The long and the SEO of it

When it comes to search, marketers need to employ both SEO and PPC, one for mental availability, the other physical.

Source: Shutterstock

Marketers are blind and analytics is a lot like magicians’ choice. You think you’re winning, but really, you’re rock climbing in the dark. Latching onto anything that makes it easy to justify what the marketing department spends to stop your budget (and maybe you) from being axed.

Enter the dark lord of marketing, also called PPC. Here to swallow your budgets and give them to the sorcerer supreme, Google. It’s a wealth grab. Your budgets in exchange for clicks. But there’s another way.

It’s called showing up, and I’m going to explain the long and the SEO of it. Buckle up. This could get bumpy.

The SEO wood and the PPC trees

What would happen if you placed Les Binet, Peter Field, Byron Sharp, Rory Sutherland and Mark Ritson in a room to discuss marketing?

Apart from a few disagreements, it would be fantastic. And in this article, I will try bringing some of their views under one roof of marketing and align them with SEO.

The Long and the Short of It and How Brands Grow are both more than 10-years-old. They both become more popular as they age. They’re the whiskey of the marketing world.

That’s until you look at Google’s ad earnings and realise that marketing science is largely ignored.

In 2022, Google’s ad revenue amounted to $224.47bn. But that’s up from $209bn the year before and a whopping increase from $146bn in 2020.

The seductive promise of instant leads, ROAS and other gainful marketing metrics will turn the heads of even the most hardened brand marketers.

“What, do you mean, we can just pay Google and make money?”

The problem with this chat-up line is that it’s a bit like being catfished into a bad marriage. You’ll rush off to Vegas, get married by an Elvis impersonator, and in about 10 years, it’ll hit you. You missed all the essential parts of marketing courtship, and your consumer relationship is built on lies.

The big lie, of course, is that the PPC ads served up by Google’s goliath AdWords platform is what caused the sale. And because Google’s lovely and free reporting software told you so. You believe it.

You can’t see the brand marketing wood because you’re focused on the direct ads trees.

Drunken attribution is fun, but it comes with a hell of a hangover.

Going back to The Long and the Short of It, Les Binet and Peter Field describe what I see daily in the land of SEO. People don’t build brands. They create short-term sales activation with PPC.

And to throw in a dash of Byron Sharp, all PPC mostly does is capture people that were about to purchase. You’re using ads to nudge and sway them over in your direction.

PPC is physical availability. It’s your shop front, reminding the consumer of your business when they are about to buy. Why bother building a brand when you can pay Google for leads?

PPC has become the “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” of the marketing world. You won’t get fired for buying lots of clicks, and let’s face it, you’ll probably be going onto a new role in the next few years, so why rock the boat?

And it’s all good. The free analytics tools given to you by Google tells you that the clicks are bringing in sales. But that’s like someone flirting with you and you think you’re in with a chance.

It’s drunken analytics.

This has led to a cycle of PPC ads first and brand building second, which is pretty much the narrative of Binet and Field’s The Long and Short of It.

So, am I advising you to turn off your ads? Not at all, and here’s where it gets tricky.

Selling ice cream on a hot day (the PPC illusion)

I remember chatting with one of those ice cream sellers on a pedal bike. He told me that he makes a fortune on a hot day and has to do something else for money when it rains.

That’s hand-to-mouth living. And PPC is hand-to-mouth marketing.

When I think of PPC, I’m reminded of a comment by the CEO of Airbnb when they stopped buying clicks from Google.

“Airbnb now looks at the role of marketing as one of education, not to buy customers.”

The thing is, PPC is incredibly effective at selling products and services of low risk and low interest. And just like selling ice cream on hot days. In these circumstances, PPC works just fine.

The problems come when using PPC in more complicated, higher-risk categories. As a rule of thumb, ones where you need to consult your partner or justify things to your boss.

We’re information carnivores looking to satisfice our hunger

Google’s attempt at unravelling the way search works was wonderfully explained in its Messy Middle thesis. We have a trigger to search and explore the category before evaluating our options. But that’s not all that’s happening here.

While marketers hang their hats on PPC, customers go to search engines for help and advice when there’s some risk in the purchase. To borrow from Rory Sutherland’s fantastic book, Alchemy, humans are looking to satisfice.

Satisficing is a decision-making heuristic introduced by Herbert A Simon in the 1950s. To paraphrase Rory Sutherland, humans don’t look for the best option in situations of low trust. We choose the one that’s less likely to be awful.

Bigger brands = safety.

Now, once we accept TV is not an option for many brands due to cost or sector then appearing on the internet is easily one of your best options to connect with your prospects during their category research. And it’s here that you aim to show up in the organic listings to build that mental connection with your prospect.

That’s the SEO game.

Show up enough in the hope that when the prospect is ready to buy, they choose you because you educated them or they liked something about you.

Build that mental availability. And in their minds, you’re less likely to give them trashy services or products.

If you do this right, the result is that they search for your business directly, allowing you the benefits that come with being a brand. You can charge higher prices and or sell more.

Now comes the second part of the puzzle – physical availability.

They’re ready to buy… where the heck are you?

Eventually, the customer decides it’s time to buy. This time, they’re hot buyers. And now it makes sense to use PPC to raise your hand and shout, “look here, look at us”.

You’ll need to spend money on ads if you’re not on the organic listings for those all-important buyer terms. And in some circumstances, it might make sense to buy the ads and be listed on the first page of the organic results.

That’s a decision on profitability.

Research is sparse on how many people ignore SERP ads, but we know that it’s a considerable amount depending on the category. Some studies say 75% of people ignore the ads, and some say 65% click on ads. Either way of looking at it, you have a vast swathe of potential customers that ignore ads.

Back to the physical availability part. If you’re not showing up organically or with ads, you’re not easy or convenient to buy from. And someone else is.

So, what’s the solution?

Enter Mark Ritson to the rescue.

Bothism of search

Bothism, or the art of using targeted and mass marketing, was popularised by Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson. I believe he borrowed the term from someone else. And I’m going to do the same here, sorry Mark. Steal like an artist and all that.

‘Bothism’ is the cure for marketers’ fascination with pointless conflict

When it comes to using the channel of search to grow your brand. Bothism matters. PPC and SEO.

Except it comes with a caveat. SEO targets a large potential customer base and brings compounding benefits without extra media costs. You don’t pay for a click or an ad impression. You’re paying to enhance your own asset, your website. And leverage search engine power in the process.

I could write an entire article about the effectiveness of SEO. The problem isn’t that SEO doesn’t work. I’d argue that it fits snuggly into marketing theory. The issue is that PPC takes the bulk of the sales credit.

And thanks to their free analytics and last-click attribution. Google takes your brand’s marketing budget with it.

Build mental and physical availability with organic rankings. Use PPC to laser target your gaps and test greater sales opportunities. PPC should be your sniper, not your marketing battalion.

The way to win in the search channel is to show up as often as possible during the purchase journey.

Build mental and physical availability with organic rankings. Use PPC to laser target your gaps and test greater sales opportunities. PPC should be your sniper, not your marketing battalion.

That’s the long and the SEO of it.