Three Takeaways from the Nov. 7 “PPC vs. SEO” Session at Pubcon 2017

Last week, with my colleagues Cory Kleinschmidt and Mona Elesseily, I attended and spoke at Pubcon in Las Vegas.

To refresh your memory, Pubcon is the tactical digital marketing conference that just won’t die. As other conferences slowly decline due to changing tastes, this one keeps going and going like the Energizer bunny.

Sessions are as fresh and tactical as ever; impressive for a long-running series. Sessions on LinkedIn advertising and WordPress optimization were two of many that caught our fancy last week. If a conference can help you freshen or update the way you do business, it’s doing its job.

Anyway, onto session takeaways.

“SEO vs. PPC” sounds like an anachronistic, even silly session topic. Indeed, I kind of groaned when I heard I was invited to debate on the panel (from the PPC side, naturally). I mean come on, the last time I was on a panel like this, Fantomaster bragged of snagging the top 64 organic results on Yahoo for some core search query!

But the topic hasn’t quite run its course. The SEO vs. PPC topic – like Pubcon itself – remains “not dead,” unlike the famous parrot from the Monty Python sketch.

Here’s what I learned.

  1. SEO has been stuck for a long time, and too many practitioners have only been in “sell mode.” That’s a defensive stance that discourages cold, calculating analysis.SEO needs to stop generalizing about business models. It isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. The primary use cases I heard referred to (a) small businesses hoping to bootstrap via content (really?); (b) content-centric businesses, i.e. publishers. To my mind, that leaves all mid-sized to larger businesses, and most mainstream consumer businesses (especially e-commerce), leaning heavily towards the paid media side. This just in, folks, the organic gold rush is over. The rebranding (“content is king,” “inbound”) was only a temporary fix. It’s time to quit blowing smoke.
  2. PPC folk ask for and deliver key statistics and business metrics. SEO people too often waffle. My friendly and capable opponent, Kenny Hyder (who, tellingly, “is doing a lot of PPC nowadays”), wasn’t merely content to pass on a stats-related question. He said something to the effect that “people write articles to get attention,” and that a lot of statistics are made up. That sounds like a bit of a fact-phobic response… perhaps the type of fact-phobic analysis that is likely to emanate from a side of the business that insists on speaking of “where you gonna rank” without any reference to volumes of revenue-generating clicks.It’s true that some statistics are nearly impossible to access, and that third parties scraping data aren’t reliable sources of information about Google’s business metrics. But if we’re willing to take the information that is widely available – such as the changes in our own Analytics data over the years, or Google’s quarterly financial filings that show a steady decline in CPC’s that is largely tied to the rise of clicks in the mobile channel – we can piece together a more compelling scenario about what is happening to the user experience today. They’re using their phones a lot more, and a lot more of the visible screen real estate is paid for.
  3. Both PPC and organic results can be improved via a surprising number of strategies that positively impact the user experience without regard to whether that click is paid for or not. Search marketers do have many impulses and competencies in common. One odd development: for years, Google has come across as a relentless champion of the user experience on both paid and non-paid. But have they lost their way? There are so many ads today, and so many conflicts of interest in the SERP’s.

In 5 years (everybody hold hands now), I think all of us, regardless of what marketing specialty you’re currently pigeonholed into today, and consumers and harbingers of cultural and spiritual doom, too (EVERYBODY hold hands)… we’re all going to look back on 2018 and probably remember it as the year Google and Facebook just went too far in monetizing user attention and user trust. As a growing number of critics argue – and I don’t mean the naïve and entitled SEO types who claimed in 2002 that no one would ever pay more than 10 cents for a click :), or that Shopping listings should remain free for some reason – Google’s and Facebook’s business models are indeed built on compromised privacy, limiting choice, and an overemphasis on the commercial elements of our daily routines.

I predicted long ago that “paid search is here to stay.” I never thought these companies were inherently good (just good at what they do, much of which is extremely important to us, no less than Steve Jobs and Apple’s great product focus), so I’m not disillusioned or calling them evil. But someday, this ecosystem will be much different, and users will hopefully be enjoying a more balanced journey. Maybe that’ll even be good news for the SEO and content people. They’ve suffered enough. In the meantime, we at PZ – the (organic/social/content) Findability side and the (dollar-obsessed) PPC side alike – will get back to knocking the stuffing out of the high fastball that is this 2017 monster holiday season, already in full swing.