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SEO vs. PPC: which channel is right for you?

It’s one of the most common questions asked by stakeholders for small-to-medium businesses.

“Which is better for my brand in the long run, SEO or PPC?”

The answer to this question isn’t simple, but it’s worth asking — and it’s definitely worth understanding.

The quick, overarching answer is something like this:

Search marketing deserves a multi-faceted approach that begins with a strong organic foundation that can, and should, be supplemented and enhanced with pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns to further increase exposure and increase conversions.

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So, it makes the most sense to ensure a website is in a sound state for success with several key elements in place like the implementation of general SEO best practices, a user-friendly, search-friendly, and technically sound website, as well as a visually and aesthetically pleasing website and digital assets, among other basics.

Once those are (mostly) in place, it would then be quite beneficial to further beef up marketing effortswith some accompanying PPC campaigns to go beyond the limited organic reach for the brand and/or its website.

But let me explain further.

First, it needs to be established that organic search drives drastically more traffic to websites than paid search.

A study published by Conductor in 2014 shows that organic search is responsible for about 64 percent of all site traffic, while paid search generates only 6 percent.

That paid traffic likely consists of more qualified visitors that are further down the buyer funnel and more likely to convert, but the overwhelming amount of traffic generated from organic search can and should never be ignored in this debate.

While it’s no secret that paid advertising helps a brand, product, or service achieve the goals it aims to accomplish, it’s important to consider the volume disparity between organic and paid search in terms of traffic.

Plus, in the case of PPC advertising specifically, a brand’s website is what is being advertised. So, the website must be effective in its goals for it to succeed in both an organic and paid approaches.

Now, if critical elements of that website are not well done — or worse — it wouldn’t make much sense to dump excessive ad dollars into a website that doesn’t perform well because of hindrances like poor landing pages, 404 pages, broken links, or just a generally confusing website.

Sure, the result, to some extent, would be an increase in traffic and conversions, but it would be impossible to recreate the large numbers of incoming traffic that come from organic search.

That’s not to say a sub-par website wouldn’t ever see some sort of lift from PPC advertising. It would (assuming the landing pages are live and decent).

But there would need to be a sizeable budget that would span years.

That’s because once a brand stops investing in PPC advertising, all it has is word-of-mouth (including referrals/backlinks), social media, and its organic presence to sustain its success.

The longevity of marketing superiority is unlikely in this instance.

That’s another reason why a solid organic presence is critical to the all-around success of a website.

What’s Best for an Immediate Impact?

Now, if this question was asked differently — say, something like, “Which is better for my brand right now, SEO or PPC?” the answer, too, would be different.

Putting responsive ad dollars behind a timely initiative should produce a recognizable ROI, assuming the ad is satisfactory and effective, and the landing pages being used for the paid campaigns make it easy enough for the user to convert.

Relying solely on paid placement, though, could get expensive, especially if the other elements its success hinges on are not working properly or effectively.

Yes, the ability to obtain a more-clear ROI than if those dollars were invested into improving a brand’s organic presence would exist, but the data over time would also show organic improvements that didn’t cost any ad dollars, have a long-lasting effect, and were substantially larger in volume.

Paid search would offer an immediate lift to your website’s performance, but once you stop investing, so does the lift.

The Two-Headed Monster

Search marketing is a made up of (primarily) two massive tools for the many phases of the user journey, from discovery and research all the way down to sales and conversions, those tools being paid search marketing and organic search marketing.

They work incredibly well together, but all too often, that just isn’t the reality for smaller brands.

For situations like this, it makes sense to undergo intense SEO improvements before moving to a more PPC-focused approach.

There will have to be instances where a return to SEO upkeep is allowed in order to battle the many and sometimes heavy-impact algorithm updates that take place throughout any given year.

But a well-calculated balance of hours put forth for organic improvements and a paid search budget is always going to be the best solution for a brand with a limited budget and big goals.

What About Enterprise-Level Websites?

In this situation, the answer could be entirely different.

When an enterprise-level brand stops placing PPC ads, it will likely see that same dip in performance, just like any other website.

But these big brands also typically have entire internal teams of marketers to oversee efforts that usually also include keeping their employer’s website in a quality state of performance and holding the vendors responsible accountable for the good (or bad) they may achieve.

And let’s not forget the fact many enterprise websites have already built a quality web presence through various organic signals, so enhancing that visibility with paid placement not only makes sense but will catalyze even further improvement.

Which is Right for Your Business?

If your budget is limited and you’re faced with deciding between the two marketing practices, you’ll have to consider several other factors in addition to the sheer volume inequality between the two practices.

Based on that disproportion alone, it’s obvious the staying power of organic search does outweigh that of paid search.

Other factors that need to be examined are:

  • The current status of your website.
  • Your website’s level of organic visibility.
  • If you have or are currently using paid search.
  • The goals of your website and brand.
  • Where the majority of your site’s traffic comes from.
  • How your brand, product, or service fit into a searcher’s buyer journey.

Like anything else in digital marketing, much of your next steps will depend on the unique scenario of your brand, your website, your goals, and the people you hope to convert.


by Sam Hollingsworth