Paid Advertising vs. Organic SEO: Which One Should You Invest In?

Brandon Schmidt | April 18, 2018
Digital MarketingPay-Per-Click AdvertisingSearch and SEO

Paid advertising and organic search are two channels of traffic to your site. Which one should you invest in? It depends.

paid search vs seo
When it comes to traffic visiting your site, there are several large categories that Google Analytics recognizes: Email, Social Media, Referral, Direct, Paid, and Organic. Email and Social Media are self-explanatory, Referral is traffic from links on other sites, while Direct Traffic largely consists of people typing in your URL in the search bar. Paid and Organic are the other main potential sources of traffic to your site; how you use them and invest in them can largely depend on your budget and goals.

Paid Advertising

Pay per click (PPC) or paid advertising is an umbrella term that describes several digital advertising channels. The most popular are Google’s AdWords and Display Network, Facebook’s advertising platform, and YouTube’s TrueView ads; other platforms are run by social networks (LinkedIn, Twitter), apps (Waze), or search engines (Bing).

Paid advertising works across industries (including B2B and B2C) and can meet your goals throughout the sales funnel. Here are some of the benefits and drawbacks to investing in online advertising.

Benefits

Immediately generate traffic to your site. If you need business NOW, then digital advertising is the way to go. Setting up your AdWords account, identifying search terms, and creating a few basic ads can happen in an afternoon and start sending traffic that day. Of course, it can take weeks and months to fine tune your campaigns, setting negative keywords, tweaking settings, and finding what ads and searches perform the best.

Measurable ROI. Another great benefit of paid advertising is that, when tracked correctly, you can directly attribute a sale to a specific digital ad. Even basic conversion tracking — tracking phone calls or form submissions — can help you better identify your return on your investment in digital advertising.

Targeted Ads. With all the digital advertising channels, you can get your ads directly in front of your target audience. For most platforms, you can set target demographics, behaviors, and interests. For search, you can also run ads for specific keywords and search terms, appearing in the search results at the exact moment of decision.

Show up on Highly Competitive Terms. Let’s face it, there are some dream keywords that you will realistically never rank on the first page for. Most industries have national brands that invest millions of dollars to show in the first few spots. It will take a greater investment than that to outrank them in organic, but with paid advertising you can leapfrog them to show up on the first page.

Limitations

The main limitation for paid advertising is that a business gets dependent on paying for traffic to your site. Your ads might be bringing tons of qualified leads to your site, but the second you pause your ad campaign, the traffic will stop.

Another limitation is that paid advertising can be expensive, especially in competitive industries like software, law, insurance, and technology.

So long as you know your numbers (cost per lead, cost per conversion) and are willing to spend the money each month, online paid advertising can be a great lead generator.

If you have a limited budget or want to see long-term growth from your investment, paid advertising may not be the best option for you.

Organic Growth

On the other side of paid advertising is the work of search engine optimization (SEO), which can build your organic traffic. At its root, SEO is about optimizing your website to increase your search rankings and traffic to your site. Crucial steps in growing your organic traffic is identifying the right keywords and searches, creating compelling content (written, images, and video), and optimizing the structure, layout, and code of your website so search engines can better crawl and understand your site. For local businesses targeting nearby customers, local SEO can also include optimizing your Google My Business profile, citation building, and reputation management.

Benefits

Long-Term Growth. The main benefit of SEO is that it’s a long-term investment into your brand’s online performance. Claiming directories, building links, and optimizing for certain keywords may not individually move the needle in growing your rankings, but each is an important building block in your site’s overall organic health. Over time, your rankings will improve and lead to greater traffic and conversions.

Zero Cost Per Click. When a page on your site ranks well for an important keyword, it is as if you are running free ads on your site. Unlike paid search, which you’ll have to pay for every click on your link on the first page of Google, it costs nothing when someone clicks on your organic listing.

Target Long-Tail Keywords. You know the important keywords in your industry that you want to rank well for. But for every target keyword, there are 100 longer keywords or search terms that you could and should rank for. By optimizing your site for your main keywords, you also inadvertently optimize your site for hundreds or thousands of these longer terms. While they may provide only a few visits per month, they are still generating traffic to your site, without you doing anything special.

Limitations

Not Fast. The greatest limitation to growing your site organically is that it does not happen overnight. According to Google, it should take 6 months to 1 year to see the results of proper SEO work, and in competitive industries it may take even longer.

Volatility of Search Results. Another challenge of growing your site’s organic reach is the inherent volatility of Google’s algorithm and always-changing search results. Tactics that worked 6 months ago may not always see the same results now; what worked in one industry may not carry over as well to another. A good SEO agency will stay up to date on search industry’s best practices and updates from Google, as well as be upfront and honest with you about setting the right expectations for their SEO work.

A Third Way: Combining Paid & Organic Efforts

When a small business owner comes to us, we often recommend partnering paid search and SEO efforts together in an integrated digital marketing strategy.

As I stated above, paid search is a great way to build traffic to your site. It also gives us tons of information about your intended audience, performance of the website, and how people are responding to CTAs. We use this data to adjust navigation, UX, CTAs, and organic content throughout the site, which helps improve the site as a whole.

Another way we partner paid and organic efforts together is in seasonal companies. Industries like lawn care, outdoor living products, and outdoor events have a seasonal push; digital advertising during the busy months helps a company maximize their business when it matters most. During the offseason, we have more time and budget to invest in SEO projects to improve their brand’s long-term online growth.