content, preferring natural-looking content and patterns of links from external sites.
The content of your website remains very important to its chances of success at drawing people into your website, as well as to their impressions once they have landed there.
The main advantages of organic search - appearing in the natural listings - include:
- The relevance of results: a good search engine will attempt to automatically match up searches to the best results on the Internet for the search expressions selected by the enquirer. While there is some room for error, and no search engine algorithm is perfect in its assessments of the relative strengths of competing websites and pages or of the intent of the user’s query, most search engines produce a fairly well-ordered list most of the time.
- Organic search remains free of charge (there is no cost per click).
The disadvantages of organic search include:
- Some bias towards longer-established sites thanks to search engines’ focus on a good volume of high-quality backlinks and related factors such as the age of the domain registration as indicators of quality and reliability. Content of comparable quality on a younger site is likely to be ranked lower than equivalent content on a well-established, prominent site.
- Quality assessments by search engines are error-prone even though they are tested by human users, and may lean on unreliable markers and assumptions and incline to unpredictable results from the interplay of ranking factors. They may tend to reward certain types of content and styles of writing while punishing others, based on what is easy to read or likely to be popular / engaging.
- The evolving algorithms used to determine positioning can lead to sometimes dramatic changes in the levels of visitors brought in to websites from organic search over time, even without any changes being made to the site. Webmasters can find that one algorithm change hits their traffic and another one boosts it.
- Despite advances in robustness against such manipulation, search engines can still sometimes be ‘tricked’ by SEO tactics such as arrays of backlinks set up from private blog networks that make a website appear more important and authoritative than it is.
The idea of paid search is that anyone can pay to have an advertisement for a web-page appear in a results page for a relevant query, irrespective of search engines’ assessment of the importance of the web-page being advertised.
In October 2000, Google launched the earliest version of Google Adwords as a system whereby companies could pay to advertise in search results pages.
From February 2002, the pay-per-click model for charging advertisers who submit advertising to Google Adwords was introduced.
Initially, paid advertisements appeared alongside the organic search results, as an obviously separate element of the page. By the 2010s, a variety of positions were being offered at different price points, with ads appearing both at the tops of the organic results and alongside them. But in early 2016, the less profitable side position was abolished; and since then, the ‘Ad’ icons that used to clearly identify paid advertisements have become less conspicuous; and in 2018 the top paid ads have even been given numbers from 1 to 3 or 1 to 4, demoting the top result from organic search to 4 or 5.
It seems natural that Google would want website owners who previously relied on organic search alone to pay for advertising to generate more revenue.
The advantages of paid search include:
- Instant visibility to website owners – no matter how new your website is, how little content is on it yet, or how competitive your field is, with a pay-per-click paid search campaign you can put your business out there in front of web users straight away.
- A fair and level internal playing field with other advertisers – only your advertising text and landing page is assessed for quality; you do not need to have established reputation or backlinks to compete with big companies.
The disadvantages of paid search include:
- Charging model based on cost per click, not per lead – each click through to one of your advertisements costs you money, and whether or not it leads to enquiries or sales, the bills will mount up. In many cases, only 2-5% of clicks will lead to a sale, with the rest being wasted, so you need to assess whether it is still a profitable advertising medium for you at all once your cost per sale is factored into your trading margins.
- Expensive for competitive queries – in fields which are profitable and for which there is strong competition from other businesses in your target area using PPC, you may find that you need to pay upwards of £10 per click to get your advertisement to appear on the first page of search results. If you pay £15 per click for 100 clicks, and three lead to sales, then on each of these you need to make a profit of £500 to break even. It would be sensible to target a return of at least 2-3 times, to cover the cost of your time or a management service for the campaign.
- Being placed highly in search results as a result of having paid for an advertisement does not give any reliable indication to the enquirer as to the quality of the underlying business. Some web users distrust paid ads and prefer the organic listings even if they appear further down the page.