Should Search Marketers Pay Attention to Growth Hacking?

June 2, 2015

By Sean Ellis, Founder and CEO of Qualaroo and GrowthHackers.com

Search marketing is the ultimate in mature channels, dominated by best-practice marketers who have honed their programs to the point of near-perfection. In particular, Google AdWords is ultra-competitive and there seem to be little to no low-hanging fruit, making it difficult to find positive ROI without a sizable marketing budget and a lot of SEM expertise. Taken together, these factors combine to make search engine marketing one of the most crowded, competitive acquisition channels out there—and for good reason, because all that active commercial intent can lead to quick conversions.

While it might not be readily apparent on the surface, growth hackers and search marketers share a lot of the same DNA. I should know. I coined the term growth hacking and have managed seven-figure search marketing budgets. In my experience, both rely on data-driven decision making, A/B testing, and more. However, the growth hacking philosophy goes beyond channel-specific tactics to a general approach in finding new wins.

Growth hacking, at its core, is about building and leveraging competitive edges. Just as landing page optimization improves your ability to make more competitive bids, a referral program also adds lift to your search marketing results, allowing higher profitable bids. Whenever I’m asked whether search marketers should pay attention to growth hacking, I answer with a resounding yes.

In my experience, search marketers stand to gain as much from growth hacking as anyone else in the marketing world. Larry Kim, the founder of WordStream, agrees – which is why we’re doing a webinar together on Wednesday, July 23 to show how leveraging growth hacking principles can drive new search wins.

Here is a preview of some of the key growth hacking concepts we’ll dive into. 


Growth hacking is about using creativity and curiosity to find an edge on the competition. Google’s Hummingbird update in November of last year changed the world of search engine optimization. By applying a growth hacking mindset, semantic search becomes the perfect opening to outsmart your competition through new, untapped opportunities—like semantic keyword grouping.


Growth hacking is by definition data-driven, and detailed analytics and competitor analysis are invaluable in finding new opportunities for improving search campaigns. Search marketers spend their days in reports too, yet thinking like a growth hacker takes you beyond AdWords analytics to deeper conversion metrics to find real winners—which can often look like losers in an AdWords report.

Growth Hacking Webinar

Cohort reports can show you which groups of customers perform better over time (via LinkedIn)

By going deeper in your funnel to look at cohort retention and activation metrics, you may find that the conversions that AdWords reports as winners are actually people who churn quickly with a lower lifetime value than those who cost more on the initial conversion but are much loyal and higher-value customers in the long run.


Growth hacking embraces the scientific process of defining and testing hypotheses. This scientific approach is universally beneficial in marketing, but it’s a particularly great way to see better results from your search marketing campaigns.

When pay-per-click campaigns don’t perform, look past the natural instinct, which is to turn them off. Instead follow the growth hacker’s logic that every setback is an opportunity, and create new hypotheses that can lead to improved results. This constant, iterative testing approach not only improves results, but can also unlock new opportunities for growth by challenging conventional thinking around what is “supposed to work” for your audience.

Growth hackers don’t just tweak things on their tests. They go for moonshot revamps of pages and campaigns which have the chance to create massive swings in results in an effort of find new upside.

growth hacking for ppc

Big tests result in more dramatic conversion rate changes that call winners faster (via Conversion Rate Experts)

New Channels

Finally, growth hacking is about finding new channels. Even when channels are performing well, the growth hacker is not satisfied with “well enough,” and is always looking for ways to get more out of paid search. This is important, since Google is constantly changing the algorithm used to determine AdWords Ad Rank. For example, last October Ad Rank was updated to favor ad extensions, as Larry explains via Search Engine Watch:

“If you’re using ad extensions, you might expect to see better ad placement and lower costs per click. If you’re not…well, that’s not a very attractive option anymore. If you aren’t using ad extensions, you’d better start.”

Growth hackers love to be first to new channels, and new products within AdWords are great new opportunities to get a leg up on your competitors.

Maybe you’ve nodded your head through this whole post, saying, this is just good search marketing. Congratulations—fly the search marketer growth hacker flag. If you now have a couple of new ideas on how to expand positive ROI from your search campaigns, you’re on your way to putting the growth-hacking mindset to work for you.  

We’ve only just scratched the surface on what it means to apply the growth hacker mentality to search marketing. I invite you to join WordStream Founder & CTO Larry Kim and me, Sean Ellis, for an exclusive, hour-long webinar on the growth hacker’s approach to paid search, including 10 innovative growth-hacking principles you can apply immediately to take your search marketing to the next level.