“From the perspective of new user discovery, we can confidently determine that Google generates the largest amount of discovery for websites.”
Not paid ads.
Not social media.
Not referrals from outside sites.
The introductory quote is from the formal presentation given by Nathan Neil at Northeast Decision Sciences Institute’s (NEDSI) 2021 conference (held virtually this year). The presentation, titled “Data Analytics Applied to Business Advertising” was based on a research paper prepared and published by Neil and Joseph Catanio, PhD.
The pair had collected and examined data between 2017 and 2020 to determine the most effective place online to invest a business’s marketing budget.
Said Neil in an interview about the presentation:
“We looked at a couple of different things. We looked at organic search – websites that appear during just a regular Google search without paying for ad placement. We have referral traffic, which comes from another website – often a business directory. We have social media traffic, which is traffic that comes to a site that is labeled as a ‘social source.’ Facebook, Instagram, etc. We also looked at paid search, which looks at how effective Google Ads is. Then we also looked at email.”
They studied about 10 different industry verticals including home services, e-commerce and tourism. These representative verticals depicted a wide array of businesses that each rely heavily on digital marketing to acquire new customers. Many travelers taking similar paths to the same destination.
The data was then narrowed down to include first-time visitors who did not manually enter the website’s URL and discovered the website through a measurable traffic channel.
The results were sometimes obvious: Google is the leading search engine. (It’s nice to have the documentation, though.)
But sometimes surprising: social media trails organic search and paid search and it isn’t even close.
So, before you “boost” that Facebook ad again, here are five insights into Neil and Catanio’s findings that businesses should keep in mind when developing their digital marketing budgets.
1. Organic search isn’t the only path to getting new visitors to your website, but it’s pretty much the only path.
Organic search pulled in a whopping 68.51% of the new visitors to the monitored websites. Social media, referral, paid search, email and “other” contributed just 31.48% combined. Organic search brought in more than double all of the other measured channels combined.
2. Google isn’t the only path to getting to new visitors to your website, but – let’s face it – it’s pretty much the only path.
New customers are finding your website through organic search (overwhelmingly), and those organic searches are still coming (overwhelmingly) through Google. 91.05% of the organic searches in the study were conducted with Google. That leaves less than 10% of the pie for Bing, Yahoo, DuckDuckGo, Yandex, AOL and others to fight over. And the slices get really, really small, really, really fast. Bing secured the second-place spot with only 5.34% of the market. We can only hope for AOL’s sake that 0.03% of all organic searches is still a relatively huge number. We don’t know anyone who has structured a marketing budget around AOL’s search engine, but (for the foreseeable future) we can’t in good conscience recommend making it the centerpiece of your strategy.
3. Paid ads are almost always met with a degree of skepticism – even if they’re the best answer to the customer’s search query.
Social media sites – particularly Facebook – have made it a huge portion of their business to convince you that the best use of your digital marketing budget is social media ads. The research is clear, however, that paid social media ads is a lousy way of attracting new visitors to click through to your website. Anecdotally (beyond the scope of this research), paid/sponsored social media ads are met with skepticism and rejected as an intrusion. The mantra of the day is to not trust anything that you read on social media, and that includes your ad. Social media is still considered primarily a personal experience, and when businesses force their ads into a user’s carefully curated news feed, the reaction will likely be negative.
4. Social media and email might not be great for customer acquisition – but they still have roles in your digital marketing budget.
While this research focused on new visitors, your digital marketing budget should also have dollars set aside for your existing customers. Social media is an excellent way to build and maintain relationships with customers who have already (literally) liked your business. They know you and they trust you, so they have voluntarily sought you out – of their own volition – to stay in contact. Likewise, an email strategy is great for turning fans into customers. The key here, though, is that customer has voluntarily opted in to read your social media content or emails. Social media ads are intrusive and in 2021 nobody should be opening unsolicited emails from businesses they don’t know. If you try to enter the customer’s domain without being invited, you will likely be blocked. Organic search is an end-run around this because your message is only received by people who sought it out.
5. The key to being organic search is to just be natural.
If you want to be a popular person, all you have to do is be someone that people want to spend time with. But the harder you try, the more you will push people away. It’s pretty similar with acquiring new visitors using organic search. Create a website that people want to visit, and they will. People want to visit secure, fast-loading websites that deliver quality, regularly-updated content whether it is accessed on a computer, a smartphone or a tablet. It’s not a coincidence that this is exactly what Google is looking for as well. Instead of paying for intrusive paid ads, invest in your website and put your best self forward. If you do this, customers will literally come searching for you and Google will make sure that they find you.
Beyond Organic Search
Neil summed up the data:
“What I would say is that if they’re currently paying for social media advertising, look at the numbers and consider that an organic-centered strategy might be more effective and drive more traffic to their website.”
Organic search is far-and-away the largest driver of new site visitors, and Google is the search engine of choice for people searching for answers online. Businesses that want to be found should invest in an organic SEO strategy that includes quality content and back-end development.
There is, however, more to the customer relationship than simply being found. Future research by Neil and Catanio will examine the effectiveness of affiliate channels on conversions.
“In future research, we’re going to measure gross conversions – what leads to the most turnover in sales volume. This study focused on how new users find the website for the first time. For our next study, we’re going to look at how search impacts conversions or online purchases for e-commerce stores.