The War on 'Free' Clicks: Think Nobody Clicks on Google Ads? Think Again!

The War on 'Free' Clicks: Think Nobody Clicks on Google Ads? Think Again!

July 17, 2012
Larry Kim

Do People Click on Google Ads?

If you use Google search (and who doesn’t), you may have noticed that sponsored results (Google pay-per-click, or PPC, ads) have been taking over more and more of the search engine results page.

Here at WordStream, we’ve noticed that too! So we decided to do some research into what impact all of these new, bigger, more prominent and engaging ad formats are having on the average Google searcher. The results are astonishing:

Clicks on paid search listings beat out organic clicks by nearly a 2:1 margin for keywords with high commercial intent in the US. In other words, 64.6% of people click on Google Ads when they are looking to buy an item online!

Click here to skip ahead:

Now, to be clear here, organic searches still get more clicks overall than paid search – but not all keyword searches are created equal. Keyword searches with high commercial intent – meaning, keywords where a searcher is looking to buy a product or service (for example: “buy stainless steel dishwasher”) – are worth far more to businesses than your basic informational keyword searches (for example: “who is Thomas Edison”). Our research found that for valuable, high commercial intent keywords, paid search advertising listings gave the “free” organic search listings a resounding beat-down. Naturally, we’ve illustrated the results in an infographic. Click the image to see the full-size infographic:

Google Ads and the War on Free Clicks.
© 2012 WordStream, a Provider of AdWords and PPC Management Software.

What’s Driving the Organic Search Listing Smack-Down?

Much to the delight of internet marketers, new, bigger, more engaging and more targeted sponsored ad formats – which allow businesses to target prospective clients in more precise and relevant ways – are behind the increases in CTR for high commercial intent keyword searches. These new keyword advertising formats include:

  • Product Listing Ads: In May of 2012, Google transitioned the previously free Google Product Search into a "Purely Commercial Model." Product listing ads include large images and are automatically triggered if someone searches for a product that is in your Merchant Center account.
  • Click to Call Ads: This powerful mobile ad format lets customers call a business phone number with the click of a button.
  • Bottom of Page Ads: Catch their attention before they click to page 2 or refine their search.
  • Mega Site Links: This huge ad format offers up to 10 additional places to click, greatly increasing your chances of presenting a relevant link.
  • Social Ad Extensions: Show who has +1'd your site, which lends credibility and potential name recognition.
  • Remarketing: Allows companies to track site visitors with a cookie and chase them around the Web, displaying relevant banner ads until they click and convert.
  • Map/Location Ad Extensions: Display your address and phone number to local searchers, enticing them to visit you faster. Advertise only to customers in the vicinity.
  • Chat Ads: Prompt viewers to open a chat window with a sales guy – get those leads while they're hot!
  • Email Ads: Prompt users to provide an email address right from the search result page.
  • Etc.

Couple these and other exciting new ad innovations with the fact that approximately half of searchers still can’t differentiate between paid and organic search listings, and you can quickly see what’s happening here. Advertising on Google will become a means to survival on keywords with high commercial intent, and the best advertisers will reap the benefits.

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A War on Two Fronts

While these innovative new paid search advertisement options are rapidly growing in size and power, Google is simultaneously waging all-out war on SEO web spam. Over the past few months we’ve seen significant updates that make it harder to rank in organic search, including:

  • Panda Update (Feb 2011) - Google cracks down on "thin content" and ad-heavy sites. Up to 12% of search results are impacted.
  • Google Analytics Update (Oct 2011) - Google stops providing reliable access to organic search query data. Advertisers basically need to use AdWords to get full access to search query data. (Click here for more tips on dealing with the "not provided" fiasco.)
  • Matt Cutts Threatens to Penalize SEO's (March 2012) - At SXSW, Matt Cutts issues a warning to sites doing “over optimization,” declaring: "we want to make that playing field a little bit more level."
  • The Shot Heard Around the SEO World (April 2012) - Google warns an estimated 1 million websites about unnatural links and orders webmasters to cease and desist these manipulative activities.
  • Penguin Update (May 2012) - AKA the "Over Optimization Penalty" or "OOPS." Google devalues sites employing keyword stuffing and spammy link tactics.

The net result is that organic search has become significantly harder and more costly to execute, nearly impossible to measure, and yields increasingly unpredictable ROI.

SEO vs. PPC: Who’s Winning this War?

It’s too early to declare a victory for either side. The one thing that is clear from our research is that the board is set and the pieces are in motion.  What do you think of the shifting battlegrounds here? Let me know what you think in the comment fields below.


A special thank you to my colleagues, Miranda Miller (Search Engine Watch), Aaron Wall (SEO Book), Tom Demers (Measured SEM), AJ Kohn (Blind Five Year Old), and Elisa Gabbert (WordStream), all of whom provided incredibly valuable input and commentary into the design and data of this research study.

Survey Methodology

Our survey was limited to advertisers in the US, for Google Search only. In our survey, we define high commercial intent keywords specifically as keyword searches on Google that have significant advertiser competition and trigger a Google Shopping or Google Product Listing ad.

We used recent average click-through rate data collected through our AdWords Performance Grader across over one thousand AdWords accounts in the last 60 days. We also looked at the Google Analytics/Webmaster Tools and AdWords account data of WordStream’s managed accounts to analyze organic click-through rate data and trends.

Because people often click on multiple ads and/or organic search listings from a single search result page (which makes the click-through rates of all of the paid and organic listings add up to more than 100%), we normalized the CTR data to reflect the % share of traffic generated for each paid and organic search listing present on a typical search engine results page.

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David Szetela
Jul 17, 2012

Important data and great article, Larry - thanks! I think SEO will remain a crucial tactic, but it's clear PPC should never be viewed as "optional."

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 17, 2012

Well said!

Jul 17, 2012

Great infographic, well laid out and very instructional! Loved this piece.

Elisa Gabbert
Jul 17, 2012


Oct 09, 2012

Your graphic poster is excellent ~ kudos to your graphic artist,  if you ever need any other assistance drop me a request!  Keep up the nice work, Evelyn

Jordan McClements
Jul 25, 2012

Very good stuff.But I don't fully agree with your examples.i.e. I would have said someone looking for "Stainless steel dishwasher" was "almost ready to buy"and someone looking for "Kenmore dishwasher" was "ready to buy" not the other way round.I would also put "" into the "almost ready to buy" category (and ...'reviews' do not seem to activate product listing ads here in the UK from the searches I have done so far).

Jul 25, 2012

I got agreed with your post, exactly the same happens, i have hardly seen some clicking on the google ad's mostly they click on the organic resutl.I had really enjoyed reading your blog thanks for sharing it. 

WiredIn SEO
Sep 21, 2012

The statistics shown in this study are not surprising, and are actually something that most SEO companies have known for years.  Clickthrough rates on organic listings vs PPC listings split about 51% to 49% leaning towards organic, but Google is attempting to slowly change that split by pushing the highest organic listings further down the page through integration of "above the organic" PPC as well as local Places listings integration.  When compared against one another equally, the two mediums show equal clickthrough rates when the organic ranking of position 2 through 4 is achieved and compared to PPC position 2 or 3.  When an organic number 1 position is gained, the clickthrough rates skew far in favor of the organic listing over PPC, however when it is from a targeted local area (the strength of PPC) we find that the two will show equal clickthrough rates.  Basically, mediocre SEO results compare equally to a semi-aggressive PPC campaign, and top SEO results outperform the PPC for clickthroughs. The issue is the study of conversions, which almost nobody out there is discussing becasue there is very little research on the matter.  Since only 5% of advertisers on PPC have actually invested the money into developing an organic SEO campaign that has produced top results, we can only find a very slim population to study and compare for conversion rates.  Very few agencies will be able to look at real statistics from their customers in this capacity, since so few will actually put forth the time, effort and money to achieve the rankings necessary to compare good SEO vs PPC.  Luckily, WiredIn SEO has had multiple clients participating in both forms of marketing for two or more years, so we have been able to track actual conversions produced by the mediums, and we have recently published our findings. It turns out that in campaigns that run concurrently within a local area, one producing targeted PPC positions within a target geographic demo and one producing organic SEO based rankings in the top 2 positions for the same targeted keyphrases, we find the conversion rate for organic SEO as a general whole to be very low compared to the targeted PPC.  HOWEVER, when compared on the basis of volume of conversions, we find that the organic SEO efforts produced almost double the amount of conversions as PPC, due to the fact that as the organic click numbers grow form areas outside the local area, they also grow proportionally from within the local area, this producing more clicks.   The benefit of the organic SEO is the ancillary terms that Google also ranks the website for, the ones associated with the target phrase but not exactly matching it.  While these produce a lower conversion rate, there are so many more listings achieved that the statistics overwhelm PPC, which can only offer a fixed amount of clicks.  The only way for PPC to compete with good SEO is to increase the budget. WiredIn SEO compared an organic SEO campaign that cost $1,000 monthly and a managed PPC campaign from ReachLocal which cost $1,500 monthly, and found that over a 2 year period, actual conversions from organic rankings nearly doubled PPC conversions.  You can see more about our study at our website or by Googling WiredInSEO.

Carlin Stanton
Jul 30, 2012

Hey Corri,Bad news.  Google's core purpose is not organic results.  Google's core purpose is to make money by providing what people are looking for.  With Adwords providing about 97 % of revenues,  Adwords is only going to become more effective.  Google will make sure of it - because they want to keep making money.

Andy Kuiper
Jul 31, 2012

Something is most likley amiss here... but I'm not sure exactly what. 'Most' folks know the difference between PPC and Organic/Local and trust in PPC has be declining over the years... so this seems somewhat at odds :-)

Sycara SEO
Jul 31, 2012

Larry, great data to send to clients who think that all they need to do is SEO.  It has always been impoortant to do both but now more so than ever.  I have also noticed a much higher RPM in Adsense for money keywords in the last few months.

Jul 31, 2012

it mean - webmasters! never use adwords, not give money to this internet monster who will make everything to tank your business if you not pay them for every click. G now SELLING top 1-3 organic positions to advertisers. It show price of their words (we never will sell places at organic search).Why antimonopoly laws not working here???? May be because G provides/open private info on gov requests!?

Jul 31, 2012

Iv seen a couple other prominent bloggers reach the exact same conclusions from their research. I was just reading a very similar post  with the same conclusions by Aaron Wall a couple days ago. Looks like google has taken it upon themselves to screw webmasters over. Use billions of sites in their index as fodder and not wanting to share.Its only a matter of time before users begin to not want to use google anymore. Bing has already begun to display better search results. Its only a matter of time before the masses realize that. Plus, no matter how good, engaging and relevant google's ads are, at the end of the day, they are ads. Searchers want to see REAL results on the search engine listings too.Asim 

Jul 31, 2012

I can say locally PPC doesn't touch high organic rankings, at least when it comes to bringing in the client. We have a plumber based in one of the top 10 markets in the US and he is ranked #1 under most keyword searches. We also did a PPC campaign for him as a test and what we found was the offer on the organic page is what kept being brought in or mentioned to him over the offer (a little better offer by the way) that was on the adword landing page. Both pages laid out the same, only true difference was the offer code and the organic code was 4x more effective than the PPC offer code.So while your study shows one thing (of course you offer PPC software and services so it makes sense, I bet there are a lot of companies out there like ours who ran tests and saw the opposite results).With that being said I believe everywhere you can be to generate a client is where you need to be. Some returns are better than others, but if your making at least 3x your investment you should be everywhere your company can afford to be. I think some people forget the priciples of marketing never change, just the platform :)Thanks for the article.

Jul 31, 2012

After penguin, my company's sites (about 30 - 50 sites) were affected, we can't stand traffic loss,we only could use more and more adwords to keep traffic, but adwords is not our best choose.Cost too much, get too less, we need improve our SEO techniques instead of using the Google ADWORDS.

Michael V
Oct 23, 2013

This is why I always like getting free Adwords coupons from hosting providers. They really work.

Ryan Watson
Apr 18, 2013

You must have gone through a huge research, really great stuff.

Nov 19, 2013

OK, so what's up with the new "AD" icon next to pay per click ads? I DON'T LIKE IT!!! AND MY CLICK THROUGH RATE HAS GONE DOWN SINCE THIS STARTED.

Mike Childs
Sep 22, 2012

How is click through shaping up internationally?  I dont see the same percentages in Canada based on actual data or anecdotal. 

Alisa (Think Big Online Marketing)
Jan 09, 2013

Excellent article.Thanks for sharing.

Alan Smith
Jul 23, 2012

I have to agree with the above comments about this study's flawed methodology. What, for example, is the ratio of "High Commercial Intent Keywords" to overall searches? How might the other types of searches - presumably overwhelming in number - fit into a sales cycle, i.e. as part of research or even serendipity? It also seems rather naive to take Google's baseline measure to produce rsults most beneficial to... oh right, Google. Perhaps my response is colored by the twice-weekly phone calls I get from Google tryong to sing me up for Adwords I don't need (organic works just fine me). Bottom line: a. the internet is polluted, and b. Google's hands are as dirty as the rest of them... 

Incentivi Fotovoltaico
Sep 06, 2012

This is a fantastic Infographic!Thanks!

Mar 18, 2013

Both these advertising model have their own pros and cons. Its on us how we take them as in long term i think it is good to choose SEO Program while when you want to get faster result it is better to choose PPC Campaign. 

Mar 21, 2013

This is some really great information on PPC vs. Organic traffic. I have always been an advocate of both but I have just recently started my journey into the wild world of Adwords. I have started off with a low budget. I have heard so many success stories that I just had to start to keep up with the competition. I love the picture it's really creative!

Ken Lempit
Apr 02, 2013

Would be great if you could revisit this research and infographic for 1Q13.  Thanks,

SEO Richmond Hill
May 03, 2013

This is a never-ending saga in relation to Google search and sponsored results (pay-per-click, or PPC, ads) occupying search engine results page.  It really has gotten to the point of creating sponsored ads to drive traffic may actually work.

Jun 12, 2013

Well done on another great insight Wordstream, keep it coming! With such rapidly changing products and services in todays day and age, PPC seems the way to go.

Pavan Ravikanth
Jun 13, 2013

Hello Every One, Before presenting my doubt, this is greate infographic i have seen ever. it is really great. Credits for involved People... Coming to my doubt, I have been an internet user since 6 Years and i might have cliked once or twice for every 100 times using Google.I wonder Why People Search for Ads on a Web Search Engine which displays Just 3 ads(Really a very lesschoice of Vendors or service providers for a person who really want to search for some product or service) over top of all results by specifying that they are Sponserd links  ...

Ritika Bajaj
Jun 11, 2013

Thats really important and interesting comparison , I have observed one more thing that as  the number  of visitors increases , your CPC also increases and CTR also increases, unable to find relation bertwween CTR and number of visitors . Can any one please explain ...?

Jul 25, 2013

In long term i believe SEO is going to be the winner as PPC Result in most cases not meet the client requirement and they are not quality website and slowly slowly web visitor will realize this and they stop clicking on PPC Ads for Sure. 

John Smith
Aug 11, 2013

I would not give google a red cent, they are spying on each and every internet user and selling your data to the NSA, even if you don't actually go to google dot com, they have code embedded in mozilla to track users, including geo location code. They are BAD NEWS, stop using them.No I am not a tin foil hat wearer, but I do care very much about my personal privacy.

Aug 23, 2013

When users click on a Product Listing Ad in Google Shopping they have begun to take the user to another window (pop up window) showing your paid ad but NOT taking user to your site. When they do this, they show your ad that you paid to have the user click on and show other items that may interest the user and provide an option for user to add item to their shortlist. Google then is able to keep the user inside of Google Shopping on YOUR DIME and cross sell to the user other item ads paid for by other stores thereby reducing the change of the user coming to your site to see the item and your cross sell items. This method is also not trackable, in other words, you can not see a reporting on the activity on your site resulting from this paid click as you paid and they were not sent to your site.. just a popup encouraging them to continue shopping without leaving Google Shopping.This is all fine and good but merchants should not be charged unless the user enters your site, this change is slow and not announced by Google.Also Google has been taking images provided by merchants and removing all white space thereby reducing the quality of the image...Seems we are all just financing Googles money machine.

Tim Corrin
Sep 28, 2013

Hey Larry, you wrote an excellent article related to the advertisement. Sometimes ads can't help if the website is not informative and useful for the viewers. Make viewers to come back by keeping website update then daily visitor rate will increase and there will be more chances to have PPC. SEO helps alot to standout the website in search engine.  

Dan Carter
Nov 01, 2013

I agree totally with the infographic and it is more and more clerar by the day that google is trying to push its commercial model. The organic rankings are more or less just a formality now and i am sure in future if google goes this way the quality of search results is going to decline. 

Bobs SEO
Nov 08, 2013

Great infographic and that tells it all. Google is and always has been "about the money". Bias towards advertiser adsis just the beginning.

Spook Seo
Dec 06, 2013

Hello Larry,This is a very informative post. I’ve been doing a lot of test regarding Google ads PPC and SEOs. There are so many changes so it’s challenging to find which is really better. Google will do anything to stop spamming and make sure everything is in favour in its own market. Anyway, this article is really useful. Thanks so much!  

Dec 10, 2013

I read somewhere that Google ads pushed from Adwords or only worth a few cents. Does anybody know how to block them? 

Dan Carter
Dec 15, 2013

Excellent article.Thanks for sharing.

Dan Carter
Dec 14, 2013

Great infographic, well laid out and very instructional! Loved this piece.

Las Vegas Web Design Companies
Dec 27, 2013

Holy Cow! Really nice infograph and article. Thanks!

Dallas (Sydney Australia SEO)
Dec 30, 2013

First of all, thanks for the great post and info graphics. I have never personally been a real big fan of Google Adwords, but I think now more then ever, its important to run a campaign, test what keywords are getting traffic, but more importantly, converting to a lead, sale or new client and focus ongoing SEO efforts on those keywords. Focus on good SEO, not spam and continue with a strong Adwords campaign.Cheers - Dallas

Jan 16, 2014

Great infographic and blog article. Google is and always has been "about the money". Bias towards advertiser adsis just the beginning.

Adam @ SEO in Calgary
Feb 26, 2014

Thanks for putting together such an awesome infographic. As a search engine user I don’t even pay attention to the sponsored results, but I see I am not in the norm.

Mar 27, 2014

I know that nobody ever thinks of this, because they're always too busy bowing down before Google -- but is there a chance Google will ever be busted by the Feds for anti-competitive reasons? Google's the 800 pound gorilla, and we all know they act the role. They're also (apparently) the Internet police and think it's their duty to run the Internet the way the U.S. runs the world.

Naman Verma
May 05, 2014

Hi..Thanks for good informations. for marketing adwords more expensive. Rgds 

Terry Haas
Sep 03, 2014

This is really a good article and it's been helpful in communicating to customers the value and difference in PPC vs. SEO.Any chance of a 2014 update on the statistics contained here?Thanks,Terry

Dove Global Media
Sep 04, 2014

Yes, we at DGM agree that ads receive clicks.We also disagree that they are more effective then organic clicks.Although your budget may produce more clicks, the conversion rate of lead generation is in the organic searches.Consumers trust organic displayed results over PPC Advertisements -- in addition to marketers clicking ads and using Google as their #1 research tool.Perhaps a factual article on my above statements would lead to an even more exposed and productive article!Warm regards,- Jordan Dove

Sep 06, 2013

Not suprising !... I guess nobody realises that Google not only controls exposure of paid ads, but also controls exposure of free placements.  My site has been im operation for almost 16 years. Every day..yes .... every day I get between 1998 and 2004  visits to my site from free entries. Its impossible that by some randon factor that the number of people looking for my product each day is 2000... So only conclusion is that Google regulates this. So why are paid clicks going up ..because Google limits how many free clicks you get .The other bit of information that you shoudl cosider is that how many folks actually purchase when arriving via a paid click vs a free click. My studies indicate that free clicks sell products and paid clicks do not.  I stopped paying for clicks and my business did not go down .... So go figure.

Aug 01, 2012

The search market is screaming for someone to take on Google properly. I don't always want to search for the companies that have the biggest advertising bucks to spend.Hopefully Yahoo! will get it's search act together or some new startup will get enough traction to allow true competition in the search marketplace.

Aug 01, 2012

Thank you for sharing 


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