A common question of companies wanting to drive traffic to their website is “Should we advertise in the search engines? Or conduct a search engine optimization project? Neither? Both?” Based on 20 years of helping people with marketing in search engines, here are a few thoughts.

First, some definitions. Search Engine Optimization is a process that includes work on various factors that Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines use to decide the order of sites included in the results of a query. Engines do not charge for these “organic” listings. Search Engine Advertising is almost always “pay per click”, where companies pay the search engine for each click on their ad. Ads are supposed to be labeled on a search results page, and there are usually two to six ads per page.

Where to begin when considering optimization or ads? Analytics. Take a look at existing data about your website traffic to see if there are already visitors from the search engines. There are many analytics options available. Google Analytics is a popular analytics package, but there are also open source options as well as paid options for all ranges of budgets.

So, Paid or Organic? Each has its strengths. Many companies use both options.

Paid works under the following conditions:

  • There’s sufficient traffic to actually advertise on a phrase.
    • Google’s minimum is 10 searches per month. If a phrase has fewer than 10 searches, Google will state “low search volume” and you can’t advertise on that phrase.
  • Your company’s employees or designees can create a page on your site that is an appropriate starting point.
    • Creating a new specific landing page is usually a good idea. Home pages are often too general. Other pages on your site may not be a good starting point for first-time visitors.
  • Your employees or designees have the time to test ad texts, adjust bids and otherwise monitor the ad campaigns.
    • If you “set and forget”, there’s a good chance you’ll spend a lot of money and have very little to show for it.

If you can meet these conditions, then ads in the search engines can be very helpful. These ads have many strengths:

--Companies can quickly change messages or the first page visitors see on the site.

--Companies have full control over costs.

--Companies can target different messages by geography, time of day, and other factors.

--Companies can “remarket”, showing a specific message to people who have previously visited their web site.

So, why bother with optimization?

  • The long tail of terms.
    • A very high percentage of the total traffic to any web site is from the “long tail” of phrases that have just one or two visits in a month, or even in a quarter. This is counterintuitive, as we tend to think of a single word, or a combo of two to three words, as being the most important. But the reality is variations of these one to three words usually make up the majority of traffic. Advertising directly on these variations is rarely possible.
  • Optimization costs may be included in a web site redesign, and the incremental ongoing costs may be quite low unless there’s a major shift in the search engine algorithms.
  • You’re already optimized for something. You might as well optimize for what you value.
    • Almost always, you are already listed in Google, Bing and Yahoo. The question is whether your listings are helpful or harmful?
    • For a local business, does Google have your correct hours, address, photo and other key information?
    • For all businesses, does Google include pages you might not want first-time visitors to start on?
    • For all businesses, is the text in the search results helpful, or harmful?

There are plenty of horror stories about what Google includes in the search results for a company. Links from other web sites are a very important factor in the Google search engine results. So, if there are a lot of links pointing to a software company’s bug reports page, or a company’s product recall page, or information that is simply out of date, that may well be where visitors start. And end. They may not take the time to look any further on your web site.

To conclude, sometimes both search engine optimization and ads in the search engines can be worthwhile. At other times, though, neither optimization nor ads may be worthwhile. And in some situations, one may definitely be the better solution. But in any event, I highly recommend starting by taking a look at your analytics to see if you’re already getting traffic.

-Guest blogger Stuart Jenner of Marketek Consulting Group is based in Seattle. He assists companies in a wide range of industries with search engine optimization and paid search guidance.

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