Giving up on Organic Search

As I was searching for a gift late one evening using Google, I came to a shocking realization. For all the work eBlox has done over the years in organic search – optimizing websites and links so that pages come up high in Google’s rankings – I’ve been won over by the “other” side of Google’s search results page. That’s right: I click on ads. Specifically, the “pay-per-click” ads that run down the right side and top of Google’s search results page. For me, those “Sponsored Links” have become a more reliable way to find many of the things I’m looking for. And if my behavior has changed, you can bet that other users’ habits are changing too.

Why on earth would I click an advertisement for “imprinted ceramic mugs” when Google has invested billions of dollars in technology to show me the absolute best, top-notch, high-quality, popular web site for ceramic mugs right there in the middle of the page? Quite a few reasons, actually, but the most salient one may be that Google has quite a few more billions riding on the accuracy and effectiveness of those ads that surround the natural results than the results themselves. Google’s stated mission is to organize the world’s information, but their balance sheet tells the real story: Google is an advertising company. That’s not to suggest Google neglects their organic search results; quite the opposite. Google’s search results are probably the best they can possibly be given the volume of information they have to process.

But the web is increasingly polluted with massive amounts of near-worthless information created solely for the purpose of improving search engine rankings or selling ads. This is nothing new; companies have been trying to game (or fix, or engineer) search engine rankings for years, and Google, with over 80% of search market share, is their primary target. But lately it’s become apparent that Google may be fighting a losing battle. Competition for those first ten slots of natural search results is so fierce, and the slots themselves so valuable, that Google’s engineers and search quality team face an endless, uphill battle as content and searches explode.

If you’ve ever tried to get your own site in the top natural rankings for very generic search terms – say “promotional products” –you know that it’s virtually impossible unless you already rank very high to begin with. You also know that placement on the third or fourth or twentieth page of those results is next to worthless – users simply don’t click “next” that often if they don’t find what they need.

In organic search, you’re competing against thousands of other businesses for those 5-10 precious first slots. You really haven’t got a chance. In fact, in many industries, those first 3-4 slots will always be taken by an aggregator (Yelp, Citysearch) or marketing company that spends thousands of dollars and man-hours building high organic rankings, only to sell off that ranking to businesses like you who are willing to pay for a listing on their service. This costs you money and results in lower conversion rates, because the customer now has to sort through the aggregator’s listings (many of which are artificially ranked based on the type of listing purchased) before they find an actual business to contact.

If that weren’t bad enough, the advertising dollars available to sites that rank well organically are so high that many sites that rank well don’t sell anything at all! Ever search for “kitchen knives” and get a site that has a whole lot of information about kitchen knives, a whole lot of ads for other sites that sell kitchen knives, but no actual kitchen knives that you can buy right there? These content sites exist solely to sell advertising, and they’re multiplying like wildfire. They’re built and managed by huge organizations with armies of low-paid freelance writers. These companies know exactly what kind of content Google is looking for, and they build it rapidly based on search popularity, current events, or anything that results in eyeballs and advertising clicks.

So, quite often you’re not even competing against your competitors. For businesses selling stuff online – reasonably generic stuff, that is, like shirts or hats or mugs – ranking highly in organic search is unrealistic. But that’s where my late-night epiphany comes in. If organic results are unreliable for so many search terms – if they take me to places that either don’t provide me with what I need or require additional steps to find what I’m looking for – then why shouldn’t I see if the ads do a better job? And if the ads are actually more effective and accurate at connecting me (as a consumer) with a given seller, shouldn’t those of you who sell online be using those ads too?

Many of you already are, of course. We build, manage and consult on pay-per-click campaigns for our clients, and most of them find those campaigns to be effective when created and managed properly. But many who come to pay-per-click do so out of frustration with their inability to rank well organically. I’m suggesting that it’s exactly the opposite – that pay-per-click is actually a better use of your time and dollars than investing heavily in organic SEO.

Why? Because pay-per-click is precise and targeted, a rifle round to organic search’s shotgun. Pay-per-click shows your product or service where you want it, when you want it and, in many cases, to whom you want it. More importantly, users respond to it. Google’s multi-billion dollar business model is built on it, and they’ve got it down to a science.

For me, pay-per-click ads often provide a more trustworthy link than a high organic result. That’s not to suggest that top-ranking organic results are necessarily of poor quality or filled with junk content, but I generally believe that an advertiser who is willing to spend money to directly reach someone looking for an imprinted ceramic mug is going to actually have that product for me to buy. The top organic result could well be a long article about decorating ceramic mugs for fun, peppered with ads and links.

There’s one other factor at play here: Within the last couple of years, Google radically changed the “quality” guidelines for their advertisers. For many years, a search on Google for nearly any product would bring up multiple ads for companies that would not and could not sell you that product – eBay, Target, Amazon and others would advertise for literally anything, just to drive users to their sites. While there’s nothing ethically wrong with that – it’s the digital equivalent of a billboard on the highway – it adversely impacted the perceived quality of the ads surrounding the search results.

So Google told advertisers that their ads had to not just be relevant to the search results (“Buy Aircraft Carriers on eBay!”) but also link to relevant content. Sorry, eBay – no aircraft carriers for sale, no ad. Now, this doesn’t prevent an advertiser from buying ads to link to their own content sites, but since they’ll pay every time somone clicks on that ad, they’re certainly fewer and far between. That’s why – at least for now – the ads you see when you type in “imprinted ceramic mug” may get you to a real vendor faster and more effectively than sorting through the organic results. And that’s why I’ve turned my attention away from organic search and toward pay-per-click, and why I think you should consider it, too.

This article also appears in Identity Marketing Magazine. Brent Buford is the CEO of eBlox.