This is a question that we are often asked. Just a couple of years ago, I was attending a seminar at Google’s Chelsea Market location and this was a topic of discussion not only among attendees but also among the resident Googlers. And it is not an unusual question to consider; let’s just look at a brief, high level chronology of how organic results have been pushed down in the Google SERP (search engine results page) over time, and how paid ads have come to look more and more like their organic counterparts.
Google Ads - Chronology of Appearance
- In Q4 of 2013, background shading was removed from paid ads – with full rollout in Q1 2014 – background shading was replaced by a small yellow ad identifier to the left of each listing.
- Starting in 2016, this was replaced by a green demarcation – and the display URL for the first time matched very closely to the format of organic listings.
- In Q1 of 2016, Google removed ads from the sidebar of search results, while also increasing the number of ads being placed above organic results – not only at the very top of the SERP but also at the bottom.
- Fast forward to 2020 (and as it remains today) and we see that any and all borders are removed from paid ads vs. the rest of the SERP content. There is little difference, if any at all, between the format of the ad headline, display URL, and description than there is for the same anatomy of the organic listing.
Enter Local Service Ads
Also adding to the potential devaluation of organic listings is the introduction of LSA’s (local service ads). Not to be mistaken with location extensions, LSA’s began to appear in isolated locations (San Diego and Houston) in 2019. Limited to certain service categories (lawyers, financial planners, etc), the success of this new ad format led to a complete expansion and a nationwide rollout in Q2 of 2020. Service categories now include plumbers, roofers, car repair, carpenters, electricians, fencing services….the list goes on, and continues to grow. Depending upon your business, these listings also come with a Google ‘guaranteed’ or Google ‘screened’ badge – along with 5-star reviews front and center, to really make your business stand out from your competitors who are not using LSA’s. Not to mention, LSA’s occupy the very top of the Google SERP (arguably the most sought-after real estate in the digital world) and entail a pay per lead model – meaning you are only paying for those who actually get in touch with you and leads are confirmed as related to your business or the services you offer. SUGGESTION: You can and indeed should make sure that the phone number associated with your LSA is properly configured and connected to the system you are using to measure ROI for your clients, or for yourself.
Google Shopping Ads (aka Product Listing Ads or PLA’s) for eCommerce Sales
Released in Q2 2012, Google Shopping ads appear at the top of the SERP above standard Google Ads. They occupy essentially the same space as LSA’s for local service providers, and the format is also somewhat similar. Shopping ads consist of a thumbnail of the product image along with a price and a seller rating (as measured in stars) along with any promotional incentives (like free shipping).
Google My Business (formerly Google Maps)
GMB (Google My Business) listings will also appear above natural organic results. However, this is to be considered a part of SEO as these are largely comprised of organic listings. These listings also include any and all Google reviews that you have received (specific to any given location) over time. SUGGESTION: Like LSA’s and Google Ads for that matter, you should make sure that any phone numbers associated with your GMBs are properly configured and connected to the system you are using to measure ROI for your clients, or for yourself. You should setup the tracking numbers so that they are specific to the each GMB location that you own.
So, FINALLY We Get to the Standard, Organic Listings (Primarily Known As the Tangible Success Measure Of All SEO Efforts)
The value proposition for SEO today is largely represented in much the same terms as it was 10+ years ago; helping you to attain top rankings for terms that are relevant to your business – reaching your target audience and built for long-term visibility. That is not only on Google, but across all major search engines. However, the anatomy of the SERP – as outlined above, has changed dramatically over time. Google ads hardly look like ads anymore and occupy way more real estate (by way of eliminating the sidebar) above the fold. And the prime real estate of the SERP is often occupied by either LSA’s or Shopping Ads, and beneath both they and the Google ads are the GMB’s. So, in most instances you will have to scroll well below the fold in order to even see organic listings. So, what does that mean as far as the relevance of SEO?
What is The Value of Being ‘Above the Fold’ In The SERP?
Obviously, ‘above the fold’ refers to the area of the SERP that does not require one to scroll – that which is visible upon arrival whether the device used is a desktop computer, a tablet, or a mobile device. We can quantify this by looking at the performance of our Google ads campaigns over a trailing one-year period. During that time, the click-through-rate (CTR) of our cumulative accounts across all market verticals was 10.04% for all ads rendered atop other results in the SERP. (BTW, Google considers 2% to be acceptable. A highly sought industry average is 5% – so we are literally crushing it). When below the fold, that CTR drops to 1.51%…a difference of 147.7%!
In addition to this, our above the fold conversion rate (CVR) was 7.7% (in this industry, a 5% CVR is considered the gold standard). By way of comparison, our CVR for any ads rendered below the fold dropped to 2.93%….a difference of 82.8%!
So, WHAT IS THE ANSWER??
Having validated that showing up above the fold is absolutely huge, where does that leave SEO given that – much more often than not, organic listings will appear below the fold? Given all of the above, it seems that the value of SEO at this time is marginal — at best. And that answer is: INCORRECT! And it is one-dimensional. If you just look at the SERP, then yes, the value of an organic listing is marginal. But digital marketing is anything but one-dimensional. EVERYTHING works together. Armed with the knowledge that Google is – at its core, the great relevance engine of our time – one begins to gain the right perspective on how to answer this all-important question.
While 99% of Google’s revenue may be attributable to paid search, that does not mean that the highest bidder will garner the best positions. If that were the case, then Google would be running the risk of sacrificing relevance for revenue which – in the long run, will cost market share. Just ask some of Google’s dead competitors. The predominantly cost per click-based model that drives Google ads results is based upon a triangulation of ad to keyword to landing page/site relevance to the query being served. Said relevance factors for the relationship of the site to that keyword. Said simply, organic relevance will have an extremely positive effect of paid performance across the board. And this includes LSA’s…as the Google review process is a subset of the GMB which is – as noted above, an aspect of SEO.
The bottom line is always in the numbers.
1. Take A Look at Paid & Organic Listings
Several years ago, Google rolled out the ‘paid & organic’ report via the Ads platform. This enables us to look at all key metrics segmented by when an ad only is shown, when both an ad and organic listing are shown, and when only an organic listing is shown. Albeit against a smaller data set but still in the six-figure range, when looking at the cumulative accounts that we manage over the past year we see that the CTR when both an ad and an organic listing are shown is a whopping 80% higher. Also, the average cost per click is found to be 15% lower. The sum cost savings that results from the presence of an organic listing simultaneously appearing with a paid ad is huge, and something that is often overlooked when those responsible (be it agencies or internal teams) are assessing the value of their SEO investment.
Our analysis also revealed that this metric is not limited to B2B’s or B2C’s. We see these observations hold true whether selling consumer products, local services, or long-term services; technical or virtual solutions, etc. At some point, perhaps Google will reveal the performance metrics when not only an ad and organic listing appear together, but also when an LSA and/or a GMB also appear. Now, that is how one truly DOMINATES the results – a ‘quadfecta’ of an LSA, a Google ad, a GMB, AND a top organic listing! That is what we strive for.
2. Consider GMB’s and 5-star rankings
When we look at GMB’s – part of the appeal is found in the localization aspect – and specifically on mobile. It is perfectly acceptable to have multiple GMB’s, and hence multiple Google reviews attributed to multiple GMB’s. Any and all of these reviews can and should be repurposed for LSA’s. Solid GMB’s will have a profound impact on your results across the board, especially if localization is important to your marketing mix.
And let’s not forget the 5-star rankings. Outside of seller ratings ad extensions, 5-star listings are NOT available via Google ads. They are – however, still attainable through natural organic listings and GMB’s. This very type of listing is what makes you stand out from the rest – and to some extent regardless of position. Take a look at the illustration below, and ask yourself whether you would click on the home advisor ad at the very top of the SERP, or the 5-star listing well below that position? (Ideally, you will own BOTH positions along with an LSA and a GMB).
3. The Intangibles – and BACKLINKS
Then there are the unknowns; those items that are not documented – the insight that comes with experience. First, content is, has been and always will be king. Paid ads of any sort whether LSA’s, Google ads, Bing ads, Facebook ads, etc do not require much by way of content development to appear, but they do require rock solid and a volume of content if you want to dominate your industry – and you want to do so efficiently. In the B2B world, over time and across ALL accounts, organic search always outperforms other channels in terms of engagement metrics and, of course, a long term and sustainable quality of traffic.
A confluence of content and backlinks will facilitate an ever-widening circle of influence for your brand. At some point, that becomes intangible; it grows legs of its own. People want to share and engage relevant content – much more than they want to engage with ads and landing pages. Ads and landing pages are, in some instances – a shortcut to better content. Of the amazing CTR’s we alluded to above, it is much less frequent in B2B that a user will arrive at the landing page and submit their information. Industry averages for CVR are about 5%. We are super happy with our much higher CVR’s as also noted above. However, it is at a rate of less than 50% that people are submitting their information via the landing page that we direct them to. More often than not — they delve further into the site, they consume additional content, and THEN they submit their information through another lead magnet. Therefore, the content development efforts that typically fall under SEO are again a huge component of a thorough, integrated marketing strategy. By use of a blog to expand upon and streamline the content development process, you are also creating a way to drive up keyword frequency across your site and improve the overall user experience, and you are giving people a way to accelerate your social media marketing strategy!
Not to mention, the backlinks that are created as part of a strong SEO offering will not only drive up the relevance of your overall domain, they will over time result in incremental gains in traffic.
Summarily, this article is a snapshot in time. The overall anatomy of the SERP has evolved in ways unimaginable just a few years ago, and has involved considerations from a wide array of categories including but not limited to local services, consumer demand, external forces (i.e., the rise of Amazon), and societal needs (i.e., COVID-19). It would not be surprising the see other seismic shifts in the near future – given the investments being made in AI not only for improvements to the algorithms available to marketers to reach consumers, but also for consumers to better select the products or services they are looking for. See this article that discusses visual search -> https://spd.group/artificial-intelligence/ai-for-retail/
Be sure to check back for updates on this subject.