Forget Paid vs Organic, All Search is Subjective

Chris Horton
Chris Horton Digital Strategist, SyneCore Tech

Posted on November 7th 2012

Forget Paid vs Organic, All Search is Subjective

all search is subjective

As Internet Search continues to gain in complexity as a medium, I think it’s high time we recalibrate some of the outdated lingo associated with it. To date, when we refer to Search, most of us are talking about two categories of species: Paid and Organic. The former implies a controlled and subjective Search process, while the latter implies a free process, the very nature of which suggests some degree of unshackled objectivity.

I finally realized how outmoded this line of thinking was when I performed a basic search for carpet cleaning services recently. Without boring you with the minutia of the experience, let’s just say that when I reflect on the actionable differences between most of the Organic and Paid Search results presented to me, they were very few. Although the formats were different (some less so than you might think), each set of Search results was clearly subjective in nature.

I was totally fine with this, by the way. I wanted something, and both the Organic and Paid results provided me with possible solutions. Here’s the rub. Regardless of what is said, written, or shown within the websites or landing pages of either Paid or Organic Search results, I am automatically going to process the information with a subjective eye.

In fact, whenever we humans analyze any kind of information or input, whether it’s a news report or a helpful article on carpet cleaning, some level of subjectivity is presumed. Because the terms Paid and Organic refer to a process rather than a motivation (i.e. form over substance), they are essentially meaningless metrics for most Internet users, helpful for little other than SEO analysis and other forms of Internet “accounting.”


To get with the times, I propose we replace Paid and Organic with two terms that are more user-centric: Intent and Affinity. Referring to user motivation rather than user process, Intent and Affinity capture the “why,” rather than focusing on the “how.”

Intent refers to our reason or purpose for performing an online search in the first place. User intent can be specific or general, definite or vague. The main point of search intent is that it begins with a particular aim, purpose, or goal, even if that aim is changed or modified based on the input of search results.  

Affinity relates to the process we use to choose or take action on a specific search result, regardless of whether that result is classified as Paid or Organic. Affinity reflects our natural or spontaneous liking for, or attraction to, someone or something; it is often based on similarity of characteristics and/or shared experiences. Affinity plays a crucial role when deciding between a number of different and seemingly plausible search options.

When taken together, Affinity and Intent explain why user-generated content and reviews, such as those commonly found via social search and mobile apps, are often more relevant than traditional search engine results (this also explains why Google is so amped up to push its Google+ social search engine).


In closing, let me provide a brief, day-in-the-life example to illustrate my point. Let’s take a look at “Charlie” (first name that came into my head), a twenty-something dude who works as a sales rep for a mid-level software development company. It’s Friday afternoon, and Charlie’s had a long week. Given he is single with no kids, Charlie has a fairly obligation-free weekend ahead of him (what a jerk).

Other than monitoring his fantasy football picks, Charlie has two broad objectives for the weekend: 1.  Friday/Saturday night - party down, 2. Sunday - figure out his new health insurance elections for work.

Charlie is pretty typical of his demographic, owning a laptop, a tablet and a smartphone. He believes technology breeds convenience and efficiency, and expects as much when he is using it for information and entertainment. Driving home from the office, Charlie calls a few buddies and tries to make plans for the evening. Everyone is up for going out, but no one has a specific time or a place in mind.

No worries. When he gets home, Charlie jumps on Yelp and Foursquare to try and figure out where everyone is, and where they should be going.

After a while, he heads downtown to meet some friends having a quiet cocktail at a new jazz bar that got decent reviews on Yelp. He agrees to join up with his other buddies later on at a well-frequented nightclub; they monitor each other’s progress on Foursquare.

Sunday morning rolls around, and Charlie grabs his tablet and Direct Messages his Aunt Millie on Facebook, hoping to get some free advice as to which insurance election to take. Aunt Millie is a bit annoying, but she sure knows health insurance, having worked in the Industry for over 30 years.

That finished, Charlie quickly checks his fantasy picks and then jumps on Netflix, where he picks out a new thriller based on the great reviews it received on his IMDB app.

It’s been a full weekend for Charlie. He has seamlessly interacted with online technology the entire time, using social search and mobile apps, together with inborn Intent and Affinity, to efficiently and conveniently satisfy his various wants and needs. That he accomplished all of this without using either Paid or Organic Search never even crossed his mind.


For Charlie, as for so many of us, online technology has seamlessly integrated into our daily lives. What does this mean for marketers and small business owners?

First and foremost, it's important to make sure you really know your target audience. Specifically, find out how each of them has integrated/is integrating online technology into their daily lives. How can you do the same?

Shift your thinking from Paid and Organic to User Intent and Affinity. Create online social and web-based content and messaging that speaks to the wants and needs of your target audience. Reflect on how these people might discover and interact with your content, and then figure out clever ways to get it to them. Remember that online users, like you, are looking for efficiency and convenience.

Technology is both a boon and a bane, giving us more choices but making us busier all the same. Figure out how to cut through the noise and become part of your audience’s daily experience.

You won’t get there by thinking Paid and Organic; instead, think Intent and Affinity.




Chris Horton

Chris Horton

Digital Strategist, SyneCore Tech

Chris Horton is a Content Creator and Digital Strategist for Minneapolis-based Integrated Marketing Agency SyneCore. An avid tech enthusiast, Chris has written extensively on a number of topics relevant to the growing Marketing Technology industry, including SEO/targeted discovery, inbound, content, social, mobile, apps, online branding/PR, and Internet trends. Chris' marketing tips can be found on SyneCore's Marketing Technology for Growth blog. You can connect with Chris on TwitterLinkedIn, or Google Plus, or eMail him at

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