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The War on 'Free' Clicks: Think Nobody Clicks on Google Ads? Think Again!

What’s Driving the Organic Search Listing Smack-Down?

Much to the delight of internet marketers, new, bigger, more engaging and more targeted sponsored ad formats – which allow businesses to target prospective clients in more precise and relevant ways – are behind the increases in CTR for high commercial intent keyword searches. These new keyword advertising formats include:

  • Product Listing Ads: In May of 2012, Google transitioned the previously free Google Product Search into a "Purely Commercial Model." Product listing ads include large images and are automatically triggered if someone searches for a product that is in your Merchant Center account.
  • Click to Call Ads: This powerful mobile ad format lets customers call a business phone number with the click of a button.
  • Bottom of Page Ads: Catch their attention before they click to page 2 or refine their search.
  • Mega Site Links: This huge ad format offers up to 10 additional places to click, greatly increasing your chances of presenting a relevant link.
  • Social Ad Extensions: Show who has +1'd your site, which lends credibility and potential name recognition.
  • Remarketing: Allows companies to track site visitors with a cookie and chase them around the Web, displaying relevant banner ads until they click and convert.
  • Map/Location Ad Extensions: Display your address and phone number to local searchers, enticing them to visit you faster. Advertise only to customers in the vicinity.
  • : Prompt viewers to open a chat window with a sales guy – get those leads while they're hot!
  • Email Ads: Prompt users to provide an email address right from the search result page.
  • Etc.

Couple these and other exciting new ad innovations with the fact that approximately half of searchers still can’t differentiate between paid and organic search listings, and you can quickly see what’s happening here. Advertising on Google will become a means to survival on keywords with high commercial intent, and the best advertisers will reap the benefits. (More on the importance of intent in marketing here.)

A War on Two Fronts

While these innovative new paid search advertisement options are rapidly growing in size and power, Google is simultaneously waging all-out war on SEO web spam. Over the past few months we’ve seen significant updates that make it harder to rank in organic search, including:

  • - Google cracks down on "thin content" and ad-heavy sites. Up to 12% of search results are impacted.
  • - Google stops providing reliable access to organic search query data. Advertisers basically need to use AdWords to get full access to search query data. (Click here for more tips on dealing with the "not provided" fiasco.)
  • Matt Cutts Threatens to Penalize SEO's (March 2012) - At SXSW, Matt Cutts issues a warning to sites doing “over optimization, ” declaring: "we want to make that playing field a little bit more level."
  • The Shot Heard Around the SEO World (April 2012) - Google warns an estimated 1 million websites about unnatural links and orders webmasters to cease and desist these manipulative activities.

The net result is that organic search has become significantly harder and more costly to execute, nearly impossible to measure, and yields increasingly unpredictable ROI.

SEO vs. PPC: Who’s Winning this War?

It’s too early to declare a victory for either side. The one thing that is clear from our research is that the board is set and the pieces are in motion. What do you think of the shifting battlegrounds here? Let me know what you think in the comment fields below.

Acknowledgements

A special thank you to my colleagues, Miranda Miller (Search Engine Watch), Aaron Wall (SEO Book), Tom Demers (Measured SEM), AJ Kohn (Blind Five Year Old), and Elisa Gabbert (WordStream), all of whom provided incredibly valuable input and commentary into the design and data of this research study.

Survey Methodology

Our survey was limited to advertisers in the US, for Google Search only. In our survey, we define high commercial intent keywords specifically as keyword searches on Google that have significant advertiser competition and trigger a Google Shopping or Google Product Listing ad.

We used recent average click-through rate data collected through our AdWords Performance Grader across over one thousand AdWords accounts in the last 60 days. We also looked at the Google Analytics/Webmaster Tools and AdWords account data of WordStream’s managed accounts to analyze organic click-through rate data and trends.

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