SEO vs PPC - A Services Conundrum

SEO vs PPC - A Services Conundrum

If you have ever been involved in an organic search optimization (SEO) and a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign, you have probably noticed how markedly different they are. If you don't do this everyday this is probably quite confusing. Both, after all, are just driving traffic from the search engines. A person searches on a keyword phrase at a site like Google, your listing pops up and they click over to your site. SEO and PPC should be the same, right? Not exactly. SEO and PPC are very different. If you are the client of a PPC campaign, you should be getting all kinds of reports about the metrics of your campaign. You are likely getting keyword trend analysis, target marketing data, cost per click and so on. However, for SEO there is a general perception that there is relatively little reporting. It is often difficult to get a handle on how exactly your SEO campaign is doing. How much am I paying per click? How many conversions am I getting? What is my return? Why the difference?

The Client's View

The reason for this post is a recent discussion with a client. For most of our clients we manage both their PPC and SEO campaigns. However for this client, we manage just the SEO campaign and another agency manages the PPC campaign. Both PPC and SEO have a month or two of ramp up to get started. After that period, the PPC agency spent a lot of their time in client communication and generating reports. The client likes to be on top of his online marketing, so they started weekly updates and strategy meetings. The PPC agency did a great job providing numerous reports, analysis and strategic recommendations. On the SEO side, we provided a monthly report monitoring keyword positions, backlinks, social media mentions, and some interpolated conversion metrics. It is a quick efficient report that gets sent out once a month. Over time the client wanted us to be involved in the weekly update meetings. They asked for more reporting, analysis and strategic recommendations. All of which, of course, we are happy to help with. However, over time it started to strain the campaign. The query from the client was simple: If we are paying the two agencies the same amount to manage search campaigns, shouldn't the level of client services, reporting and strategic analysis be the same? Sounds logical, right?

Lets Break it Down

To be honest, at first I wasn't sure about the answer. I had never really thought about it before. As an engineer we are taught to break things down into their constituent parts. That is where the answer lies to this puzzle. In search marketing campaigns, you can group all efforts into three categories:
  • Traffic driving
  • Strategy
  • Client services
Traffic driving is all the tactical things you have to do to get visibility for your search listings. In SEO these are things like link building, on page optimization, etc. Strategic efforts are around things like targeting the right keywords, planning conversion paths, analyzing metrics and providing recommendations. Client services is primarily communication with the client, such as reporting, emails and meetings. Now let's say you have two agencies on the same retainer for search marketing services, one for SEO and one for PPC. For arguments sake let's say the retainer is $15,000 / mo. A typical services breakdown might be:
  • 6% Client services
  • 9% Strategy
  • 85% Traffic driving
At first it would seem that both agencies could split their time the same way. Both campaigns have the same budget dedicated for services therefore both should have the same amount of client services and strategy. The challenge reveals itself when you look at the traffic driving effort. For an SEO campaign, a significant amount of effort must be exerted to "earn" the listings in the search engines. In a PPC campaign you "earn" those listings not by effort, but through buying them with your media budget. The PPC firm does not have to take time out of their services retainer for traffic driving activities. They can spend their entire services budget on client services and strategy. Unfortunately, the SEO effort does not have that luxury; otherwise there would be no time for actually driving traffic. Another way to look at is that both agencies should be able to have the same time breakdown. But you can't base it just on their services retainer. The PPC side it has to be based on both the services retainer and the media buy. In the above example, a $15,000 services budget would typically support a $85,000 media buy. The real budget for the PPC is $100,000 while for SEO it is only $15,000. The PPC agency can spend $6,000 of their time on client services and $9,000 on strategy. The SEO agency only $900 worth of time on client services and $1,350 on strategy.

Public Relations vs. Advertising Intelligence

The nature of the campaigns is another important factor. PPC is advertising, similar to buying print space or TV time. Advertising is very controlled. You are paying for the media and one of the benefits you get in return is lots of free intelligence, reporting and analysis. Organic search is more like PR. You do things to help you get placement in places you hope people will see your "ad". The big difference with SEO and traditional PR is that SEO is significantly more sticky. It is an ad people will see for a while vs. a onetime write-up in the Wall Street Journal or appearance on a talk show. What all these styles of PR do have in common is you don't get direct access to media data and the associated free reporting. Reports have to be created, often involving some level of conjecture to make up for lack of access to the raw data and numerical value associations for the ad placement.

Moving Forward

A common perception people have of SEO is that is a mystical art with little in the way of reporting and accountability. There is some real truth to this. There are a lot of charlatans that use this to their advantage but even for honest SEO campaigns, getting reporting apples to apples with media buys can be a real challenge, if not even impossible. This is one of the many reasons people forgo SEO and just do PPC - it gets them all the pretty reports so they know exactly what is going on. However, if you do this you are getting less than half of the search game. (70% of search traffic is organic). That is sub optimal. On the other side a client should expect reporting and accountability from their SEO firm. Realize though that the style and level of reporting will be different. Trying to make it the same as PPC will result in a lot of extra, (wasted), time being spent in reporting, and less in what actually drives results.

Final Words

In an ideal online marketing campaign, you would look at what channels are doing the best job of meeting your business goals. If it's conversions, then look into analytics to see which traffic source is doing the best job at generating them. Then, divide that number by your total budget allocation to said traffic source. If you find one source doing a better job then others, or even a marginally better job - spend more! Your conversions will go up, you'll make more money, and then you can start undertaking innovative and groundbreaking activities for that channel, leading to even more success! The point is - just like in traditional marketing, every channel in the digital world, be that digital PR, SEO, PPC, or Social Media has it's own quirks and nuances. Some, like PPC, are easy to measure and report on. Strategic changes lead to fast feedback (depending on your spend). Others, like SEO and Social Media, are much harder to report on - rarely will you see a report for these channels that says, "my $1 spent in SEO resulted in X". But considering SEO has 70% of the search market (and is the more trusted search channel by searchers), and social has the power to reach billions of users - you have to take the bad with the good. The bottom line is this - if your seeing results with a marketing channel, stay the course. If you really feel you need numbers that are not readily available for that channel, spend what it takes to get them and understand their limitations but don't let a couple extra Excel columns come in the way of you and a successful online marketing campaign. Photo Credit