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3 Reasons to Integrate Organic and Paid Search

November 23, 2011

I recently  found myself explaining something that I thought was common knowledge: The imperative of coordinating your paid and organic search efforts. The notion that this is not common knowledge convinced me to write about it. When a company coordinates paid and organic search, it makes sure that the links in paid ads point to the same URLs that rank well organically. The tactic also uses similar phrasing in the paid ad as the organic snippet. It seems like such a simple thing to tune your paid program to ranking pages and snippets. But you’d be surprised at how seldom it is done.

Large companies tend to have a lot of pages about the same topics, which serve slightly different purposes (or not). So it is not uncommon for them to have paid search driving to one page with another page ranking highly in Google’s organic search engine results pages (SERPs). For example, a lot of advertising organizations build their own advertising landing pages as distinct entities from other digital marketing activities within companies. They do this to make sure the messaging and branding on the page matches the ads. For them, paid and organic are often distinct experiences.

Why is this a bad thing? Well, for branded terms, it’s not necessarily bad. You should own multiple slots on page 1 in Google for your brand pages. Obviously, your paid campaign will need to pick one of them if it doesn’t build its own. Excluding branded SEM, though, you should build experiences that drive both paid and organic efforts to the same pages for the following reasons:

  • Multiple links and divergent creatives can be confusing to the user, and to Google
  • Pages that rank higher in organic search tend to have higher Google quality scores, which elevate paid listings
  • If paid and organic links point to  the same pages, b2b tech users are much more likely to click them

Rather than merely telling you these reasons, allow me to show you. Along the way, you can learn how to align paid and organic tactics into one effective strategy.

Better usability

Suppose someone queries cloud computing in Google, and sees different IBM links in the paid search results than the organic result on the same SERP. Which to click? If you click the paid link, presumably, you get the official IBM site for cloud. When you land on that page, you expect a portal that describes or explains the whole sweep of IBM’s offerings related to cloud computing. But if the page is primarily an advertising landing page, by definition, it presents a perspective of one facet of IBM’s cloud offerings. Ads tell stories–good ads do anyway. Stories focus on one facet or feature. Stories about everything are as compelling as stories about nothing.

As I said, users who click the paid ad will find a narrow vision of the full sweep of IBM’s offerings. And a large proportion of them will bounce as a result–a fact we will return to later. For the present, the reason they will bounce is because users who type generic queries (queries that name or describe general categories rather than specific products) have diverse interests when they do this. If you provide a narrow view that does not match a user’s understanding within the sweep of possible interpretations of the query, she will bounce. Advertising landing pages do just this for a large percentage of the audience for generic queries.

Not only is the scope of the advertising landing page too narrow, it is typically not in the language users expect to see when they type generic queries. These queries are expressions of an existing marketplace. When you use branded language that is unique to your corporate perspective on an advertising landing page (a common practice), a high percentage of users will get confused by this language and bounce.

On the other hand, pages that rank well organically for generic queries will tend to use the language of users who query those words. It really is the only way you can rank well for those words because generic queries tend to have a lot of competition. Also, organic pages for generic queries tend to serve as portals to a broader swath of a company’s offerings. For this reason, they get lower bounce rates and result in better user experiences. If your paid URL is the same as the one for which you rank highly in search, your users will engage much more readily with the content they find whether they click the paid listing or the organic one. In short, you’ll get what you pay for when you pay for that click. And the users will be happier with your brand.

Higher Google quality scores

I recently attended the Google Tech Council, a quarterly gathering of b2b tech companies that share many of the same challenges. We get together to share best practices and learn new ways to improve our search marketing efforts. I am IBM’s representative. In the course of the meeting, Google brought in their quality score leader–the advertising counterpart to Matt Cutts. As he explained, there are three main things that influence how ads rank in Google:

1. Click throughs. Ads that get clicked a lot move up on the page into higher positions, those that don’t get clicked move down. This is primarily a factor of how well written and relevant the “creative” is. Here creative is a technical term for the ad copy.

2. Bounce rates. Ads that lead to relatively high bounce rates will get lower scores over time.

3.  Landing page quality. Google also scores landing page quality according to a number of measures. For example, single-offer landing pages that don’t give users a way out are considered low-quality experiences. Also, if the page is not tightly relevant to the words, it’s lower in quality. And Google is getting more and more into editorial quality as well. So, for example, thin-content pages get low scores.

In the meeting, I asked what the consequences are for the Google quality score if your paid and organic listings are different. He was very clear that the paid side of the house and the organic side of the house are totally distinct. So he danced around the question and basically said this: Having a good organic rank has no direct influence on the paid quality score. Google needs to say this because it is part of its corporate mantra. What sets Google apart from competitors is the “separation of church and state.”

Still, two of the three factors that influence the quality score also influence organic ranking (coincidentally or not). High bounce rates will also push your organic snippet down. As our book explains in detail, landing page quality leads to better organic ranking. So if your paid ad links to the page that is ranking well for generic keywords, it will tend to climb the ranking for Google quality scores as well.

Better click throughs

In the ensuing discussion among the people around the table at the Google Tech Council, the consensus was that if you have both a paid listing and an organic listing on page 1 in Google, 1+1=3 in terms of the click throughs for the combination. In other words, the affect of having both on page 1 has a multiplying effect on the effectiveness of your SEM campaign. But this only works if both listings point to the same URL. If they point to different pages, 1+1<2.

Why is this? Google has been studying user search behavior for a long time. Two years in a row, they enlisted TechTarget to help them study the b2b tech audience. In the second study, they observed search user behavior that surprised most search marketers at the time. At least for our audience, the most prevalent behavior is to scan an entire page of results and click the results that seem most relevant. When users did this, having both a paid and an organic listing on the page led to an increase in click throughs by up to 30%. But this only seems to work if the users can correlate the two listings. If the listings do not align, it actually decreases the click through chances on one or the other.

(One note: I have a recording of the Google rep who first delivered that report to IBM and not everything she said ended up in the report. The report itself does not draw that conclusion explicitly, but the data makes it clear. Also, when she delivered the report, she drew sweeping conclusions about the positive branding of paid and organic alignment that are not as clearly stated in the report.)

I said that the report was surprising because it went against consensus. For a long time, the consensus among search marketers was that organic cannibalizes paid or vice versa (depending on whether you sit in advertising or lead gen). This led to programs like Always On, which emphasized buying words until you had an organic snippet to rank on page 1 for the word, and then turning off the paid campaign. The report showed that paid and organic only eat each others click throughs if the two listings point to different URLs. As I said in the open, the common thing when the consensus developed was to have different pages for advertising and organic. Again, if they point to the same URL, they have a multiplying effect.


The end result is very simple. If you rank well for a generic keyword, make sure you have a paid campaign that also points to that URL and aligns the creative to the organic snippet. This tactic will result in up to 30% more click throughs, lower bounce rates, higher engagement rates and better position on the SERP. It also has strong positive branding influence.

James Mathewson is the Global Search Strategy Lead for IBM and coauthor of Audience, Relevance and Search: Targeting Web Audiences with Relevant Content. Opinions are his own and not IBMs.

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