For years, people in this industry debated the merits of paid search advertising versus organic search marketing.
Which one should you put your resources into?
Honestly, I thought we’d settled this argument a long time ago:
You need both!
But recently, the topic came up again amongst some of my clients.
I can see why. If you weren’t part of the original discussion, this conclusion might not seem so obvious.
Therefore, allow me to use this article to express a few forgotten truths in the SEO versus PPC debate.
1. Paid Search Can’t Replace Organic (& Vice Versa)
Paid search and search engine marketing are different beasts.
One is not a substitute for the other.
Each comes with its own strengths and weaknesses.
Paid search, for example, is really good at driving non-branded traffic to your website.
Here’s a classic PPC scenario: The user knows nothing about your brand. They search for a product they want to buy.
Your ad displays at the top of the search results page. The user clicks on your ad to see what you have to offer.
In so doing, they get more familiar with your brand and move further along the conversion path.
Can organic search do this? Perhaps.
But even the highest ranked organic search result won’t display at the top of the page.
At best, your organic listing will display in the middle of the page.
At worst, your listing will be many pages deep.
Similarly, organic search is really good at driving branded traffic to your website.
A classic SEO scenario: The user knows your brand. They search for your brand name.
Your site shows up at the top of the organic search results. The user clicks on your listing and goes to your website.
Can PPC do this? Yes, which is why you should also bid on brand in PPC.
But what if your ad is the only thing that displays – with no organic listing? That could cause the user to question the legitimacy of your brand. So ideally, you’d have both.
Both of these tools bring strengths to the table. Why wouldn’t you want both of them working for you?
2. Neither SEO nor PPC Is Free
A common argument against PPC is that it’s expensive. You have to pay every time someone clicks on your ad. And if your accounts are professionally managed, you have to pay for that too.
But as any SEO expert will tell you, SEO also takes time, money and expertise.
If you want it done well, you’re going to have to pay for it – whether you’re paying an in house SEO manager or an outside consulting firm.
3. It’s Not a Zero-Sum Game
Sometimes people make the mistake of thinking that SEO versus PPC is a zero-sum game. If you stop investing in one, the other will pick up the slack and vice versa.
But I’ve rarely seen that happen. SEO and PPC won’t typically cannibalize each other. Instead, they draw their results from different pools.
This is a point we made with a client recently.
The client is working with an SEO agency. This isn’t unusual. In fact, we welcome this arrangement because we know good SEO will help drive PPC results and vice versa.
But in this case, the SEO consultant was encouraging the client to drop PPC entirely in some markets. His was going to pump up his organic efforts in some of our lower performing locations, so advertising would no longer be necessary (he says!).
Let’s see what would happen if our client accepted this recommendation.
In 2018, organic drove 29% of sessions for this client, generating 22% of the leads.
Meanwhile, PPC drove 43% of sessions, generating 55% of the leads.
Now let’s jump ahead to mid-year 2019, where the company has invested heavily in SEO.
To date for 2019, organic drove 28% of sessions, generating 22% of the leads.
Meanwhile, PPC remains relatively unchanged. It drove 46% of sessions, generating 55% of the leads.
As you can see, the results are trending the same for this year as last year.
So what would happen if we suddenly stopped advertising in these markets – even with this renewed investment in SEO?
Would SEO somehow pick up the slack and deliver all those PPC leads? It doesn’t seem likely.
4. Statistics Can Be Deceiving
In the “competition” between SEO and PPC, proponents of one side or the other will often trot out findings to support their case.
But you have to look at these stats closely before you reach any conclusions.
For example, one of our other clients had an SEO consultant who wanted them to stop PPC advertising entirely!
He based his argument on his “finding” that PPC traffic was suffering from bad site engagement when compared to SEO. Therefore, he argued, the client should put all its marketing dollars there.
We weren’t sure where the SEO consultant was getting this information. Because we were seeing something very different on our side.
Eventually, we suspected he had overlooked the fact that most of the PPC traffic was coming in via call only campaigns.
As you may know, traffic generated by these campaigns isn’t directed to the client website at all, which would explain low engagement numbers!
This recommendation might have been well-intentioned. But it was based on incomplete information.
Ironically, there was another important metric the consultant ignored altogether: new visitors.
For this client, PPC drove 2,958 new visitors YTD.
In contrast, organic drove only 1,246.
What would happen to all those PPC-driven new visitors if you stopped advertising?
Most likely, you would lose them.
So when you see people arguing either for or against PPC versus SEO, make sure they’re looking at all the relevant information.
5. Look Beyond Traffic to Leads & Conversions
While we’re on the topic of numbers, let me also point out that many of the statistics floating around on the internet would also benefit from a closer analysis.
For example, a 2014 study from Conductor (an SEO company) stated that organic search is responsible for 64% of all site traffic, while paid search generates only 6%.
What are they trying to infer with this statistic? That SEO is more effective than PPC? Probably.
But I see two problems.
- First, that organic search traffic number would include traffic generated by every possible kind of search inquiry – including searches where ads wouldn’t display at all!
- Second, and more importantly, is traffic really the goal? Or should we be more interested in leads and conversions?
Because you could get all the traffic in the world – but if you’re not getting leads or conversions out of it, what’s the point?
SEO or PPC? Choose Both!
When people ask whether they should choose SEO or PPC, make the argument that they shouldn’t make a choice at all.
Because neither is a substitute for the other.
And when you harness them together, you get the best of both.
- How to Combine SEO & PPC for More Powerful Results
- How SEO & PPC Keyword Research Can Work Together
- SEO vs. PPC: Which is Better in the Long Run?
Feature image: Dreamstime.com
All screenshots taken by author, June 2019