After a good discussion by Jun Baranggan that SEO & PPC should be holding hands instead of breaking them during this year’s Digital Marketing Meet-up, I was intrigued by the fact that some still think PPC has the capacity to “cannibalize” organic traffic.
Given the numerous combinations of variables in a campaign, there’s no doubt that one could find a case where adding a PPC campaign can appear to have a negative impact on organic traffic – but that is a rare case. In my agency’s 7-year existence, I’m more than certain this has not been happening in our campaigns. More often, in our experience, PPC campaigns reflect the ups and downs of organic traffic.
We wanted to find out whether PPC impacts organic traffic in our current PPC campaigns. We randomly selected 6 campaigns for testing. The only thing common about these campaigns is that they run on an e-commerce platform.
Out of the 6 campaigns, only 1 showed an inconsistent relationship between paid and non-paid traffic. The 5 other campaigns show that when paid traffic goes up, non-paid traffic goes up as well, and vice versa.
Here’s a screenshot of the standout campaign for reference:
The ranged marked by black lines is when the paid traffic was highest for the period shown – which is also the range where changes in PPC traffic appears to follow changes in organic traffic. But, based on graphs alone, we cannot just conclude that PPC has a direct impact on organic traffic.
This second campaign is way bigger than the above example, something that could tell us the size of the campaign could also be a factor.
This one shows that paid traffic and organic traffic both go up or down in the same period. Paid traffic even exceeded organic traffic in December of 2014, but for the most part, paid and organic traffic appear to just follow seasonal visitor fluctuations without necessarily affecting each other. (Referral traffic increase should be disregarded, however, since this campaign has started doing a ton of referral focus initiatives from March 2014.)
A medium (around 50,000 sessions/month) sized campaign shows the same thing: PPC and organic traffic going up and down similarly.
Same results with a 10,000 session campaigns although, here, PPC and organic traffic appear more independent of each other.
Same behavior in this campaign – PPC traffic and organic traffic don’t seem to affect each other, just merely following general trends in visitor traffic.
Below is an even more interesting campaign as it shows a positive improvement in organic traffic as PPC kicked in at above 3,000 session level.
From these, we could even say that it might just be a numbers game where a certain threshold in the number of sessions has to be met before your organic visits get the “ripple” effect from your PPC campaign (our first example had only less than 1,000 sessions per month from paid traffic and didn’t reach such a threshold).
If true, sad news for smaller advertisers as they might not be able to get as much from their PPC campaign as those who, by what we can see on the last screenshot, have spent enough to reach at least 3,000 sessions per month. (In terms of budget, 3,000 sessions would be around $5,000-10,000 for most B2C e-commerce businesses.)
However, it could simply be that PPC advertisements just make people more confident in buying from an already highly ranking (organically) site, and they just remember to type the site’s URL after being used to seeing the site’s ads.
The (Ad)Words, According to Google
Time and again, Google keeps saying buying AdWords has no direct effect on organic traffic, and, by extension, on organic ranking. Here’s Google’s Matt Cutts making the denial:
The keyword (SEO pun intended) here is “direct”. Even if PPC does not have a direct effect on organic traffic, it doesn’t mean there is no PPC effect on visitors at all.
PPC + SEO Synergy
Perhaps the question we should be asking is not “Does PPC cannibalize organic traffic?” but rather, “Does advertising work?” – because PPC is advertising. The answer, judging from Google raking in $100 million-a-day from search advertising (and the legions of companies who give Google this kind of money), is a resounding YES.
Google famously reported, in 2011, that paid search ads give an 89% incremental benefit in increased visitors versus organic traffic alone.
Further, in a 2012 study, Google indicated that having both a visible ad and a top organic ranking in a Google search result helps in getting more clicks than having a just a #1 organic rank or a top ad alone. The study showed that, even if you are the top ranking result for a keyword, you can get more traffic if you also have a paid ad in that page. Google also found that sites can save 50% on PPC spending if they have a top organic rank to go with the ads. In short, together, PPC and SEO work better for traffic when they are together on the same search results page.
This was perhaps unwittingly confirmed a year later by Dana Tan, in a Moz Q&A:
“When we’ve advertised on Google Adwords our visits from organic and direct traffic increased. When we didn’t, it decreased….Keep in mind, this was for keywords for which we ranked on the same page for organic and paid results.”
Here’s a study (on aftermarket car parts) that shows “paid search campaigns when combined with organic SEO marketing can bring a cost-effective, net increase in visits and sales.” A case study by Melissa Mackey at Search Engine Watch found out that high organic traffic does not always convert to high sales. Mackey says that, “PPC often influences other marketing. It’s frequently the impetus that gets potential buyers’ attention.” In short, advertising makes people buy.
Yes, advertising works if you have an online business (especially if your site is already popular). If you own an e-commerce site, conversions would be your priority over organic traffic – leaving you no time to ask questions like “does PPC cannibalize my organic?”
Ecommerce sites benefit both from SEO and PPC. PPC can give you more keywords and information that Google Keyword Planner and your own SEO-work may have missed, although PPC is for those who have the budget (same with SEO now with the authority algorithm age). Here’s a list of other benefits of PPC + SEO from the guys at Moz. In the end, PPC and SEO are just tools in Internet marketing. There’s no need for them to form opposing groups.