Believe it or not, some marketers are still taking sides in the “SEO vs. PPC” debate. I can understand the passion on both sides of the aisle, but I’d compare it to an argument about the need for “air vs. water.” Depending on your immediate circumstances, one may be more important than another—but both are necessary for survival.
To those passionately arguing that SEO is better than PPC, or vice versa, I propose a truce based on the potential for incremental gains when we work together.
For those seeking answers to the question, “should I invest in PPC or SEO,” buckle up—we’re about to unpack a debate that has raged for more than a decade to help you decide how to prioritize your digital marketing efforts.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is the difference between SEO and PPC?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the art and science of improving your brand’s visibility in search engine result pages (SERPs) to attract more visitors to your web properties.
It’s not limited to just web search engines, though. SEO strategies also improve your visibility in maps search results, image and video search results, shopping listings, app stores, and social media search results.
Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising positions your brand in sponsored ad positions on search results pages. Advertisers have more control over the targeted keywords, audiences, and creative, but they pay for each click to their website.
A search ad is most commonly found at the top of the search results.
Many marketers oversimplify the difference between SEO and PPC with a half-truth like, “SEO is free but PPC costs money.” While it’s true that clicks on organic search results don’t cost you money, there’s a good chance that your content won’t rank consistently well unless you invest in people, content, and tools to step up your SEO game. You get what you pay for.
Another misperception is that PPC has to be expensive. Sure, PPC can be pricey if you don’t put proper safeguards in place to protect your wallet. You wouldn’t just leave your debit card hanging out of an ATM, would you? No, you protect it with a PIN and withdrawal limits. Similarly, you protect your PPC spend by setting daily budgets and monitoring your campaigns for wasteful spending on irrelevant keywords.
Which channel is better at increasing revenue?
That’s a trick question. It’s both.
SEO and PPC can generate qualified traffic to your site and improve your chances of converting more visitors to customers. And surveys conducted by Google and Nielsen suggest that brands get more combined clicks on ads and organic results when both are present on a SERP. Sharing insights and integrating your paid and organic search strategies will yield more growth than focusing all of your resources on one versus the other.
How do you measure the success of an SEO strategy vs. a PPC campaign?
Start with your business objectives. In most cases, the overall aim is to increase revenue, leads, sales, or engagement. Successful SEO and PPC strategies can create measurable impacts on your business, quantified with a few key metrics at each step in the customer journey.
This is not an exhaustive list of the metrics that you can measure, but it does show the similarities and overlaps between SEO and PPC that can be exploited.
The SEO or PPC zealots can each claim superiority in some of these metrics. But savvy marketers realize that neither channel exists in a vacuum and we should focus on the contribution of each channel to shared goals.
Attribution Is the Future Present
In most cases, consumers interact with your brand multiple times before converting. And like snowflakes, no two conversion paths are the same. There are likely multiple touchpoints that must be accounted for to get a true picture of the customer journey.
Attribution is where the SEO vs. PPC debate loses some steam. The position-based attribution example below shows multiple conversion paths that include “Organic Search” and “Paid Search” touchpoints. In each of these cases, a customer converted only after multiple interactions.
Your proportion of “Organic Search” to “Paid Search” conversions will vary depending on your brand awareness and product offerings. It’s important to keep an eye on your preferred attribution model and use the cross-channel insights to dial in your budgets and prioritize your focus where it’s needed most.
Put your strengths to work while compensating for your weaknesses.
The most polarizing arguments for SEO vs. PPC often fail to recognize each company’s inherent strengths, weaknesses, and resources. What may be easy for one company could be extremely difficult to pull off in other companies with different team structures, historical baggage, or finances.
Here are the most common factors to consider when deciding how to invest your resources:
Your Website & Landing Pages
Evaluate your current website to determine if it will support your goals. Do you have control over the code and easily editable templates? If not, your SEO success may depend on building a new site with best practices baked in. (And that can get expensive.)
Most PPC campaigns don’t need an entire site to support the visitor journey. Landing pages work exceptionally well to convert visitors into prospects or customers without messing with a content management system (CMS). Landing pages can also be a force multiplier when it comes to testing and scaling up relevant, valuable offers and experiences for multiple visitor segments.
Landing pages can enhance your PPC campaigns by delivering more conversions for the same spend. Read about how you can build tailored pages and create killer post-click experiences without bothering your devs.
Time & Money
If you have lots of spare time and very little money, SEO might be a better long-term option. Your free time can be spent creating great content to attract links and visitors, building partnerships to establish authority, and refining your site architecture to make it more accessible to search engine crawlers.
Conversely, if you need to make a splash right away and are swimming in Scrooge McDuck pools of cash, you could get immediate visibility with a significant PPC investment. Higher budgets would allow you to test your way to better results quickly.
Team & Talent
If your team can create content, build links, establish authority, and share expertise, you have the ingredients for a successful SEO initiative. PPC teams tend to skew more towards the analytical mindset with a hint of creativity.
Assess the team you have or build the team you want in order to stand out. Thankfully, people haven’t been replaced by AI (yet), so continue to invest most heavily in your talented humans. That said, the learning curves required to excel at PPC or SEO are steep and can take years to climb. It’s nearly impossible for a single person to master both disciplines. Keep your expectations realistic and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash
Content & Brand Equity
Do you have a content-rich site with oodles of authority and expertise? SEO might look more appealing. Established brands can use their reputations and communities to boost their SEO efforts. A brand new startup doesn’t yet have a foundation to build from.
If you are launching a new site or trying to build awareness for a new brand, PPC might give you the immediate boost you need to stand out.
Any debate about the merits of SEO and PPC should also consider the strengths and weaknesses of your competitive set. Think you’ll beat Amazon to the top of Google’s organic search results for a generic term like “board games”? Not likely. However, it is possible to stand out in a local market or niche industry with just a little extra SEO attention.
Similarly, deep-pocketed PPC competitors may seem daunting until you realize there are multiple ways to outsmart and outflank them. There’s no way for even the wealthiest competitors to simultaneously target all keywords and all audiences with the perfect message.
There are always gaps in your competitors’ strategies wide enough to drive a wedge in. You can begin to exploit their weaknesses and expand your presence once you have a foothold.
Integrate your PPC and SEO data for massive wins.
Another weakness of a diehard SEO vs. PPC devotee is the inability to see the big picture. PPC and SEO don’t exist in isolation. Savvy marketers will understand how to incorporate data from one channel to improve another resulting in better overall performance. In other words, we have more to gain by working together than trying to “win” an intractable debate.
Sharing SEO Data with PPC
Organic search traffic produces mountains of data that PPC marketers can use to improve their campaigns. A few examples:
- Improve the layout and flow of a PPC landing page with user experience data from site navigation paths and heatmap tracking.
- Conserve PPC budgets by pausing or lowering bids on keywords with strong organic rankings and limited competition.
- Expand PPC keywords that align with organic performance and goals.
- Improve PPC quality scores and landing page performance by sharing SEO insights such as page speed enhancements, accessibility, and image optimization.
Sharing PPC Data with SEO
Insights from PPC campaigns can benefit SEO strategies as well:
- Inform SEO target keywords or inspire new pieces of content based on PPC search terms with high conversion rates or ROI.
- Improve organic search click-through rates by updating page titles and meta description tags based on successful PPC ad copy and calls to action (CTAs).
- Fill in the gaps in organic search visibility with focused PPC campaigns to capture fast-moving trends in search queries, highly competitive organic results, and topics where you want to control the message.
- Promote new content to target audiences before it has earned enough organic visibility to stand alone.
Once you connect your Google Search Console to your Google Ads account, you can access a somewhat useful Paid & Organic Report template that shows your paid activity alongside your organic search performance.
It’s not very intuitive and doesn’t immediately surface any insights, but if you spend some time analyzing the data, you can spot gaps in your keyword coverage and opportunities to improve your overall visibility.
How to win the “SEO vs. PPC” debate
Nobody has won this debate in the past decade. It’s not likely that a winner will emerge in the next decade either. So don’t paint yourself into a corner or limit your career opportunities by picking sides and standing in opposition to the other.
Instead, embrace the ebb and flow of paid and organic search channels. Get comfortable saying, “it depends.” Be prepared to defend that statement with an assessment of your unique situation and healthy discussion. Become a champion for integration and watch your results and your reputation improve.