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SEO and PPC Tug-of-War: 5 Ways to Stay on the Winning Side

Search results have always been competitive. Now they’re even more so. With Google Ads taking up more and more inventory on SERPs, search engine optimization experts are scrambling for new ideas on how to drive organic traffic from Google. Here we share 5 ways to keep your SEO strong in the years to come.

Back in August, Google introduced some new ad formats, like discovery ads and gallery ads. While it may be a welcome opportunity for advertisers, search engine optimization pros are unhappy, to say the least.

The obvious reason for SEOs to be upset is because the new ads push organic search listings even further down the page. Here are just a couple of disappointed comments from Twitter regarding this change:

SEO feedback on Google Ads

This competition between SEO and PPC has been going on for a long time. All the way back to 2012, in fact. That’s when Larry Kim, CEO of Wordstream, wrote a detailed blog post about the “war” between SEO and PPC. Here’s what he said about it at that time:

“Clicks on paid search listings beat out organic clicks by nearly a 2:1 margin for keywords with high commercial intent in the US. In other words, 64.6% of people click on Google Ads when they are looking to buy an item online!”

Even seven years ago, search engine optimization pros knew there was a threat of losing organic search traffic to the ever-expanding Google Ads.

Fast forward to now. Not only do SEOs have to compete with the expanding ad inventory, but they also have to compete with the local pack, YouTube videos, and “position zero” (aka rich answers or rich snippets) among many other features in the search results.

With all those new features taking up space at the top of the page, organic search listings are getting pushed further and further down. So if you’re an SEO, and you’ve felt like the tables are being turned against you, you’re kinda right.

Track SEO performance with Whatagraph

Rand Fishkin, founder of Moz and one of the most respected SEOs on the planet, recently wrote a widely-shared article about diminishing organic clicks. What he found is sobering for anyone who likes free traffic:

“In Q1 2019 Google’s US web search engine:

    • Received 150+ Billion searches;
    • Solved 48.96% of those searches without a click;
    • Sent 7.2% of all search clicks to paid results;
    • Sent 6.01% of all searches (~12% of search clicks) to websites owned by Alphabet, Google’s parent company;
    • Directed a click to non-Alphabet-owned websites (aka, the rest of the web) after 45.03% queries.”

Where search clicks happen on Google

The spooky part of that is “Solved 48.96% of those searches without a click.” That means only half of the searches being done now result in anyone – paid advertiser or SEO – getting a click.

So is SEO dead? Or dying? Not so fast. Consider what else Rand wrote in that article: “For every click on a paid result in Google, there are 11.6 clicks to organic results. SEO is far from dead.”

So while there are more zero-click searches than there were a few years ago, and the ads are taking up more and more digital real estate, SEO is far from over. You can see this in the bar chart below.

Google CTR vs zero click searches

How to make the most of your SEO?

Brian Dean, another world-class SEO and the first commenter on Rand’s post wrote: “I'm still bullish on SEO. Mostly due to the lack of alternatives. Social media is nice. Email is great. But in terms of traffic sources, Google is still #1 in my mind.”

Google should be on your mind, too. All the other channels have their strengths and value, and you definitely shouldn’t be picking just one channel to the exclusion of all others. But SEO is still high return marketing activity (if it’s done right).

Part of doing SEO right, of course, is being data-driven. Setting up your analytics and getting regular, meaningful performance reports laid out in a way that’s easy to understand. But there’s more you can do. Here are our suggestions:

1. Build a presence on Google properties.

One of the reasons there are more zero-click searches is because Google is sending more clicks to its own properties. Establish your presence on some of those properties, such as Google My Business, Google Maps, YouTube, etc.

2. Optimize for “Position zero.”

Rich snippets and rich answers can be a great way to get more traffic. If you optimize for them, you’ll get another important benefit: You’ll have optimized your content for voice search, too. Voice search may end up being the next massive disruptor in SEO.

Track SEO performance with Whatagraph

3. Go visual.

Image search can generate a ton of free clicks… but most websites do a terrible job of optimizing their images. So you zig while they zag – add alt tags to all your images. Use keyword-rich filenames in your images. And please, compress them properly so they don’t slow down your site.

4. Dig into Google Search Console.

Google has given us a terrific tool to optimize the traffic we do get. It’s free, too. Google Search Console can show you which pages have the best chance of ranking better, whether your title and meta description tags need to be rewritten and more. If you aren’t spending at least an hour a week in your Search Console account, you would probably be getting more traffic if you did.

5. Optimize the traffic you’ve got.

It’s past time for marketers to focus more on quality rather than quantity when it comes to website traffic. It’s also well past time that we started testing which opt-ins work best to build our email lists, and how to get more sales and demos. Website traffic is an increasingly precious thing. It’s time to treat it that way. So ask yourself: What would happen if you treated your “free” organic traffic with the same care as you treated your paid traffic?


Digital marketing is getting more competitive all the time. That spills over into everything – competition in the search results, reduced organic reach on social media. Even increased competition in the email inbox.

The bad news is that none of this is going to get easier. If you want to do well, you’re going to have to up your game. One of the best ways to do that is to embrace your marketing analytics. Dig into what’s really working – and what’s not.

The good news about all this is that while the competition is increasing, so are the opportunities. Many of those opportunities are hidden inside your data, just waiting for you to find them.

Pam Neely
Written By Pam Neely
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