Are Digital Ads Optional?

Big companies have always advertised online — “always” here meaning ever since it became an option — but there has been a perception that the internet leveled the playing field, allowing smaller companies to reach consumers through organic search with a much smaller budget than the cost of big ad campaigns.

Is that true? Can a small local company show up for shoppers without advertising?

Different search results

Ten years ago, in the course of an experiment, we looked for “beer.” While we did get a definition of the word and some basic information on the SERPS, we also got a local brewery.


Just now, with the same search, I got “Top stories” headlines, an accordion of answers to common questions, and then a lot of ads — a lot of ads. Dozens of shopping ads so I could buy numerous national brands with one click. At #21 in organic results, not counting all the ads, I finally saw a local brewery.

In a similar experiment a decade back, I searched for “natural eye cream.” The results didn’t show small, local companies, but they did show brand websites. Plenty of ads, including an entire sidebar full, but there were three organic results above the fold.

Just now, I did the same search, and saw nothing but ads. Three full rows of ads, in fact, and beneath that there was an accordion of questions with answers, then a set of forum questions, and then finally nine organic results before the rest of the page was filled with further ads.

While everyone sees different results in search, it’s clear that Google devotes a lot more space to ads than they did in the past. Google is serving mostly ads to people who are looking for products.

They still provide information to people looking for information, but they are also doing their best to give answers without requiring people to click through to the websites those answers come from. The screenshot below shows a bare-bones healthcare query. We don’t have an equivalent from ten years ago, but you can see the pattern: even without ads, they’re doing their best to give searchers the information they need while keeping them on the search engine results page. There are only two organic results above the fold.

Different search behavior

Half of all Google searches, according to Google, don’t involve clicks.

In addition to the new style of search engine results, which keep people on, there are also plenty of searchers who now search with Bard, ChatGPT, or the Bing equivalent instead of using search engines at all. One billion people now use Bard, the Google AI tool, and 40% of them are using it for search. Some AI search results provide links to websites, but most do not.

You no longer have ten or even five chances to show up for searchers above the fold; your answers to searchers’ questions have to be in the top one or two ins order to show up at all — if they even use a search engine.

With that said, let me also say that all of our clients find that organic search is still the top source of traffic and conversions at their websites. If you are a smaller business, and most of our current clients are in the small to medium range, you can get respectable amounts of business with organic search. You can certainly expect SEO to provide the highest ROI.

But high velocity growth now probably requires advertising. Especially when you are selling products.

We think this is not just a change, but a trend. It’s time to think seriously about digital advertising if you don’t already have that in your marketing mix.

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