Stepping into the Did It/Web Guerrilla/Searchengineland Fray

I came in this morning, and what did I find? Another tempest stirring up in the blogosphere! Danny Sullivan, Kevin Lee and Greg Boyser have all waded in, so what the hell, I’ll dive in too.

First, a little history. Did It President David Pasternack started the whole deal sometime ago when he took a swipe at SEO, calling for it’s imminent death. I’m not going to elaborate, but for those of you interested, here are links to the original article, and a follow up article.

Now, Kevin Lee from Did It has written a ClickZ column, adding some clarity, but also predicting organic results being pushed below the fold because sponsored ads are more relevant. I’m going to set aside for a moment the SEO spamming question that Kevin raises. Greg and Danny do a pretty passionate job of defending SEO.

I’d like to speak from another perspective, the search user. There are a couple things that should be considered here.

First of all, contrary to Kevin’s point, just paying for an ad doesn’t make it relevant. That’s because the vast majority of marketers don’t consider the intent of the search user. They assume that everyone is ready to buy right now. That assumption is at least 85% wrong. Go ahead, do a search for any popular consumer product. I’ll bet the ads you see are talking about lowest prices, free shipping, guarantees and other hot button items that are aimed at a purchaser. But study after study shows that search engines are used primarily for product research, not purchase. The problem is that marketers have a very biased set of metrics they use to measure return. They measure ROI based on purchase, so when they test, these types of ads tend to pull the numbers they’re looking for. But the metrics aren’t capturing the full story. The 85% of users that are researching are basically ignored. No value is assigned to them. Until PPC marketers figure this out, they’re not doing the user any favors.

Our research shows that a very interesting interaction takes place with the researcher versus the purchaser in that Golden Triangle real estate. Both users look at the top sponsored ads when they appear. They both look at the organic listings. Frankly, there’s not a lot of difference between the scan patterns. But it’s where they click that makes the difference. When they’re ready to buy, based on a recent eye tracking study, about 45% click on top sponsored, and about 55% clicked on the top 1 or 2 organic links. Almost a 50/50 split, FOR THOSE THAT ARE READY TO PURCHASE. But when we look at the other 85%, the ones doing research, EVERYONE OF THEM clicked on the organic link. And in the test, the same site appeared in both spots, so relevancy of the destination was equal. As long as users want organic links, organic optimization continues to be important.

Look, David Pasternack can ring the funeral bell for organic all he wants, but the fact is, it’s not his call. It’s the user’s. Yahoo has actually done exactly what he and Kevin are predicting. They’ve moved organic down the page, jamming more sponsored on the top. Based on Did It’s comments, this should be good for the user, right? It should be more relevant, pushing the “spam” down below the fold. Wrong. Google kicked Yahoo’s ass in user experience in our latest study by every metric we looked at. And they’re definitely winning in the big picture, including stock prices. The difference. About 14% of Yahoo’s screen real estate (at 1024 by 768 pixels) was reserved for top organic. 33% of Google’s real estate went for top organic. You want more proof? Ask, back in the Ask Jeeves days, pushed organic totally off the page, doing exactly what Kevin and David call for and filling the top with sponsored. Take a look at Ask now. Organic is back above the fold. Spend some time talking to Ask usability lead Michael Ferguson about how the absence of organic worked out for them.

And it’s not that sponsored links provide a bad experience. Our study proves Kevin somewhat right. Top sponsored links, for commercial queries, delivered the highest success rates. But those were in highly structured and commercially oriented scenarios. That doesn’t represent all searches. It’s not that we avoid sponsored links, but we do want a choice and we want relevance, ALIGNED TO OUR CURRENT INTENT. Google has recognized that to a much greater extent than their competitors, and they’re eating their lunch.

There’s a reason why 70% of users choose organic. We’ve done a number of studies over the past 3 years, and that number has remained fairly constant.  It can’t be because those results are filled with spam. I actually just chatted with Marissa Mayer at Google, and she continually emphasized the importance of organic on the page. It’s a cardinal rule there that at least one organic result will always appear at 800 by 600. It’s mandated by Larry and Sergey. And that’s because they know it’s important to the user. We want alternatives. And we will be the judge of relevancy. That’s why Google has stringent click through measures on their top sponsored ads. If they don’t get clicked, they don’t show. The top of the Golden Triangle is reserved for the most relevant results, period, and in more than 50% of the cases, those are organic (either through OneBox or traditional organic).

So we in this industry can debate sponsored versus organic. We can make predictions. We can post in blogs til the cows (or frogs) come home. But it’s not our call. It’s not even the engine’s call. It’s the user’s.

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