The Big Turn Off

It’s great being a full service digital agency. For most of our clients, this means we manage many different aspects of their online marketing. Whether it’s their website and their SEO, their email and their affiliates or every single channel, it gives us a rather exclusive insight into how all the channels work together. It also gives us an insight into what to do and what not to do. So, it means when clients ask us interesting or challenging questions, we’ve invariably got the answer somewhere in our repertoire.

It's great being a full service digital agency. For most of our clients, this means we manage many different aspects of their online marketing. Whether it's their website and their SEO, their email and their affiliates or every single channel, it gives us a rather exclusive insight into how all the channels work together.

It also gives us an insight into what to do and what not to do. So, it means when clients ask us interesting or challenging questions, we've invariably got the answer somewhere in our repertoire.

One question we get asked quite a lot is "If I rank really highly on natural search, can I turn off my paid search and get all the sales through natural search?" It seems like an obvious conclusion and one, without any background research, is hard to argue with. However, here at Equator we do pride ourselves on trying to quantify the answers based on hard fact. After all, we can't say we know what makes our customers click if we don't know our metrics.

So, rather than fob our clients off with empty rhetoric, we took it upon ourselves to do the numbers and work out for ourselves.

Now we know that there's a large percentage of people that gravitate only to the natural search listings. At the same time, there's a fair population that like the paid search results as they invariably take you closer to the "finish line". These numbers vary depending on how Google & co. choose to present the PPC listings. You will have seen it yourself. On popular terms, Google places three ads at the top of the page…

And when it's less popular, these ads shrink in size or disappear completely, only leaving the ads at the side of the search results. This factor alone changes the performance of your paid vs. natural search listings. 3 ads at the top and your natural search listing, depending on its position will take a proportionately much smaller amount of the traffic.

But what if you rank #1 for your brand and you want to turn your brand PPC off altogether. Surely this'll all go to your natural search listings.

If only consumers were that obvious.

In fact, knowing the mind of the consumer is only half the battle. Since Google changed the rules surrounding bidding on competitor brands, the water is now even muddier. Stop bidding on your own brand and you simply don't know who is going to move into the space you previously occupied.

Take this example from the world of hotels. Here's a search for Travel Inn (Premier Inn's previous name).

One can see from this example that Premier Inn smartly takes the first position - securing those sales for people looking for budget hotel accommodation. But who is that lurking in position #2. Who is www.travelinnhotel.net? Is it a Premier Inn affiliate? A similarly named business? Premier Inn's second URL? Sadly, for Premier Inn, it's a wolf in sheep's clothing - Travelodge cunningly bidding in their space with a handy URL and a much more enticing price point.

Imagine if Premier Inn had chosen not to bid on their own brand and left Travelodge to it. This 'cloaked' site would be soaking up almost all the paid search clicks. Not only that, with a more enticing price point that Premier Inn's natural listings, they would be grabbing a share of the persons who normally gravitate to the natural search listings. Worse still, if you were to look further down the page, you'll find Travelodge ranking highly for the term naturally. They've also got a second PPC ad floating around.

Now, without any metrics one can see that turning off brand bidding here is not a good idea, Premier Inn would leave themselves wide open to shed sales to their arch-rivals Travelodge.

But what do the actual results tell us?

With our clients' permission we did just this on two programmes. Thanks to strong SEO and well-known brands, our clients sat comfortably in high positions for their core brand terms. Their incumbent PPC programmes also delivered them into a top position in the paid search. We're pleased to say, their PPC was also massively profitable. But would the £100,000 in sales they got from our well-managed PPC campaign turn up the next month in the bottom line of their natural search?

It didn't.

In both cases, our research showed that only 12% of the sales previously coming through Paid search turned up in the natural search. 88% of the sales the clients got through PPC vanished. Went elsewhere.

So where did it go?

Well, looking again at the example above for Travel Inn, one can see the opportunities for loss. Not only that, the world of search is becoming an ever cleverer landscape. If it is not enough for key competitors to appear on your brand, you'll find that as soon as you turn off your ads, even more come out the woodwork. Don't forget, as soon as you stop bidding on your term, it gets cheaper for everyone else. That means, it becomes more cost effective for others to pursue your brand. What was once a prohibitive term suddenly becomes a profitable sales driver. And when this happens, you'll find new and interesting people moving in on your brand too. These include aggregators (the price comparison type sites) and increasingly those sites involved in search arbitrage - taking your search click and taking you to another page of search results. In every occasion when we suspended brand bidding we found arbitrage listings appear almost immediately.

Don't forget that there's also the ever-changing world of the natural search listings. You may think you have a strong position on your brand but little changes in Google's programming can change that overnight. We have seen occasions when clients disappeared from first position overnight, only to be put back the day after. If the paid search wasn't there, they'd lose the clicks. Not only that, Google's moves to create an ever more elaborate results set means that the search results are getting noisier and noisier.

Take a search in Google for 'shoes'. Before, all you would get is the paid and natural search listings. Now, Google has decided to put YouTube results at the top of the natural search (only useful if you've got great video content). Further down there's Google News results - another distraction. Then a bit further, you'll find Google Product Search results. More noise. Somewhere in there is your natural search listing. You'd better be bidding on 'shoes' in paid search if you want to cut through all this noise!

In summary, the world of search is busier, more fast moving and more complex than it ever has been. Competitors are smarter, Google is getting more elaborate - it's simply too much of a risk to trust your natural search to deliver. And, from our research, it simply doesn't. If you want to maximise your sales, maximise your exposure. Better still, make sure it's the same team looking after your paid search and your natural search. Here at Equator, that's what you get. Teams that communicate, volley and parry every day to ensure you get the most custom from the search engines.