PPC or SEO: Which is More Important?

Marketing your business and driving traffic to your website is complicated. There are many different strategies, each with its pros and cons. Every expert will tell you something different and it can be hard to know which process you should be following. 

In this article, I’ll aim to take some of the guesswork out of your digital marketing for you. We’ll look at two of the most common and important forms of digital marketing: pay-per-click (PPC) ads, and search engine optimization (SEO).

Both are proven methods of growing web traffic, building an audience, and increasing conversions. We will explore the pros and cons of each to help you decide which you should be focusing on. 

Let’s dive in. 

What’s the difference?

PPC and SEO are both methods of getting your content to appear at the top of search engine results pages. The main difference is that SEO traffic is free, while PPC has a cost attached (hence “pay-per-click”).

“But Jimmy, why wouldn’t I just go for the free option?” I hear you ask. Well, it’s not quite that simple. Let’s take a look at each method, and its pros and cons, in turn. 

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising

PPC is a form of paid advertising where the site owner bids on keywords, and then pays a set fee each time a user clicks on their ad. 

By far the largest PPC platform in the world is Google Ads, so that’s what I’ll focus on here. But you can also do PPC advertising through other search engines such as Bing, and through social media channels like Facebook and Instagram.

Related: PPC Advertising Management Software

Pros of PPC

Have you ever done a Google search and noticed that the first few results are all labeled “Ad”? Here’s an example: 

Paid ads dominate the first few results on search engine results pages. This means that the searcher will see your result, even if they choose not to click on it. Therefore, even without getting that click, you’ve boosted brand awareness. 

With PPC, you have absolute control over what users see. You have more space to deliver your message and can include information such as a business address, opening hours, telephone number, and even links to additional specific pages:

If you sell physical products, for example through an ecommerce website, you can run product ads including a picture, star rating, and price for the item. Here’s an example: 

PPC ads generally receive a lower click-through rate (1.91% for a Google Ads paid result versus 31.7% for the first organic result.) However, those clicks enjoy a higher conversion rate – 4.40% on average against 2.35% for a click on an organic result. This is because PPC ads are highly targeted to particular search terms and those who click on them tend to be ready to buy. In other words, the leads you get are highly qualified. 

PPC is far more scalable than SEO. When you start seeing the results you want, you can increase your budget or target more keywords to grow your campaign and bring in even more leads. 

Finally, PPC is a much quicker process. What might take months or even longer with SEO can be achieved in weeks with PPC. 

Cons of PPC

The most obvious downside to PPC is the cost. The amount you’ll pay per click varies widely depending on the popularity of your chosen keywords, but on average you can expect to pay $1-5 per click, and much more in some industries:  

You do have control over your total spend, as you can set the maximum you’re willing to pay for clicks per day (this is called a “Bid”). Your bid amount combined with your Quality Score (a rating given by Google based on various metrics) determines the frequency with which you’ll appear in relevant search results. 

In an ideal world, the amount you pay per click is trivial compared to the value that click brings to your business. But you might not get PPC right the first time. A mistake like choosing the wrong keywords to target can be costly. 

PPC also requires constant investment. Unlike SEO, which is a long-term strategy, you’ll stop seeing results from your PPC campaign almost as soon as you stop paying for ads. 

Another downside to PPC is that a large number of users ignore paid ads. One study suggested that up to 80% of searchers skip the paid results and go straight to the top organic results. 

Who should use PPC?

As long as you have at least some money to spend on marketing, you should consider doing PPC. It is particularly useful for those looking for fast results in terms of website visits from highly qualified leads. 

In short, you should do PPC if you:

  • Have a budget.
  • Need results quickly. 
  • Are looking to build brand awareness. 
  • Are seeking a high clicks-to-conversions ratio. 
  • Wish to target keywords that you wouldn’t stand a chance of ranking for through SEO alone (for example, because the competition is too high.) 

Search engine optimization (SEO)

Search engine optimization, or SEO, is the process of increasing your site’s visibility in search engine results pages. SEO specifically refers to boosting unpaid visibility. Visitors who find your site through SEO as opposed to paid search results such as PPC ads are referred to as organic traffic. 

Pros of SEO

SEO is, at least theoretically, free. There are many things you can do as a website owner to boost your search results ranking without paying anything. Free “white hat” (within regulations) SEO strategies include guest posting, writing useful and optimized blog content, and utilizing Google My Business. 

Of course, all of these strategies take up your or a team member’s time, meaning they are not actually free. And if you hire a consultant or agency, the cost rises enormously. However, if you are cash-poor but time-rich, focusing on SEO can get results without breaking the bank. And, of course, there is no cost-per-click to pay. 

Strong SEO grows your credibility and builds trust. As I mentioned above, around 80% of users are estimated to ignore paid search results. That leaves a lot of searchers for you to target if you can get into the top few results on Google. 

SEO is a far more sustainable and long-term strategy than PPC. The results are long-lasting, as opposed to drying up when you stop paying for ads. 

Cons of SEO

SEO is a long game. You will not see results quickly. In fact, according to a study by Ahrefs, only 5.7% of websites rank in the top ten results on Google for at least one keyword within the first year. And the average age of a site taking the number one spot? Just under 950 days, or 2.6 years: 

Source: Ahrefs

SEO isn’t easy. There is a lot of know-how that goes into doing it well. You might have the time, energy, and inclination to learn those skills – and if you do, more power to you! Becoming an expert takes years of learning and experience. And since SEO is based on ever-changing and often mysterious search engine algorithms, it can be difficult to conduct A/B tests and accurately assess how various strategies are working. 

SEO also requires a steady stream of new, unique, and relevant content. It is not a “set and forget” strategy. You’ll need to research, write, and publish new content frequently – or pay someone to do it for you. 

Finally, SEO is nowhere near as scalable as PPC. You can’t simply throw more money at it to see an increase in results. If you want to scale your SEO you’ll need even more of that new content we just talked about. That means either much more work for you, or hiring – and managing – a team of people to help you. 

Who should use SEO?

If you run any kind of online business, SEO is pretty much essential. Whether you put in the time to learn the tricks and do it all yourself, or invest the money in an expert or agency, is up to you. 

If you don’t have an SEO strategy in place yet, start developing one right now. Because it takes time to get it right and see results, the sooner you start, the better. 

So which is more important? 

The short answer is: it depends. 

It is impossible to give a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, because marketing is not a one-size-fits-all game. To give you a definitive answer, I’d have to know the unique circumstances of your business. 

I don’t know your business inside and out, but you do! So study these pros and cons, and make sure you have a clear idea of your business goals. Once you know what you’re trying to achieve, you can work out which strategy deserves more of your time, energy, and marketing budget. 

An integrated approach to marketing 

The split that makes sense to you will depend on your business. However, if you possibly can, I really recommend focusing on a mixture of both SEO and PPC. 

Each of these two marketing methods has its advantages and disadvantages, as we’ve seen in this article. However, they play very well together. If you build an integrated strategy, you can increase your overall traffic volume, target more relevant keywords, grow brand awareness, and see both immediate results and long-term growth. 

Neither PPC nor SEO is perfect by itself. But if you integrate your approach and make the two strands work together, your business will be unstoppable!

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash
Creator: Jimmy Rodriguez is the COO and co-founder of Shift4Shop, an ecommerce software to build SEO-friendly online stores