Walk into a room full of digital marketers and ask them which is more effective, paid search or organic search traffic, and somehow you’ll walk away with 10 different answers.

To say there’s a big debate about the showdown between paid and organic would be an understatement:

twitter post organic vs paid results

And regardless of where a marketer stands on the matter, you can be sure that they’ll use data and research to back their claims:

data for paid search

Here’s the thing – why does it have to be an all or nothing, us vs. them mentality? The reality is a bit fuzzier than SEO vs. Organic. Some searchers click on ads. Some click on organic links.

You, as a marketer, should try to capture both types of people.

Here’s a breakdown of the worlds of both SEO and Organic, in the hopes you’ll use this information to get the type of results you know you deserve with each of your campaigns.

When it comes to growth, paid search is king

Google has hardly veiled its efforts to make organic traffic more challenging. Changes like adding a fourth text ad above organic links on desktop, adding a third (and fourth) text ad above organic links on phones, doubling the size of Product Listing Ads on phones, and moving the Local Pack to the top of search results are just a handful of changes Google made to bolster the presence of paid search entries.

And their efforts have worked. Organic traffic has, in fact, declined over the past several quarters. In its Q1 2017 earning reports, Google noted a whopping 53% increase in paid clicks from year to year:

google paid clicks stats

While this upwards trend varies from industry to industry paid search is the wave of the present and future, because, well, that’s what Google wants.

However, before you write off your organic efforts for good, it’s important to know how to derive meaningful comparisons between the two strategies, based on your own analytics.

When it comes to digital marketing, two things are fairly certain:

  1. Every brand wants to rank high for their keywords, particularly those keywords they might consider bidding on in paid search.
  2. Every brand would love to have an ad at the top of the page for every relevant query.

Neither of these instances is a guarantee. For organic results, it’s simply not possible for every site to rank on the first page – someone has to fall off to the dreaded page 2 or beyond.

When it comes to ad placement, the realities of budget come into play. It’s not economically wise to bid to the top position for every term, and often not even feasible.

What we’re left here with is a situation where brands want it all when it comes to both paid and organic search, but the reality that this utopia is impossible.

Combining Organic SEO & Paid Search

google analytics traffic sourcesThat’s why understanding how these two strategies work together can transform your efforts.

Let’s take, for example, a non-branded query in which a site doesn’t rank on the first page. In this case, any traffic coming from a paid search ad can basically be fully attributed to that ad, thus you can measure your efforts accordingly.

Should you try to rank organically for this query? Sure! But not at the expense of your paid search ad. Just because you heard organic search might be better for your niche doesn’t mean you should ignore the cold-hard data. Your search ad is delivering results and getting you seen on Page 1. Continue to feed that cash cow until the numbers tell you not to.

In the case of brand keywords, it’s absolutely possible that a site pick up all of its paid search traffic from brand ads through its organic listings.

There are some factors at play here, such as:

  • If competitors bid on brand keywords
  • How many first page organic listings are occupied by the brand

But it is possible. Still, our own testing shows that organic links don’t pick up all the traffic that goes to brand ads, meaning these ads do have incremental value.

In other words, there’s no way anyone can definitively say that organic “outperforms” paid. It’s simply not as clear cut as that.

Then there’s the entire conversation around last attribution – who’s to say that the last thing (ad, search result) someone clicked on was the lone contributor to the conversion?

Look at this display ad for Tylenol found on WebMD:

tylenol display ad on webMD

Who’s to say that this display ad didn’t encourage visitors to click on Tylenol’s organic listing during a search for “headache remedies”? The searcher could have subconsciously remembered this ad, which established familiarity with the Tylenol brand, and made it easier for him or her to click the organic listing.

This muddiness is compounded when you factor in remarketing, where ads like the Tylenol banner above follow users around the web. The constant exposure to the brand name might increase the chances of users clicking on an organic listing later on in their search journey.

The same is true of the inverse. The results of an organic search could increase the chances of a searcher clicking on an ad later in in their journey.

In other words, while some data and numbers help dictate trends and performances, it’s simply not as straightforward as saying, without question, that Organic is better than Paid, or vice versa.

Your prospects typically take a very jagged, wavy approach to conversion; they scatter their footprints across the web, and come in contact with a number of paid and organic results that might impact their eventual action.

Rather than pit these two strategies against one another, it’s best to just accept their role as equal partners, and optimize for both moving forward.

Alex Membrillo Cardinal CEO

Alex Membrillo

Founder and CEO

Alex Membrillo is the CEO of Cardinal, a digital marketing agency focused on growing multi location companies. His work as CEO of Cardinal also recently earned him the honor of being selected as a 2015 and 2016 Top 20 Entrepreneur of metro Atlanta by TiE Atlanta, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s 2016 Small Business Person of the Year (Rising Star), and the 2015 Digital Marketer of the Year by Technology Association of Georgia (TAG).