Friday, May 05, 2006

The SEA vs. SEO Battle…Or is It?

It might not be of Confederate vs. Union caliber, but SEA vs. SEO is a match-up we see time and again in the search engine world. Many of our clients often ask us, “Which programs do I need – SEA (search engine advertising) or SEO (search engine optimization)?” The first thing we like to point out is that it’s not an “either, or” situation – both can be used together to complement and support each other. More on that later, but first, let’s take a quick look at the current SEA/SEO landscape.

The benefits of SEA (also referred to as pay-per-click or paid listings) are that it is easily and quickly implemented, it’s flexible and allows for changes to be made on-the-fly, and, depending on the competitiveness of the keywords you’re advertising on and the expertise of your SEA manager, can be cost effective.

However, when it comes to driving traffic, SEO is king. The numbers vary slightly from survey to survey, but all agree that users are 2 to 3 times more likely to click on a natural listing than a paid one. It makes sense, really – if you search for “gardening tips” are you going to click on the listing that someone paid for, or the listing that someone has because their site is all about gardening tips? In an advertising saturated world, people gravitate towards anything that doesn’t tug at their wallet. I know I do. Combine this with the fact that over time SEO-driven traffic is much less expensive than SEA-driven traffic and it’s a win-win for the advertiser.

And yet despite the fact that SEO will provide more traffic at a fraction of the cost of SEA, advertisers are spending most of their budgets on pay per click campaigns. According to the December 2005 SEMPO/Intellisurvey report, 83% of online dollars are spent on paid placement and only 11.2% is spent on organic search. Contrast that with the findings from the iProspect study that show 61% of internet searchers think natural listings are more relevant and it’s clear that there’s a misallocation of budgets.

We’re not suggesting that SEA be relegated to the trash heap – just proposing a slightly different, smarter approach. As I alluded to earlier, the two programs can and should be used together. Because SEO takes time, both to implement and to take root, we recommend to our clients that an SEA program be instituted while SEO is in the works. This way, our clients still maintain a presence on the search engines and drive traffic to their site while optimization is in progress. Once SEO begins to take hold, we then scale back the SEA program and use it as a complement rather than the main traffic driver.

In short, we propose a truce between SEA and SEO. It might not win you a Nobel Peace prize, but it will certainly improve your site’s performance! And while we’re at it, consider the power and efficiency of the SEA/SEO combo when planning your overall marketing budget. It works, it’s measurable, and it costs a fraction of the cost of traditional media. I know, I know – I work for an SEO firm, of course I’d say that! But truly, for as little as 40¢ per visitor (even less in many cases!), you can build leads, gather behavior information and see measurable results. Can TV or radio say that?

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