Here we are talking about digital marketing, and it seems a lot of businesses out there view this dichotomy between search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Both of them get you online traffic. Both of them have a cost combined from cash and time. So we see people asking “Which one should I focus on?”
The true answer is “Why not both?” Of course, no company ever went out of business from too much marketing, allowing that their budget can cover it. But most businesses don’t have an infinite budget and would rather prioritize the strategy with the best return on investment (ROI). When in doubt, we always say “Go for at least a little SEO first.” You already have to have a website to do business through the web in the first place. There are easy things you can do, like creating citations in business directories or building an engaging Google My Business listing, that will help you generate more traffic. Your website is bound to draw some search engine hits even with bare minimum text anyway.
OK, but after that, then what? Where do you invest your marketing budget and time? SEO and PPC both have the same goal: to get to the top of the search engine and drive people to your website. They just use different means to get to the top.
Digital Marketing Strategies: SEO vs PPC
In SEO, we try to put content online that users will find helpful, informative, and useful. Google’s search engine site crawlers come along and index that content, then hopefully our site will pop up in search results when users search for the thing we wrote about. Everything but your website hosting bill and whomever you paid to write the content is free. See all those text-heavy websites out there? They’re on the SEO plan and loving it.
In PPC, we pay a little extra to take a shortcut. We create ad campaigns and bid on keywords instead of writing about them in our content. When searchers conduct a query, if there are PPC ads focused on those keywords, those ads pop right to the top of the search listings. A click on our PPC ad takes the user to our landing page. Express lane, no waiting!
SEO and PPC have a few other things in common:
- They rely on keywords, often the same keywords
- They’re designed to align with search intent
- They’re both subject to Google’s algorithm updates, changes to service, and policy whims
SEO and PPC also have some obvious points where they differ:
- Some users will not click on a paid ad no matter what, even if the organic search result takes them to the same page. They just don’t trust them.
- Users are slightly less likely to click on an ad if they’re still in the research stage and don’t feel ready to make a buying commitment yet.
- Ads are more likely to be effective when the user intends to make a purchase presently. See our piece on user intent.
- PPC is paid; sometimes the bids for competitive keywords can get pricey in competitive markets.
- SEO is “free” in terms of cost, but time and/or labor must be invested in research, optimization, and content creation.
- PPC can get you leads right now. SEO is more of a long-term game. It can take up to a year to see results, depending on your market niche and competition.
- PPC is never permanent, as soon as the campaign ends (or you run out of money), the leads are gone. SEO can bring you leads as long as your website is appearing on the SERP.
As we say, SEO is an essential component of most digital marketing strategies. Some businesses will do the bare minimum, while others will do everything in their power to reach the top. Developing and refining an SEO strategy for a competitive, broad market niche is a whole other ballgame. It takes extensive research, link building, and continual analysis and optimization; there’s typically a whole marketing department or digital marketing agency busy with it. SEO rewards the savvy business, where you can get to the top just by being clever. PPC fights using cash. But even then, to be successful with PPC you still have to understand your target buyer and be able to craft compelling ads that’ll convince them to click.
Pros and Cons: SEO vs PPC
You will notice that different industries tend to lean in favor of either SEO or PPC. That’s because the two methods differ widely in the way they attract traffic.
SEO: Slow and Steady
Businesses that tend to focus more on SEO do this because:
- They need constant, steady traffic as opposed to short bursts based on campaigns
- They need to build up brand awareness and reputation
- They have a long sales cycle where leads conduct extensive research
Generally, you see SEO deployed more in broad, professional, service-led industries, such as higher education, law firms, medical clinics, home services, and B2B services. You will also see SEO used for high-value purchases like computers, cellphones, cameras, cars, etc. These are big expenses for most people and they’re going to conduct extensive research before pulling the trigger.
You also see large-scale SEO deployed in websites that are content-driven themselves. It is still possible in this day and age to have a website sustained entirely off affiliate links, paid display ads, or subscriptions to content. Think big media, and some arts and entertainment. Here, “arts and entertainment” is more likely to be video game or movie review sites with commissioned links to Amazon and whatnot.
With SEO, it is far easier to stay on top of the search engine results page (SERP) than it is to claw your way up there, to begin with.
PPC: Fast and Furious
But PPC might be a better focus for the marketing budget for businesses that need:
- Immediate traffic
- Responsive marketing for seasonal offers, promotions, discounts, and new product launches
- Businesses with high margins or high customer lifetime values. The revenue these clients bring far outweigh the costs of the PPC advertising campaigns.
- Visibility in highly competitive markets where they can’t rank organically
As you might guess, PPC marketing is ideal for the retail industry. When you sell products directly through your site, have a business plan with high volume but small profit per sale, or are in an industry where buyers aren’t prone to research a lot or need a solution fast, PPC can be very effective.
Highly competitive industries with large profit volumes also tend to take the PPC route. According to Search Engine Journal, industries currently putting up the biggest PPC numbers include apparel, personal care, electronics, gifts, hobbies and leisure, arts and entertainment, health, and real estate. This time “arts and entertainment” would be more event-driven, as in theater tickets or sporting events.
But PPC is not limited to retail, it can be an extremely effective tactic for most businesses.
The key is to identify the high-intent keywords that your buyers use when they’re ready to make a purchase. Once you do, you can use PPC ads to drive leads and sales.
The Best of Both Worlds: SEO and PPC
But as we say, nearly every business uses SEO content to some degree because it’s efficient, low-cost, and provides long-term value. In addition, most businesses will find at least some attraction in PPC ads, such as quicker start-up to profit, worthwhile high volume sales during a particular season, or just keeping up with the competition.
Here’s the nut of the matter: wonderful things happen when you use some of each! Because both content and paid advertising drive traffic from the same search terms in Google, the keywords that work on one side can tell you more about the keywords that should work on the other side. Any large-scale business with a dedicated digital marketing budget to speak of should be using analytics to get the most value out of using both SEO and PPC.
Using SEO and PPC together, like a marketing Captain Planet, produces new advantages that are greater than the sum of their parts. It allows you to:
- Use keyword research and metrics from individual campaigns to optimize your overall search engine marketing strategy
- Increase brand reputation and brand exposure
- Identify high-performing ad copy and complement it with content
- Claim even more real estate on the front SERP
If you’re on the top of the SERP using both organic content and a bought ad spot, that increases brand awareness and a little consumer trust. All other things being equal, when you’re choosing a new business in a first-time buyer scenario, you’re likely to go with the company that seems “bigger,” right? This company is always at the top of the page, “If they’re at the top so often, they must be the best.” That’s instinctual nature!
As we mentioned, SEO is a long-term, slow-lane strategy and PPC is a quick-fire, short-term strategy. But you can speed up your content marketing process by using the PPC side to experiment with keywords and get results fast. You can analyze the PPC data within weeks, then use that information to plot your SEO strategy. Likewise, over time your traffic stats will give you more detailed information about keywords and traffic, which can give you a clue about which keywords to bid on in your next PPC campaign.
A Closer Look: PPC and SEO on the SERP
When you have some experience in digital marketing, some SERPs become pretty interesting on their own. It’s like watching a little chess game between companies. Here’s a search for “cat hairball”:
Hill’s is a pet food company that wants to be on top of the SERP, so they are bidding on the keywords that will get them there. We also see Temptations, a brand of cat treats, offering a preventative solution of dietary hairball control, so they bought PPC keywords too. Further down the SERP, we see organic content:
That’s the same site, hillspet.com, coming back with an SEO content article providing information on how to solve your cat’s hairball problem. Temptations doesn’t have any content or information on their website on how to solve this issue. For them, it’s likely not worth an SEO strategy to sell a $3.50 bag of cat treats. Hill’s Pet Nutrition, on the other hand, wants to demonstrate to pet owners that they have the best information and products to help care for your pet. If they can get a person to switch cat food brands to their Science Diet brand for life, that’s a significant source of revenue and worth the marketing investment.
In between the paid and organic listings was a WebMD featured information box:
Now WebMD, they are an example of a pure content-to-ads model. They’re not about to buy PPC space, but they will create an SEO article on a veterinary topic when they’re known primarily as a human medical resource. Why? Meh, why not? WebMD is a sprawling content ranch that’s decades old, and a subsidiary of Internet Brands. Maybe you’ll click an ad here, or maybe you’ll click deeper into their site and eventually make an expensive click on a mesothelioma ad. Wander into our maze, take your time, there’ is a lot to see.
So we see three different businesses, three different strategies. One using PPC only, one SEO only, and one using both. You can bet that Hill’s marketing team analyzes performance on both PPC and SEO, so they know better where to place their efforts.
Information is key in the digital marketing game. Access to data analysis is a powerful resource that can guide your marketing spending in the future, with more efficient results. Sometimes the outcome of that analysis tells you to maintain an SEO stronghold for organic traffic, or else keep investing in PPC ad campaigns that target the bottom of the funnel. Sometimes it’s advantageous to keep a hand in each strategy.