The Costs of Organic Search Marketing

A common misconception these days is the notion that organic search traffic is “free” and therefore more desirable to a business than paid search traffic, which is based on a cost-per-click model. On the surface this might appear to be true, but the reality is that both organic and paid search campaigns require investment, the latter just more overtly.

Back when the search marketing industry was in its infancy, there was a lot of excitement around this new way of getting your business discovered. Those early business adopters who had websites, and whose websites happened to be ranking well in the early search engines, realized that this type of exposure could be a significant and cost effective way of getting eyeballs on their websites. It didn’t take long before business owners were discovering that simple things like keyword stuffing could help them do better than their competitors in the search rankings and the SEO industry was born. The SEO industry is now a multi-billion dollar industry and every business you can think of is actively trying to outrank their competitors.

The costs involved in organic search marketing can be high and on-going, with absolutely no guarantee of outranking your competitors. In the following examples, we will find out why organic search marketing can cost so much, and the variables influencing costs.

Your Competitors Are Trying to Outrank You

There is only one top position on a search results page and all others below this one will be trying endlessly to claim the spot. If you are in a highly competitive industry, you have to be spending more on content creation, outreach, social, technical and all the other factors involved with high rankings. On top of that you have to earn those positions, which means gaining trust and authority, which in turn means you need to show a history of creating valuable content that is widely recognized throughout the web.

While you are trying to outrank your competitors, they are trying to outrank you and will be heavily investing and reinvesting resources themselves. If you’ve allotted 20 hours for content writing per week, your competitor might have invested 40 hours per week. If your competitor has earned attention and links from a major online newspaper, you’ll have to earn attention and links from 2 major online newspapers. And on and on it goes.

Visible Features of Search Results Pages

Google changes the layout and features of a search results page depending on the query of the searcher. If a query contains local intentions such as a city, the results page will usually display things like maps, Google Places results, and other locally relevant results. Certain queries for highly competitive or lucrative keywords will trigger more Adwords results taking up more page space and often times pushing the organic results below the fold of the page. When 80-90% of the above the fold results are paid results, where does your business need be to investing to garner attention; paid or organic?

Often times resource-based queries will trigger wikipedia or high authority educational websites in most of the top positions, which are incredibly hard to compete against. These websites have earned high rankings through years of public acceptance and expectations, and trying to outrank wikipedia would require massive investment with no guarantee.

Whether commercially viable, education or otherwise, you have to ask yourself; does my website deserve to rank above the others?

Planning for the Future

For websites that have invested heavily and achieved top positions for their desired keywords, there is now the costs and risks of maintaining those positions. Google makes hundreds of changes to their search algorithm every year that directly impact millions of websites. Some tactics that are considered fair today, might cause your website to be penalized in the future, and cleaning up your website after a penalty can break a business.

The future of search is uncertain, but one thing is for sure; search algorithm changes are constant and rankings will fluctuate. For this reason, an on-going investment is required to achieve and maintain desired results.

The Need to Scale Creates Unnatural Results

For very large websites with thousands of pages and small SEO budgets, it can be tempting to automate some processes such as content formatting, page creation, and internal linking. In the world of search marketing, each page needs to be ready to compete for rankings to bring traffic to the site. This can lead to website owners creating more pages than really necessary, for the sole purpose of spamming Google’s index. Releasing content like a factory could signal to Google that you are just releasing “spammy” content. Ecommerce websites with large product catalogues are sometimes guilty of this, where thousands of pages are created for each and every product style, colour, size etc. Pages need to be created for people first, and search engines second. Doing otherwise leads to these unnatural results that Google might flag as spam and possibly penalize.

Measuring Success

Organic search marketing has always been centered on keywords. Keywords are used in search queries, and search queries produce results of websites ranked by their algorithmic relevance. Over the years, website owners could determine which keywords were delivering traffic and hopefully which keywords were helping generate business. This keyword awareness is what leads business owners to obsess over rankings and exposure. Since 2011, Google began holding back the referring keyword data for signed in users. The visit would still show up in analytics, and you can still see it came from Google, but the referring keyword would be withheld allegedly for security reasons, according to Google. This loss of keyword performance data creates the need to acquire insights elsewhere, namely Adwords. As if organic SEO wasn’t expensive enough, now it is almost a requirement to run an Adwords campaign just to gain some keyword performance data. Which keywords are helping your business drive sales? How will you find out if a significant portion of your keyword data is being withheld by Google?

In addition to keyword data, the algorithm itself has always been withheld. SEO has always been about chasing the algorithm to some extent, but when combined with withheld keyword data, how is a website owner supposed to determine which strategy is helping drive business for which keywords? Additional investment into analysis and research is required to help craft an organic search strategy, further adding to the overall costs.

Organic search marketing is still a viable and important part of a businesses marketing strategy, but nowadays it might just be one of the most challenging to compete in. The considerable and on-going costs for some small businesses might not make a lot of sense for the return. However, if your website is suited to be an authority, your business goals require it, or your niche is less competitive, organic search marketing can provide lucrative and sustained benefits.

For more information, please read Paid Search Marketing vs Organic Search Marketing.

Posted on: 04/25/2013
Posted by: Craig Hauptman – Chief Marketing Strategist, Founder
Submitted by: Dale Butterfield – Marketing Strategist, Awareness & Insights

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