Looking Back On PPC Versus SEO In 2012

The PPC vs. SEO debate is something that has been raging since you could start paying for placement on search results. And with search engine algorithms and paid search platforms each becoming more complex with each passing year, it’s no surprise that we’re still talking about this problem. In this post, I won’t get in to which one is superior, but I do want to talk about where I see these two marketing methods evolving in the near future.

On a personal level, I’ve had more exposure to the interrelationship between PPC and SEO in this year of my career than in any other. For most of my career I’ve been solely focused on PPC, but as the online marketing manager for BuildASign.com, I’m responsible for both sides of the search equation. And this year, it seems like there has been more turbulence in the space than ever.

Over the past two years, it’s obvious that the search engines (and Google in particular) have been pushing SEO to the wayside. They won’t go so far as to ban SEO outright – that would be ridiculous and stupid. But it’s clear that Google wants SEOs to play by their strict rules. First, it was the Panda update, which neutralized poor content. Then, they removed organic search query data from users who were signed in. Then Penguin update rounded out the trifecta of whammies that Google let out to eliminate gimmicky SEO.

Of these three changes, I think Panda and Penguin were reasonable responses to overly manipulative SEO. But I’m still kind of mad about the organic search query data. They claim that they rolled out this change to protect user privacy. But if you pay for traffic via AdWords, guess what – you get all the same data for free! Google is apparently not so protective of its users if someone else is paying for the data. Search query data is essential on both sides of organic and paid search. This data allows webmasters and advertisers to craft a better experience for their visitors by understanding exactly what it is they are looking for. Removing this data from the organic side indicates that Google is showing a strong preference for paid search over organic. Understandably so, since they make money on every click.

This year, there was another cash grab by Google that made their preference for paid even more apparent. When Google Shopping ended their years-long policy of free traffic in favor of a PPC format, I knew something was up. This shift to paid traffic priced out a lot of small retailers from the platform, as well as some much larger ones like Apple and Amazon. If you’re a small-time retailer who can’t afford the traffic, it sucks to be you. But if you can pay, then you’re still allowed to play Google’s game.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Google. They’re a business after all, and they’re in this to make money, not drive free, profitable traffic to every website out there. But these changes clearly signal a shift in the economics of search. I once thought that PPC and SEO would live comfortably side-by-side forever. But now I’m not so sure. I expect that in 2013 we’ll see further shifts in favor of paid search, and SEO will continue to be marginalized. I don’t think it will die outright, but I’m sure that the days of free, unlimited traffic are over. If you heavily rely on SEO for your site traffic, I would strongly encourage you to work on your PPC proficiency. You might need those skills sooner than you think.

About Shawn Livengood

Shawn Livengood is a search engine marketing professional based in Austin, Texas. He has extensive experience managing pay-per-click ad campaigns for clients in various industries, from small home-based businesses to large international companies. You can connect with Shawn on Google+.
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