AdWords vs. SEO…a Surprising Winner?

We hear it all the time from prospective clients, “I’m willing to use AdWords for a while until the SEO takes hold; I’ll turn off AdWords as soon as we rank organically for our important keywords.” This has been a tried and true strategy for many years—pay for traffic until the free traffic starts rolling in. And, it’s how many Internet marketers actually sell their bosses/clients on getting started with AdWords. Everyone has the dream of not having to pay Google…just having your homepage at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs), kicking back, and watching the money pile up.

However, AdWords shouldn’t be considered simply a bridge to the promised land of SEO. It’s a real contender and should be just one of the tools used to drive traffic to your site. Here’s why:

AdWords Often Clicked More Than Organic Results
AdWords is taking more and more screen real estate in Google’s SERPs. They are giving more and more tools to AdWords users to make their ads bigger and bigger: between location extensions, phone extensions, sitemap extensions, Google+ extensions, and image extensions, more and more ads are larger than just a headline, two lines of text and a URL.

Ever Expanding Screen Real Estate
More and more often, searchers on Google are seeing results that look like the screen shot

Screen shot on my 13” laptop for the keyword “basement water cleanup.

Screen shot on my 13” laptop for the keyword
“basement water cleanup.

to the right; the organic results are pushed lower and lower by the ever-expanding ad sizes.

WordSteam, a PPC consulting company, noticed this trend and decided to do some research. Their results were quite surprising. They found that for highly commercial keywords (example: “basement water cleanup”), “Clicks on paid search listings beat out organic clicks by nearly a 2:1 margin for keywords with high commercial intent in the US.” Check out their very nice info graphic on their results.

Highly Relevant Results
How can this be? If the screen shot above isn’t enough to convince you ads can get more clicks that organic, consider this: more and more people are becoming good at playing the “AdWords game.” As the competition heats up, the players’ skill level tends to rise. More and more of those using AdWords are starting to use best practices: small ad groups of highly related keywords paired with well crafted ads that point to highly relevant landing pages. All of this means that the ads are ever more appealing (“hmmm…that looks exactly like what I’m looking for…”) and more often provide the information the searcher is looking for. And reviewing my Psych 101 textbook, that positive reinforcement means that people begin to repeat the clicking-on-ads behavior more often.

WordStream points out many other reasons AdWords is winning the click war. However, they make the important point: on the whole there are more clicks on organic results than on paid results. However, they immediately point out that not all keywords are equal and that informational queries like “who was the 18th president of the US?” tend to not have many ads and organic gets the clicks. However, for people looking to find the closest place to buy self-leveling concrete may find the organic search results buried under a large number of Home Depot and Menards ads.

Positive ROI Required
But just because ads get a lot of clicks doesn’t make AdWords a good business decision; you have to keep the bottom line in mind. And the goal of a positive ROI is getting more and more difficult due to the increased and highly skilled competition.
However, if you know what you’re doing with AdWords, do excellent keyword research, organize your campaigns well, write compelling ads that point to compelling, highly related landing pages that do a great job of selling, you will make money. And make no mistake, there are a lot of companies that make a great deal of money with enormous ROI even in today’s competitive market.

So, if your AdWords account is making a positive ROI, why would you turn it off, even if your SEO is bearing fruit and you’re getting more organic traffic? We have never seen a client ever follow through on the “shut down AdWords after my SEO kicks in.”

Rod Holmes is a partner at Chicago Style SEO, a full service Internet marketing firm. You can read more of his thoughts at or on Twitter: @chicagostyleseo

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