HOS: We hear a lot about search engine optimization being “rediscovered” after marketers have done all they can with paid search. Is SEO being rediscovered?
Comstock: From my vantage point, it's not a rediscovery at all but more a snowball that's gotten big enough that people are starting to notice it. The movement is toward an integrated SEO strategy aligned with the rest of the marketing effort. It's a movement that's been emerging since 1998, when I got into this business.
What companies need to decide is, “When is the right time to deploy resources toward this marketing channel?” You can see from the growing pains that a lot of companies weren't smart, in that they had a rogue mentality about SEO. Now that's being replaced by a more corporate-based, scientific-method approach to scale search engine optimization across all the enterprise sites.
HOS: How are marketers reconsidering SEO together with pay-per-click search?
Comstock: With PPC, it's an easy conversation to have. It's very straightforward about how it works and how to optimize it. And, from a corporate standpoint, PPC has always made sense because of its scale and your sense of control over it. However, PPC revenue is down, and it has a great deal to do with the recession. The reason is [that] people are searching for things without a commercial intent due to the economy.
So there is a shift away from PPC to organic, as marketers come to understand it as a valid revenue channel that requires resources. Also, they're seeing that only 20% to 25% of the total traffic is going to paid search, with the rest of the available traffic going to keywords [that] marketers already know are driving revenue to the table.
HOS: What resources are required to make SEO work well?
Comstock: A lot of people have gone in and done “foundational SEO” to their sites and seen big gains. And they get a big return on their investment and think that's the end of the campaign.
But really, once you set the foundation, there's the need for continuous optimization through testing and refinement. People are finally getting the picture that this isn't something they want their brother to do.
HOS: How are marketers budgeting appropriately for SEO?
Comstock: The cost metrics are different from PPC. In an SEO campaign, it's about the opportunity that's on the table and the available resources you can spend to capture that opportunity. SEO tends to be a function of budget versus perceived opportunity.
In addition, you want to attract inbound linking in order to climb in the organic search results. But you won't get inbound links based on content alone—the “Field of Dreams” mentality that [says] people will come of their own accord and link automatically to you. It's about intelligently marketing your content to customers as well as the authoritative community in your niche who will link to you.
HOS: If such a large proportion of traffic comes via SEO, can it be wise to drop PPC entirely?
Comstock: SEO and PPC really are distinct and have to be managed separately. With paid search, you're rewarded based on the copy, your messaging and even the way you organize the campaign. PPC is all about management and organization.
SEO is a separate channel, but it's an integrated channel. There is the misconception that if you get good organic results you can drop your PPC campaign. That may or may not be true, but you have to test it. It's been shown that, if you have top organic listings and top paid listings, both enhance your brand perception. If that's true, and has an effect on conversion and click-throughs, you need to test on a per-keyword basis to gauge that effect.