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Understanding Your Point of Search Diminishing Returns

Episode Overview: The ability to identify and understand your point of diminishing returns is key to ensuring you can make the right strategic decisions to bolster and regain lost traffic. The most common point of diminishing returns is centered around your digital foundation. Join host Ben as he speaks with Searchmetrics’ CMO Doug Bell about how to identify the point of diminishing returns and where to invest in your digital foundation to recoup losses.


  • Your digital foundation is the collection of paid social, paid search, organic search, email activities, your website and its properties that drives new traffic.
  • Investing in your website’s infrastructure is fundamental to driving traffic. Invest in improving your site’s performance, its design, internal linking and content.
  • As the bottom of funnel freezes up during the COVID-19 pandemic, focus on pushing your educational content that’s top or middle of funnel to acquire gains.
  • Avoid firing your agency to keep momentum and avoid expensive switching costs.


Ben:                  Welcome to the Voices of Search podcast. I’m your host, Benjamin Shapiro. Today we’re going to talk about understanding the point of diminishing returns between your paid and organic search campaigns.

Ben:                   Joining us is Doug Bell, who is the CMO of Searchmetrics, which is an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions.

Ben:                   Yesterday, Doug and I talked about the ways that you can balance your paid and organic search campaigns. Today, we’re going to continue the conversation trying to help you find your point of diminishing search returns. Okay, here’s the second part of my conversation with Doug Bell, CMO of Searchmetrics.

Ben:                   Doug, welcome back to the Voices of Search podcast.

Doug:                Howdy, Ben.

Ben:                   Always a pleasure to reconnect. Yesterday, we talked about how to use PPC and SEO together in harmony, and really what the balancing between those two marketing channels are. Today, I want to talk about finding the point of diminishing returns.

Ben:                   When you’re starting to think about, first and foremost, your digital foundation, where you should be investing, I think there’s an important aspect to think about, which is should I be building the foundation, creating content that’s going to continue to get more valuable, or do I need to be spending my budget on something that’s going to show an immediate return. Talk to me about how you think about building your digital foundation.

Doug:                I think a good place to start is maybe defining what a digital foundation is. In this case, what I would describe it as is the collection of your paid search, paid social, organic search, your website and your website properties, and your email activities. That’s what I would define as that broader foundation.

Doug:                Then I would take a look and say, “Okay. What’s the difference between a fundamental thing,” in other words the basics, first is being creative in the moment. Fundamentals for us really are what I’ll call your tech SEO, but let’s define that a bit more narrowly, which is your site performance. Does it load quickly? Does it load quickly on desktop and mobile? Is it well linked? Do you have high-performing content on the site?

Doug:                Then if you’re getting into these creative aspects, we talked a bit about this yesterday, which is how are you grabbing additional market share by using paid to lead, and then using organic to sort of trail.

Doug:                When we talk about that foundation, really what we’re talking about is everything you’re doing online, plus email, to try and drive new traffic.

Ben:                   Okay. Once you understand what your foundation isn’t … I think that this is an exercise that a lot of marketing executives are going through is figuring out how to balance, what to cut. “I understand what my foundation is. I feel like we have some development to do on our website. We’ve got a certain balance of content versus paid.” How do you figure out where you should be cutting, where you should be investing? What do you do with your digital investments?

Doug:               Yeah. A lot of stuff isn’t working right now, Ben. I think we understand the broader picture, which is a lot of activity around the bottom of funnel for B2B marketers is seizing up. It’s seizing up because people have a real hesitation to buy. So there’s a bit of a distorted picture right now. It’s distorted both in the negative and the positive.

Doug:                If you’re looking right now at where do I invest and where do I cut, I think what I would look at very, very strongly is how are your fundamentals. Good examples, as I mentioned just a moment ago, fundamentals really are site performance, site design, internal linking and content. But it would also say that, if we look at this definition I gave a bit earlier of what a digital foundation is, part of the reason that I’m really emphasizing having people look at the fundamentals is it’s the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Doug:                A great example is if you are focused on site performance, and I think it’s an incredibly good thing to be focused on right now, and so you’re looking to reduce the time to, say, first relevant paint or just first paint, and you can get that into an area. Many of us have these sites with thousands of links that are very difficult to load. Think about it just simply from a user experience standpoint. If you can work on that, and get that site to perform better and be faster, you’re going to also improve your paid efforts. You’re going to find that the ability to serve ads is going to be quicker, and the experience that people are having when they come to your site or that ad is going to be better.

Ben:                  When you start thinking about balancing your digital investments, part of it is looking at the infrastructure. I think of this more at a campaign level, where I’m saying, “I have a dollar. Do I put it into creating content, or should I be focusing on buying a dollar’s worth of advertising?” How do you prioritize paid versus organic?

Doug:              Okay. Search with paid, trail with content. It’s a bit of an overly simplistic answer, Ben. The way that we tend to look at this is to say, what are the set of keywords? What is the keyword with the highest potential traffic index, as an example. What is it going to cost me to grab that territory, if you will. That’s the starting point. Then what is my time to value from the point I create content to the point that it’s going to catch up to those paid ads? That’s usually how I’m looking at things. It’s the idea of searching and then trailing with content.

Doug:              But what I would say is you’re giving me a bit of a binary choice. Let’s say that I don’t have that budget. Always invest in the content first. Just a wee bit of research really goes a long way, so your understanding what part of the funnel you’re trying to grab, is it top of funnel, middle funnel, bottom of funnel. In other words, the research, the investigation, or the purchasing stage.

Doug:              Then go to Google and see what people are searching on. You can use a tool like ours. There’s lots of other tools that will give you insights. Content Experience from Searchmetrics is a great example of a tool that really does a great job of telling you exactly what topics people are entertaining, and what questions they’re asking around a topic.

Doug:               It’s always worth the time to invest, because at the end of the day, that content, when it ranks, and it will eventually rank if it’s well done and placed, again, on a site that is high performing and beautifully designed, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Doug:              We talked yesterday about your ability to get to that top five. Once you’re there, it’s really hard to get unseated from the top five. Now, we certainly had an update recently that changed a lot of things for a lot of people. This is the core update that came out a week and a half ago. There are episodes where you could get knocked out, but for the most part, once you’re there, you’re there. Whereas when you’re operating with paid, you’re there as long as you continue to have a credit card behind the ad.

Ben:                 Doug, you said that you should always start on paid. Hey, that makes a lot of sense. This is an SEO related podcast. I have to push back a little bit though. I think that there’s some context that’s important here with what are you trying to accomplish from a marketing perspective.

Ben:                 If you’re looking at driving short term revenue, focusing on paid as a boost for your performance is something that’s faster to maturity, as opposed to investing in content. I think what you’re saying, and correct me if I’m wrong, is if you’re thinking about building for the long term, focus on content, as opposed to building your performance marketing capabilities.

Doug:              That’s correct. That’s exactly right, Ben. But I would also say that there is the luxury that most marketers do not have, which is time. That revenue curve that is always pressing on us and our ability to generate interest for our brands, or ability to generate leads for those of us in the B2B marketing space, really does demand.

Doug:               So I would push back and say that the hard earned territory you have gained through content and through organic and through SEO is an area that should be protected. But at the end of the day, your ability to grow, in other words to surge, quite often has to be led by paid, simply because there can be, again, with high potential content, you’ve got the opportunity to move up the page, certainly, but for the most part, if you need that space and need to grow now, you don’t have the choice to wait for the content to rank.

Ben:                 One of the things that I see happening now is that marketers are starting to panic. The COVID-19, the coronavirus crisis is happening. All of a sudden, performance marketing budgets are being just crushed. They’re being pulled. What, as marketers, can we do to avoid panicking during this crisis, just stopping marketing altogether, and to make sure that when the cloud lifts, we are all coming out stronger? How do you rebalance your marketing portfolio, in a time where your performance marketing budgets are slashed, to make sure that you’re creating value?

Doug:              Yeah, it’s a really good question, Ben. I think we’re all figuring out the formula as we go. But I would also say that the generation of non-data-focused CMOs is long gone. We’re all data focused as marketers. I say that because it’s fairly rare that a CMO doesn’t have a very strong understanding of their funnel, what’s performing and where. Some part of your funnel is currently disrupted. You know that. So my strong advice is to find the portion of the funnel that is not disrupted.

Doug:              A good example for B2B marketing is there’s a lot of stagnation or the bottom of the funnel is frozen. Let’s say your bottom of funnel are sales qualified leads or sales accepted leads. What’s probably working for you is the stage above it. Whether that’s MQIs or MQLs, you’re probably seeing decent performance there.

Doug:              The reason I say that is what we are absolutely seeing across the marketplace is that people have not stopped investigating, and they are preparing for the post COVID future. What that means is they’re self-educating like crazy. So my advice would be to focus on that metric that you know will ultimately lead to the next metric that’s going to actually help you perform. That could be an MQL metric. That could be MQI. It’s still performing. People are still out there educating. So hyperfocus on that.

Doug:               The other thing I’d say is there are portions of the funnel that actually are cheaper right now. A good example also, because there has been a rush out of digital, and there’s been a big cut, really across the board across a number of categories, the series of cuts rather, top of funnel right now is very cheap. So your ability to grab brand awareness …

Doug:                 Again, I would emphasize using all of that great educational content you created on your site. Don’t wait for people to find that content. Put it out there. Go to LinkedIn. Go to Facebook. Please don’t use Google for this per se. It’s not a very good model for PPC. But take that educational content and educate people.

Doug:                 For this, it’s just a really good way to increase your top of funnel awareness. Ben, you and I have worked together for many years now on projects Searchmetrics. We know that that typically is something that’s really hard to grab, harder sometimes than the bottom of funnel traffic.

Ben:                    Unless you make a podcast.

Doug:                 Unless you make a podcast. Exactly.

Ben:                   Doug, as we start thinking about balancing your marketing portfolio, and finding the balance between paid and organic now in the time of the coronavirus, what do you think are some of the pitfalls that marketers should avoid?

Doug:                 Don’t fire your agency.

Ben:                    Why?

Doug:                 Look. I know that for some companies, they just don’t have a choice. Unfortunately, what ends up happening, we know this as marketers, there tends to be this shortsighted view on marketing. It is just our lot. There are product managers and salespeople and creative people out there complaining about some other thing. But for marketers, when things get tough, marketing budgets are cut. It is the reality of life. That’s understandable.

Doug:                 What we’re seeing, unfortunately, is that a lot of companies are moving on from their agencies, whether they’re digital agencies or creative. I got to tell you guys, there’s two things that I would point to, three actually, that would tell me that if you were cutting now, you’re hosed.

Doug:                 The first is you have an agency for a reason. That is because they are either able to extend your power or extend your expertise. By power, I mean your reach, your ability to get into a larger marketplace. While all these other marketers are cutting, there is this opportunity to get in front of that audience. I just talked about how top of funnel spending right now is down, and therefore it’s cheap, and it’s a great time to grab awareness. What you’ve effectively done is you’ve taken this opportunity and you’ve wasted it. But not only that, you’ve really reduced your power and reach and your expertise. These are bad ideas.

Doug:                 The other thing is, hey guys, guess what. You’re going to have to hire an agency again in the future. You’re going to have to. What you’ve done is you’ve built in switching costs that are going to create a much bigger lag than you think.

Doug:                The third and final thing I would say is when you’re looking at your relationships with those vendors, I’ve kind of talked about what a bad idea this is, also understand that they would probably be open to a discussion that would say, “Hey, look. I have a reduction in revenue for the next, let’s say, six months. I’m guessing this is how it’s going to impact me. Can we work on a new retainer, or can we work on a different revenue sharing arrangement, or can we work on, fill in the blank. In other words, a way to have them continue to serve you, help … Give them stock, Ben, right? Find ways to keep them involved.

Doug:                Because frankly, at the end of the day, they’re there for a reason. They’re there because they help you extend that power, that reach, that expertise. Getting rid of them, I think, is just pure folly. The second thing is the minute that you realize, “Hey. It’s time to spend money on digital again,” you’re going to have to go back to that lag, to that ramp, to that switching cost. You’re going to suffer for it.

Ben:                   Yeah. I think I’ll use a bad car metaphor here. You can go back and forth between the gas and the brake. You don’t want to burn your clutch. I think that your agency is the tool that you have that allows you to balance and switch between the two, and still keep moving quickly. You need to be able to change gears. Having the horsepower and resources to be able to do that when you’re ready to just slam down on the throttle and keep going, you need to be able to quickly and efficiently be able to pull that lever. That’s really what your agency is there for. Negotiate with your agency. Work with them. Don’t fire them out of hand. I think that’s good advice as well.

Ben:                  Doug, I appreciate you walking us through your tips on how to understand the point of diminishing returns between paid and organic search.

Doug:               Okay. I enjoyed it as always, Ben.

Ben:                  All right. That wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thanks for listening to my conversation with Doug Bell, CMO of Searchmetrics. We’d love to continue the conversation with you. If you’re interested in contacting Doug, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can contact him on Twitter. His handle is MarketAdvocate. Or you can visit his company’s website, which is

Ben:                 Just one more link in our show notes I’d like to tell you about. If you didn’t have a chance to take notes while you were listening to this podcast, head over to where we have summaries of all of our episodes, contact information for our guests. You can send us your topic suggestions or your SEO questions, which we’ll answer live on our show. You can also apply to be a guest speaker on the Voices of Search podcast.

Ben:                Of course, you can always reach out on social media. Our handle is VoicesofSearch on Twitter. Or you can reach out to me directly. My handle is BenJShap, B-E-N-J-S-H-A-P.

Ben:                If you haven’t subscribed yet, and you want a daily stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, we’re going to publish an episode every day during the work week. Hit the subscribers button in your podcast app, and we’ll be back in your feed tomorrow morning.

Ben:               All right. That’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data.

Tyson Stockton

Tyson Stockton

Tyson has over 10 years' experience in the digital marketing industry. As Vice President of Client and Account Management, Tyson manages the Enterprise Client Success team and SEO Consulting efforts at Searchmetrics. Tyson has worked with some of world’s largest enterprise websites including Fortune 500 and global eCommerce leaders. Prior to Searchmetrics, Tyson worked on the in-house side managing the SEO and SEM efforts of a collection of 14 sports specialty eCommerce companies in the US, Europe and Australia.

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