Paid and Organic: Getting the Brand Back Together
Back in 1789, Benjamin Franklin famously remarked:
"In this world, nothing can be said for certain - except death, taxes and clients asking why they should bid on their own brand terms."
I must say; this is incredible foresight considering AdWords was only released in the year 2000.
Fast forward 228 years and the arguments both for and against brand search are still heavily debated - especially in the face of increasing competition for visibility and shrinking marketing budgets (boo).
If you give up the number one spot on your brand SERP, or even position two, three or four for that matter - you're essentially relying on two main factors:
1. The assumption that the user is dead set on finding your brand, i.e. do they trust the paid ads that appear above your organic listing enough to look to a competitor?
2. Your organic listing's capability to maintain the level of traffic you receive in the absence of your paid ads.
So, what's the best way to go?
Paid or organic?
You could assume that someone who selects an organic ad has a higher level of brand advocacy, and is therefore of a higher value to your business.
However, by prioritising such customers, are you essentially accepting Pareto's 80/20 rule as an integral part of your customer segmentation?
If paid ads deliver incremental traffic and custom for your business, is the ROI of this activity entirely justified?
All of the above also relies on the assumption that the user is completely aware of the differences between paid and organic ads - and, if they are, do they even care?
As marketers it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming the user understands the same subtleties and nuances that we agonise over on a daily basis. Even if it is just to slightly improve conversion rates and average order values.
Can you even afford to take that risk?
As a performance-driven digital marketing agency, we know only too well how to approach solving such a conundrum...
Run a test of course!
So, when one of Latitude's biggest clients in the MENA region asked us to pause brand search for a week, it provided us with the perfect opportunity to get a robust experiment into action...
First, allow me to provide you with some background.
The client in question is based in Saudi Arabia.
The client also operates in the highly competitive travel sector.
If we are not in the number one position, there's certainly no shortage of people ready to take our place - be it direct competitors or even online travel agents.
In addition to this, Saudi Arabia is a mobile-first market - with the device accounting for a whopping 75% of all sessions.
Therefore, without a paid brand ad, we'd fail to maintain a strong presence above the fold.
With all this considered, as well as increased marketing spend and strong on-site conversion rates, you can see that the client has managed to increase their paid search presence over the last 12 months...
However, this coincided with a 19% fall in organic sessions - raising a tantalising question:
To what extent does paid brand search affect sessions and revenue, and could organic search provide the same level of performance?
Isolating the Variables
When isolating the performance of the top four brand terms in Arabic and English during October 2017, we can see that 58% of searchers clicked on paid brand ads, whilst 19% chose the organic listing and 23% went elsewhere (missed clicks).
Paid brand search accounts for a considerable amount of sessions, but the assumption from the client was that this was inefficient expenditure.
They believed that their organic presence could maintain both the level of sessions, and most importantly - revenue.
So, to try and determine whether this was indeed the case, we put it to the test.
Our hypothesis was as follows...
"Combined paid brand and organic search activity results in greater session and revenue levels than organic search alone."
To ensure that we could effectively measure the impact of paid search, we set three primary rules:
1. Paid brand search would be turned off across all match types, languages and locations - allowing organic listings to become more prevalent in the SERP.
2. The paid brand switch-off would run for one week during a low seasonality period where the level of sessions is expected to be stable.
3. Generic paid activity spend levels will remain constant so as to not influence branded searches.
The key metrics (sessions and revenue) will be measured against prior brand and organic data using Google Analytics, Google Search Console and Paid vs Organic Reports in AdWords.
Side note: Most existing organic search sessions would be considered brand due to lack of depth in generic and destination content on their current site.
Here's some graphs. Good, solid bar graphs.
(Note that the switch-off took place at the start of Week 7)
As we already established, paid brand search accounted for a considerable amount of sessions, which is also reflected in the revenue figures.
During the week of the paid brand search switch-off, we did see a sizeable rise in organic sessions and revenue.
In fact, there was a 55% increase in organic revenue, which suggests the paid brand search cannibalises organic activity.
However, more importantly, brand paid search revenue plummeted 86% and overall weekly sessions dropped 29% - which meant a huge downturn in overall revenue earned.
I'm no accountant, but that's clearly not great for business.
That said, you might be thinking: "What if it was just a quiet week?"
A fair question, I must admit.
But check this out...
Search queries during the week we paused brand search actually saw a spike in the brand search term, highlighting that the drop in sessions is highly unlikely to be seasonal.
The colourful graph below is also rather revealing. Get your peepers around this psychadelic number...
Fixed your eyes yet?
Well, if you can follow the rainbow, you can see that the impact of pausing brand search was pretty immediate.
In other words, there was a clear reduction in overall revenue every day in week 7 - further supporting our initial argument.
Time for another graph?
Oh, go on then.
The green line is the average revenue levels of the six weeks prior to the week where paid brand search was paused, whilst the blue line accounts for week 7 only.
You can see the trend is incredibly similar, but the revenue gap is there for all to see.
From this week-long trial, we can categorically say that by investing in paid brand search, your brand not only receives more traffic, but also a substantial amount of incremental revenue as well.
Organic search shows good growth in the absence of paid brand search, and this indicates that strong SEO certainly helps to enhance your brand's proposition.
However, while isolating the channels makes for some interesting insights into the customer journey, the main takeaway here is that an integrated strategy is more powerful.
With the two working in tandem, the possibilities are much better for your brand.