PPC as an SEO Research Tool

by rishil on January 25, 2011

Paid search gives you many options to test and play with the SERPs and Keywords in a way that SEO cant. I have used PPC on several occasions to make decisions around SEO, and quite successfully. It is often hard for businesses to understand the “value” of SEO, and I know for a fact that most big brands use Paid Search as a medium more extensively than Organic Search. The budgets for SEO are often a fraction of those allocated to PC. Yet businesses are still to understand that Paid Search budgets have a “one hit” shelf life, while SEO ROI is for much longer periods.

In financially motivated businesses often SEO is undervalued when the SEO teams fail to show profit / ROI centric nature of organic search, and I often end up reaching the benefits of looking at SEO from the lens of a Paid Search marketer.  SEO should not focus purely on traffic potential of keywords, but on the profit potential of keywords. In the past several studies have shown that PPC gets more budget than SEO.

Google Sprite

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pandaray/2576981899/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Some of the areas that you can use Paid Search for include:

Testing Copy Messages

Your Meta Description and Title tags are important from a User Click Through point of view. Using PPC copy tests you can determine what messages get better click throughs from the SERPs – especially testing variant permanent Title Appends.  For example I found that a brand that used “official” in their PPC copy gained a CTR upwards of 5% better than previous.

So we switched the PPC messages from the “brand keywords” to more sales oriented copy, while switching the home page title tag to include the words “official site”. Organic SEO from branded keywords grew, while PPC traffic dropped, and the joint traffic improved.

Results? More free traffic for their branded keywords.

Determining Long Tail Targets

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zrahen/4392138128/

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/zrahen/4392138128/

It’s not always easy to determine which long tail or three word / four word phrases to target, ideally you want them all, but sometimes time and budget limitations won’t let you target all the variants. In my experience any keyword can have between 10-50 variations, especially if you start looking at adding location modifiers to make up phrases.

How do you determine the rate at which to attack certain sub sets of keywords in terms of optimization priority? I use PPC to help me.

Create lists and ads for your target KWs and run them for a decent time frame – for high volume phrases (between 1000-10000 a day) I am usually happy to use a two week timeframe.  Let those keywords float in ideal positions (1 and 2) on PPC.  You will often find that the site converts better on some, while not on others. There could be many reasons for this – but at least you will find the most profitable key phrases in any subset to determine your rate of optimization.

PRO TIP: You can use this technique for brand new key words that the business never considered to see if they work – you often find what I call “Eureka” keywords that the site never thought of, but become very profitable.

Determining Budgets

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/omegaforest/4927169808/

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/omegaforest/4927169808/

This exercise is similar to the one above, but in this instance you can use C to determine ROI and budgets. Now I am not unilaterally saying that PPC and SEO ROIs are interchangeable – they aren’t. But you can often work out some sort of a standard variant where ROI of PPC=(x)SEO (on SERP #y). This sort of formulaic working from historical data could help you determine what to expect when certain keyword sets move up in organic results.

PPC has a better conversion rate. It’s true that PPC converts slightly higher than SEO in a keyword-to-keyword comparison. But 88% of the traffic comes from SEO and 12% from PPC. Rand Fishkin in his presentation PPC vs SEO

Cross referencing the spend on PPC against those keywords will enable you to work out stronger arguments for determining the potential uplift of sales by targeting certain SERP positions for these keywords. This in return allows you to work out the profitability, and hence desirability of those keyword sets – and in return allows you to allocate more budget towards acquiring those positions.

In a ROI centric business this sort of methodology is essential in working out SEO Budgets and actually increasing the value of SEO visibly to businesses.

Almost half of UK companies (49%) are now spending at least £50,000 a year on paid search marketing, up from 45% last year and 39% in 2008, while there has been a significant decrease in the proportion of responding companies who spend less than £5,000 a year on paid search, from 25% last year to 14% this year. Econsultancy Search Marketing Benchmark Report

I have covered some of this over at SEOmoz on SEO Budgeting.

Of course none of this looks at the long term Branding value of generic searches and determining longer term ROI time frames for generic Keywords:

Only 30% of purchases driven by non-branded Internet searches occur within the same online session when consumers conduct an initial search, according to a study by research firm Compete Inc. (source)

Landing Page Determination

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jadendave/5210820423/

Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jadendave/5210820423/

As I have mentioned above, SEO should focus on profitability – and some of the key aspects of profitability are where you land your site visitors on. For Keyword “X” should you land on the “home page”, “category page” or a “custom built to purpose landing page”?

In paid search, you can test all three variants. In SEO you may have the potential to rank only one over the other. By the time you realize you have targeted the wrong landing page, it may be too late or taken too long to switch. This can be a costly mistake, and short of conversion optimization on the target SEO page, you can’t do much in the short term.

I would suggest using PPC testing to determining the best converting pages per keyword sets, you would often be amazed by the results. In one instance I found that the home page is the best converting page – regardless of what you did for a particular generic keyword. In other situations, when we targeted  a landing page built for  “KW” and “KW+Local Modifier”, where we were targeting both the top keyword and the local area – we found that for the total sets of keywords, it converts worse  than the page that WASN’T optimized with page elements for the local modifier. (i.e No mention of the “local” aspect on the page actually helped the conversion, but made SEO for full range of long tail much more difficult). In the end we had to split it into two pages – one targeting “KW” and another targeting “KW+Local Modifier”.

Resources

What Other SEOs Say

When I asked Twitterverse the question “Q: Do SEOs use PPC as a research tool?” – I was encouraged by the answers, which proved that I wasn’t the only one using the techniques above:

  • staceycav Sometimes…. or at least conversion data from PPC can be useful in assessing potential keywords for a SEO campaign.
  • Chris_Dugdale Yes. Always (where possible).
  • mmhemani Why not, usually people use more then one tool for keyword research and i think using PPC is also a good idea.
  • TomNashUK A: they should do
  • justinparks yes. It helps quickly (and sometimes expensively) answer questions.
  • firstconversion Id like to more, its not very popular with clients tho :P they dont like paying for exploratory things
  • seoforumsorg yes – its the single most valuable source of information to SEO’s.
  • inkodeR I’d hope so – most effective method for KW research available. Can’t trust data from KW tools.
  • Searchmetrics Absolutely – knowing PPC data is important for understanding the competitive nature of a keyword for organic ranking
  • _robh_ if they don’t they should :)
  • marccclevy when I can afford it! Definitely v.useful.
  • LordManley A: Yes. Perfect for honing meta descriptions and titles to maximise CTR, for example.
  • gfiorelli1 I do, especially to understand the real value of some middle to long tail kwds that has “officially” no data statistics.
  • SamuelCrocker A: When data is available/when I can make it so :)
  • tatiana_london i think it is still used, to find keywords with good ratio of conversion/volume, with less competitive SEO then high volume
  • rishi3211us i think most would do.. there’s so much of valuable & proven keyword data in there
  • TonyVerre A: YES.
  • yrewol yes, and if they don’t, they’re missing out on a lot of the “optimisation” bits of SEO
  • PrachiDeshpande I use it as a research tool. Specially, to target best performing PPC keywords for SEO campaign.
  • NeilTompkins Yes and no. I normally use PPC to get an idea of how competitive the phrases are.
  • olivier_amar For sure. It’s a great tool to see which keywords convert and bounce.
  • David_TappYes, as long as we can get the information off of the PPC agency.
  • netmeg I do. (I really respect NetMeg by the way!)
  • souvikmukherjeewould have loved to but not always possible, specially when you are working with small businesses. Small business clients usually have stingent marketing budgets so you may not get the luxury of experimenting at your own cost.
  • Adrac_Ltd Yes. So that we can target keyterms appropriatly on the website and in the link building campaign

Thank You to all those who responded :)

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Rishi Lakhani is an independent Online Marketing Consultant specialising in SEO, PPC, Affiliate Marketing and Social Media. Explicitly.Me is his Blog. Google Profile

{ 1 trackback }

Weekly Search & Social News: 02/01/2011 | Search Engine Journal
February 2, 2011 at 1:04 pm

{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt January 25, 2011 at 11:44 am

All good uses of PPC for SEO research. I been using it recently to try and determine the reason for a drop in brand terms to a site despite the KW tool saying searches are going up. Have only just started but reckon it’ll give me a much better idea of search volume.

Reply

richardbaxterseo January 25, 2011 at 1:00 pm

It’s in our requirements list for new clients (if they can provide it, we really, really like to get it) – we use PPC data as one of the seed sources of all of our keyword research. I’m also super-keen on internal site search data :-)

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Luke Quilter January 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm

I think it is a great way to identify the most valuable terms. Often I think some companies just focus on volume, regardless of whether the traffic converts. PPC can focus the strategy on converting terms, and provide a cost effective solution while the SEO traffic volume builds.

Reply

Chad Summerhill January 25, 2011 at 4:37 pm

Hi Rishil, enjoyed the post. Here’s an article (from the PPC perspective) I just wrote on leveraging PPC data for SEO that I think your readers will find relevant:

http://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2011/01/11/leveraging-ppc-search-query-performance-for-seo

Thanks,

Chad

Reply

Jeff January 26, 2011 at 2:32 pm

Great post! The real value AdWords can lend to an SEO effort is in finding high converting niches and being able to quickly test different messaging. I’d argue that a well executed test using AdWords, or access to an existing AdWords account, is hands down the best thing you can have going into a new SEO effort.
I also think that there is still value in using PPC to discover new keyword spaces and get a real gauge on traffic (especially since the volume estimates from the Google keyword tool are mediocre at best.) Getting accurate volume estimates out of AdWords isn’t easy, but it’s probably the best source of data out there (when done correctly.)

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