SEO vs. PPC – Which Makes Most Sense For You?

SEO and PPC are typically two of the largest marketing channels for any business designed to make money on the web (almost every company).  Countless small businesses wrestle with this question as they set out to build a digital marketing strategy.  In fact, at the time of this post, Google’s guidance suggests that about 260 people per month here in the United States are searching for terms that contain ‘ppc vs. seo’.

The debate is littered with comments like, “Start with SEO because it’s free…”, and “Google ads are taking up too much space at the top of the results page to ignore PPC”.  There is no simple cookie cutter answer for how you should allocate your resources between these two marketing channels. But, there is a right answer for each business that depends on a number of factors.  Before we explore some advantages and disadvantages of each, here are the layman’s definitions of SEO and PPC:

SEO – Stands for search engine optimization.  The channel is also referred to as “organic search”.  It refers to the listings on a search engine results page (SERP) that are not being paid for by advertisers in any direct sense.  These results are being selected by search engines based on some combination of relevance and authority of the page and the domain for the given query.

PPC – Stands for Pay Per Click.  This is often called paid search marketing, or search engine marketing (wrongly in my opinion because SEO is also search engine marketing).  It refers to any results on a search engine results page which are being placed as a direct function of payment from an advertiser.  These ads are almost always sold on a per click basis.

Considering your business objectives in relation to the following five dimensions will give you a framework to generate the best possible strategy in SEO and PPC for your company’s needs.

SEO

PPC

Payback Period

Slower

Faster

Predictability

Lower

Higher

Control

Lower

Higher

Targeting Ability

Lower

Higher

Impact on Website Value

Higher

Lower

Payback Period

SEO

  • SEO is at the mercy of the clock to a much greater degree than the PPC channel.  SEO can be done with existing internal resources and enough knowledge, but do not make the mistake of thinking that it is free.  Getting ranked in search engines requires your website to become an important and engrained piece of the internet, and earning that kind of authority takes significant elbow grease and time. The benefits of organic search efforts will compound over time, but they will not necessarily yield impactful results at the beginning.  It can take months and even years to crack the surface in a competitive industry, leaving a company with expenses and little resulting revenue for long periods of time as you earn your way up in search engines. Once you are seen and respected by Google, that trust gets easier to maintain and build on.  When the hard work and waiting from the initial effort is banked, organic search can continue to produce huge ROI over very long timeframes.

PPC

  • If you have a website that does a decent job of converting traffic, a solid pay per click strategy can be earning your business serious profit immediately.  There is often a period of website optimization that follows as a result of data provided by the initial onset of paid search campaigns.  When a website has trouble converting ppc traffic, it may take some time to see profitability, but as a general rule paid search advertising returns come much more quickly than those in organic search.

Predictability

SEO

  • As far as marketing channels go (not everyone considers SEO a marketing channel), few are less predictable than organic search.  You are at the mercy of search engine algorithms, conniving competitors, increasing paid search ‘real estate’ on search results pages and the list goes on. The coverage that you earn from major search engines is ultimately a gift, and because you aren’t paying the search engines for those impressions you are sacrificing the ability to get predictable information on expected performance.  Talented SEO professionals can build well-reasoned forecasts that will often be highly accurate, but it is not realistic to expect the kind of forecasting accuracy in SEO as you might in paid media channels.

PPC

  • Paid search is very predictable in many ways in comparison to SEO, but it can also be volatile.  In general, when competition remains steady and you have good historical information to inform your expectations, you can predict performance very accurately.  However, when competition makes drastic changes to strategy, it can have quick and severe impact on the effectiveness of your paid search campaign. I personally believe that PPC is inherently more predictable than SEO, but that’s based purely on experience.  I am confident in saying that if PPC performance is different from expectations, it is almost always easier to understand exactly why things are different than it is in SEO.  The amount of data that is available for paid search ad auctions is much more substantial than the data that is available on the organic search side.

Control

SEO

  • On the spectrum of control over marketing campaigns, SEO is towards the bottom.  Similarly to predictability, the fact that you are not directly buying media comes at the price of a substantial loss of control.If you run out of product 2 weeks before the holiday season, you can’t just shut down your presence in organic search until you get the supply chain back on track.  If you need to push additional units of a perishable product at any cost, you can’t lever up your SEO traffic by spending money and then bring it back down when the product is sold out.  I recently had a client ask me, “How much would it cost to rank for XYZ Term by Christmas”, and I unfortunately had to tell him that it was a longer goal than that time frame would allow, and there is nothing I can do to control that (safely).  If your business goals and operations require a high degree of control from your marketing spend, SEO is not where you will find it.

 PPC

  • Pay per click search advertising is all the way at the opposite side of the control spectrum from SEO.  PPC is exactly the channel that you want to use when you have a high need for control in your marketing spend.For example, if your boss told you that the priority was to maximize the brands exposure in search engines for the next 7 days before a proposed merger goes through, you can do it.  If you want to accept less profitability on a per-conversion basis in order to drive volume, you can understand those economics with clean data and move forwards accordingly.  If you know that traffic after 5PM local time is worth nothing to you, then you don’t need to pay for it.One of the ways that control comes to fruition most often in PPC marketing is in A/B site testing.  If a marketer wants to test the reactions of similar traffic to 2 or 3 different web experiences, they can easily split the visitors across multiple landing pages or web experiences, and then spend as much money as needed to make sure they receive enough traffic volume to get statistically significant results.  This type of experimental testing is impossible in SEO, where you have to send specific traffic to specific pages and there is limited if any control over the amount of traffic volume that goes to any one page.

 

Targeting ability

SEO

  • The organic search approach gives you the ability to target people by their intentions at the time of a query, and not much more.  SEO makes it possible to earn highly relevant traffic because you can build your website out to attempt to rank for very specific terms.  Unfortunately, there is little or no ability to target timeframes, geographies, personal demographical characteristics, or device types (mobile vs. desktop).  Once again, in the advertising industry these types of refinements tend to cost money, and when you are not paying the search engine you take what you get.

PPC

  • PPC is middle of the road in terms of targeting opportunities with respect to other digital media.  It is excellent at targeting day parts, geographies, and to a lesser degree device types.  When it comes to online media, PPC can send more traffic to a site within a specific geography than any other paid marketing channel.  It is also easy to make sure that you receive no traffic at times that don’t make sense for you. What PPC cannot do is let you target based on more personal and often brand-relevant characteristics, such as gender, occupation, hobbies etc.  In recent years, social advertising has stolen the show when it comes to these kinds of hyper-targeted strategies because they have much more available data on these traits than any other type of ad platform.  PPC will give you more targeting functionality than SEO, but if tight targeting is your main priority you may want to look outside of search engine marketing.

Effect on the value of the website

SEO

  • Building up equity in your website for organic search over time is just like building up equity in a home that you plan to sell one day.  When search engines send traffic that is incrementally free, it has a very real value in the marketplace.  Up front and ongoing investments in SEO yield long term value that can be cashed in whenever it comes time for exit.  To liken the two channels to the real estate market, investment in PPC is the ‘rent’ strategy, whereas investment in SEO is the ‘buy’ strategy.  PPC can provide quick victories and real profit, but it does not have the long term benefits for the value of the website that SEO does.

PPC

  • PPC marketing spend is gone as soon as it leaves the bank account, and it normally cannot be traded on for future value.  One exception to that is the fact that spending aggressively in PPC on a website with little organic search traffic can help to prove out the value of a site experience for potential buyers.  If you can use paid search traffic to prove to a buyer that the site converts 2x better than its competitors, then in a sense the PPC channel has added to the value of the website itself.
Jimmy Page is Founder and President (OG) of Inseev Interactive, a San Diego based digital marketing agency with core competencies in search marketing and analytics. Jimmy has been volunteering for the San Diego Chapter of the American Marketing Association since 2009, and is currently serving in his fourth year as a member of the executive board. He is the host of the SDAMA podcast, ‘This Week in Marketing’. In his free time, Jimmy enjoys boating on Mission Bay and partying in Mexico. Feel free to reach out to Jimmy on LinkedIn.

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