Marketers in every industry are faced with some important decisions as we roll out 2014 marketing plans. Do we invest more in content marketing and less in technical SEO and paid search? Should we continue to spend for paid media at all? What are the advantages and drawbacks of the different channels and choices? As always, there are no hard and fast rules to help guide our decision making, but there are some strong clues out there. Let's take a look at some of the biggies.
Google has made it clear it will no longer tolerate artificial link building schemes and keyword stuffing tactics. In fact, Google wants us to worry about one thing only—semantic search. What's that?
"Semantic search provides more meaningful search results by evaluating and understanding the search phrase and finding the most relevant results in a website, database or any other data repository." —Techopedia.com
Our approach to trying to "get found" on search engines needs to evolve. Instead of trying to "rank" on high traffic keyword phrases, we need to understand what potential customers are looking for and tailor our content and messaging to be a perfect match. That's one of the reasons why content marketing is so important these days. Copywriting and SEO strategy need to be perfectly in sync in order to produce high quality traffic and leads from search engines.
Search is still important because it's not a passive activity. People don't just stumble upon your content like they might elsewhere—they're looking for it (if your content is the right match to a semantic query). An organic search lead has already qualified you somewhat by performing a relevant search, which means he enters your sales funnel at a relatively advanced stage in the buyer journey. In fact, HubSpot reports that in 2013, organic search had the highest customer conversion rate among all of the inbound and outbound marketing channels.
Certainly, there are challenges to SEO these days, particularly Google's move to obscure search data from marketers and the predominance of PPC ads on the SERPs. Penguin, Panda and Hummingbird algorithm changes have made it harder to gain a foothold and move up the page rankings. SEO takes more time and effort than ever before because it requires a sustained flow of high quality, shared, authoritative content and strong links to Google+ and other social channels. In other words, you can't game the system anymore. You have to earn your way up the ladder.
As you might expect, faced with the challenges of Google's moving targets, many companies have moved more budget to paid search. In fact, according to Forbes, "72 percent of businesses surveyed reported they plan to spend more on PPC in 2014, up from 70 percent who increased spending in 2013." Google Adwords has some significant advantages over organic search now. Among them:
Paid search faces challenges of its own, however. In case you haven't noticed, Google is now labeling PPC ads with yellow "Ad" icons to make sure searchers see them plainly as ads. This may or may not affect click-through rates. The other big challenge is, of course, competition for high-value natural search keyword phrases. Big brands with big PPC budgets make it difficult for SMBs to compete, especially for high-volume, short-tail phrases like "digital marketing." Many marketers are experimenting with retargeting and native advertising as an alternative to PPC. Those channels tend to be even more expensive, but will their conversion rates make them more cost effective? We'll see, but it may be worth an experiment or two for sure.
In my opinion, it's too early to bail out on either SEO or PPC, and it's probably not a good idea to put all of your marketing eggs in one basket. Clearly, we must play nice with Google and work on aligning buyer personas, content marketing and SEO. We also need to rethink PPC and focus on ad campaigns that align well with semantic search—i.e. create ads that deliver a perfect match for a potential buyer query and work hard to reduce the high-cost, low-quality clicks through constant monitoring and testing. It's probably time to consider other channels as well, such as retargeting and native advertising to reach new buyers who aren't necessarily searching for our goods and services. As always, driving any of these ads to A/B tested landing pages and measuring conversions is the best way to evaluate performance and value.
Photo credit: Will Merydith