SEO or PPC?
Like everything in marketing, it would be great if there was a simple answer to the SEO vs. PPC question.
Unfortunately, despite the human temptation to simplify this into a binary answer, the answer is complicated.
SEO helps your webpages rank higher on the non-paid search results by improving the quality and relevance of the content on your website. This improved visibility comes without the expensive costs per click of PPC.
PPC ads are paid online advertisements that are laser targeted by demographics and keywords to get in front of the right people at the right time.
Typically, PPC ads show in highly prominent positions on the search results and hoover up the majority of clicks for highly commercial terms.
What is right for you?
This article will provide an overview of the search landscape and the two key search engine marketing (SEM) tactics, plus five simple questions you can ask yourself to determine where your efforts should be spent.
Defining SEO and PPC
In a nutshell, SEO stands for “search engine optimization” and is the process of improving your website to increase its visibility on Google, Bing and other search engines.
PPC, or pay-per-click, are the ads that appear on a page of search results (typically in premium positions).
The search landscape
The key to making an educated SEO vs. PPC decision is understanding the makeup of the search engine result pages (SERPs) for the keywords that matter to you.
While the search results were once just “10 blue links,” modern search engines provide a rich array of page features, all designed to provide comprehensive answers along with the means to dig further into a topic.
Modern SERPs feature:
- Knowledge panels.
- Featured snippets.
- Top stories (news).
- People Also Ask.
- Organic listings.
- Search tools (related searches, etc.)
- And more ads.
Search results are complex and diverse and each of these areas offers an opportunity for keen-eyed search marketers.
Now we understand the search landscape, we can dig into the relative merits of SEO and PPC and how these apply to your situation.
SEO: The pros
How can you benefit from SEO? How do the organic listings differ from the paid listings that sit above the organic listings?
Visibility in search engines for your targeted keywords drives awareness of your business.
Visibility around commercial search terms and informational queries related to your business area can have a positive branding benefit.
Your brand can become associated with and trusted by searchers asking questions as they conduct the research that will lead to a purchase.
Credibility and trust
Having your site return in the organic results can influence your perceived credibility with an audience looking for your services.
Many users skip ads and trust organic results more highly, particularly in the research stage of a purchase. Being visible gives your business that all-important stamp of approval.
As we covered in our review of the search landscape, organic search results are highly varied and versatile.
As such, there is a range of opportunities to present your business to your prospective clients as they research a purchase.
Reputation and reviews
Search results include reviews from several sources and having strong review and reputation signals in place further boosts trust signals.
Increasing website traffic gives you more opportunities to engage and educate a prospect as to why they would buy from you.
Cost per click
Traffic from organic search is free – sort of. Developing that visibility will take time and effort (money), but there is no direct charge for each impression or click.
Return on investment (ROI)
As paid clicks continue to get ever more expensive, smart SEO can provide an improved ROI over paid clicks.
While SEO is neither cheap nor easy, it will generally be more cost-effective than other marketing tactics for delivering brand awareness and relevant traffic to your website.
Unlike PPC, organic traffic does not dry up when you stop paying. As such, efforts to develop organic traffic can sustain a business when marketing budgets are tight.
Not paying for every click
Not all keywords convert the same and SEO can help you target users earlier in the purchase cycle without paying for those low conversion rate clicks.
There are so many new queries every day that to maximize scope, you will need strong organic visibility. You will not want to pay for all kinds of clicks or advertise every piece of content on your website.
Visibility in organic search is not quick or easy – which is a good and a bad thing.
Once you have established yourself in the organic results, your competitors can’t simply buy their way in (assuming you have done things the right way).
This can provide a strategic advantage over the competition if they rely on paid search.
With modern CMS platforms, SEO is simplified, and you can often generate 80% of the possible SEO results with only 20% of the work.
SEO: The cons
SEO has many benefits, but it is not without its challenges.
- Highly competitive.
- Search results can be very busy with several types of results.
- Ads dominate the top of the search results.
- Many search results are dominated by titans (Amazon, eBay, etc.).
- Local results can be hyperlocalized resulting in poor organic radius.
- Content development is tricky for smaller businesses.
- Tactics like link building are difficult and shrouded in bad information online.
- Algorithm changes can create turbulence and unexpected change.
- Lots of bad information out there that can waste your time.
One of the key problems with SEO is that it is just so easy to spend a lot of time and effort on SEO tasks that do little or nothing to help.
Blog posts that will never rank, meta descriptions that don’t matter, technical SEO – the list goes on.
SEO tools, which are supposed to help with this problem, tend to make matters worse and generate endless lists of SEO tasks that are essentially just busy work.
These tools have utility, but they require experience to know what should be done and what can be ignored.
While highly valuable, SEO can be tricky to implement and highly competitive.
It is important to develop realistic goals and measurements.
Get the daily newsletter search marketers rely on.
PPC: The pros
How does paid search differ from organic search? If SEO provides free traffic, why would a business consider paid search?
PPC provides a laser-targeted way to get in front of potential customers.
Ads can be targeted by search keywords, time of day, day of the week, geography, language, device and audiences based on previous visits. Organic traffic, by comparison, is far more scattershot.
While developing organic visibility can take time, a PPC campaign can be created in days and ramped up in weeks. There is no faster way to get in front of customers when they are primed to buy than paid search engine advertising.
Position on the page
Paid search dominates above-the-fold content.
With typically four ads on desktop and three on mobile, a user will always see the paid search ads, even if they choose to scroll past them.
PPC ads are just that: advertisements. You have far more granular control and more space for delivering your marketing messages.
Calls, locations, site links, pricing and bullet points (callouts) are just some of the options for creating ads that dominate the page.
Dynamic ad copy
Google’s responsive search ads have 15 titles and four descriptions providing over 30,000 variations with built-in split testing. This ensures your ads are customized to help generate clicks.
Visual product ads
Where you sell a product, Google provides the option of visual shopping ads (product listing ads, or PLAs) that can help a user see what they will be clicking on.
Running paid search advertisements gets you seen by the right people. Even if they back off and conduct a brand search before clicking on your site, that visibility will pay dividends to your marketing.
While costly, PPC allows for budget control. Determine how much you are willing to spend per day (ideally with some initial and ideal ideas of returns), and set that fixed limit.
Speed provides agility. Want to test a new product? A new marketing message?
You can get rapid feedback on a new product launch (or minimum viable product) by running a short PPC ad campaign.
Where organic largely hides keyword data in the name of privacy, there is no such restriction with paid search.
With integration with analytics software (like Google Analytics), we can determine what keywords convert and at what percentage and cost.
This intelligence can be fed directly into SEO and inform all other advertising to improve results across the board.
Easily split-test ads, landing pages, and even call-to-action buttons to determine where the very best results lie.
Again, this information can be fed back into all other digital (and traditional) marketing endeavors.
Despite the competition, paid search does not typically suffer the same turbulence as organic.
There are changes, but they tend to have a far lower impact and are more easily managed.
Careful use of match types and analysis of the search term reports allow for the removal of junk searches and an increase in ROI over time.
Despite what many advertisers believe, a PPC account that’s set up and managed well can be a low-cost way to generate leads for your business.
If you are a local business targeting a small geographic area and a small set of keywords, you may find that you can generate more than enough leads without breaking the bank.
Additionally, over time, accounts can be further optimized to reduce costs and increase returns.
PPC: The cons
There are clearly many benefits to PPC. However, there are also some pitfalls advertisers must be wary of.
- PPC can be expensive.
- PPC can be highly competitive for commercial terms.
- PPC requires constant investment. Stop spending and traffic dries up
- Strategically easy to copy.
- Easy to start, difficult to master.
PPC on search engines is a highly powerful, and quite possibly the most powerful marketing system that has ever existed.
To succeed in a highly competitive environment, everything must be set up correctly: keywords, ads, landing pages and analytics.
It is not unusual to get into bidding wars with other advertisers, which can drive costs up.
As you start to run your ads, you are often taking a bite out of other advertisers’ digital apple. Doing so can result in spiraling costs (or revising your strategy).
Successful PPC needs skilled management and optimization – from monitoring bids, Quality Scores, positions and click-through rates.
Some of this can be done with scripts, but if you are too busy to do this properly, ensure you have an expert on hand to take care of keeping your account in tip-top shape.
PPC is incredibly powerful, but you must ensure all aspects are optimized to maximize results while keeping costs reasonable.
Hopefully, you have an idea of the pros and cons of SEO and PPC now and are better positioned to review the landscape.
The next step is to work through a series of questions to determine the correct approach based on your target keywords and current situation.
SEO or PPC: 5 questions to ask
The following are five simple questions you can ask to help determine where you should spend your time and resources.
1. What keywords are you targeting?
This question is crucial as your target keywords will strongly influence your choice between SEO and PPC.
A useful exercise here to aid keyword research is to create a persona and answer the who, why and how customer questions.
- Who are your customers?
- Why do they buy? (Is something broken?)
- How do they buy? (What is the search journey?)
This can be a useful framework to help with the keyword research process (in addition to any tools you may want to use).
2. What do the results look like for each keyword?
Google each keyword and summarize the search results for each.
This does not need to be complicated; some simple bullets will do the job.
- 3 x local service ads
- 1 x text ad
- Find results on links (3 x external sites)
- Local pack
- Local listing
- Local listing
- Local listing
- People also ask
- Organic 1: Directory
- Organic 2: Wikipedia
- Organic 3: Directory
- Organic 4: Government careers site
- Organic 5: Portal
- Organic 6: Local business
Here we see that the three-pack has good organic visibility right at the top of the page so SEO is likely useful if targeting a small geographic area.
However, if you are targeting a larger area and can’t likely rank in the pack then the first non-directory or portal listing is the position 6 organic listing.
This is around the 22nd link on the page (so unlikely to generate significant organic traffic).
By conducting this relatively simple analysis for your keywords and reviewing the landscape you can make some estimates regarding whether ad coverage or SEO will generate the required results.
3. How do the results vary by location?
There is a common mistake that a lot of local businesses make, which is to assume that what they see when they Google their target keywords at their location is what everyone sees.
It is important to track your results from different locations as the ads, local pack and organic results (typically localized) will vary.
What we recommend here is that you either conduct manual rank reports from different locations or ideally, use a rank tracking tool that will show you your rankings at various points across the geography you cover.
Note: You may see that your results are strong within a given distance of your location but drop off further away from your location. Sometimes, a combined SEO and PPC approach can be useful.
4. How much business do you need?
This is an important question and where we start to see some intersectionality from these questions.
If you are a small business servicing a local area and need maybe one or two good leads a week, then SEO may give you more than you need.
We have helped hundreds of small businesses that fall into this category, and once SEO is dialed in, they never spend a penny on PPC.
If you are a larger business, have multiple teams and service a large city or geographic area, you may also need some coverage with PPC on top of SEO to ensure you generate enough work.
5. What do you have more of – time or money?
An important difference between SEO and PPC is that you can do SEO yourself or within your business without any real costs.
All the information you need is out there to improve your visibility.
Time is money. So, if you have a larger team costing you money, then spending money to generate leads quickly makes sense.
This is where we have to consider the pros and cons we discussed earlier, as improving SEO can take a while, whereas PPC can be almost instant.
It is important to determine what is right for your completely unique situation and objectives and lean in that direction.
SEO vs. PPC: Your unique roadmap
Hopefully, you can see it is impossible to answer this question in a generic way. You really have to consider all the variables.
A hyper-local business with little competition and a requirement for just a few leads per week could likely develop good visibility in the local and organic search results with a little spend or some DIY SEO.
A new ecommerce store that is competing with a page of results from Amazon, eBay and other major department stores and online retailers is likely going to struggle in organic search (in the short term, at least).
Do you need leads now? Are you looking at the long game? Do you have much in the way of website authority? What is the competition like in organic search? What is the cost per click in paid search?
A clear digital marketing strategy and short- and long-term goals are essential in making an SEO or PPC decision.
The third option: SEO and PPC
In most cases, the right approach will not be either SEO or PPC. It will be a holistic SEM strategy that combines both.
SEO and PPC work best when they are strategically aligned to work together.
A blended approach will typically drive overall results greater than their parts.
The benefits of running SEO and PPC together include:
- Keyword and conversion data from PPC can be fed into organic search (SEO).
- Geographic areas with weaker SEO coverage can be covered by PPC.
- The total traffic volume can be increased by targeting clicks in paid and organic for high-performing keywords.
- High-cost, high-volume or low-converting (yet still important) keywords can be moved from PPC to organic search.
- A/B testing of ad copy and landing pages can be fed into your organic listing and landing pages.
- Remarketing allows you to stay in front of visitors after an initial touch via organic search and customize messaging around their engagement with your site.
- Test your keyword strategy in PPC before committing to long-term SEO strategies.
- Target users at all customer journey stages, from research to comparison to purchase with commercial keywords.
- Increase confidence and awareness by having both strong organic and paid visibility.
In our experience with thousands of businesses, an integrated search strategy that looks at both SEO and PPC is the optimal approach.
We may often start with heavy PPC while organic is built up and then dial that back a little. Alternatively, PPC may be the icing on the cake to bag sales that were set up with SEO traffic.
What is right will always depend on your situation and goals, but the smart mindset is to look at how to get these two titans of modern marketing working together.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.