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

July 17, 2012

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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.

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  ...

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.

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

Aug 01, 2012

Thank you for sharing 

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

Corporate Retirement Gifts
Aug 01, 2012

Very good write up, but lots of information packed in. I agree that it depends on the keywords. I find that my sites receive more organic clicks than PPC.

Bill Taylor
Aug 01, 2012

Great article Larry and the Team, I also found the infographic very well done and it conveyed the points well.For sure SEO is not going away anytime soon and it is important also to do PPC in conjuction with it - always has been to some extent.I think Google have turned to being one of the most corrupt companies on the planet. They will do almost anything they can get away with to make money and don't care who they hurt to do it.They are constanltly misleading people as to their real reason for doing things. In the process they are deceiving the searchers who use their SERPs and take advantage of their ignorance.I certainly believe that Google will not be around too much longer as more people are seeing through them and their manipulation of the masses. Of course it also shows how their shareholders can also be manipulated to let them get away with doing anything for money - same as the banks.Keep up the good work.Bill 

Naman Verma
May 05, 2014

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

Aug 01, 2012

I think this is a very nice infographic. I still think the best combination for a campaign is SEO with a good Adwords campaign. The one makes the other stronger. Grtz from Holland.

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.

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.

Aug 01, 2012

Clicks, Schmicks! Google must have paid you for this info-graphic. The thing is not the clicks the thing that is important in the niche you selected. "Links with High Commercial Value". My experience is people do click on Google paid links and free links both, and probably at about the same rate, but the paid links have negative returns on investment due to Googles monopoly on the ad sales business. Every search engine has a relationship with google, and without competition paid ads will produce poor results. Back when things got started with Overture, which was bought by Yahoo and then Yahoo signed a deal with the Devil since they signed a deal with Google instead of continuing the suit and running Google out of businsess for stealing the patented technology Overture had invented, yeah they got millions for it, but lost Billions!  Advertisers should boycot paid ads until there is true competition. There used to be and it cost 25 cents to get a click, and then one in 300 clicks resulting in a sale meant Advertisers could actually make money. Now when clicks cost multiple dollars, ROI is out the window. I got a call from Google adwords saying my click through rate was too low and that is what I asked the sales rep, and she had no reply. She did not care at all about the fact my purpose is to make money for me, not Google and that their model is broken as a profit generating model. So your thesis is accurate, both free and paid links get clicks, but at what price? The assumption that a click is valuable in and of itself is not accurate. Some states Attorney General needs to look at the revenue sharing deals that every major company has with Google and break them up like AT &T was years ago. Does anyone know of a single major search company that has paid clicks that are not some how tied into the Google  revenue stream? Major being the key word. Because the "little guys" have even worse ROI than the monster G! Nice infographic, but not the right angle to pursue. 

Jan 16, 2014

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

Debarup Mukherjee
Aug 01, 2012

So, what will be the senario after 2 or 3 years for SEO industry or Internet Marketing agency or Digital Marketing Agency?  

Sanford Scolex
Aug 01, 2012

I can't believe people in the comment section are actually eating this food.  I know how this article was written.  The author searched, "PPC vs Organic click rate" clicked on the first paid ad he saw, copied the stats then wrote this terrible article. Larry why not list the sources of this information? Because it would discredit the whole article. This infographic is a direct example of why Matt Cutts is going to start discrediting inforgraphics -  packed with misinformation...Thanks for ruining it for the rest of us.

Michael V
Oct 23, 2013

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

Aug 01, 2012

Biased article.  I was doing incredible with 30 phone calls a day on the organic side with over 300 clicks a day.  Panda and Penguin came forcing my hand to PPC and now nothing.  I spend $500.00 a day on 6 or 7 unqualified shit calls.  PPC will never match organic search; not in my industry at least.

Aug 01, 2012

Great infographic. Decoding it took me 3 hours.

Aug 01, 2012

Why is it that every time I read more of what Matt Cutts is doing next, I find it harder to know where I'm at again in the "zig-zag course" of sequential disenchantment? Will they ever make up their mind, so we can begin to learn the rules and just spend our time applying them?

Magnet Mailers
Aug 02, 2012

Nice article, Larry!  But none of this should be news to those of us who market on the web.  We all track our clicks / conversions on a daily or weekly basis, and can see the results with Adwords, and without it.Should we be surprised that a search engine chooses to maximize revenue, while trying not to 'turn off ' its users? Probably not.Sure, the ads for High Commercial Intent keywords get lots of clicks.  Google users may believe those links are more relevant -- more likely to provide a useful commercial experience.When you want to buy a dishwasher, you go to the mall, not the library.Your article should be a wake up call for those who've built their web marketing strategy on SEO koolaid.   

Who Cares
Aug 02, 2012

Good for marketers? Is that a joke? Please. Doesn't anyone realize that clicks become more and more expensive and push everyone out but the larger corps with bigger budgets? Wake up. Where's the infographic for rising cost of PPC ads?

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

Las Vegas Web Design Companies
Dec 27, 2013

Holy Cow! Really nice infograph and article. Thanks!

Dan Carter
Dec 14, 2013

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

Dan Carter
Dec 15, 2013

Excellent article.Thanks for sharing.

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? 

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!  

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.

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. 


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