March 14, 2021 by Jason Pittock | 11 min reading time

Let’s face it: digital marketing can be an awfully confusing affair when you have just stumbled into it. It can definitely help you bring more of that sweet, sweet cash into your business (by putting your products in front of the right audience) -- but it needs to be done right. Does that mean you have to settle between SEO vs PPC? Or is there a middle way between the two? 

In this article, we will quickly explore your SEO vs PPC options, what each of them means for your business, and how to make the final call on where to put your money: organic or paid marketing. 

Let’s roll! 

Acknowledge the Options: SEO vs PPC vs Everything Else 

The world of digital marketing is a complex one. Most people either think of just SEO, just PPC, or just social media marketing when they think of “online marketing”. However,  the lines between all of these are sometimes blurry, especially since the most successful businesses take an integrated approach to all the digital channels. 

What are these digital channels, you might ask? 

Well, there are four primary channels to look into: 

  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO), applied to your website and blog 
  • Pay per Click (PPC), where you create paid campaigns for Google, Bing, or social media platforms and which direct users to your Landing Pages (on your website) 
  • Social Media Marketing (SMM), where you create communities around your brand and product 
  • Email Marketing, which is frequently used for “drip” campaigns where you slowly bring users closer to your product (or an upsell of it)

That’s the short version. 

The long version involves an integrated approach (which we will discuss later on in this article. It is important to know that digital marketing is not just about any of these channels, but that it might as well not be about all of them at once either. 

SEO vs PPC: How They Work 

A lot of times people put SEO and PPC in the same bucket (and that’s mostly because Google is a major player in both). 

However, they are quite distinct. 

First of all, Search Engine Optimization is the process of optimizing your website by ticking most (or all the known) ranking factors for a specific search engine. Most people aim for Google since it is the most used search engine in the world -- but that doesn’t mean that SEO can’t be done for Bing, Yandex, or any of the other search engines. 

SEO is usually split into three main categories: 

  • On page SEO (how your site’s pages and blog posts are optimized)
  • Off page SEO (how other sites “veto” your site with backlinks, mentions, etc.)
  • Technical SEO (sitemaps, site speed, and other technical factors that Google and other search engines take into account when ranking a page)

Together, on page SEO, off page SEO, and technical SEO help site pages rank better according to the different ranking factors each search engine uses in their algorithm. We will not discuss algorithms here, as they are intricate and ever-changing, but if there is just a couple of very essential things you should keep in mind about (Google’s) ranking factors and algorithm are these: 

  • Keyword research is, well, key, and you absolutely have to target and repeat the right keywords with the right search intent -- the keywords your audience uses in their Google searches to find products and information)
  • Use your keywords in a human way, but make sure they’re in your heading, in your sub-headings, and spread across your content in a natural way 
  • Link building is essential (and it basically means other websites are giving you a “vote of confidence” 

SEO is an organic way of reaching customers. You don’t pay Google to show your articles or pages in the Search Engine Results Pages (the page displayed when someone enters a search term, like “pink whales”, for example). You work your way up in their ranking and aim to get on the first page. 

PPC, on the other hand, involves you paying for each click or impression your ads get. Where are these ads displayed, you may ask? Well, they are shown on search results pages (“search ads”), on pages that work with AdSense (“display ads”), and on social media (Facebook ads, for example). 

We won’t get into too much detail here either, but the fantastic news is that we’re prepping up a Google PPC course you will definitely love if you want to learn more about doing PPC the right way. Subscribe to our newsletter if you want to find out more. 😉

Going back to our topic, which one is more complex in the battle between SEO vs PPC? 

It’s a tie. 

Both SEO and PPC are quite complex, but not impossible. If you are aiming for short-term goals. PPC is your best bet. If, however, you are aiming for long-term benefits (like growing your brand and authority), SEO and organic visibility are your best allies. Both SEO and PPC are great methods for scaling up your business, but whether or not they will be successful depends on a variety of factors, including your goals and your timeline. 

Our (very) general tip of advice is to do proper research before you dive into any of them. 

SEO vs PPC: Timing 

As a general rule, SEO and organic means of reaching customers are a long-term game. You cannot really expect to publish a new blog post today and see yourself on the first page of the SERP (Search Engine Results Page) overnight. 

You need to be consistent, patient, and continuously adapt your strategy to reach more keywords your potential customers will be interested in. 

From this point of view, PPC is a much quicker way of gaining attention. Once your campaigns are set up, your ads will be displayed to your chosen audience. If your ads are well-targeted, attractive, and engaging, and if your landing page (the page people land on once they’ve clicked your ad), then you might also get a fair share of conversions. 

So, who wins in the SEO vs PPC game in the timing arena? 

PPC is generally a faster way to get results.

SEO vs PPC: Budget 

This might be a stingy topic, but when it comes to budget, you need to have all your ducks in a row before you even start considering whether to choose SEO or PPC as your main digital channel. 

In short, SEO can be cheaper. You still need to invest in writing (if you cannot do it yourself), and design (again, if you cannot do it yourself). 

You can take the less expensive route: 

  • Write your own content (using tools like CoSchedule’s Headline Analyzer and Hemingway App, for example) 
  • Design your own assets (using services like Canva if you have little experience in Design)

However, do keep in mind that once you start scaling your content efforts (which will happen sooner or later), it might be more profitable to hire pros to hire content marketing and design professionals. 

PPC, on the other hand, is pretty straightforward: you do need to invest money right from the very get-go. It doesn’t have to be a fortune, and you can definitely start smaller (especially when you are just starting out on PPC). But generally, the more money you invest in your ad campaigns, the more likely it is that they will be seen by more people. 

Our verdict in the SEO vs PPC battle in the budget arena? 

SEO is cheaper, especially when you are just starting out.

SEO vs PPC: Industries 

The industry your business is in can also influence whether or not SEO or PPC will work better for you. 

There are several elements to consider here. On the one hand, there are industries that have performed better in one or the other channel from a historical/ statistical perspective. For example, if your business is very local, it is likely that SEO will work better (and quite quickly) for you. Likewise, if you run a niche online business, you are likely to reach the top of the SERPs sooner, rather than later. 

On the other hand, there are also businesses that cannot promote themselves via PPC (in most situations at least). For instance, the cosmetic surgery business in the UK is very tightly regulated, so PPC options will be very limited (ergo, SEO will work better). 

Run thorough research before taking one path or the other. See what your competition does, check out the regulations that might apply to your specific industry, and make the decision that suits you best. 

As a quick example, let’s take a bit of a closer look at two of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy and see whether PPC or SEO fits them best. 

SEO vs PPC in eCommerce

There is a lot to discuss when it comes to SEO and PPC in eCommerce, but the essence is that PPC is probably a better option in this specific case. Why? 

eCommerce moves fast. In fact, statistics show that eCommerce sales have grown exponentially over the past few years. In 2014, total global eCommerce sales accounted for $1.336 billion, while in 2020, the sales increased almost fourfold (to $4,206 billion). Even more, projections show that eCommerce sales will increase steadily over the next years as well. 

Given how fast the industry is moving, eCommerce store owners need equally fast and agile solutions to promote their products. That’s where PPC comes into the picture. Pay-per-click advertising is adaptable and quick, and it feeds into specific searches people are running on the internet. For this reason, Google Ads and social media ads (like Facebook Ads and Instagram Ads) continue to be very profitable solutions for eCommerce businesses. 

SEO vs PPC in SaaS

If you are running or working for a Software as a Service company, you might also wonder whether to focus your digital marketing efforts on SEO vs PPC. 

While there is no straightforward, cookie-cutter approach to this, it is generally believed that SEO and content marketing are better choices for SaaS businesses. The reason a lot of companies in this niche invest more in SEO is because it provides them with long-term brand awareness and digital real estate. This means that once your pages or pieces of content are published, you will continue to reap their benefits long after (especially in the case of “ever-green content” -- or content that never grows actually old or can easily be adapted on a regular basis). 

SEO vs PPC for Startups 

Although “startups” are not an industry per se, they do have their own particularities when it comes to how different digital marketing channels “function” on different digital platforms. 

While our answers for eCommerce and SaaS businesses might have been a bit more decisive, there is no clear-cut answer for startups in general. In the end, it all comes down to your CAC (the Customer Acquisition Cost). Figure out your total spend on your conversions, and then you will know which channel works best for you and how much you need to invest to scale your business by a given number. 

Final verdict on choosing SEO vs PPC from an industry perspective? 

Well, it depends on what industry you come from, really. 🙂

SEO vs PPC: The Integrated Approach 

When analyzing whether to choose SEO or PPC for your business, also consider the third option: running with both. 

You can integrate your SEO, PPC, email marketing, and social media into a bigger, more comprehensive strategy that unifies them and helps you attract and convert users at each stage of their buyer journey. 

This is an ideal scenario, and it needs quite a bit of involvement on your part (financial and otherwise). To make this happen, you need solid knowledge, solid strategy, and a solid team to help you through the endeavor. It’s not easy, but it is effective.

Fact of the matter is that nobody can tell you if SEO OR PPC works best for you. Testing them out is, perhaps, the safest approach to making sure that you invest money in channels that will actually bring your business the sales it needs to thrive. If there is something we'd add as a last note, though, is that both SEO and PPC have their "tricks", so you should always keep your eyes open and make sure that you follow data, rather than hunches. That also means, for example, keeping an eye on invalid clicks and click fraud in your PPC campaigns.

Jason is a passionate data-driven specialist with extensive PPC & SEO experience. When not writing about SEM he can be found surfboarding the wildest ocean waves of the Argentinian coast.