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SEO vs PPC: Which one to use pros & cons

Last updated: 12/03/2019


SEO and PPC are two different processes with the same purpose: To affect the online visibility of a website in a web search engine (Google, Bing, Yahoo).

They both belong to what is called SEM (Search Engine Marketing).

SEO, Search Engine Optimization. SEO is about getting your website to rank higher in natural/organic search results for target keywords.

PPC, Pay Per Click. PPC is about paying for advertising space for specific target keywords.

Let’s see what all this means in action with a real (digital) life SEO vs PPC example.

Say you want to hire a growth hacking agency for your marketing plans. What will your first move be? To google it, of course:

What you see in red is the result of PPC. This agency paid to be at the top of the results for every time a user is looking for ‘growth hacking agencies.’ It was the only one at that moment that was bidding in the keyword auction for the term ‘growth hacking agencies,’ so it became the #1 result with no competition.

On the other hand, what you see in green and every result that follows, is the result of SEO. If it weren’t for PPC, it would be in position #1. And it usually is in that position because agencies, like most businesses, can’t afford an ad campaign to infinity (more on that later).

Google’s mission is to deliver the best possible results based on the user’s query.

In order to be in those sweet first positions, you have to convince Google’s bots that you are relevant enough (SEO). How to do that is a whole different topic though, but thankfully, we’ve got that covered as well.

However, there is an easier way to be among the first spots: buy your way through the top (PPC). Easy – yes, cheap – no.

The most significant part of PPC advertising occurs via Google AdWords – which is what you saw in the example above – and social media networks. AdWords will represent PPC for this battle.



So which one is better? Who’s going to win in the ‘SEO vs PPC’ battle?

Let’s examine the pros and cons of each model.


The Good

Our SEO vs PPC battle starts off with some numbers:

The SEO industry is set to be worth more than $300 billion in 2018 (eMarketer).

On the first page alone, the first five organic results account for 67.60% of all the clicks, according to Marketing Land

Click Through Rate: Organic search is the channel through which, more often than not, users will find out about you. You can, and should, invest in paid research and social media, but you should keep in mind that organic search is essential.

Organic: Earned search engine results
Direct: Manual address entry or unidentified search engine sources (e.g., a PDF link)
Referral: Link to a site from another site
Paid search: Paid search engine results

As shown in the graph, organic search will be your primary channel for your traffic.

Ranking: Once you get high rankings, it’s easier to maintain those rankings. You gain authority status and build the trust of users and search engines.

Authority: Being organically on top suggests that your website, and as a result your business, is an industry leader in your niche. The audience prefers doing business with a credible leader in their field.

Strategic advantage: Once you have established yourself in the organic results, the only way competitors can compete with you is by spending money on something you don’t have to.

Cost: In our SEO vs PPC battle, make no mistake, SEO comes at a price. SEO is more like an investment. However, once you’ve made that investment, you can sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. Each impression and click after that sweet spot in the search engine rankings comes at no charge and thus it will cost you nothing.

Cost-effectiveness: SEO is considered to be more cost-effective than all other marketing tactics for delivering brand awareness and relevant traffic to your website.

Return on Investment: Organic search engine traffic can provide an improved ROI over traditional forms of paid media.

Verification: Your ranking position is one of the best and reliable ways to extract information about your site’s performance. The hard work you put in optimization, or the lack of it, can be measured from the position your webpage sits in and thus act accordingly.

Sustainability: Organic traffic does not dry up in a short period. As such, when marketing spend is cut, traffic will keep flowing in. SEO shines in this SEO vs PPC round.

The Bad

Effort: An effective SEO needs a lot of effort to build and maintain. SEO is an ongoing process that involves 3 different action fields: Technical, On-Page and Off-Page SEO. All three require certain know-how on your part or the part whoever will be in charge of the SEO strategy of your business.

Time to implement: For the same reason, SEO building will consume much of your time. It’s not only the time someone has to put on gaining the appropriate expertise, but it’s also the time one has to put into executing everything that’s needed.

    Constantine, SEO Expert:Paid spent online is best utilized when targeting sales. If you want to build a brand, organic reach and traffic are what you need. Paid traffic is based on short or mid-term strategies and marketing campaigns, while organic traffic is a looong road to walk. It takes months or years to build your organic channels.”

Stiffness: You can’t just ‘try something new in SEO.’ SEO is a mechanism that must be approached holistically, thus in the SEO vs PPC battle, PPC is the winner here.

Indirectness: You can’t see the outcome of your optimization immediately. Action to result can mean months and traffic can be slow to come by.

A tough battle overall: Playing the SEO game is not easy. If you are just starting out, there is a possibility that the keywords you are targeting can be targeted as well from titans of your industry. If you are selling books, you shouldn’t expect to win the SEO battle against Amazon.



The Good

Position on the page: A paid ad can be in different places, including the one at the top. It can dominate the above-the-fold content, which practically means a close-to-100% chance to be seen before the first scroll down or finger movement. With typically four ads on desktop and three on mobile, a user can’t miss you. Position on the sweet spots provides you with brand awareness.

Brand awareness. Even if the user’s hand didn’t click on your business, their eyes received the information of your existence. That visibility will pay dividends to your marketing – for $0 since they didn’t make that click.

Improved user experience: Google wants to give an incentive so you can give Google your money (business is business, as always). The incentive being more control and more space for your marketing message. Let’s see this example where I google for ‘sofas.’ This is the bottom of the screen:

Look at the difference between the first 3 and last 3 results. The latter have more space at their disposal and businesses can include more information, thus create more engagement. Google even provides a ‘More’ button as an option for further additions.

Visual product ads: What we’ve seen so far is optimization and ads through letters, numbers, and symbols. Google though brings through PPC the champion of selling: V i s u a l s .

Visuals improve the click-through rate by offering a feature not available in organic search. If you want a JPG, you gotta give some USD. A PPC exclusive, ladies and gentlemen.

Budget control: PPC allows for tight control of your budget. You can determine how much you are willing to spend per day, any day, and set that fixed limit. You can set up your PPC account and manage it in a way to be low-cost and generate leads for your business.

Targeted campaign: Ads can be targeted by search keywords, time of day, day of the week, geography, language, device, and audiences based on previous visits. SEO doesn’t have so many options, not by a long shot.

Speed. A PPC campaign can be created in days and flourish in weeks. It’s the fastest way to approach your audience.

  Sotiris, AdWords & Analytics Expert: “With PPC you achieve first page positions and quick conversions, as you can target specific commercial keywords. On the contrary, with SEO you will have to wait anything from 6 days to 6months to see the first results.”

The ability to Experiment: Us growth hackers love experimentation. We won’t set up an AdWords campaign and then “let it do its thing.” Your AdWords campaign should be treated as your 5-year-old, not your child you are sending away to college. Is a particular ad not generating enough clicks? Change the copy in an instant and see what comes. Repeat until you get the results you want. Tune your ad up according to your needs.

The Bad

Click through rate: Paid listings have less credibility with search engine users. Organic rankings will get more click-through rates for “top of funnel” keyword search queries. The best possible CTR from PPC will always be less than the best possible CTR from SEO.

Cost: Well, it’ called Pay Per Click for a reason. If you are targeting different audiences and personas, those clicks quickly add up.

Momentary: The moment you stop your ad campaign is the moment your leads generation ends. PPC requires constant investment. Thus it’s difficult to rely exclusively on PPC.

Easily copyable: AdWords is not a TV or a radio spot. There isn’t much freedom for creativity, so it’s only words and numbers most of the time. If the competition likes your copy, well, they will copy it. Who said that digital marketing is easy?

Skills: We mentioned how demanding SEO is, but neither is PPC a walk in the park. If you want a successful PPC campaign, as in high CTR and cost-effectiveness, you have to manage and optimize each and every campaign.

Uneasiness: With PPC, you need to keep an eye out. It is not unusual to get into bidding wars with rival businesses, which can drive costs up. You have to keep an eye open at the results often.

Distrust: Consumers don’t always trust paid ads and often avoid them. They place more trust in organic rankings. As a result, you should expect a low click-through rate.

… and the Winner

Is SEO vs PPC of these passé fights that everybody wins and we can live happily ever after?

I’m afraid it is.

Unless your marketing agency is actually a masochistic cult, no advertiser will ever put you in SEO vs PPC dilemma.

Thankfully, you can, and should, gain the benefits from both SEO and PPC for a healthy SEM practice.

SEO & PPC have pros and cons and work best when supporting each other, creating synergy. The benefits of running SEO and PPC together, instead of SEO vs PPC include:

  • Keyword and conversion data from PPC can be fed into your SEO.
  • You can increase the total volume of traffic by targeting clicks in paid and organic for high-performing keywords.
  • High-cost keywords, high-volume or low-converting (yet still important) keywords can be moved from PPC to your SEO.
  • A/B testing of ad copy and landing pages can be fed into your organic listing and landing pages.
  • Remarketing allows you to stay in front of visitors after an initial touch via organic search and customize messaging around their engagement with your site.
  • You have the ability to test your keyword strategy in PPC before committing to long-term SEO strategies.
  • Through keywords, you can target users at all stages of the customer journey, from research to comparison, to lead and sale.
  • You can increase confidence and awareness by having both strong organic and paid visibility.

An integrated search strategy that looks at both SEO and PPC is the optimal approach. If you utilize both paid and organic channels, you can improve the results overall.

For high-growth, aggressive marketing, you will want to develop a holistic search engine strategy rather than an SEO vs PPC approach.

  Anna, SEO Expert: “A strong marketing strategy uses both organic and paid search tactics to get found online. With high search engine rankings comes a perception of credibility on the part of searchers. High search rankings imply industry authority and leadership. This perception translates into more trust and a greater likelihood to click-through to the site. Unlike organic search rankings that can take months or years, paid results are placed at the top of rankings as soon as you pay for ad placement.
So, together is better!”


In marketing, you always compete against others.

You should think of the search engine marketing of your business as your garden.

Your garden competes with other gardens in a ‘Garden Competition.’

You have to make the soil fertile, pick your seeds, plant them, water them, be patient and watch them blossom. That’s your SEO.

Sometimes you can’t grow everything on your own – it’s either unproductive or just not possible. This is when you go to the plant store and buy blooming flowers to plant them in your own garden. That’s your PPC.

And this is how you make a beautiful garden.

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