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SEO & SEA: best friends or greatest enemies?

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Which strategy is better: SEA or SEO? You will undoubtedly also have this discussion. Such as in response to the news that Google is launching ‘gallery ads’ on mobile , which means that organic results will again be lower. Is SEO finally going to his grave? Is it inevitable to have to advertise through Google Ads?

I discussed this as an SEO person with SEA employee Edward Stapel from Belvilla. I share our findings in this article.

Competition on the SERP

Every online marketer will eventually have to deal with this issue. SEO and SEA fish continuously in the same Google pond. And therefore it immediately seems as if they are fishing for the same user.

A simple example:

Search holiday home Germany

No fancy rich snippets, extended ads or hotel finders, but just 4 ads at the top and subsequent organic results. There is almost no simpler example.

SEA above SEO

And yet the biggest challenge of the SEA versus SEO issue is immediately visible. SEA is by definition above SEO. On a desktop with a resolution of 1920 x 1280 only organic result # 1 is above the fold, so visibility is minimal.

This situation is even more extreme when you look on a mobile:

Search holiday home Germany by mobile

Here you can see the organic results only after scrolling down a bit.

Next to that are the aforementioned rich snippets, location services, images and business listings. A good example of this for the hotel (and recently also holiday home) sector is Google’s accommodation finder:

Google's accommodation finder

Organic results under pressure

Again the organic results are pushed down. And we will tell you a secret: that trend will continue for a while. Not only regular search will be affected, Google’s other products will also be affected. For example, you can already advertise in Google My Business and Google is even considering making organizations pay for a listing . This also applies to Google Maps and Google Assistant .

So now we have to ask ourselves: isn’t SEA just a better way to generate traffic? (All SEA people now shout “of course!”)

Is SEO finally ‘dead’? (All SEO people now shout “of course not!”)

SEO is not dead in any case, but maybe it should take it a bit easier. In other words, maybe we should ask ourselves if the channels can compete with each other when it comes to performance.

What does this mean for performance?

Is SEA as a channel really that much more efficient? Or is it an illusion that SEO suffers from lower visibility? To answer this question, we need an example to properly measure the difference between positions.

A while ago, in February 2016 , Google changed its SERPs by adding a fourth ad above the organic search results. Where previously ‘only’ three ads were above it, now there was one from one day to the next. Without changing anything at both SEA and SEO, the performance suddenly changed radically.

And so too for Belvilla:

In this graph you see average positions (yellow) and CTR (green) from Belvilla’s SEA campaigns over a period of three months (fixed lines), whereby we make a comparison with the previous year (dotted lines).

Here you can see that while the average position remained the same, the number of clicks in February suddenly started to rise sharply due to the higher CTR. At the same time, the number of organic sessions for the website in the same period suddenly saw a dip of roughly -20%.

So what you see here is that SEA’s performance suddenly jumped up, at the expense of SEO, due to that extra visibility. In other words: the position on the SERP is therefore crucial for performance.

What about branded traffic?

Let’s take a nice example, one about a discussion that comes up again and again: branded traffic . This is about people who are already specifically looking for me and my brand.

In this situation you ask yourself: is it not a shame to advertise on terms that contain my brand name, because the intention is so obvious that it is very likely that these people will land on the website after all? A good argument!

At the same time you can argue that it is useful. The costs are low, quality scores high (also a nice discussion: does this affect your entire account?) And you just grab more visibility on the SERP.

For example:

More visibility on the SERP

Here we do the same as in the earlier example: one day yes and the other day no branded campaigns. But who dares to do this? No SEA specialist will be keen to just switch off the branded campaigns.

Fortunately, people sometimes make mistakes (I don’t mention names), which makes those campaigns suddenly go out. Exclude something with branded keywords at account level …

You can learn from mistakes, and this error therefore offers the opportunity to analyze this!

Impressions branded campaigns

Here you can see that the number of impressions for the branded campaigns during a good period was virtually nil.

But here you can see that SEO (orange) catches up on the missed revenue. Go SEO !

Unfortunately, this error cost a net amount of revenue, because compared to the expected revenue, SEO did not absorb everything. Here, too, it seems that it is certainly worthwhile to use SEA.

Then why SEO?

Okay, so far you have not heard many reasons why you should get started with SEO. Is that the conclusion that SEA is the way to go ?Absolutely not! We still miss an important consideration in which the big difference between SEO and SEA really is: the required resources. To be quite flat: with SEA you pay per click, with SEO not. In other words, with extra volume you create extra costs, and not always proportionately. SEO does not have this problem and once it is up, you have a fairly stable basis in volume.

A simple example:

Example SEA versus SEO

As you can see, in SEA there is basically a constant margin per euro invested (with a small increase, since you optimize). With SEO, the investment is initially very high, but then it declines radically.

This creates the following situation when you look at cumulative profit:

Cumulative profit

In other words: investing in SEO is definitely worth it in the long term. The example is of course a hugely simplified situation that you will never actually see as pure. The combination of the two channels provides a much more stable basis for performance via search, and a lot of potential to scale up.

How can SEO and SEA reinforce each other?

In the aforementioned example, we work under the assumption that both channels bring in the same traffic, and that there is therefore no difference in the performance and type of traffic that the respective channels generate. Due to the nature of the channels, this is rarely the situation.

Since you pay per click with SEA, you want to be sure that your budget is used as efficiently as possible. And that the investment pays off. That is why campaigns will often always focus on keywords that directly result in achieving the goals in the short term.

Look at the customer journey

But if you look at the entire customer journey, there will often be many more touch points with corresponding searches. Many of these keywords will not (yet) result in a conversion, and therefore we tend not to target them with SEA campaigns.

Belvilla uses the Dream-Plan-Book-Experience model, based on Google’s See-Think-Do-Care model. Here you can see with which channel you should approach which phase in the customer journey.

Dream-Plan-Book-Experience model

Those higher phases are crucial to generate growth by brand and product, but are therefore generally not included in SEA. This is a hugely important role and opportunity for SEO.

The situation that you ultimately want to achieve is one where a channel without cost-per-click such as SEO generates broad traffic to the website. Then you pick out the interesting visitors, who retarget you with a channel such as SEA.

For example:

Retargetting with SEA

Here you see an article on Belvilla’s blog that generates a lot of traffic from SEO. Much of this traffic is not relevant and will ultimately not book a holiday home. You do not want to target this term with SEA, and you do not necessarily want to retarget the users who land on that page.

However, the group of users who enter into further interaction with the website, and who shows an intention that is already moving more towards a conversion, is actually interesting. These users end up in an audience , and will therefore be targeted by Belvilla’s remarketing campaigns, among others.

The same for longtail searches. These searches are more difficult to include in SEA campaigns, so there is an important role for SEO to be found on this. And as soon as valuable new keywords come from SEO, you immediately have good input for any new SEA campaigns.

In this way you use the strong points of SEO to be able to build SEA campaigns more efficiently.

What else can you do?

In our view, the dynamics between SEO and SEA that I describe above is a mode of collaboration that is crucial for an efficient presence in search.

At the operational level, there are also a large number of issues where specialists can reinforce each other and provide them with insights. I name three:

1. What is the intention behind the search?

To properly implement the above, insight is needed into the intention behind a search query. How do you find out?

The answer is testing! Belvilla has run a test with a campaign with a set of keywords without clear intention (for example, ‘holiday home france’ as opposed to ‘booking holiday home france’). You were shown two versions of a landing page:

Intent behind search

The left version contains a lot of information and inspiration for the exploratory user. The right-hand page is fully set up to direct visitors towards a conversion.

The right page created an increase of 35% (!) In booking value. This set of keywords are therefore crucial to target with the SEA campaigns!

2. Optimize quality scores

A good quality score within your campaigns is essential to keep your ad spend from getting out of hand. An optimal quality score simply means spending less money for the same click.

For that reason, it is essential to optimize landing pages for the quality score, among other things. You can do this, for example, by matching the ad to the landing page, using relevant terms and offering a good site experience.

If you are involved with SEO, this should sound familiar to you, because this is also your job! That is why it is a good idea to help each other optimize landing pages. And this also has actual results:

Optimize landing pages

Here you see on the one hand an increase in quality score and at the same time a decrease in CPCs. This is the result of a joint process between SEO and SEA to improve the quality score.

Go SEO and SEA!

3. Branding effect on the SERP

Interesting question: does a greater presence of your brand on the SERP ensure better results? In other words, if your website appears in the same results more often, does that make it more likely that users will click on your result?

That would mean that the presence of the one would promote the performance of the other.

Research by SEA specialist Pieter Bastiaansen shows that the presence of a brand in search has a significant effect on brand recall and brand recognition :

From further research also shows that these higher brand recall and recognition in particular result in a higher likelihood to click on a particular result. It indeed seems that it is encouraging that both SEA and SEO take a good position on the SERP.

Would it also be interesting to take more than two results? That is what Belvilla wants to achieve with the multiple brands that are part of its family: TopicTravel, Aanzee, and VillaXL.

The result is a significant presence on the SERPs:

significant presence on the SERPs

This does entail a number of challenges: how do you prevent cannibalization, double costs and duplicate content ?

Duplicate content

These are not simple problems to solve, but if you manage it, it is enormously interesting to capture a lot more traffic!

SEO & SEA: gain in synergy

Sit seems clear to Edward and me that SEO and SEA are absolutely not enemies. Although they fish in the same pond, both channels clearly have advantages and disadvantages, with which they can support each other. The same applies to the specialists who deal with it, the real profit lies in the synergy. Therefore, think carefully about which roles both play for your organization, and with which actions and insights they can reinforce each other!

Another interesting question (which we dare not answer here): does a strong brand preference also result in better SEO results because people interact better with the results on the SERP (which is possibly a ranking signal for Google)? I would like to discuss this with you.

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