Why Search Is Like The Housing Market

For as long as I’ve been in paid search, there’s always been debate and much banter (argument?!) about whether my chosen discipline is better than it’s sibling, SEO. What I hope to do in this article is give you a way to explain the pros and cons of both channels to your clients while hopefully persuading you that both are important when it comes to deciding your marketing strategy. I’m going to do this, by way of an example.

Back in May I found myself embroiled in a Twitter debate with Barry – a debate that I still wonder if he started just so he could troll the PPC community (it worked – he definitely felt the wrath of State-side PPCers when they got online a few hours later). It began with this tweet and ended 9 tweets later with a mic drop.

In response, I went on my own 7-tweet-mini-rant which forms the basis for this article.

Why Is SEO better?

There’s some definite advantages that SEO has to PPC, most notably that you get free traffic. This tweet from Kirsty has made me laugh for the last 2 years and also happens to be true.

Other reasons to love SEO include:

  • Knowledge Graph
  • Immune to ad blockers
  • Conversion rate is often better than paid search

Remembering this tweet took me back to 2015 and a conversation I had with a colleague where we were trying to find ways to explain the value of SEO to clients who couldn’t see the point in it because they were already doing PPC. At this point, I had a brainwave and came up with a way to explain why SEO was different and worth investing in.

What is it?

Search Engine Marketing = Housing Market

I think using the housing market to explain search works really well because we’re able to explain the highs, lows and massive drama using a number of different comparisons. Shall we get started?

House = Website

An Englishman’s home is his castle. We already call it a “property” in GA, amirite? In the same way that our homes are usually our biggest asset, the same holds true for a website. For almost all online businesses, the website will be the most valuable thing they have.

Renting = PPC

Pouring money down the drain, lighting money on fire, lining someone else’s pockets. “Dead money”. These are ways we refer to renting and I’ve also heard them used to describe PPC. Why?

As soon as you stop bidding, you disappear. You’re essentially renting the space on the SERPs. You OWN nothing.  Sound familiar?

Buying = SEO

When you buy a house, you’re in it for the long haul. It takes you a number of years until you own the house and you can revel in your hard work. SEO is the same – it’s not a quick fix – while you can deliver great results in the short-term if there are wins to be had, you usually have to track improvements over the course of several months – it’s a long-term project, where you have to put in the effort consistently to see results. (More on that later!)

House Prices = Algorithm

In the same way that house prices determine affordability and how much you have to pay for your property, the algorithms that govern the search results do much the same job. They determine how difficult it is to rank, how much work you have to put in up front and much more.

Deposit = Initial Upfront Work

Similar to how you ideally need as big a deposit as possible to afford a house, you also need to do as much upfront work as possible to stand a chance of gaining any traction with your SEO. You have to do enough work to make a dent in what the algorithm – aka house prices – demands. It can depend on your history, your location… the same likely applies to the work that you need to do to start ranking.

Home Equity = Rankings

This is what it’s all about. The longer you own your house, the more equity you build up in it.Similarly, if you’re doing SEO well, the longer you do it, the better your rankings become. We already refer to “link equity” when talking about SEO, so it doesn’t seem unfair to compare the two. Day-to-day this is our focus – increase the amount of equity in our home, or increase our rankings and reap the benefits that come with both of those.

Market Crash = Major Algorithmic Change

Every so often a huge change comes along that can massively dent our equity or rankings and this happens in the form of a market crash or algorithmic change. One day you’re on page 1, doing well – the next day you’ve dropped down ten pages thanks to a Google update. The same is true of market crashes – your home can see its value suddenly decrease almost overnight – wiping out the equity and value (aka rankings) you’d so carefully built up over the years.

Mortgage Payments = Ongoing SEO

Once you “buy” your house, by putting down your deposit, you have to keep it by making monthly mortgage payments. I like to compare this to the monthly SEO work that needs to be done to maintain or improve your rankings. Ignore it, and you’ll go into default and lose your house, or even worse, slide down the SERPs.

Maintenance = Maintenance

This one is nice and easy – in the same way that you do maintenance on your home, be it repairing the roof, redecorating or installing a new kitchen, we need to do the same with our websites. From a technical perspective we have to ensure that everything is top-notch and update where needed – which might mean refreshing the look and feel, bringing in a new CMS or e-commerce platform, or just making sure all redirects and canonicals are where they need to be. Neglecting this can mean you end up with a hole in the roof – damaging your home’s value, or your website’s rankings.

Landlord = Google

If you own your house, you’re largely protected from changes in cost (assuming you own outright), but if you rent, it’s very easy for your landlord to jack up the prices – leaving you with nowhere to go and no choice but to pay. Sound familiar?

SEO Isn’t Free

It’s not that SEO is free. The clicks themselves might be free, but the work to get those clicks certainly isn’t. To do it well can be expensive.

The costs for SEO are just structured differently – you pay, often long before the click happens – remember we already referenced the deposit – the high cost of entry and the fact that it’s a long-term investment. With PPC, you only pay AS the click (or impression happens).

You could argue that there’s also a similar argument around risk. SEO could be seen as being riskier – as you don’t know if all of that activity will turn into rankings and traffic. In the same way, you don’t know what the house you buy now will be worth in the future. You’re hoping it’ll increase in the way that property generally does and also do things for SEO knowing they’re the right thing to do and generally they result in improvements. The housing and stock markets are the same – overall the trend over time is almost always up, but at a given point in time you could be looking at a loss if the market is going through a low patch.

With PPC, it’s usually more straightforward. You spend money, you get clicks. If it doesn’t stack up for you, you can stop spending – you’re not tied in, locked down. You can walk away – just like renting. It’s not so easy when you’ve got a mortgage.

Comparing to the Past

The final comparison is to look at how things have changed for those of us today, vs the last few generations. In housing terms, those of us belonging to Generations Y and Z will have a harder time affording a home due to the increase in house prices relative to wages. The same can also be said for SEOs, neatly summed up by Stephen Kenwright:

I agree with him – SEO years ago was as simple as hiding text in your background, using the right terms in your metadata or using keyword stuffing and exact match anchor tags. It’s a LOT harder to gain a foothold in the SERPs now and the tactics required have become ever more complex.

This has led to a mindset shift in the younger generations – Gen Y is famed for not really having an interest in buying homes or cars – anything that can tie them down. We’re said to value experiences and flexibility, and want to be able to do good, fulfilling work and make a difference in the world. That flexibility naturally lends itself in a marketing context to PPC.

Where Does PPC Have The Edge?

We know that Google is increasingly becoming a pay-to-play environment – much like Facebook, where you can expect to see your content reach around 3% of your audience organically.

In addition, some ad formats are exclusive to paid search. Shopping and Local/Map ads are great ways to reach your target customers that just aren’t available through organic – although I have been doing this long enough to remember when Shopping, aka Froogle did use to be free (even if it was not great!).

From a tactical perspective, PPC has some additional benefits. If you have seasonal or short-term messaging you want to communicate, you can turn this around in paid campaigns in a matter of minutes – ensuring you’re always bang up to date. To make similar changes in your organic listings can take time. In addition, in your paid campaigns you can alter the messaging depending on who the customer is – if they’re new vs returning, you can serve a different ad – not an option with organic. Alongside remarketing, you can choose your audience – bidding differently or excluding entire segments if you need to.

So What Now?

If you’re only doing PPC, I’d encourage you to think about retirement. PPC-only strategies are fine in the short-term, but SEO can help protect you in the long term if it’s done right. Think about owning your home in retirement and the benefits that can bring.

If you’re only doing SEO and you’re not doing anything naughty, great! But you are at the whims of the algorithm and could be missing out on either some PPC-only traffic or support in areas where your rankings might not be where you would like them to be.

I strongly believe that both have a place in your marketing strategy. You should ask yourself whether your focus is on the short or long term (hint – you need to have an eye on both!) and plan accordingly. If you can do both, then you definitely should as THAT is what will yield the best results overall. We know there are traffic and branding gains to be had from being present in both the organic and paid listings, but more important is future-proofing your business against whatever change may come down the road and not being reliant on a single channel is the best way to do that.

Ultimately, as SEOs and PPCers we occupy the same space. Instead of fighting, let’s look at how we can add more value to our businesses. Search doesn’t generate demand, it harnesses it. We should look at other ways we can drive paid traffic, or use our skills in outreach, content and PR to drive mid and upper-funnel traffic that we can then all capitalise on. But above all, let’s be friends – and if you think this example can help you explain the benefits of search to your clients, feel free to use it!

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Arianne Donoghue

About Arianne Donoghue

Arianne Donoghue is the Paid Media Development Manager at Epiphany. Having started off her digital career client side over a decade ago, Arianne has worked for both agencies and brands in-house, specialising in all things paid search. She is now back agency side supporting on biddable media digital strategy. You might see her at a conference where you're welcome to chat to her about her love of knitting and F1 (as well as all things digital), although you're more likely to see her trying to make her way up Yorkshire's hills on her small-wheeled Brompton bicycle.