Mike Moran, writing for Search Engine Guide, noted that the differences used to be much greater than they are today. I don’t have his depth of experience; he’s been working on search engine technology since the 1980s, while I’ve only been covering Internet-related technology since 1997. Still, that’s long enough to have seen – and reported on – a number of major changes, to say nothing of the gradual evolution of pay-per-click ads.
Like Moran, I was around when the first pay-per-click search ads came out. Not the first ones from Google, but the first ones, period. They were created by a now-defunct search engine whose marketing model was based entirely around paid search; in other words, it offered no organic results. At the time, most observers thought it was crazy. Clearly, results that had been bought and paid for by advertisers would be inferior to those that had to be earned, and no searcher would want that when better alternatives sat a click or two away!
But then a funny thing happened. Yahoo bought the paid search engine, and built a marketing department around it. Google saw what was happening, and built their own version of pay-per-click marketing, called AdWords (and AdSense, too, but we’re focusing on advertisers here, not publishers). They visually separated the paid listings from the organic ones, so all searchers would know which ones were which. And at first, the paid search results fulfilled expectations – that is, they appeared to be less relevant to searches than the organic listings. Over time, though, that changed.
How did that happen? Well, companies seeking to promote their websites learned what search engines were looking for to put them at the top of the results. Early SEO practices gamed the system, almost to the point that paid results might be more relevant. Think about it: if an advertiser is paying for every visitor who clicks on their ad, they won’t want that ad to show unless the traffic clicking on it is likely to convert. That means whatever the site is offering had better be relevant to the search term and the ad.
That’s only one element at work, however. Google changes the rules regularly by tweaking its algorithm, so the same old SEO tricks don’t keep working. But it also changed the rules for pay-per-click ads. Oh, you still need to bid on what you’re willing to pay for each click. But now Google looks at how often your ad is clicked, and if it isn’t clicked often enough, it might not place your ad in the number one slot – even if you bid high enough. Google also looks at the landing page for your ad, to judge its relevance. As Moran observes, what was on this page once made no difference; now it matters.
What does this mean? It means that promoting your site with PPC has gotten very similar to doing it with SEO. Consider this: if you want your site to appear well in the organic search results, and you’re using white hat practices, then you’re trying to create the right content to appear for the right keywords. You want searchers to believe, when they click through to your site, that they’ve landed in the right place to solve whatever problem inspired them to do the search.
Thanks to the series of changes Google has made to pay-per-click search ads in recent years, you need to do the same thing with your PPC campaign. You need to make sure that your ad and your landing page match the keywords you’re aiming for, regardless of the bid you place. In fact, matching very closely could actually save you some money. As Moran notes, “If you’ve figured out how to put the searcher first in organic search, you can apply that same lesson for paid search. That’s far more likely to pay off than increasing your bids.”