Pay Per Click and Search Engine Optimization are both major parts of digital marketing and are usually used alongside one another to push a website to whatever level of success it is aiming for.
Of course, that often leads to the age-old question that we never seem to stop asking: which is better?
While neither PPC ads nor SEO techniques are a bad choice, there are definitely some situations where one might be more of an optimal solution than the other.
In specific cases, you might be forced to choose one approach over the other or have to manage your resources and budget wisely by prioritizing the one that fits your needs most.
Both SEO and PPC ads have an incredible amount of influence over your online business’s success, but they do this in completely different ways.
Choosing the right method for each situation can make a big difference if you are trying to maximize your return on investment and secure greater levels of business success.
What are SEO and PPC?
If you are not already familiar with SEO and PPC, it is important to clarify what they actually are and why they are different.
SEO is Search Engine Optimization – the process of improving your website to make it rank higher in search engine search results.
This increases visibility to more potential customers while also spreading awareness of your business’s existence across relevant audiences.
PPC is Pay Per Click advertising and is focused on paid online advertisements that are placed on relevant websites or search engine result pages.
These paid search ads advertise directly to your chosen target audience using systems like Google Ads.
Why This Difference Matters
SEO and PPC can look somewhat similar if you are not that familiar with them since SEO campaigns and PPC campaigns are equally focused on marketing your site to specific target audiences.
The biggest difference is that PPC advertising is artificial, while SEO is organic.
This means that PPC ads are paid for and placed artificially based on a range of gathered data, while SEO relies on organic traffic to arrive through their own searches.
Both are valid strategies, but in general, PPC costs more for easier advertising, while SEO is cheaper with greater randomness.
Most businesses want to use a balance of PPC and SEO in their marketing strategy. However, some situations may call for a greater focus on one or the other.
Search Engine Optimization offers three core advantages: it is affordable, it is organic, and it can often benefit from a “snowball effect” that makes it more effective as your site grows.
In general, Search Engine Optimization is handled through a mixture of on-page SEO (changing elements of your site to make it more appealing for search engines) and other SEO techniques (such as building a strong link profile to push your site higher in relevant search engine results pages).
A reliance on organically-ranked search results means that SEO requires a careful approach.
Randomness is always a factor, and appealing to search engines becomes just as important as appealing to the users you are trying to gain. A good SEO campaign can do both without compromising on anything important.
The Benefits of SEO
Search Engine Optimization has many benefits, all based on the search results that SEO targets.
For most internet users, anything past the first results page may as well not exist.
This means that it is important to appeal to search engine algorithms until you can get within this first page, at least for relevant search keywords.
Even just being on the first search results page instead of the second can lead to a massive boost in SEO traffic, which also increases potential conversions and paying customers.
Visibility in Organic Search Results
An SEO campaign focuses on organic listings that put your site in front of the right people at the right time, capturing organic traffic that has an actual interest in services or products like the ones that you offer.
If used correctly, SEO can become an incredibly powerful way to get your web pages in front of people who need them without requiring much extra user input.
SEO can often be used to boost brand awareness, keeping your business contained to only relevant audiences and searches while also pushing your site higher in natural search results.
This makes it much more likely that your website will appear for users who are searching for something relevant to your business.
This can make organic search results a great way to spread awareness of your business to only people who need something like it.
Not only does this limit irrelevant traffic, but it means that you are more likely to appear near the top of the page when somebody searches for relevant keywords or topics.
SEO also builds trust.
Domain authority (gained from having trustworthy sites link to you) boosts your search engine results rankings and gives you a greater mark of quality in the eyes of most search engines, meaning more credibility overall.
The fact that you are appearing higher in search results also makes your site appear more legitimate to users stumbling across it.
The more users trust you, the more likely they are to click on you.
While SEO is not inherently free (since it takes some time and money to secure certain SEO-boosting resources), it is still effectively free in the long term.
SEO takes very little money to maintain, and a lot of simpler SEO techniques can be done at no cost to the business.
This low cost also means that SEO has a much higher return on investment.
Unlike a paid ad, an SEO strategy might only take a small initial cost and remain relevant for months, which can lead to incredibly high ROIs – even if that only means a few actual sales overall.
SEO does not stop when you run out of marketing budget. Unlike PPC ad placements, your SEO techniques (especially technical SEO changes to your own site) can future-proof a large part of your marketing strategy.
While some SEO benefits may change as search algorithms are updated, a lot of them will still be just as effective.
This means that many SEO options can remain long-term fixtures of your overall marketing strategy.
SEO allows expansion in a way that can’t easily be bought.
Even if your competition has more money, clever SEO tactics can help you overtake them in key areas, such as targeting specific keywords that your shared customer base may be likely to search for.
The Risks of Search Engine Optimization
While SEO is incredibly powerful, it also has its risks and flaws.
Improving your search rankings will not always go smoothly, so it is important to plan ahead and account for any mistakes you might make.
SEO relies on a heavy randomness factor.
Google and other search engines serve millions of sites to users, so you are not operating in a vacuum – and sometimes your organic search efforts simply will not work in the way that you intend or will not push you as high as you might of expected.
SEO will not always help against titans of your industry – sites like Amazon, for example.
While there are always new keywords to target and easy ways to slip around the competition, some off-page SEO options may simply be completely off-limits due to how strong the competition is.
SEO relies on content creation, whether that means improvements to your own site or creating content for link placements on other websites.
Larger-scope SEO means more content, which can often be demanding for smaller businesses that might only have one or two employees who know how to write good content for website pages.
Keyword research is an essential part of SEO, and that means that you need the tools and knowledge to gather keyword data.
Again, this is not always that easy for a brand-new business that has not fully established itself yet.
One of the biggest problems that you can face with SEO is the inconsistency of how SEO works.
If you are not careful, you can spend a lot of time, effort, and maybe even money on a project that does not really do anything.
SEO has many different tools and utilities that can help alleviate this problem, but they are not all that easy to learn and rely on.
Good SEO can be tricky to approach, especially if you have a lot of competition within your niche.
Pay Per Click (PPC) ads are paid advertising options that are used to place ads at the top of search results, as well as on many relevant sites.
This kind of search advertising places ads for your business or services in front of users who are likely to want them based on a big pool of data collected about them.
Paid ads are a very direct marketing method, unlike off-page SEO. If you pay for a PPC ad, then that ad will be shown to users who are likely to be potential customers.
While there are many different types of ads (depending on the search engine PPC platforms you use), all of them are straightforward advertising.
PPC advertising allows a business to market itself in a very upfront way, pushing for more customers and a higher conversion rate by planting artificial advertising across the internet.
One of the most common places to see PPC ads is in the Google search engine results pages – specifically the three top spots in any search.
The Benefits of SEO
PPC marketing can have a huge range of benefits for your business as long as it is approached and handled correctly.
Advertising is all about driving customers where you want them, and PPC ads are a very effective way of securing more traffic.
With the right PPC campaign, you can target users who are likely to be paying customers rather than just people who search for certain terms.
While an SEO strategy may offer free traffic, the right kind of pay per click advertising is more likely to deliver traffic that will become actual customers instead of just another number in your traffic statistics.
Paid ads are purely artificial and do not rely on organic search systems.
This means that you can secure new traffic within only an hour or two of placing the ad, allowing PPC ad campaigns to hit fast and hit hard.
A typical PPC marketing campaign can offer very precise targeting controls, from target keywords to the specific audience demographics you want to aim for.
You can target ads based on time of day, day of the week, language, device type, intent, or any number of other factors.
This makes it incredibly easy to target the audience that is likely to already need services like yours.
Paid search ads skip the issue of having to organically push yourself up the search results, instead placing you at the top of the search page above the regular results.
This means that paying for Google ads places you in a more favorable position than even the best SEO experts can reach.
Customizable Ad Systems
Google’s ad system allows PPC ads to be highly customized and incredibly flexible, giving you more digital marketing options without requiring you to generate much more content or construct hundreds of individual ads.
For example, ads can be modular, and you can choose from a range of pre-prepared titles and descriptions that are applied to suit each audience.
In some cases, they might be given specific callouts and site links to ensure that users are being sent to just the right place.
Like SEO, PPC can push your site into a more visible position.
This makes paid search results ads a good option for getting your brand out there, especially if you have money to spare and just need more traction within your target audience.
PPC systems like Google Ads make it very easy to gather and use a range of data.
For example, tools like Google Analytics significantly simplify the keyword research process.
This can help you handle the more data-driven parts of building ads.
A lot of this data can also later be used for SEO purposes, helping you target organic traffic once you have already secured the paid traffic that you were aiming for.
As long as you are paying for a paid search ad, you will generally see that paid advertising is getting results.
While there can be changes in the market that might push your ad slightly lower on certain pages or cause a competitor to overtake you, most paid ads are still going to perform just fine.
This means that there is far less inconsistency in how much success you are seeing relative to the cost.
The Risks of PPC Ads
A PPC campaign can be a good option for advertising yourself to a wide range of customers, but it also has its risks.
Like SEO, there is always a chance that something can change or that you might misjudge how effective a part of your marketing will actually be.
PPC ads can get expensive.
While it is possible to keep prices low due to PPC’s pay per click nature, you can never get as low as the organic search results costs of SEO, so you will always be spending at least slightly more.
This can also make mistakes costly. If you point customers to the wrong landing pages and get more users that bounce right off the site, then you are still paying for those clicks.
Some users skip ads, regardless of how relevant they are.
While you are not paying for users who simply ignore your ad, there is a large portion of users who will prefer organic results in most situations, even if those web pages are less relevant.
This also means that you might miss out on a chunk of organic traffic since there is not a way to force users to engage with your ads.
Ads can be a major investment that requires constant monitoring to succeed.
Since ads are paid, you want to ensure that they are getting the best results possible as often as possible, and that means putting a lot of time and money into making them work.
While paid ads are very powerful, they can also be a drain on a business’s resources if used incorrectly, especially if a small business tries to set up too many ad campaigns at once.
Unlike SEO services, ads are extremely competitive.
Competitors can start to try and copy your strategies or use the same ideas with more optimization.
Many marketers actively invest a lot of effort into keeping their ads on top, something that might be necessary for a PPC strategy in a highly competitive niche.
SEO vs. PPC
The constant uncertainty of “SEO vs. PPC” can seem like a strange one at first since most businesses will want to use SEO and PPC alongside each other. However, in many cases, devoting your time and resources to SEO and PPC at the same time is not really feasible.
This means that it is important to understand which of the two can benefit your business most, especially if you are desperate for more conversions and paying customers.
While there is not an overall correct answer to the SEO vs. PPC debate, both SEO and PPC can be useful in very different situations depending on a number of factors.
The audience that you are targeting will really matter when deciding between SEO and PPC.
Try to get an understanding of the audience persona you are aiming for and how they think and act as customers.
For example, what do they buy, and how do they prefer to buy it? Would they be more likely to follow ads, or are they looking for organic search results?
While these are simple questions that do not always have a clear answer, understanding who your customers are really helps. A demographic that wants major branded products is more likely to click on ads, while ones looking for independent products may prefer organic results, for example.
It is important to choose your SEO and PPC options depending on the keywords that you target.
Highly competitive keywords convert more customers and see greater success, but are also often hounded by a lot of other companies. This can make ads expensive, but high rankings in organic results are not nearly as costly to acquire and maintain.
For example, targeting keywords related to your local area may work well for either option, depending on your keyword research. However, if your target keywords imply a desire to purchase something, an ad might be exactly what the customer needs.
In other words, it is important to look at the context of the keywords and what they actually mean. Keywords are based on the Google search results that customers are making, and they are making those results for a reason.
A low budget makes PPC less reliable since you have less to spend on a PPC campaign. However, since organic traffic is almost entirely free, SEO becomes much more useful.
On the other hand, a high marketing budget makes ads on search engines more practical since you can’t really spend that money on better SEO for those same search engines unless you use it to create content.
Even if you want to be conservative with your digital marketing budget, spending some extra money on visual product ads could be more lucrative than using it for technical SEO on a landing page. It all depends on how you want to approach your search traffic.
A PPC campaign is significantly faster than SEO. In the SEO vs. PPC debate, speed is one major point in favor of a PPC campaign – the moment the ad launches, it can start getting results.
Organic results in search engines take a while to update, and starting from scratch means that you have to build your search engine rankings up from the ground floor. With PPC, you can simply create content for an ad pointing to your landing pages and let it run to get instant results.
If you already have good domain authority, then organic SEO is a lot more effective. Even so, it can take longer to drive customers to your web page, making SEO services slower overall.
Visibility on Search Engines
Both SEO tactics and PPC campaigns offer visibility benefits but in different ways.
In general, SEO is better for building awareness in a niche that already exists or for making yourself appear more trustworthy and reliable to customers who are already looking for a service like yours.
PPC, meanwhile, is good for either promoting to a new audience or for promoting something short-term and getting attention a lot faster.
This is not a hard rule, but it can often be the case when comparing data on different marketing methods. SEO is good for long-term visibility, while PPC campaigns are better at bursts of advertising that push a potential customer into acting on the ad.
Return on Investment
In the SEO vs. PPC debate, the ROI matters more than you might realize.
SEO is good for maximizing your ROI since it costs almost nothing compared to ads, but it also takes a lot longer to achieve a major ramp-up in profits.
PPC costs more to start up and maintain but is usually better at securing more profits and paying customers overall.
Even pointing these two campaigns at the same landing page will cause this kind of discrepancy. In general, PPC is more short-term and powerful, while SEO is weaker but longer-term.
While not really part of the SEO vs. PPC debate itself, it is a good idea to consider how complex you want your marketing efforts to get.
SEO tools can be used to build incredibly complex marketing options since they are all essentially free and will run on any relevant searches. PPC costs a lot more for something more complex but can also be much more targeted to specific audiences.
For example, a social media account could post dozens of regular posts to middling results – or promote a social media ads post to a very specific audience and get a lot of attention on that one post.
SEO allows for things like granular meta descriptions tweaks or using “too many” search terms in a single campaign and can still find success. PPC needs to be more structured, but that straightforwardness also makes it good for hitting the audience you need to target.
Which is Better
The “SEO vs. PPC” debate is a funny one because, realistically, neither one is better.
SEO is meant to be used alongside PPC since the two cover very different areas of digital marketing and are almost treated as complementary tools.
PPC is a great way to advertise through paid methods, while SEO is your baseline for free or near-free marketing. The two can be used to target the same audience in different ways or used to capture entirely different audiences if needed.
Really, the most important distinction between the two is the cost. In general, PPC will give faster and more profitable results but also costs more to set up and maintain. SEO is much cheaper but is also a lot slower and not usually as reliable.
The option you choose for your business depends on your needs – but overall, you should ideally be using a mixture of both as soon as possible.
Scott Calland is a highly regarded content specialist with an English Degree. He has a passion for creating compelling content as a UK journalist that engages, informs, and entertains readers. With over 10 years of experience in creating news publications as a reporter, Scott has developed a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of how to craft content that resonates with audiences. Working closely with data analysts Scott’s research on topics is unrivalled for latest news updates.
Scott is also an investor in Searcharoo.