One of the misconceptions that discourages people from trying SEO for their business is the idea that companies have to pay Google for top search results. I have big thoughts on this topic, so buckle in.
What prompted me to write about this was a conversation I had at a networking event in Apex, NC, that made me quite irate. When I told this businessman that I did SEO, he promptly tried to discredit my whole industry, saying that the top Google search results are all from businesses who paid Google money.
Understand that he didn’t ask if this were true, or even claim to be speculating that this were true. No, this man stated it as if it was a fact.
While I understand there can be general confusion surrounding the SEO industry and exactly what we do, I don’t understand how someone can be so ignorant and dismissive without seeking to learn first.
So with this blog post, let’s put our thinking caps on.
I want to answer these questions once and for all:
1. Do companies pay Google for top search results?
2. Can a small business owner pay to get on the top of Google’s search results?
3. Is there evidence proving or disproving that companies pay Google for results?
4. If I need to pay Google, how much would it cost (if applicable)?
5. How can I get top search results without paying Google?
Whew, that’s a bunch to un-pack.
I’ll try to do it simply, and with evidence. You could believe me or not, after all I’m probably just a faceless website to the random visitor, but I ask this of you… please keep an open mind before immediately coming to a conclusion. There’s nothing wrong with getting informed before having an opinion.
1. Do companies pay Google for Top Search Results?
This is tricky, because the answer is yes and no.
Yes, businesses can pay Google to get to the top of the Google Search Results, but… the results come with a box that contains the word “Ad” on them. Like this:
Now, if you scroll down the page, you’ll start to see organic search results. For these results you CAN’T pay Google for a top search result, because Google wants to provide the best user experience for their searchers. Allowing businesses to exploit this would provide a disservice to the users of their product.
Here’s where it kind of gets interesting…
Depending on the search term, some search terms will have paid “Ad” results on the top of the Google page, and some search terms will not.
It’s not even whether you’re searching for a business service or not, as something like “restaurants” absolutely has a purchase intent as well. Check this out, no “Ad” results:
You see, after you scroll down past the list of local restaurants, the first search result is an organic search result, and not an “Ad”. Keep that in mind.
2. Can a small business owner pay to get on the top of Google’s search results?
To understand the answer to this question, you first need to go back to the answer to question number one. Obviously, you can’t pay to get to the top of organic search results. The only way to get to the top of organic search results is through SEO (search engine optimization).
Now you can get to the top of certain Google results by paying for an Ad, which is done through Google’s Ads platform.
In this scenario you will be bidding against competitors for certain search phrases, and so yes—it will pay to be a big business with big spend in that case.
But otherwise, remember: there’s a difference between organic and paid search.
3. Is there evidence proving/ disproving that companies pay Google for results?
The short answer is yes.
The evidence is everywhere.
But I know that in reading this blog post you’re going to want to see some of that evidence. And so I’ll provide you an example in here.
Of course, there’s many ways to interpret “big businesses”.
What’s a lot of money to one business could be pocket change to another.
But we can do some simple comparisons with some big websites to show that the facts are pretty evident—and that is, you don’t need to be a big business to rank in organic Google search, which means that the idea that businesses pay Google for top search results doesn’t really make much sense.
Understand that there’s lots of tools that an SEO can use to do research on search results. One of my favorites displays an estimate of organic Google search results in its dashboard nicely.
Here’s what I found for a “small” business’s website: reddit.com.
That’s 284 million hits to their website per month, solely from organic search traffic.
According to Owler, reddit has an estimated annual revenue of $100 million. That sounds like a lot, until you realize the revenue numbers for other major websites, and how they stack up to reddit.
An online website that also drives revenue from organic search traffic is Forbes, which has an estimated $297 million of annual revenue. And yet, their website only gets 40 million in traffic…
The Huffington Post, which is hugely popular and probably a better comparison to reddit due to its non-specific content (Forbes is mostly finance), has an estimated annual revenue of $500 million.
And yet, their organic traffic numbers are even worse:
So as you can see, having a lot of money doesn’t seem to correlate to organic search traffic.
I’ve found it with my online business as well. I have a website where I’ve only spent $1,000 or so (experimenting with Google Ads) over its 5 years of life. The rest of it I’ve spent $0 and just created content with good SEO.
How can someone who has spent the equivalent of business peanuts consistently rank in organic search right with the big dogs like Investopedia or Forbes without paying Google? Well maybe because that’s not an option?
I could go on and on with more examples and evidence, but want even more?
Google itself has said publicly, for years (no, decades), that they DON’T change organic search rankings depending on whether businesses pay Google for top search results or not. Unless you want to be a conspiracy theorist, why don’t you want to take them at their word?
Especially when you consider that that is a very short sided strategy. Taking money from businesses to sabotage your product will eventually drive customers (the searchers) away, so why do it?
The claim just doesn’t make sense on all fronts.
4. If I need to pay Google, how much would it cost?
Please go back and read the answer for #2.
You can absolutely buy Google Ads, but how much that’s going to cost is going to depend on your industry. So go ahead and check it out, but your results will vary.
Remember, you can’t pay Google directly for top search results, so don’t even bother. And don’t believe any SEO companies that make that claim. SEO is a long term strategy, and requires a value-first approach.
5. How can I get top search results without paying?
Now you’re asking the right question. We’ve established what the reality is with the major search engines like Google (and this article includes Bing too).
So the next logical step is to determine how the search engines determine organic search rankings.
Unfortunately, there’s no 1 simple answer.
Which is why a whole industry (SEO) has sprung up to try and solve it. Google doesn’t reveal what the exact algorithm is to establish organic search results, not even to its employees.
What we do know is this (and what I’ve seen personally):
Google cares about user experience the most.
And so it tries to determine which websites provide the best user experience, and rank those higher in organic search results than those that don’t.
There’s many different factors that could go into it, like:
–how long a website visitor stays on a site,
–how credible and/or popular a piece of content is
–how often visitors leave the site as soon as they enter
–and much, much more…
But it depends on the industry, and even on the specific search term. Because every individual search term implies a different problem (and solution) to the searcher, and so there’s no one-size-fits-all. That’s another reason why search algorithms are always changing, because it’s constantly trying to find the best top search results for their users.
At the end of the day, it’s going to boil down to User Experience.
Time and time again.
And so make sure your website is set-up to take advantage of that. Make sure your SEO strategy, if you’re going to pursue online organic traffic, caters to that.
And don’t be afraid to give, give, give—because the businesses that serve their customers and clients the best tend to stay in business the longest.
Turns out, it’s not limited just to the business service itself, but also to the user experience on a website.
That’s what makes organic SEO evergreen…
Because good service never goes out of season.