Why Don’t Clients Understand Search?

Share with:

Tell me if this has ever happened to you: You’re talking to a client, and they mix up PPC and SEO. Or, they don’t understand how keywords work. Or, they’re confused where and how ad copy appears. Or, they submit Facebook images that look like banner ads. Why don’t clients understand search?

I get that the inner workings of PPC and SEO are complicated, and the average person doesn’t understand them. Heck, when I’m talking to our SEO team, and they start talking about keyword density, domain authority, and redirect handling, my eyes start to glaze over. Why is that?

Clients understand media.

Concepts like reach, frequency, and impressions are clear to clients – I’ve never heard a client ask what these things are. Nor do clients find media ads confusing – a banner is a banner. But show them a 140 character PPC ad, and they’re lost.

PPC and SEO are relatively new.

Is it because PPC and SEO are relatively new? I think that’s part of it. After all, digital media ad buys are patterned after radio and TV. In another life, I sold radio ads. We talked all the time about reach and frequency. I won’t tell you how many years ago this was, but it was a long time ago. Radio and TV metrics have been around for 60 years or more. Everyone understands them.

Clients also think of banner ads as online print ads. That’s really what banners are – glorified, and maybe animated, print ads. So the concept of designing a banner ad is familiar to them.

No client would mix up a newspaper ad with a magazine ad, though. So why do they mix up PPC and SEO?

Why do PPC ads confuse clients?

Why don’t they get it?

It’s our fault.

Yes, it’s the fault of the search industry itself. Much of the fault lies with the engines. Just take a look at this search for Bluetooth speakers:

Show this to your spouse, your mom, or your neighbor and see if they can tell you which are the ads and which aren’t. $10 says they can’t. Everything looks the same. The only thing distinguishing the ad from the organic content is a tiny “ad” notation. And what about those images? Are those ads? People don’t know.

Social is little better. Take this LinkedIn example:

The ad is a little better labeled than on Google, but if you’re scrolling through your feed, it’s easy to miss the “sponsored” notation. Ask your friends if they can spot the ads in their social feeds. I bet many of them can’t.

We as practitioners have to take part of the blame too. We have so many levers we can pull in PPC and paid social, I think we sometimes forget about the basics. We assume everyone knows what a keyword is. We assume everyone can tell the difference between ads (PPC) and organic listings (SEO). We throw jargon around with big words and confusing names.

And PPC hasn’t been around that long. Google Adwords didn’t launch until 2002. Overture was around before that, starting in 1996. In 1996, I’d been doing traditional marketing for, well, a few years. Many of our clients probably had been too. And even if they hadn’t, they don’t think about search in terms of keywords and ad copy. They just Google their questions and get answers.

We need to do better. We need to stop wasting time by assuming clients understand what keywords and ad copy are, and explain the concepts to them. Show them examples. Create a glossary for them. I created this one:

Combine the glossary with illustrated screen shots. Take the time to walk through it and answer their questions. Demystify it for them. It’ll go a long way in helping clients understand search.

How do you handle client confusion over PPC and SEO? Share in the comments!

Related Posts:


  1. This is especially common with SMB’s. You have to do a lot of explaining (and repeating) and some get ti faster than others, but you’re right, the education is the key piece. You also have to talk more in terms of leads, sales, ROI, revenue, etc. Not CTR, impression share, etc.

    But to be honest, I’m just as guilty in other industries. Our HVAC died last month and they came to me and explained everything. But once it was fixed, all of that jargon went out of my mind. I know this is different since paid search is ongoing, but I get why they don’t understand/remember, even after things are explained. For most SMBs it’s all about the end-results, not necessarily how you get there. They trust us to do that.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Yes, I’m guilty of that when other professionals come to do work for me. Explaining in clear language is key. And not micromanaging. I wouldn’t look over a plumber’s shoulder while he or she worked, so they don’t need to look over ours. 🙂

  2. “The only thing distinguishing the ad from the organic content is a tiny “ad” notation.” That’s a feature, not a bug, least of all a fault of the search industry. A feature that makes Google one of the five most valuable companies on the planet despite confident claims by the average John / Jane Doe Consumer that they never click on online ads.

    • Melissa Mackey says

      Feature for the industry, but confusing for clients. The fact that ads are indistinguishable from organic results makes our job of explaining search to clients harder.

      • In my experience, going in, most people don’t know the difference between Google Ads and organic search results. But, once I explain it to them (using a slide I’ve created just for that purpose), most clients get it quite easily and are rarely confused subsequently. Is the difference really that confusing / hard-to-explain for your clients?

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.