Paid Search is an easy, scalable and affordable means to get in front of people actively seeking topics related to your business – but have you ever wondered whether your paid activity is cannibalising your organic search traffic?

When did Search Cannibalisation become an issue?

Cannibalisation of organic search results has been a topic of discussion since the birth of Google AdWords in 2000. However, in more recent years, changes to the Google search engine results page (SERP) layout have brought this topic to the forefront of advertisers’ minds.

In February 2016 Google rocked the world of search with arguably the most memorable SEM algorithm update of the last few years. It featured:

  • The removal of right-hand column ads
  • The addition of another paid ad above organic results, with four ads appearing instead of three
  • The addition of paid ads below organic results

This move was a sign of Google’s shift towards a more mobile-first format, and was cause for concern amongst search marketers who predicted an increase in competition (and effectively CPCs) with fewer ads now visible above the fold, despite there being a higher total number of paid spots. Concern was equally shared by SEOs, who lamented their organic listings being pushed further down the SERPs.

After the change came into effect and the dust settled, advertisers were pleased to find their Google Ads CPCs hadn’t noticeably shifted. However the same couldn’t be said for SEO marketers, who witnessed organic search traffic and click-through rates (CTR) take a sizeable hit.

One thing is for certain though: since the new format rolled out, paid search has become an even more critical element of search strategy.


Should I bid on keywords I rank well for organically, or does organic have me covered?

Nick Lyengar, Director of Digital Intelligence at Cardinal Path spoke to this question at the 2016 Google Master Class, stating that the digital analytics consultancy observed a rise in combined Organic & Paid Search CTR when both mediums appeared in the SERPs together, as opposed to one or the other. Where true, the extent varies on a search query basis.


What about my brand name? Am I paying for clicks I would otherwise get for free?

It’s a fair point and one that’s frequently asked.

Bidding on a business’ own name can seem counterintuitive, however, Lyengar revealed through Cardinal Path’s generous data sets that users searching for a brand name don’t necessarily visit that company’s site – and in fact are commonly intercepted by competitors. The minor cost to defend brand keywords is a small price to pay to protect branded search when users are in the sensitive final stages of their conversion journey.

Here are a few reasons to bid on your own brand:

  • Increase your visibility to defend against competitors – Position 1 for organic search often isn’t position 1 on the SERPs. If competitors are bidding on your brand name, up to four ads can appear above your organic links. These can now be accompanied by maps and other SERP features. The simple truth is users won’t always scroll to find you in the organic results.
  • It’s low cost – Quality Score for your own name keywords is almost always higher than your competitors, especially if you can trademark your brand name restricting other accounts from using it in ad copy. This means you pay significantly less for your own brand name clicks than what your competitors will.


Measuring impact and interactions between paid and organic search

Industry stats are all well and good, but how do we answer the above questions for a single company? Running a cost efficiency analysis using the “Paid & Organic” report in Google Ads will shed light on where it is profitable to bid (or not bid) for certain searches.

Within the Google Ads interface, advertisers can link Google Search Console (a platform used to monitor organic rankings and performance). Once linked, the “Paid & Organic” report is ready to use!

Navigate to the report via:

Google Ads > Reports > Predefined Reports > Basic > Paid & Organic

From here you’ll see columns such as:

  • Search term
  • Search result type (ad shown only, organic shown only, both shown)
  • Performance metrics (paid clicks, organic clicks, combined clicks, etc)
  • Segmentation by day of week & other attributes (campaign type, keyword status, etc)

Use this information to answer questions like:

  1. Should I bid on my brand terms?
  2. Are there any organic keywords generating traffic that could be further supported by paid ads?
  3. Are there any keywords performing well on Google Ads that I don’t rank for organically?

An example of an analysis on whether or not you should bid on your brand terms might look like this:

Search Result TypeOrganic CTRAd CTRTotal CTR
Organic shown only7%7%
Ad shown only12%12%
Both shown5%14%19%

In this table we can see that when both organic and paid are shown in the same search result, total CTR to the website is far higher than either result alone.

Taking this one step further, an advertiser could also use these numbers to consider the impact on traffic, spend and revenue that their paid and organic performance could elicit when strategically weighted (by either complementing to fill gaps or downweighting to reduce wastage).


How do I get started?

Experiment! Every company’s search landscape is unique and the ever-changing environment means no answer is set in stone. Keep a watchful eye over your paid vs. organic traffic to get the best bang for buck out of your search strategy.

Dani Downs

Dani is Group Business Director and Head of Paid Media at iProspect Brisbane, where she oversees search, social, display and programmatic performance marketing, client relationship management, digital strategy development and team management. Dani holds a Bachelor of Corporate Systems Management with a Major in Marketing from QUT, and is also finalising a second Bachelor's Degree in Games & Interactive Environments.