Does Google Ads Cannibalize Organic SEO Traffic? Case Study. 

by Toby

August 25, 2023

Google Ads Cannibalization of SEO

In this post, our objective is to answer key questions that arise from the clash of overlapping keywords between Google Ads and SEO campaigns. 

What is the impact, if any, of keyword cannibalization between Google Ads and SEO? 

As we delve into the subject, we aim to provide answers to crucial questions that emerge:

  1. 1
    What impact does Google Ads have on SEO with overlapping keywords?
  2. 2
    Should you bid on Google Ads keywords that cannibalize SEO keywords?
  3. 3
    In what situations does it make sense to overlap keywords? Or should you avoid cannibalizing keywords altogether?

Let's Look at The Facts First

We use a case study that provides insights to help us understand answers to these questions.

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Background of the site we used for the case study:

This is a Shopify site for direct-to-consumer (DTC) health products. The company had relied on Google Ads for much of its sales.

Then, about nine months prior to this post, the company started investing in a targeted long-term SEO effort with us to accelerate sales. Google Ads continued to run. 

The chart below demonstrates the exponential and steady increases in clicks coming from organic searches in Google over that 9-month period. (a related post here on content marketing and SEO)

Does Google Ads Cannibilize Organic - 9 Month Google Organic Growth Chart

Does Google Ads Cannibalize Organic - 9 Month Google Organic Click Trends Growth Chart

The line chart below shows sales from organic searches are trending upward from improving SEO.

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Sales By Month from SEO

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Sales by Month from SEO

Google Ads were stopped at the end of June, as shown in the prior trending clicks report from Google Search Console (GSC), which allowed us to see then what, if any, impact stopping Google Ads had on organic search cannibalization. (a related post here about using Google Search Console for SEO).

Month-Over-Month Organic SEO Comparison

The graph below shows organic search metrics in GSC comparing July (when Google Ads were stopped and not running) with June (when Google Ads were still running).

Does Google Ads Cannibilize SEO - Month Over Month Clicks Impressions

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Month-Over-Month Clicks Impressions

  • Organic SEO clicks up 51% in July after we stopped Google Ads
  • Organic SEO impressions up 11% in July after we stopped Google Ads

Were Google Ads cannibalizing Organic Search Traffic?

And if there was cannibalization occurring, what was the impact?

Here's what we uncovered...

Branded Keyword Cannibalization Data

Below are organic branded search term data tables when Google Ads were on and off.  

Organic Branded Search Terms While Google Ads Were On

We can see 203 clicks, 1489 impressions, and CTR for each branded term.

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Branded Search Terms SEO With Google Ads

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Branded Search Term Metrics With Google Ads

Organic Branded Search Terms While Google Ads Were OFF

We can see 701 clicks, 1591 impressions, and CTR for each branded term.

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Branded Search Terms No Google Ads

Does Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Branded Search Terms No Google Ads

So, what happened with branded search cannibalization?

It's clear Google Ads was cannibalizing the Google organic branded search significantly as the key performance indicators (KPIs) of clicks and CTR all improved significantly when Google Ads were turned off.

Here are the differences for branded organic queries comparing the two months:

  • Organic branded clicks went up 245% when Google Ads stopped
  • Organic branded search impressions were virtually flat month-over-month 
  • Organic branded CTR went up 174% (weighted avg CTR while ads were running was 19.83%, weighted average CTR when ads stopped running was 53.88%)

Considering that branded impressions in organic search remained flat - more people were not searching for the company - and that organic branded clicks and CTR then skyrocketed, we can conclude that Google Ads cannibalized organic brand searches. 

The question now is...

Should You Cannibalize Organic Branded Search with Google Ads?

Your situation will be unique, and there is not one definitive answer. But here are some factors to consider.

  1. 1
    Cost: How much do branded search terms cost you in Google Ads? I would consider cannibalizing branded search with Google Ads if the cost is minimal. Doing this will push up the costs for competitors bidding on your name.
  2. 2
    Sales: what do sales and conversions look like from buying branded terms? If you stopped Google Ads on branded phrases, are the sales and conversions similar? If yes, then I would not run branded search.
  3. 3
    Control: how much control do you want over the traffic? Control over ad copy? Control over the landing page experience? With Google Ads, you have complete control over these factors.
  4. 4
    Promotions: if you're running promotions, you might consider using Google Ads as you can integrate these quickly into your ads and then create a landing page focused just on that. That is harder, and slower with SEO, and you lose some control.

Did Google Ads Cannibalize Non-Branded Organic Search Terms?

Because organic search continued to grow significantly for nine months, itโ€™s somewhat harder to determine the impact of cannibalization on non-branded search terms, but wedraw conclusions below.

Stay with me here...

Organic SEO Clicks With Google Ads and Without Google Ads

Is there cannibalization? Organic SEO Clicks with Google Ads and Without Google Ads

The total of non-branded organic search terms the site showed for in Google remained the same during Google Ads and after Google Ads were stopped. In other words, there were no more or less keywords.

However, the non-branded clicks went up a staggering 50% while impressions remained flat, which means CTR went up along with the average organic position. 

But how did sales compare for organic month-over-month?

Sales for Organic Search doubled when Google Ads stopped in July.

Google Ads Cannibalize SEO - Sales by Channel Before and After Google Ads

Did Google Ads Cannibalize SEO? Sales by Channel Before and After Google Ads

But we know from the earlier table of non-branded search metrics that click traffic only went up 50%, but sales doubled.  

We can reasonably assume that Google Ads also cannibalized organic traffic and sales.

Below is a table showing more detail on purchases from 3 organic keyword phrases pre- and post-Google Ads with rolled-up numbers at the top for ALL organic terms. We do not want to show the keyword phrases to keep the client and industry anonymous. 

Organic SEO Sales During Google Ads After Google Ads Comparison

Organic SEO Sales During Google Ads After Google Ads Comparison

Should You Cannibalize Organic Non-Branded Search with Google Ads?

There isn't a one-size-fits-all answer. However, these are some questions you should consider when making this decision. 

  1. 1
    Are Your Organic Rankings Already Strong? If you're already ranking well organically for certain keywords, using Google Ads for those same keywords might not provide a significant advantage. Focus on keywords where you're struggling to rank high organically.
  2. 2
    Are You Running Promotions or Special Offers? Google Ads can be effective for promoting limited time offers, sales, or events. If you're running a time-sensitive campaign, it might make sense to use paid ads to maximize visibility.
  3. 3
    How Competitive Are the Keywords? Are your target keywords highly competitive in organic search results? If yes, it might be beneficial to use Google Ads to secure a prominent position on the search engine results page.
  4. 4
    What's Your Budget? Consider your budget for both Google Ads and SEO. If you have a limited budget, it might make sense to prioritize keywords that have a better chance of converting through paid ads.
  5. 5
    Control: how much control do you want over the traffic? Control over ad copy? Control over the landing page experience? With Google Ads, you have complete control over these factors.
  6. 6
    Are You Covering Different Intent? Determine if your Google Ads and SEO efforts are targeting different stages of the buyer's journey or different user intent. This way, you can avoid direct competition and cater to a broader audience.

Summary and Takeaways

It's clear that searchers will click on Google Ads for branded terms and non-branded search terms when there is overlap.

But, don't abandon your Google Ads ship just yet!

Remember, every decision must be weighed against factors like cost, sales, control, promotions, competitiveness, budget, and user intent.

If you're already reigning supreme organically, perhaps there's little to gain from overlapping keywords in Google Ads.

Instead, let your paid ads champion the cause of terms that remain elusive in organic rankings.

The beauty of Google Ads lies in its control โ€“ over traffic, copy, and landing pages, perfect for those time-sensitive promotions.

And when the competition gets hot, Google Ads can be your knight in shining armor, securing top positions.

And if you're operating on a shoestring budget, make Google Ads work for you by focusing on high-converting keywords that perhaps you don't rank for organically.

Leave a comment or question below - was this helpful? What are your thoughts? 

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About the author 

Toby is the co-founder of 39 Celsius. He has over 20 years of digital marketing experience and has started several companies throughout his career. He's an expert in SEO, Social Media Ads, Google Ads, Marketing Automation, and more. He has a BA in Chemistry/Biochemistry from UC San Diego and an MBA from SDSU.

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