SEO vs PPC: Which is Better to Maximize Your Search ROI

RJ Licata Marketing Manager
Key Points
  • When weighing SEO vs PPC, both marketing vehicles can produce positive business results for your brand.
  • When done right, SEO is highly profitable and produces long-term, sustainable returns. However, it’s important to understand that it takes time to see results.
  • PPC produces results immediately. However, PPC is expensive and increases your comparative cost per acquisition.
  • Both SEO and PPC are valuable to your marketing mix but they support different business outcomes.

Are you stuck in the cyclical SEO vs PPC debate? You aren’t alone. CMOs for global brands constantly wrestle with how to balance these strategies to deliver the best marketing ROI.

Your brand already leverages search engine optimization (SEO) and spends a large amount on pay-per-click advertising (PPC). You like what SEO delivers for your brand, as you can capitalize on organic search cost-effectively. On the other hand, you like that PPC produces returns as soon as you deploy ads.

You know that both marketing vehicles generate results. But do you know your specific ROI from each vehicle? More importantly, do you know how to combine them to maximize revenue for your brand?

Let’s walk through the pros and cons of organic SEO vs PPC so you can create the right mix to maximize your digital marketing ROI.

seo vs ppc - pros and cons of seo

Pros and cons of SEO

SEO refers to the strategies and tactics that make your website as search engine friendly as possible. A properly-executed SEO program helps your website rank higher in the organic search results for a set of strategically-chosen queries.

Every time a user searches a phrase in Google, it’s Google’s job to serve the most useful, relevant and trusted pages related to that search. As an SEO strategist, it’s your job to ensure that your content appears on Google’s top 10 list for those queries. Ultimately, you want your target customers to hit your website and exclaim, “This is exactly what I was looking for!”

SEO activities include keyword research, competitive analysis, technical SEO, on-page optimization, content development, content SEO, and strategic outreach to boost off-page SEO signals. When done right, SEO presents your brand to searchers at every stage of the customer journey. As a result, you’ll be seen as a trusted, familiar resource for consumers or businesses.

The pros of SEO include:

SEO is highly profitable

Dollar for dollar, SEO is likely to become one of the most profitable vehicles in your marketing mix. Over the long-term, it’s much more profitable than PPC, also known as SEM.

SEO is highly scalable

Whether you have a website with one hundred or one thousand pages, SEO cost-effectively scales to help you gain more and more real estate in the organic search results. For example, if you optimize your URL structures, then that benefit will accrue to not only your existing web pages, but future additions to your site. What’s more, it supports your various marketing initiatives at the same time.

SEO is “always on”

Once you’ve achieved high search rankings, those rankings work for your business 24/7. No need to add advertising spend or configure dayparting. Your organic search engine results will act as a constant promotion for your brand.

SEO provides long-term returns

When your SEO activities produce strong visibility in the organic search results, your brand benefits not just today, but over the long term. Positive organic search visibility over months and years increases the ROI from your SEO investments exponentially.

seo vs ppc - seo provides positive branding

SEO equals positive branding

When you dominate Google search, people will consider you a serious player in the industry. In fact, the mere presence of your listings on the first page of Google page is a sign of trust in the eyes of your audience.

SEO occupies more space in the SERPs

If you properly optimize your content then one page can potentially occupy multiple spots in the Google SERP. For example, if you rank for the featured snippet, then your url gets two spots. If you also optimize for the People also ask section (PAA), you could potentially have a third seat on page one.

SEO enables brand touchpoints throughout the funnel

Want to influence your target audience at the beginning of their journey? Then optimize for research-related topics and long tail keywords. If you also optimize for mid-funnel terms then your brand can appear when your target audience begins to narrow its list of options. Finally, bottom of the funnel SEO helps you control the buyer’s final decision (think ROI calculators, etc.).

SEO showcases your brand’s creativity

With organic search results, you can really tap into your team’s creativity to gain an edge over the competition. Each of the following content ideas can earn your brand additional real estate in the organic search results:

  • Write long-form blog posts
  • Publish custom research reports
  • Design infographics
  • Upload SlideShares
  • Shoot a new video series

What’s more, organic search results differentiate your brand and showcase your value and brand personality.

The ROI for SEO compounds over time

Take a hundred dollars. Now, increase it by 20% every day for a month. After five days, you have merely $207. After 10 days, you have only $516. How much do you think you’ll have at the end of the month? Believe it or not, the total would come to $23,738, an increase of more than 23,600%.

Similarly, your return on investment (ROI) from SEO compounds over time. As you strengthen your credibility and authority, all of your content will benefit. As a result, your new pages, posts and other content will rank higher with less effort.

The cons of SEO include:

seo vs ppc - seo takes time

SEO takes time

There’s no getting around this. Good SEO takes work, and results take time to materialize. Herein lies the crux of the SEO vs PPC debate:

  • PPC returns are immediate, but they vanish if you don’t pay the piper.
  • SEO takes time, but you’ll continue to see ROI long after your investment. In fact, sometimes those results can continue for years.

How much time does it take to see results? That depends on a number of factors, including your domain’s strength and your SEO strategy. But it usually takes at least six months before you start to see results from SEO.

However, once you execute the following…

  • Optimize your website
  • Target the right topics and keywords
  • Publish engaging content
  • Earn credible, relevant third-party backlinks to your site

…then you should see quicker returns from future efforts, sometimes within weeks or even days.

Google’s algorithm changes over time

With changes to the algorithm over time, you may need to adjust aspects of your SEO program from time to time. So, instead of a set- it-and-forget-it mentality, you should monitor performance over time and optimize accordingly.

Pros and cons of PPC

Where SEO is the process of organically ranking in the search results, pay-per-click advertising, or PPC advertising using Google Adwords or Bing Ads, is the process of paying to be at the top (or bottom) of the SERPs, in the real estate allocated to ads.

PPC enables you to have full control of the messaging and links on the search results page. Paid search marketing is an auction, and so there’s no absolute guarantee when your ads will appear, but the level of control in managing your campaign is different than with SEO.

Similar to SEO, PPC activities include keyword and topic research and competitive analysis. There’s also account architecture, campaign management, bid management, ad copy and landing page development, ad copy and landing page testing, and more.

PPC is highly data-driven, and so it’s important for a PPC specialist to monitor results like a hawk, constantly refining keyword, ad group and messaging strategy and striving to increase conversion rates and lower the average cost per click (CPC).

The pros of PPC include:

Near-immediate results

It still takes time to do the initial research and set up a new campaign or ad group. However, the results you’ll see with PPC are swift and fairly straightforward once you launch.

Regardless of how things play out over the long term, there are logical reasons to want short-term results, too. You might want to promote a new product, gear up for the holidays, or run a sale or promotion. You may simply want to occupy more real estate in the Google SERPs. Or you may just want some quick visibility while you wait for your long-term SEO work to pay off.

Straightforward data

If your brand is highly data-driven, you’ll feel at home with PPC. Because of the immediacy of the results and the specificity of the campaign you’re running, you’ll be able to get a clean, clear picture of your PPC campaign’s ROI.

Not only is PPC data more straightforward by nature, but Google is also more transparent with its PPC data than with its SEO data. Google tends to reward its paying customers with useful information upon which they can capitalize to run a smooth campaign.

Audience targeting

Want to target specific email addresses or similar audiences? Maybe you’d like to retarget users that perform certain searches? Or perhaps you want to target URLs for websites, apps or YouTube videos related to your audience’s interests? You can do all of this if you use PPC.

In the case that you want to run campaigns with targeted messaging in specific geographic locations, PPC is your ticket. You have the ability to show certain ads in one location, while displaying other ads in a different location at the same time. Want to have 50 different campaigns targeting 50 different locations? With PPC, that’s no problem.

The cons of PPC include:

No money, no results

These are paid ads, so while you may be able to pull a lever and see results, as soon as you stop pulling that lever, your traffic is gone. That means if you need to lower your budget or stop paying altogether, your business will suffer the consequences of losing the converting traffic immediately.

SEO, on the other hand, is less like a lever and more like a large boulder on a downhill slope: it takes some force to get it moving, but it keeps rolling long after you stop pushing.

seo vs ppc - ppc is a major financial investment

It’s a big financial investment

PPC requires a significant advertising spend. No spend? No ads, and no results. Plus, CPCs have been rising for years, meaning that even just generating a click (regardless of whether they are qualified or whether they ever become a lead or make a purchase), is requiring a higher investment now than in the past.

On top of that, PPC is a process of constant fine-tuning as your specialists test different bids, ad copy, keywords, landing pages and campaign settings until they hit the sweet spot. That means you can’t expect to have perfect ROI, and you’re likely to lose money on failed experiments. That’s all part of the process, but it’s one of the reasons PPC requires a bigger financial investment than you might expect.

Higher cost per acquisition

Along the lines of requiring a large financial commitment, PPC acquisitions come at a serious cost. Many large enterprises spend six and seven figures monthly on PPC, leading to comparatively high acquisition costs.

It’s hard to avoid “banner blindness”

Banner blindness is the phenomenon that causes people to ignore advertisements. Many online searchers are now inured to online ads, having spent years seeing them clutter pages with unrequested messages and having habituated themselves to automatically ignoring them in pursuit of more valuable information on the page.

This impacts search, too, with eye-tracking studies revealing that most people skip over the paid results at the top of the SERPs and go straight to the organic results. It may be difficult to prioritize PPC in your internet marketing mix, only to realize that the bulk of your target audience doesn’t pay attention to ads.

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SEO vs PPC comparison

SEO vs PPC statistics

Let’s take a closer look at the “SEO vs PPC” debate by comparing statistics.

  • Conductor found that 64% of all clicks in the SERPs were captured by organic listings. In comparison, the Conductor study found that paid ads accounted for merely 6% of clicks. (The remainder were non-clicks, or the searcher searched on a different phrase next, etc.)
  • HubSpot discovered that up to 80% of people ignore PPC ads.
  • WordStream reported that the average CTR for PPC ads across all industries is 3.17%.
  • In comparison, Advanced Web Ranking found that for 2,547,868 keywords across 47,781 websites in April 2019, the Google page one organic CTR was 77.20%. For mobile, the organic CTR was 64.97%.
  • According to a 2018 study by Jumpshot and Moz, organic desktop listings still produce 20X more clicks than PPC ads, while organic mobile listings are 10X higher than clicks on PPC ads.

What takeaways can we pull from this data?

SEO vs PPC click through rates

For one thing, the difference in click-through rate between organic and paid search engine marketing is drastic. Regardless of the study listed above, regardless of the time of the study and regardless of whether the study results were for desktop or mobile, organic search produced a far higher CTR than paid search ads.

If you’re looking to maximize your traffic from search, SEO appears to be the more reliable choice.

SEO vs PPC ROI

We’ve seen that SEO click-through rates are higher than PPC, meaning that it has the potential to drive significantly higher volumes of organic traffic your way. In addition, your cost per acquisition (CPA) is going to be much lower using SEO than PPC.

So, if you are a brand that is currently spending six or seven figures monthly in paid search ad spend, learning to improve your SEO results and relying on SEO comparatively more will significantly benefit your bottom line. Just imagine if you are spending a million dollars monthly on paid search, it’s realistic that you could reduce your CPA by 60%, 70%, or even more than 80% by dominating in organic search while reducing your PPC spend.

If you are not strong in SEO today, you can still plan on incrementally shifting to a heavier reliance on SEO. As you start to perform better organically, it will be more profitable for you to focus increasingly on SEO and relying less and less on paid search. This type of phased process can take time, but is more profitable for you than latching on to large paid search allocations simply because PPC is a known quantity or because “that’s what you have always done”.

In order to achieve the highest ROI from your SEO efforts, you’ll want to engage in Enterprise SEO throughout the entire funnel, capturing those interested in the product or service category but still in the early research phase, all the way down to those interested in making a purchase decision now.

Is SEO or PPC better for my brand?

seo vs ppc - which is better for my brand

You’ve read all this way and want to know who the definitive winner is in the SEO vs PPC debate. The best answer for many businesses is, “Why not both?”

SEO and PPC are complementary in terms of occupying more real estate on the SERP, pushing down the competition and making a stronger brand impression, so you can maximize your ROI by using both strategies in tandem.

SEO is clearly the stronger option for your long-term traffic, conversions and ROI, and with its compounding effect, the stronger you get at SEO the more benefits you’ll realize. Organic search covers a variety of types of content (e.g., web pages, blog posts, videos, podcasts, infographics, presentations, reports, etc.), enabling your team to get creative and showcase your brand differentiation and personality more effectively than PPC.

However, that’s not to say that there’s no place for PPC. Paid search would be the better option in the case of a short-term promotion or where you suddenly need immediate results for a particular area, for example.

So don’t think that you need to choose between SEO vs PPC. Instead, understand their pros and cons and leverage the right mix for your marketing goals. If you do that, you’ll achieve both short-term as well as long-term ROI.

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