Digging deeper into one client's reasoning behind this assertion, I found that the company would not consider engaging in paid search because of the perceived erosive effect on natural clicks, which in effect caused them to pay for clicks that were otherwise "free." Breaking down the logic of the latter perception reveals some intriguing reasons not only to engage in holistic search management, but also measure holistically against conversions, rather than simply pit search against itself.
Click Erosion, or Click Elevation from Holistic Search?
Case studies published by Nielsen and SEO-PR report that when a listing is highly placed in both the natural and paid areas of a search engine results page, there is a click lift ranging between 32 percent and 300 percent. In the SEO-PR study, conversions increased by 300 percent as well. I also see similar spikes in my own campaigns, with clicks and conversions vaulting as high as 100 percent.
Once click and conversion lift is achieved through holistic search, there is one additional factor that sheds a greater light on the value of holistic management.
Adding "Free" Search into Holistic Conversion Metrics
One weakness of the erosion argument is the notion that clicks in natural search are "free." Natural search is not truly free, because costs are incurred either by hiring a professional agency or consultant, or by doing it in-house. Even reporting and analytics for "free" results have a time, dollar, and resource cost attached.
By acknowledging natural resource costs and adding them to overall metrics, CPC gaps between paid and natural become more realistic. While these costs inevitably increase average CPCs, most search marketers find that natural optimization has a consistently decreasing CPC over time, which effectively lowers the average holistic CPC as well.
When conversion value is measured against lift using an average CPC metric, a new picture of the search campaign emerges, particularly in measuring a positive or negative impact. This does not discount the dynamic interplay between paid and natural search, but does provide a more objective view of the overall search campaign.
Here are a few other interesting factors of holistic search management that support the theory and measurement of increased clicks:
There are two basic opportunities to capture visibility on a search engine results page. As obvious as this may sound, it is worth repeating. Marketers have at least one opportunity to appear in natural results, and one opportunity to appear in paid search. One of the basic premises behind holistic lift is that when page visibility is increased, clicks and conversions also increase.
If holistic search creates additional clicks, then not operating holistically drives those additional clicks somewhere else. Whether you engage in holistic search management or not, the search frequency will remain constant. Not engaging holistically means abandoning additional clicks and conversions that could have been derived from the lift. These searchers may be driven to other sites (including competitors), or a search may be aborted when intent is not met with satisfactory results.
Some searchers are predetermined to click on paid or natural based on the greatest likelihood that one or the other will deliver on search intent. As Gord Hotchkiss reported in a recent "Search Insider" column, certain visitors are pre-mapped to go to "the area of greatest promise" on the SERP, based on their search intention. Hotchkiss posits that our potential visitors have two general views of the search engine results page, that of the paid promise, and of the natural promise. For the marketer, this means being visible in both throughout all search stages until satisfaction is met.
The real story about a holistic search campaign is told in the lift and return on ad spend, not just the erosion measurement or the paid media budget. If you are not engaging holistically, then maybe now is the time to test it and see how your conversions are affected. I would love to hear your feedback.