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 still true?

Let’s imagine that we’re looking for eye cream. I know that there is a local company in my county that makes eye cream and I have been to their website. They’re not a client of ours, but I see no issues with their website, and I am friends in social media with people who work with them. Can I get them to show up in organic search?

Googling “eye cream” gets me a lot of paid search ads, plus the top choice for organic search — Sephora, a large company.


I moved on to “natural eye cream,” “artisanal eye cream,” “local eye cream companies,” and “local companies making eye cream in Springdale, Arkansas,” which seems like something no one would ever actually Google, and I never got anything but ads and local malls. The only way I was able to get the company to come up for me in search was by typing in their name.

I also tried searching by question, because this company has a blog and should therefore be able to come up for questions like, “Do eye creams help dark circles?” or, having gone and looked at the blog to find something that might work, “Are peptides in eye creams good for dark circles?” No luck.

In real life, I would never have seen the product made just up the road from me; I’d have gone ahead and clicked through on an ad a long time ago.


I had better luck with beer, finding a local brewery right away and seeing several more in the course of my efforts. However, digital ads for alcohol are subject to many restrictions. Efforts to find other local CPG companies were just like the eye cream experiment: ads from national companies and organic results from the same companies or their retailers.

Services were different. Local salons, gyms, doctors, lawyers, and caterers popped right up.

Now, everyone sees different things when they use search engines. You might get very different results if you Google these items (I’d like to know!). The only way you can actually tell anything about rankings is by checking Webmaster Tools for the sites in question. But we’ve always found that we could get good organic search results on informational searches — “What’s best beer for Thanksgiving dinner?” or “Does eye cream have health benefits?” would be relevant examples here– for our clients, and we still can.

We used to be able to get good organic results for product searches, too. Now? Realistically, we now recommend paid search as well. Ditto for social media. Your company page’s Facebook posts will reach only a tiny fraction of the number of people who Like your page unless you pay to boost them, and promoting your page or running an ad is the only reliable way to reach large numbers.

Part of this is a matter of strategic decisions. Google devotes a lot more space to ads, and Facebook has made it clear that they’re not giving it away any more.

But part of it is also numbers. Every single day you have a new competitor online. You may have billions of competitors, and only one of you can be #1 for organic search. Your ads have competitors now, and keeping them at #1 may take the same amount of effort it used to take to keep your website at #1 for organic search.

With that said, let me also say that all of our clients find that organic search is 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. Keep it in mind when you plan your budget for next year.







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