A few years ago, Magento merchants received the majority of their traffic from Google organic search results. But now, many merchants are noticing that their organic traffic is flat or even declining. Why? Google is shifting that traffic to competitors who are willing to pay for it. In this post we’ll explore what Google is actually doing, and consider some strategies you can use to navigate this reality and generate profitable growth for your ecommerce site. Takeaways will include concrete steps you can take to determine what is going on with your company’s search traffic, and suggestions for how to scale up total search traffic in the future.
I also gave a presentation on this topic at Meet Magento New York this year, which covers all of the concepts in this article.
How Google Is Monetizing Search
I used to think that organic search and paid search were two entirely different beasts, and maybe back then I was right. But now I realize that they are two sides of the same coin. Let me explain…
Consider a typical search engine result page (SERP) from 2000:
Note that the ads are entirely different from the organic listings. They are in a different place on the page, with a different background, clearly labeled, and in a different format. They are not the same thing as organic links. They are also clearly inferior. They simply don’t look like what you would want to click on.
Now examine a typical SERP from 2018:
The ads look like organic listings, but enhanced. They have the same basic format, but with even more information. They are still labeled clearly, but the labels are now very subtle, to not call attention to them being ads. On a typical SERP, nearly every result above the fold is now an ad, especially with the added shopping ads for ecommerce queries…and these results get the lion’s share of clicks.
Back in 2000, if a user searched on Google, they were unlikely to click on a paid listing. They were distinct from organic results. In 2018, they are more likely to click on a paid listing for many search results. There is virtually no difference between organic and paid results, and organic results are being deemphasized.
From the end-user perspective, the ads are now high quality, rich in information, and just part of the normal search experience.
How did we get here? Just one little change at a time. Google has subtley shifted the result pages over time and they introduced a lot of policies and systems to improve the advertising results. Each change by itself didn’t seem like much. But taken collectively over nearly two decades now, they have resulted in a tremendously successful money-making machine.
And these changes are not finished. Google continues to implement subtle changes that make ads more prominent, encourage users to click on them, and improve their quality so they are on-par with or even better than organic results.
Consider just a few of the changes in the past few years:
Expanding the size of text search ads to match the size of organic listings. Then expanding the size again to make the headlines and description lines significantly larger than organic listings.
Moving the ads from the right column into the main search listings column and formatting them to look exactly the same as organic listings.
De-emphasizing the labeling of ads by making the color of the icon match the surrounding text color, then changing it to be a simple thin line around the text “ad”.
Expanding the number of shopping ads displayed to tile the entire right column down past the fold.
Removing some added information like star ratings from many organic listings.
Adding additional ad extensions to make ads appear larger and more enticing than organic listings, as well as allowing ads to show richer information than organic listings.
The effect of all of the changes is that Google is shifting end-user traffic from organic search results to paid search results. That is their primary method of increasing revenue. They are slowly and steadily monetizing search, and this trend will continue.
Organic & Paid Are Both Just Search Results
At this point, in late 2018, paid search results dominate Google’s SERPs, particularly for ecommerce search terms. And for the benefit of the end user, the paid results should dominate. They are much higher quality results than typical organic listings in many ways. But the bottom line here is that there is a subtle transition on the SERP between the paid and organic listings and, to that end user, it no longer matters which they click on. They simply want an answer to their query.
When we search on Google, we no longer pay attention to paid or organic listings. They are simply search results. If we find what we want, we don’t care that it cost someone else 50 cents to answer our question.
And to Google, when users perform a search, they show listings for paid results and organic results, which are both of high quality. Do they really make a distinction in their system any longer between those two? Not really. They are just high-quality search results.
So why do ecommerce merchants advertising on these systems persist in thinking about organic and paid ads as different channels? The simple answer is that optimizing the two parts of the SERP require different skill sets. So, inside a business, they are different functions. And for historical reasons, businesses often skew their efforts towards getting the “free” organic results.
Should You Double Down on SEO?
Should you focus more on trying to get “free” organic results? Five years ago, I thought the answer was, “Yes!”. Now, I’m not so sure.
SEO is not dead. But it’s not the result center it was a decade ago. As Google makes changes to shift more and more clicks to paid search results, organic results are suffering. The number of queries going through Google rises every year. But an increasing percentage of those queries are being funneled to paid results. For some queries, organic is still growing, even after that shift of clicks to paid search. For many search terms, organic traffic is now flat. But for many others, particularly the terms that ecommerce merchants care about, organic results are now shrinking, as paid results expand faster than the underlying growth in user searches.
Google wants to provide great search results to people, so they maintain their status as the best search engine in the free world. But they don’t give a damn about giving your business free traffic if you aren’t willing to pay for it and someone else is.
Google is a business. They are not in the business of providing free search results to businesses. They are in the business of selling the attention of those users to other businesses willing to pay for the traffic. Get that straight. Google has no interest in providing you free organic results forever. That was just a short-term strategy to gain dominance by providing quality results to searchers. They are going to increasingly sell those clicks to you in the future. And if you are not willing to pay market rates for those clicks, you have competitors who will happily buy them. The increases in search traffic are going to those willing to pay for them.
You can still improve your organic results – well some of them -through search engine optimization. But that will have ongoing declining returns compared to what could be achieved a few years ago. There are only so many organic clicks available. And the organic share of the total clicks available will continue to drop every single year.
If you’re getting great results from your SEO efforts, don’t stop. But if you want to maintain or enhance your total share of clicks from Google, you have to focus more on PPC now than you ever did before. And you’ll need to shift more resources into paid search every year going forward.
Assume that any organic results you get right now will be shifted to paid in the future. Plan for the worst, and you’ll do fine.
Remember that the first organic search result on a search engine result page is now the fifth result on the page. Results 1 through 4 are now ads. Do you think that trend has ended? I don’t. Particularly for searches with high ecommerce purchase intent, I would not be surprised if Google gives a SERP with 100% paid results within the next few years. And they will justify that as being a better experience for the user. And you know what? They will be right. As soon as the data shows that users get better information and are more satisfied with a full page of paid listings, that is what Google will give them. And until that day comes, Google will continue to police the paid ads with new policies and features that incrementally make them more useful for searchers, steadily improving them on the way to that ultimate goal.
Understanding End-User Search Trends
Forget about the Analytics reports of what’s going on with your organic search results for a minute. What is actually possible? Are searches going up or down? Is it true that you’re getting a declining share of what’s possible to get? If you know what’s going on with end-user searches, you can compare that to your actual organic results and start to paint a picture of what’s happening.
It can be difficult to understand what is actually going on with your particular business, because of differences in reporting between Google Ads and Google Analytics. Also, how can you gauge what is going on with total search volume? Analytics only shows you the clicks you received. It doesn’t show you anything about the clicks your competitors received.
There are some third-party tools that purport to give you better information, but they all have serious flaws, and are not available to all of us. I’d like to present some techniques that anyone can use, so I’ll stick to publicly available data from Google tools.
Google Trends can be very helpful in understanding some of this. Trends will not give you accurate information about search volume in absolute numbers. Nor will it aggregate volume across a group of search terms. However, it can still be used to paint a picture of what is going on with end-user searches relevant to your business.
How can you use Trends to get a picture of the total search volume available versus what you’re receiving, and how that’s changing over time? The trick is to think in terms of search terms that are a reasonable proxy for your business and what it sells. For larger companies, enough users actually search for your brand that plotting brand searches on Trends will give you a good idea of how many searches are available. For smaller companies, generic terms that are fairly accurate to your product line are more appropriate, since brand term data won’t have enough information to be statistically significant.
Consider this example of the search trends over the past five years for the term “home depot”:
And now check out the term “hardware store”:
Clearly the graphs are not identical. But they share common trends. There is a general increase in the number of searches in this industry, as the economy has improved, construction has picked up, and more people are improving their homes. There is also clear annual seasonality in the data, as interest drops off in the winter and picks up in the summer. Now imagine that your business was in this industry, but too small for Google to have good data about your brand in the search. Just use a closely-related generic term like this (or several of them) to get an idea of what Google’s underlying search trends are.
Comparing Trends to Organic Results
Here is an example of data from Google Trends that should be a good proxy to the search patterns of interest to a particular business:
Note that there is a clear pattern to annual seasonality, but the underlying trend is flat. There has been no real growth or decline in this industry over the past five years. There is a lot of business in the early summer. There is very little business through the winter.
Now compare that to the organic traffic to the site:
Clearly, organic results are declining. And in particular, note that it’s the lucrative summer business that they are losing to competitors, who are buying more of it every year.
Here’s another search trend that is a good proxy for another business:
Note there is a similar annual trend, but it’s more subtle. Winter and spring are down a bit, with stronger results later in the year.
Now look at the organic results in Google Analytics:
This is a business with solid growth, in an industry with solid growth in searches. But organic results peaked a few years ago, have mostly been flat the past two years, and now appear to be dipping down.
We see these patterns repeated across nearly every data set we observe. It is still common to find businesses with rising organic search results. But they tend to be smaller companies with high growth rates in hot industries. Mature businesses with strong competitors more frequently see a flatlining or decline in organic results. For those that do have growth in organic results, the growth rate is lower than the trends in search patterns we observe, since a greater share of those searches are being served by paid ads.
The only reliable way to have increasing organic results at this point in history is to have a business with high growth so the growth in searches is expanding at a faster rate than Google’s shift of clicks from organic results to paid results.
As Google continues to monetize search in the future, these organic search results will decline further for most businesses.
Your Only Viable Strategy
There are several strategies here, but only one that makes sense.
One strategy that doesn’t make sense is to double down on SEO. But I hope it’s clear by now that SEO, while valuable, does not lead to solid future growth. You may get a larger share of the remaining organic clicks than your competitors, and continue to improve that. But that is not where the growth in future search traffic will come from. That is a strategy of hanging on, not a strategy of solid growth.
You could also just abandon Google Search entirely. Let it go. Focus on newer platforms where your customers are. This is a perfectly valid strategy for some businesses. Particularly hip, novel ecommerce sites in particular niches. But again, it’s not a solid strategy for mid-sized or larger firms, or even small ecommerce merchants in most industries. Nearly every person searching for a product to buy goes to Google, Amazon, or both. You can’t just ignore Google and grow. And you don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket with Amazon. Oh, and Amazon is going to take a much larger cut of your profits than Google Ads will. So, there’s that. One other point: all the newer platforms that exist now are following the path Google has laid out. First gain market share. Then start to monetize that by selling users to businesses in one form of advertising or another. A strategy of pursuing primarily organic growth involves constantly shifting your focus to whatever is new this year.
I think that the only viable strategy is to get much better at paid search than you thought possible. If you can do that before your competitors, you will be able to achieve industry-leading growth rates. If you lag, your business will lag to competitors. It is strategically important to master paid search if you want to scale.
So, what do you do about this? Let’s examine a few tactics that can help as we transition to a post-organic-search world.
Tactic 1: Advertise on Your Brand Terms
This is counter-intuitive to many businesses that have great organic results and dominate the organic SERPs for their brand terms. But let’s have another look. There are two key issues here. Competitors could be purposefully targeting your brand terms, or they could be doing it on accident. Either way, unless you join in the fray, you lose.
Purposefully Advertising on Other Company Trademarks
The first issue is that trademark law prevents companies from deceiving customers about the origin of products. But it doesn’t prevent you from advertising to another company’s customers. So, your competitors can’t use your brand name in their ads in any deceptive way. But they can advertise their brands to customers searching for your brand… and they do.
Almost every company has competitors nipping at their heels, and they know that when people search for your company, those users have very specific intents on their mind. If the competitor has a strong value proposition versus yours, it’s trivial for them to advertise to customers searching for you. They won’t sway the majority of those searchers, but they will persuade some percentage to go to their website, engage, and purchase.
Don’t believe me? If you don’t already have an ad group that just targets your main business name, create one and run it for a month. Then check out the Google Ads Auction Insights tab for that ad group. Here’s an example of what you might see:
Note that this business is actively bidding on brand terms that align with their business name. But check out their competition. This is typical. Your competitors are doing this. If you aren’t advertising on these terms, you are hemorrhaging clicks. They won’t take them all, but they will take some of them.
On top of this, if you aren’t advertising on your own brand terms, you can’t even pull this report. This report is only available for keywords you target.
Accidentally Advertising on Other Company Trademarks
The second issue is that many businesses include generic terms in their company name. A classic example from the early days of the internet is “pets.com”. A contemporary example is PetSmart. Many businesses have this characteristic. When you couple this with how Google has different keyword match types, it creates a situation where many competitors unintentionally advertise to end users who are searching for your company.
Here’s how it works. A competing pet food company advertises on a bunch of keyword terms, including things like pet food, pet food stores, cat food, dog treats, etc. Broad match keywords will match all sorts of things loosely related to the actual keyword. They’ll even match really inappropriate things. In this case, someone looking for “pet smart” or “petsmart” is clearly looking for something about pets… And it could be pet food. Google’s machine learning algorithms have long since learned that someone looking for a specific pet store might be interested in other pet-related terms. So, Google obliges. And the pet food ad will display to the end user looking for PetSmart. If that user was actually searching for PetSmart because they wanted to buy some pet food, there’s a real chance they could click the competing ad and make their purchase there instead.
Once you’re advertising on your search terms, go look at the Search Term report in Google Ads. Look at the stats when there was an exact match to your company name. Why didn’t all of those people click the ad? Perhaps you think that some of them clicked your organic results on the SERP instead… and you’re probably right.
Google Ads has a very useful report that can help you understand what is actually going on here. It’s a predefined Basic report called “Paid & organic”:
So go check it out to see how many clicked each on paid links versus organic links on the SERPs, compared to impressions. Here’s what you might find:
This are just the statistics for people typing the exact company name into Google. And the name is unique enough that there really isn’t any ambiguity where they could intend something else. The end users really did type the company name. But this company name also includes a generic term for their industry. Note that 2920 people saw both an ad and at least one organic listing on a SERP. Of those, 56% clicked the ad, and 19% clicked an organic link. What about the other 25% of searchers who didn’t click an ad or organic link? Perhaps a few clicked nothing. Most of them clicked a competitor link that showed on the SERP.
Now pay attention to the last line. 538 additional searchers only saw an organic listing. Only 33% of those people clicked on an organic link. The other 67% went somewhere else. Why? Because there were competitor ads above that organic link. They clicked those instead.
Go and pull this report for your own company name and other brand terms, and think very carefully about what you should do. I think in most cases, it makes sense to advertise aggressively on your brand terms.
If you don’t, your competitors will keep taking your customers, and it’s only going to get worse.
Tactic 2: Advertise on Your Top Organic Results
The next tactic, again perhaps a bit counter-intuitive to some, is to advertise on your top organic results. Why? Wouldn’t that cannibalize your organic results?
Yes. It most certainly will.
But if you don’t do it, your competitors will. In fact, they already are.
You have no choice but to cannibalize your organic results. They are already being cannibalized.
Go look up your Paid vs. Organic report on those terms. Check Google Trends for those terms. And for the ones you’re already advertising on, check the Auction Insights. They are already eating your lunch.
If you, by chance, find that you have some juicy organic results that you think nobody else is advertising on, then perhaps you might be tempted to ignore this advice. Even then, run some low-bid ads on those pages so you can get more accurate statistics in Google Ads on the Paid and Organic report. You’re going to find that you could do much better by running ads alongside those organic results.
The thing is, when an end user sees a SERP where you have organic listings as well as text search ads as well as shopping ads, you dominate that page even more than with just organic listings. On top of that, ads at the top push some of your organic competitors off the page. When end users see multiple links to the same site all over the top of the page, they are more likely to click on any of those listings. We’ve run a number of experiments on this over time, and confirmed that organic listings tend to get more clicks when ads for the same company run alongside them. Not always. But more often than not.
And if you want to run the numbers on this, you can do so with the data in the Paid and Organic report. Do some tests by cycling ads on and off for some top converting keywords. Well, not actually off. If they’re entirely off, you won’t get the same information in the report. Your ads actually have to get some impressions on those terms to accrue statistics. But you can turn the bids down for a period of time and look at the organic result CTR. Then turn them up and look at the organic results as well as the ad results. This can be quite insightful.
Remember that your top organic results are usually also your competitors’ top organic results. Turning up your ads on those is going to grow your business at their expense. If you’re not a contender, they’ll keep eroding your traffic. Turning up your ads may pull some clicks away from some of your organic listings. But your total results will go up.
On most ecommerce search terms, the #1 organic listing is now the #5 search result, and most clicks go to the paid ads. But there are only four search ads above the organic listings. If you get into any of those slots, that ad will likely perform better than your organic results, and you will have pushed one of your competitors out of the results. That’s a win, if you can do it profitably. You’ll probably end up with several times the business you were getting from the organic listing alone, and that’s how you grow.
Tactic 3: Advertise on Competitor Terms
Just like competitors purposefully and accidentally advertise on your brand terms profitably, you should be doing it to them. You’re already accidentally advertising on their brand terms. If you advertise on “athletic shoes” then you’re going to show up on some searches for “nike athletic shoes” for example. But it’s time to stop being shy about purposefully advertising on competitor brand terms.
A lot of firms are nervous about this. If you’re nervous about the legalities, check into it. Most trademark law issues revolve around deceiving customers. As long as you’re not being deceptive in your ads, and clearly identify who you are and why people should choose you, there is no reason to avoid targeting another company’s customers. And that’s what targeting their brand terms does. It targets people typing those terms in. Keep that distinction straight. The choice of keywords in your ad groups is a choice about who to target–the people who type those terms in. As long as your ads do not deceptively portray your website as the website those people are looking for, you’re fine.
I want to call out one potential issue, however, with Google’s automated ad generation systems. If you are targeting “nike athletic shoes” in your ads, and showing people an alternative product and clearly identifying that it’s your brand’s product, you’re fine. But if a machine learning algorithm learns that leaving off your brand name in your ad results in more clicks, you could get into trouble. Because then you’re advertising to people clearly searching for another brand, and presenting them with an ambiguous result that some would think is the other brand’s results. This is a major flaw in all of the current machine learning algorithms for creating automated ads, and a reason that we are hesitant to use them.
For more on the problems with ads created by machine learning: How Ad Suggestions Could Land You In a Lawsuit
Advertising just on the company name of the other firm may not be successful for you. Most of those searchers really are looking for the other company, and may not even be ecommerce searches. But if you use that as a stem, and add additional terms for key product lines where you have a competitive offering, you’ll get higher click through and conversion rates, and after some initial experimentation, you’ll figure out what’s profitable and what’s not.
Some good initial targets are the competitors that are already targeting you. Use the Google Ads Auction Insights reports to determine which competitors are most often in competition with you, and return the favor. Cut into their profits and take a few of their customers.
Competition is good.
I have seen some really witty competitor-focused advertisements. Think about your key competitive advantages versus each competitor. Do you know that one competitor has a bad return policy? Highlight how great yours is in advertising to their customers. Does another have a limited selection of key products? Highlight how vast your selection is. What are your key advantages versus each competitor? Call those out.
Tactic 4: Control Your Costs
It costs more and more to be a contender, especially on the most profitable keywords. The way to stay in the game and keep getting profitable growth from search ads is to find a way to be able to raise your bids while spending less on your conversions.
Let that sink in.
You need to be able to increase your bids to keep winning auctions. But you need to control how much you spend per conversion. To do that, you need a higher conversion rate. You need to buy fewer of the clicks that don’t result in a sale so you can keep buying the ones that do at a higher price than you paid in the past.
There are many ways to do this. Here are a few:
Add & Monitor Negative Keywords
Add a lot of negative keywords to your ad groups. This is labor intensive, so often overlooked by merchants. If you are working with an agency, don’t assume the agency has anyone reviewing the matches between search terms and your ads. They usually set things up and then give it very little effort afterwards. This is an area where you can have massive improvement, however.
If you consistently audit what is matching your ad groups, and negate things that shouldn’t, you’re going to trend toward showing ads only to the most relevant searchers. They will have higher click-through rates. This will boost your quality scores, which will drop the amount you need to spend to win auctions. And since the traffic you get is more relevant, the conversion rates will be higher.
This is one of the most overlooked avenues of ad performance improvement simply because of the labor costs involved, but for any advertiser spending real money, the labor cost is tiny in comparison with the financial results it achieves.
Use Bid Adjustments
Google Ads allows you to specify many different bid adjustments. It’s good to lean on these heavily. There will be demographic and behavioral patterns that impact the value of clicks that you receive. Adjusting bids allows you to more accurately balance the costs of various types of clicks with the profit margins you’ll receive from them. If profitability is lower Friday evening, you don’t need to turn off your ads. You can simply drop the amount you’re willing to pay until it’s at a profitable level for what is possible in that time slot. The same goes for all sorts of other things. Set bid adjustments for audiences. Set them for device types. Dig in to all the options, and your data, and adjust anything you have available to you.
Just be careful to not adjust bids by too much. Some of these variables are correlated with each other. For example, you could get 50% higher profits on Monday mornings. You could also get 50% higher profits from users on desktop computers. But there may be significant overlap between those two variables since Monday morning orders may be coming from people in their offices on desktop computers. If you used simplistic reasoning and boosted desktop devices by 50% and Monday morning clicks by 50%, those two bid adjustments would multiply out to a much higher bid adjustment (possibly even more with other bid adjustments also factored in). That would then take some of your most profitable clicks and overpay.
Improve Your Product Feed
Shopping Ads are notoriously difficult to optimize. Google doesn’t let you choose which keywords will match individual products. Working on improving your product feed can have dramatic effects over time, however. The more accurate the data you give to Google, the more accurate the keyword matches will be. Use all the optional feeds in the feed specification. They are there for a reason. There are also campaign structures you can use to gain a bit more control over matching top converting keywords to individual products, or to add negative keywords on a per-product basis. These strategies can dramatically improve shopping performance by reducing the wasted money spent on irrelevant clicks.
Constantly monitoring your profitability based on any variables you have influence over and auditing the searches that match your ads can lead to massive performance improvements over time. It’s all about eliminating wasted spending and aligning your costs with expected performance. Finely nuanced cost control is necessary, as average bids continue to rise. It is the only way to stay in the game and be able to afford to buy even more clicks as Google shifts more and more organic results over to paid search.
Tactic 5: Make Your Ads Better Than Organic Results
Check out the organic listings on a search engine result page for a search term you want to dominate. Really read through the results on that page, and consider how they answer a user’s search query. Now make sure that your ad on that page is better than the organic results. Do that again and again across all of your ads.
Have you ever noticed that on some SERPs, there are no ads at the top of the page? But there are still a few at the bottom of the page? That is because, for that page, the statistics show Google that the ads are worse than the organic results for people performing searches. Google judges this based on all sorts of factors. To show ads at the top of the page, Google needs signals that indicate users are finding what they want from those links.
Think about how you would judge this. Click-through rate is a really good indicator that users think the link matches their query. But if they immediately bounce back to the SERP and click on another link, that’s a strong signal they didn’t find what they wanted on the landing page. Time on site and engagement with the site would tend to show that the content matched the user’s expectations when they clicked on the link.
Google has a quality scoring system that is designed to quantitatively measure whether ads provide users with a good experience, and they’ve built that into their auction system. Quality ads are charged less for the same rank in the auction. This also means that quality ads can be bid higher, and have a significant cost advantage over lower quality competitors.
If you think about it, the real limiting factor to Google’s monetization of search the past two decades has been the quality of the ads. They can’t show low quality search results, or they’ll lose their users. But as ad quality improves, they can show more ads, give users a better-than-organic experience, and make more money. So, let’s take advantage of that. The way to do that is to put serious effort into improving your quality scores.
The advice for making quality ads is really not that much different from the advice about SEO factors. Have good landing pages with content that users want. On ecommerce sites, have good product information and navigation. Then match the right keyword targeting with the right ads and the right landing pages. When everything is perfectly aligned, a searcher is going to type something in to Google, see an ad that describes exactly what they’re looking for, and when they click it, they’re on the perfect landing page to get more information or buy what they want.
If you have lots of tightly-focused ad groups, built around specific keywords or keyword themes, then you can match those themes in your ads. You need similar richness in your landing pages in order to align those ads with pages on your site. Eliminate overly-broad ad groups in favor of these tightly-focused ones.
Check your search terms reports regularly. If you get a lot of impressions on some of your ad groups, but low clicks, the quality score for this traffic will be poor. Check your search console data columns and see if you are getting high bounce rates on some traffic. Then take action to reduce these issues. Is it a problem with the keyword, ad, and landing page alignment? Fix it. Is this ad group matching more broad terms that should be targeted better in their own ad groups? Make those additional ad groups. Are you finding terms matching this ad group that should match somewhere else in your account? Negate those terms in this context, to force them to match the other ad group.
On the Shopping Ads side, spend serious time improving the data quality in your feed. Too many merchants just do the minimum in order to get products approved in Merchant Center. Improving your data quality will help Google match the right searches to the right products, improving your CTR and conversion rates. And consider splitting up your top products into ad groups containing single products. It’s not that much work, with automation, even for the largest sites. That will allow you to view the search terms report for those individual products, and add negative keywords to reduce wasted ad spend and force queries to more relevant results.
Ads also have all sorts of extensions available that make them more rich listings on the SERPs. Put the time in to ensure you have your seller review ratings set up. Set up callouts and price extensions. Tailor your sitelinks down to the ad group level, so each ad that is displayed also has related links that are highly relevant to the search queries hitting that ad group. All of this rich information helps to make paid ad listings more relevant to end users than the organic links further down the page. They also make it possible for you to dominate the ad space at the top of the screen, if you put in more work than your competitors.
The bottom line is that, as paid results supplant organic results, paid results need to be better. The further ahead of your competitors you are in this area, the better. Google only succeeds by giving highly relevant results to users. And you can only succeed in Google Ads if you accept this and put the work in to really try to make your ads relevant.
The Future of Search Is Paid
If you’re not already getting the bulk of your search traffic from PPC, you soon will. And if you’re not on a trajectory to reach that point, look very carefully at the broader search trends in your industry. Because your competitors are likely buying all of those clicks that you’re ignoring.
Organic search traffic does not have a bright future. It won’t go away overnight. Maybe it will never go away entirely. But it will continue to be eroded as Google monetizes search. This is nothing new. This process has been going on for nearly two decades. But we have reached a tipping point where people are finally noticing it, as their organic traffic slows, flatlines, and often declines.
You have no choice. If you don’t ramp up your paid search efforts, those competitors who figure out how to do it profitably will take your customers. Worrying about whether you should advertise on brand terms, on competitor brand terms, or if paid ads are cannibalizing organic results are concerns of the past. Embrace the future.
They key issue is figuring out how to do this profitably as you scale your ads. Google is going to cut into your margins more than in the past. To be a contender, you’ll need to be prepared to spend more per click than ever before. And you should assume that in the future all of your clicks are going to cost something. If you can build a profitable business model around this system, you’ll grow while your less-sophisticated competitors flounder.
The path to profitable growth is having a firm understanding of your business model, and how you’ll generate profits in the Google Ads auctions. Optimization will be critical. Reducing wasted ad spend will be critical. You have to be able to spend more on a click while still generating good profits on each sale. Your conversion rate needs to rise. Wasted clicks need to be curtailed. Statistical modelling and the microeconomics of profit maximization are going to become more widely understood in the coming years.
Remember those two examples of businesses with declining organic results, even though Google Trends showed flat or rising organic searches in their industries? Neither business is shrinking. But the only reason for that is their embrace of Google Ads.
Here is the company in an industry with flat searches, showing their total search traffic (paid + organic) on top of the previous graph showing just their organic results:
When you put their paid ad results on top of their organic results, they’re bucking the trend and actually getting a greater share of search volume. This company is taking business away from their competitors who haven’t figured out why their organic results are dropping yet.
And the other business? The one with rising search traffic on their keywords, but fairly flat organic results over the past few years? Here is their graph of total paid+organic search traffic compared to just their organic results:
This business has aggressively committed to paid search and is also growing its share of search traffic by more than the growth in search trends, steadily eroding the traffic of their direct competitors. The further ahead this business gets, the harder it will be for their competitors to ever catch up.
Organic search was a windfall for ecommerce merchants. We got a lot of free business for a long period of time. That fueled the internet gold rush for many of us. But that golden era is coming to a close. Organic search traffic will never again be what it was, and there is no other comparable source of free business growth on the horizon.
Paid is the new organic.