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9 min read

The changing search marketing landscape

This article was updated on: 07.02.2022

Not too long ago you could appoint what seemed like almost anyone to work on your digital strategy. Typically, your local ‘computer genius’ would be the go-to person, but now, more than ever, care must be taken when appointing someone to manage your online presence.

Not only can online ‘bad behaviour’ lead to significant traffic drop offs, Google penalties or worse (in extreme cases), but poor appointments can lead to locked-in contracts with under qualified consultants working on your account, harming your ROI and losing your competitive edge.

I want to take a brief look at the paid and organic search marketing landscapes because they, like so many online channels, are dynamic in nature and constantly changing.

Paid and organic search are both auction-based. The markets are increasing and so too is the knowledge of the professionals and business owners running online marketing campaigns. Inevitably, costs are increasing for all involved (especially ill-prepared advertisers) – making effective management and campaign planning essential.

Paid search refers to all paid-for online media placements. Typically we deal with ad platforms on a ‘pay per click’ basis when running a direct response marketing campaign. There’s also a huge number of platforms that run on a cost per thousand views, or ‘CPM’ basis, which is great for brand building and retargeting.

With paid-for digital media placements, data is a lot more accessible and accurate when compared with natural search. This is because the platform leaders – Google, Facebook, Twitter and Bing to name a few – want to encourage businesses of all sizes to use their networks.

Google has recently launched ‘Google My Business’; a handy one-stop shop that lets business owners manage all of their proprieties centrally. The knock on effect for advertisers is that it’s now a lot easier to add address, telephone and rating information into adverts. These pieces of information have already proved useful for mobile users as ‘get directions’ and ‘call’ functionalities are already widely used.

Additional ad content increases the likelihood that an advert is clicked on for a number of reasons – higher relevance, more calls to action, larger physical advert size being just a few of these.

We’re seeing the impact of this feature’s introduction already, by the way it’s leading to higher competition for clicks at the local level. Also, Google has recently launched dynamic sitelinks for all campaigns. Sitelinks are the smaller blue links that appear beneath an advertiser’s main advert that allow deeper linking through to related pages. Previously this was only available if sitelink groups were created and added to an advertiser’s accounts.

This new solution from Google automatically adds in these links by default to enhance click through rate (although they can be disabled). As this is a new feature, we don’t quite yet know how accurate the ‘related pages’ feature will be, but we would assume that the click performance will increase for those accounts previously without sitelinks. We expect this increase to be in line with the rise that’s typically experienced when sitelinks are added for the first time.

For advertisers, this again means competitors are able to use more physical space for their advert, increasing the likelihood of greater competition. It should also give a knock-on increase on the proportion of Google searches that lead to a paid click rather than an organic one.

Google has always been an advocate of cross-device browsing. With the growing percentage of tablet and mobile traffic this is becoming increasingly important. Google’s Adwords platform previously gave advertisers the ability to target only specific devices at campaign level.

Google removed this, and introduced bid adjustments which allow advertisers to choose to target mobile or desktop traffic more or less aggressively. It currently groups desktop and tablet as the same device, probably with the assumption most sites will work well enough on desktop and tablets. We expect it won’t be long until mobile bid adjustments are no more, placing a greater emphasis on websites being mobile-first and fully responsive.

Counting the CPA

For some time, AdWords have also helped many advertisers shift their focus from clicks to CPAs (cost per acquisitions). This is constantly getting easier, so is worth a mention here as it means competing advertisers are getting more savvy in their bidding strategies.

Implementing a bidding strategy, through AdWords or a bid management platform, increases the attention a campaign gets, albeit algorithm-based, though the constraints are still set by the advertiser.

Bid management can take away the human element of bidding. This reduces a lot of bad choices and improves the efficiency of a campaign by allowing complex rules to be created to help meet campaign objectives. By carefully automating some elements of account management, advertisers and agencies can focus more on implementing new features, keywords, ad groups and campaigns, or introducing new advert copy into tests.

For those who are not managing a campaign based on a CPA model, there can be huge undiscovered mistakes in the bidding and targeting process. More effective, managed campaigns mean quality scores are more likely to increase, allowing advertisers to get ‘more bang for their buck’, and grow their impression share in expensive markets, again upping the ante for the competition.

These are just a few of the many things happening in the AdWords platform right now. To make a more broad-brush generalisation, what we’re seeing is increasingly better-managed campaigns putting pressure on new or inexperienced advertisers. The best advice we can give is to check your account manager is accredited by Google or Bing in search marketing. That way you know they have at least a basic understanding. Companies can gain an affiliation with the search engines too – next time you’re on Google, check your agency is a Google Partner.

Natural search, search engine optimisation, or ‘SEO’, is the practice of naturally influencing a search engine’s ranking in order to appear more relevant for common search phrases – therefore earning a better position in order to gain more referral traffic. SEO is a practice that applies to all major search engines to varying degrees. It refers to work undertaken both off and on a web page; very often a company’s website.

In the past, SEO has earned a bad name for itself. For many years it was easy to ‘game’ Google and other engines into providing ranking improvements through short term unsustainable tactics that went unpunished.

Sadly, many misinformed and/or lazy search marketers are still pursuing these strategies despite a majority of the industry doing a great job in creating and promoting great content and websites.

As a result of the cat and mouse game going on between Google and SEO professionals, the practice of SEO has evolved sporadically. New features and major updates have rocked the industry from time to time, while hundreds, if not thousands, of smaller changes have rolled out silently in the background.

Natural search is seeing a squeeze as Google’s ‘owned SERP’ (search engine results page) share is increasing. In many industries, especially financials – credit cards, mortgages, car insurance, etc – Google has introduced a ‘Compare with Google’ ad block between the paid and organic listings. This is pushing organic results down and affecting their click through rate. In those affected industries, ranking is already difficult enough.

Building links from external sites towards a target website has always been an important part of effective SEO. Over the past few years the quality of these links has been scrutinised more closely by Google as it’s taken steps to limit the effect of links from poor quality websites on its ranking algorithm.

More recently, Google has begun to identify tactics and patterns rather than just website-level signals. This has recently led to a discussion within the industry about how to effectively gain meaningful links without using a patterned approach or leaving a footprint.

Increasingly, digital agencies like ours are moving towards PR as an effective means to building online citations and links which search engines can trust, due to the sheer power of their websites.

A solid digital PR strategy means a brand can receive more coverage for their products or service and strengthen the power of their website at the same time.

This approach brings with it the associated benefit of relevant referral traffic and discussion that, in our opinion, SEO should have fostered from the very beginning anyway.

We’ve also seen a lot of creative and interactive content spring up over the last few years. This typically takes the form of a full microsite or an immersive, full-page experience. When done well, this content can earn hundreds, if not thousands, of links, social media interactions and site visitors.

Optimising on-site content

This is still an important part of any SEO strategy. Google has recently taken steps to increase the font size of the blue title tags in the search results pages – resulting in a great deal of revisiting and re-optimising of these.

We’re also seeing a fundamental shift in the way title tags are being used. Previously, SEO’s had the tendency to ‘stuff’ them with 70 characters of keywords and phrases but now the attention has shifted towards driving more clicks on the already high-ranking pages by swapping out the keywords for more friendly messages and phrases. Google led this shift a while ago when it started to pick and choose the title tags it felt best represented the page on sites where it found over-optimised titles.

Content strategy and planning are two more aspects of SEO that, despite having been around for some time, continue to grow in importance.

Every marketer should be managing content calendars that incorporate each element of a firm’s online identity – social, website, apps, email and more. This allows for improved content dissemination and more opportunities for driving relevant traffic to the website.


There’s no doubt that, as an industry, we’re getting smarter all the time. But we can’t take this fact for granted. The paid tools now available to advertisers, marketers and SEOs are getting more sophisticated and easier to use, but this is leading to too much inexperienced campaign management by underqualified people or agencies.

As natural search ‘real estate’ gets squeezed from all sides, more businesses move towards AdWords. Therefore a highly skilled AdWords team is essential in order to get the best from a campaign.

Finally, mobile and tablet traffic are increasing at a phenomenal level. If your web presence isn’t prepared for the mobile world, your digital marketing will suffer. A great thing about online marketing is that a change today will impact tomorrow’s results. It’s never too late to improve a campaign, or your web presence.