According to a survey conducted by WebAdvantage.net, “85 percent of the respondents claim to click on sponsored links less than 40% of all searches, but nearly half of the audience (49 percent) does not seem to know the difference between paid and unpaid listings. Unlike the consumer audience which has been found to not drill down past the first page of search results, 92 percent of WebAdvantage.net survey respondents say they continue past the first pages of search results with 36 percent asserting they drill beyond the fourth page of search results.”

Interestingly, the same number, 85%, is quoted in a heavily disputed claim by the MarketingSherpa’s Buyers’ Guide to Search Engine Optimization Firms: New 3rd Edition: “85% of search engine users ignore paid ads. Instead, they prefer to click on the “organic” (non-paid) search results. So, optimizing your site to get high rankings for as many related search terms as possible is now mission-critical.”

Whether these surveys are valid only in the B2C market or not, the message is clear — search engine marketing matters! How you compose your mix of organic search engine marketing optimization and paid search results sponsorship would depend on your business, your target audience, the depth of your pockets, and your ability to endure through series of unpredictable changes in the search engines’ algorhithms.

Providing further proof that different user groups have different user experience with search engines, WebAdvantage observes that business users prefer organic search results to paid listings:

“When asked about the relevancy of search engine sponsored links and advertisements, business searchers responded that even when clicked on, paid links do not yield the best results. Seventy-eight percent of all respondents feel that they find the information that they are looking for less than 40 percent of the time through sponsored links, and the search engine business searches go to first is Google, which 66 percent of the respondents say they use most. The other top search engines among the business community include Yahoo (15.25 percent) and MSN (7.8 percent). ”

The paid-search side of the story comes from Advertising.com claiming in another survey that “Conversion Rates for Paid Search Listings More Than Double as the Holidays Approach“. The study estimates that “conversion rates for paid search listings increased 165% during the 10 weeks prior to December 9, 2003”.

Here, both audience and timing seems to play role — the consumer market will understandably be busy in the weeks before Christmas, and if paid searches provide relevant results, it is only logical that conversion rates will be higher.

So, the drama these days seems to be around the pros and cons of organic vs. paid search engine placement. This question is irrelevant. Both methods will continue working in the near future.

If business owners in developed countries provide any indication, it is that interactive marketing, including search engine marketing will grow in 2004.

The London Business School just published the Marketing Expenditure Trends where it reports that: “Interactive already accounts for 10 percent of total marketing expenditure in business-to-business (B2B) firms and 6 percent in business-to-consumer (B2C) firms. Online promotions/incentives and permission-based email are areas of particularly fast growth, but firms are also investing to improve the sophistication of their websites (password-protected ‘extranets’, search-engine optimization, online sales) and web advertising (eg sponsored searches).”

So the one question left is whether you do your web marketing and search engine optimization in-house, or whether you hire an expert. Something tells me that in a heavily-specialized economy the assistance of a search engine placement expert would save time and money to any business and would truly help them benefit from the potential of marketing over the web.