Nick Suckley, partner of Agenda21 Media, talks to Nick James about the advantages and disadvantages of paid search and natural search.

NJ: What is natural search?

NS: Natural search, SEO, organic search, it’s all the same thing; these are natural search results that are derived from the full text and/or images of your website. The position on a results page on a search engine is then dependent on what the search engine decides should be presented back, based on dozens of factors — 250 at the last count if you look at Google.

NJ: How does paid search work?

NS: An example would be that I’m walking down Regent Street and I’m looking for a golf sale. I stop and ask ‘Do you know if there’s a golf sale around here? A guy with a big banner says ‘Yeah, funny enough there’s a golf sale over there. When you get through the door, can you tell them that Bob sent you and I’ll get my commission?’ You would’ve found it anyway if you had just seen his sign — if you had taken a bit of effort, you would have found it. All he’s done is kind of jumped in the way and said ‘Golf sale, over here. Tell them I’ve come’.

Now I don’t want to sound like I’m a Google-basher because obviously they’re very successful, they’re very big — we all use search all the time and some are more sophisticated than others. But the question I’d argue is we don’t really understand well enough yet what happens before search, what’s driving that demand, what’s forcing people into search and therefore what alternatives exist. And I think smart advertisers will be the ones that start to understand how search fits within the whole process, rather than just ‘Let’s get in and do loads of page search and see how much money we can spend?’

Let’s say I make a purchase and a little further down the line, the person who takes the sale goes ‘He came in from Google. Let’s give Google the value of that sale.’ And I’m going hang on a second, I actually read the review in ‘What hifi’. I started buying this because I watched the Gadget Show. So the demand was stimulated elsewhere, and that’s the same shopping process that people go through for the vast majority whether it’s holidays, financial products, electronic consumer goods, whether it’s RB2B services. People will broadly follow the similar pattern.

NJ: When is it best to use paid search?

NS: Paid search is really good when you’re looking at tactical or seasonal campaigns. When you are looking at short-term up weights, you’re hitting the end of the month and we need to bring some volume in, then that’s when it’s a very flexible tap that you can turn off and on.

The downside is that popular keywords are really expensive. If you’re active in the finance category, god help you.

This is what search has always been about relevancy; to people getting the relevant listings to the relevant results to what they’re searching for. I don’t see how how much an advertisers is prepared to pay is having any impact on how relevant that listing is to people unless you back to what we said earlier; unless you’re in the purchase mode.

That’s the time when I think having advertisers going out and actually, very specifically saying ‘Phillips 32’ widescreen telly 699’ becomes relevant. And I think this is the critical point here is you have to be aware that people are using search in different ways. Not all search is equal.

NJ: Which companies lend themselves to natural search?

NS: Typically those with sites that are content-rich, they’ll be established brand that people are probably searching for so I might arguably search more for Comet or Dixon than I would do for the flat TV company that I’ve never heard of. They will have good distribution and it’s no coincidence then that the kind of companies that come out are media companies — newspapers, the TV channels, music and film distributors — companies that are ‘expert’.

Moneysupermarket; 34% of its traffic comes from search — this is HipWise data, it’s actually from September 2006 but it’s kind of the best I could find. So about 34% of its traffic comes from search, 80% of that search traffic comes from Google. No real surprises there so these guys are very, very, very heavily reliant on. I suspect they’ll do a lot more now, 4681 search items; I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s four or five times that these days.

60% paid/40% natural: These guys are really what we call ‘feeding the beast’, they’re literally just piling money in and seeing what comes out. They’re 40% natural and I think they’d love to have that flip the other way around. Because I know if I was in their shoes I’d love do to that but they’ve got a decent amount of insurance policy.

NJ:Is it easy to get started in paid search?

NS: The auction model for paid search particularly has made it easy for people to participate. If I was to be really, really cynical as well and get my grumpy media-buying hat on, I’d say what they’ve also managed to do in search is muddy the waters; that people aren’t always that aware of what they’re buying. Yes, you buy clicks. Yes, it’s beautifully accountable. Yes, you only pay for what you’re getting and yes, you can pay exactly what you want on a per-click basis.

So they made it very, very easy for people to participate in these auction-models nut don’t for one second think that search is cheap. Paid search particularly because it’s not.

NJ: Is search a good way to raise the profile of a brand?

NS: If anybody tries to sell you the idea that search is branding vehicle just go back to this and say ‘Well I’d rather spend my money on TV — I’d rather spend money on ITV than on Google if I want to build a brand’. ITV’s cheaper, once you get the production out of the way, from a media point of view cost per thousand it’s cheaper. So just be wary that using the brand kind of keyword is a bit of a misnomer.

Use search because it’s search and because search is good at doing what search does. Don’t think for a second that search can do what ITV does.

NJ: When should an advertiser use natural and when should they use paid search?

NS: I think it’s a very difficult thing to pitch it at the right level because I don’t think there is a real answer. Depending on your level of experience and the jobs that you’re doing in your respective companies, there will be nuances or variations in terms of which of you should be doing and whether you should be doing both.

A well-formulated, mature natural search program will yield cheaper, better results than a paid search but you should be using them both. And I think for my money, most advertisers aren’t making enough use of natural search — they’re probably spending money a little bit indiscriminately on paid search and they’re not looking for alternatives.

My view is that natural search is underutilised – most people should probably be doing more of it. I don’t think you should be doing less paid search but i think you should be smarter about how you’re using it and making sure you’re not wasting money.

And I think if there are three things you take away from that:
1. do natural
2. think about what you’re doing in paid
3. look for alternatives.

Click here to see Nick Suckley speaking at a Fresh Business Thinking Masterclass.

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