I’m lucky enough to have been involved in ecommerce and online marketing for over ten years now, both as a search engine marketer and online merchant. My involvement in AdWords management and SEO has meant that I’ve been able to witness the gradual evolution and monetisation of Google over the years.

Various technologies have been acquired by Google and absorbed into the machine, whilst others have been left by the wayside and assigned to history. If you did a search on Google in 2001, you just got what SEOs call your ‘ten blue links’ and that was that. Now, since Google introduced the concept of universal & blended search in 2007, you get images from image search, user reviews, video, news feeds, Google+ authorship, google maps, wikipedia, product listing ads and text ads with all kinds of wonderful ad extensions all dynamically tailored to you. At one point, you even got realtime tweets until Google fell out with Twitter!

Look at this search query and note how visible the PLAs and star review ad extensions are compared to the standard blue links and this result doesn’t even include videos or maps like some searches produce.

NosferDVD

This is great for the user but not so great for online retailers as all of this rich content distracts searchers from their product or category pages in the organic results. Those 10 blue links now look rather insignificant and are easy to miss – especially for local searches. This got me thinking…

One technology that has gone from strength to strength since being acquired by Google is the pay per click advertising platform AdWords. This is unsurprising as AdWords accounts for something like 97% of Google’s revenue. This pays for the immense resources that are required to make the search engine function so it’s understandable that Google have been pushing AdWords to the fore. Google got around 5,134,000,000 searches per day in 2012. The kind of infrastructure and resources needed to make that work doesn’t come cheap!

AdWords Vs Organic SEO

There was a time when the general consensus in online marketing was that organic SEO was always the better long-term investment. It worked on the premise that you paid an SEO agency for a couple of years then sat back and watched the sales coming in from those free organic and Google shopping clicks. That concept is starting to show a few large cracks..

AdWords features come and go regularly but arguably the biggest change came in February 2013 when Google Shopping became a paid service via AdWords in the UK. This really caught some merchants on the hop as they saw all those lovely free clicks disappear and revenue nosedive.

 

Google-Shopping-Option-150x150There was a time when marketers would use AdWords as a stopgap until the a site achieved good organic rankings naturally. Now however, due to AdWords dominating the search engine results pages, we are finding that organic SEO may not be a viable long term strategy these days…

For example, consider a site that sells home and garden products or giftware – how long would it take for pages from these sites to rank organically and at what cost? Since they can’t rely on free clicks from Google Shopping anymore, realistically, it could take years and with Google making any kind of off-page SEO more and more difficult, there is always the possibility that it may never actually happen thanks to the Google Panda & Penguin updates.

It’s In The Numbers

We have clients that literally could not survive without AdWords even though they already rank well organically.

AdWords can create revenue and cash flow in a relatively short amount of time – and with the advent of Product Listing Ads, at a marginal cost provided you know what you are doing. We are using some advanced PLA techniques that not only return a good ROI, but also give us valuable insight into what users want to buy rather than what we think they want to buy. It’s virtually impossible to get granular data like this without AdWords. Google are constantly rolling out new ways of segmenting and reporting data which hints at their long-term strategy for AdWords.

Another indicator of the dominance of AdWords is the drop in click-through for sites that rank well for high traffic search queries. This is because it’s now virtually impossible to ignore AdWords ads – particularly Product Listing Ads.  We know that people are more likely to react to images than text so this was a very shrewd and logical move by Google. This recent study talks about the drop in organic traffic compared to the rise in paid traffic in the first half of 2013.

AdWords Reporting

If you look at the quality of AdWords reporting compared to the organic search reporting facilities you get in Google Webmaster Tools, you will see that they are worlds apart. The organic search query reports in Webmaster Tools are considered to be a bit of a joke in the SEO community and if you’ve ever tried to perform any analysis on them, you will know why. The data is so inaccurate that it is impossible to make any strategic decisions using it.

Webmaster Search Traffic Report

AdWords on the other hand can segment data right down to click level providing many ultra valuable reports including geographical data and the exact search terms that were used to find you. Unfortunately, Google started blocking this data from us for organic search a few years ago which is no coincidence. Here is an excerpt from a typical AdWords search term report –

Search Details

To Sum Up

So I’m seeing that the comparative evolution of AdWords and Organic SEO to be a little one-sided. AdWords continues to provide accurate, useful data whereas Google organic reporting is hit and miss at best. The search results pages are now dominated by AdWords ads which are difficult to ignore and seem to be taking click through from the organic listings. This means that to succeed in the online marketplace these days, sooner or later you will need AdWords to work for you long-term.

Don’t DIY

I’ve learned from experience that AdWords is most effective for pure ecommerce sites where there is a direct relationship between click and purchase. However, it isn’t always a perfect fit for every niche and unless you are careful, it can turn around and bite you in the wallet!

google_adwordsOne thing’s for sure, AdWords has evolved so much and become so complex that it has moved beyond what can be considered a do-it-yourself platform. Get a professional to manage it for you.

The trouble with a lot of self-managed AdWords accounts is that they cover the basics but tend to miss the features and advanced techniques that are hidden beneath the surface which can and do make a massive difference to the revenue/cost ratio.  Most of the self-managed accounts I see barely cover advertising costs let alone turn a profit which tends to put people off investing in it. It also takes an experienced eye to know what all that data actually means.

Most merchants that are successful with AdWords are the ones that use it as part of an overall marketing strategy with email marketing, offline print and social media marketing.

So now that AdWords is so dominant and visible in the search engine results do you invest in organic SEO or AdWords? If you have unlimited resources then obviously the answer is both but if you want a quicker, scalable and measurable return on investment then I know where I’d put my money..