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Whether you’re new to the marketing industry or have been in it for some time, there’s a question that comes up time and time again: is SEO (search engine optimization) or PPC (pay-per-click advertising) better for your business? Here are some insights to help you decide.
SEO vs. PPC: What’s the Difference?
Many organizations don’t appreciate the differences between paid search engine marketing (PPC). Here’s what both examples look like in Google search:
How can you tell the difference between the two? In short, paid ads are at the top and on the side of the results, while organic results are listed lower down on the stage. Search engine marketing draws people into your website organically through search engines like Google, with no financial investment from you.
In SEO, Google (or Yahoo, or Bing) ranks you in the SERPs (short for search engine ranking pages) on the quality of your website content and your product/service ratings, among many other factors. Whether you’re a dentist in Atlanta or have a boutique clothing store in Chicago, you’ll want your business to come up on the first page of the Google search results - ahead of your competitors, and SEO optimization is one way to make this happen. In the below example, we searched for “boutique store chicago” and found the below results in the “Maps” section of the first page.
Once your site is on the first page, you’re much more likely to get the traffic. According to Marketing Land, around 50% of all clicks go to either the first or the second of the results.
Getting on the first page of the SERPs is more of an exact science with local search than with search that doesn’t include a specific location. In the case above, for example, all a boutique store in Chicago has to do is get better ratings than your competitors.
It becomes more difficult when location isn’t specified. These days, Google will always look for your location and try to serve you up the most accurate local results no matter what you search for, but broad searches like “boutique store” also lead to more general content, such as “Differences Between a Boutique and a Retail Store.” It’s these cases that SEO ranking factors such as backlinks, site speed, keyword relevance and intent, image optimization and language markup really matter.
PPC advertising is a bit different. It’s less “luck of the draw” and more about when and where you decide to place your sponsored ads. For example, if you search for “cycling shops in Portland Oregon,” you’ll find many of the most popular SEO results in your main search. But at the top and along the side of the search results page, you’ll find sponsored PPC ads that direct users to special offers or relevant content, as seen below.
But just because paid results come up first doesn’t mean that they’re the best fit for your query. Many times, the PPC ads that you see are from new companies and those that are seeking exposure - no matter the cost, and more money doesn’t equal better products/services. There are times SEO and PPC look very similar, and sometimes results are in both areas of the SERPs.
Which One is Better for Your Business?
You’ll find different answers for the question “Is SEO or PPC better?” across the web, with vendors often claiming that their SEO or PPC solution will make the ultimate difference. But the fact is, both can be great for your business. For example, if you are new to the industry and want to establish yourself in the search engine results, the quickest way to do this is through PPC advertising. But then again, building a solid organic foundation is also very important. It’s really about what you want to accomplish and in how much time.
Think about your own search engine behavior. Are you the type of person who clicks on PPC ads, or scrolls down to the organic search results? It really depends on your personality, so mapping out your marketing personas can help you to determine if SEO or PPC (or both) is the best way for you to promote your company. You should also ask yourself the following questions before you make your decision:
1. How big is your online advertising budget?
Before you do anything else, you need to determine what size online advertising budget your company can support. If you have little or nothing to commit financially, you’ll need to focus on SEO methods. But if you have even a little (think $5-10 a day) to invest in PPC, give it a try. You can reap benefits such as faster testing for website variables to improve conversion rates.
2. How expensive are the average CPCs in your industry?
It’s important to know your overall advertising budget before you make your decision on whether to focus on SEO or PPC, but you should also determine what other companies in your industry are paying for ads. PPC allows users to bid what they’re willing to pay for a single keyword click. This fee is referred to as “cost-per-click” (CPC). To estimate the rates for your industry, try the Traffic Estimator in the free Google External Keyword Research Tool. Many CPC’s are quite affordable at $1-2 per click, but others can run very high, around $30 each. Costs like this can add up quickly!
3. How competitive are organic rankings in your industry?
To determine how competitive the SERPs are for your target keywords, enter them into the Google External Keyword Research Tool. This will tell you the estimated competition level for these terms, as well as the number of advertisers bidding on those keywords and average CPCs. Most of the time, keyword rankings are dominated by authority websites that are nearly impossible to replace without a significant amount of time and money.
In such cases, you might ever reach the top of organic traffic, so it makes more sense to pay for PPC promotions. On the other hand, SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, estimates that 87% of search engine dollars are spent on PPC, versus the 11% that’s spent on SEO efforts. It's hard to justify the expense of a PPC campaign based on stats like this; however PPC can have exceptional benefits if you have a limited-time special offer you want to promote or if you want to maintain your dominance in the SERPs, PPC and SEO can also be very powerful when combined.
The Pros and Cons
SEO & PPC Benefits & Downfalls
Both paid and organic search have pros and cons. Here’s a list that can help you compare the two:
- Speed and expansiveness
- Great for new businesses and special offers
- Very measurable
- Can add filters to target based on specific attributes
- Must be managed full-time to be effective
- Can be costly based on your target keywords
- Steep learning curve
- Banner/ad blindness
- More cost-effective
- Best for selling products
- Can be more effective at driving traffic in the long-run
- Builds a relationship based on trust
- Steep learning curve, but mistakes aren’t as noticeable as PPC
- Can take a long time to implement
- Results aren’t immediately noticeable (new sites need around 3-12 months to rank competitively for a target keyword)
A Note on Remarketing
One of PPC’s greatest offerings is remarketing. Remarketing happens when users come to website and don’t convert. You then can show them adverts on Google’s Display Network. Using cookies, companies can retarget users on websites across the internet that they trust and enjoy visiting. Remarketing can be lower cost compared to traditional PPC because you’ll only be charged when someone clicks on your ad, and you’ll be reaching individuals who are already aware of your business--not just anyone who’s searching for a keyword.
A Warning for SEO
SEO comes with a warning tag. Though many in the industry are well-respected, educated practitioners, there’s also a dark side to the market. Many individuals and companies have used spammy tactics (also called “black hat SEO”) over the years to manipulate search results. Creating spammy content, keyword stuffing and hijacking websites is extremely common. In fact, that’s part of why Google algorithms change all the time. Google punishes those companies while rewarding those who have great content and trusted sites that consumers love. The good news is, providing “white hat” SEO content isn’t difficult. Produce great content, and Google will take notice.
SEO or PPC? Both are Great
As we’ve seen, both SEO and PPC have their strengths and weaknesses. One cannot be considered “better” than the other, just more appropriate for your business. If you’re having trouble implementing SEO due to a lack of expertise, try using a plug-in for your site. Plug-ins such as Yoast for Wordpress can help you get a head-start on optimizing for search with automated processes. In terms of PPC, be sure to read all of the great material Google has to offer on the subject. Though both SEO and PPC take work, they can be a fantastic addition to your marketing strategy.
To learn more about organic and paid search engine marketing, learn more about our digital marketing courses.