After all the hard work you put into designing and launching your website, now you get to the even harder part: getting people to visit.
A website can be a powerful tool for driving more awareness of your business and convincing people to buy, but it can’t do any of that unless people find it. And in an overcrowded online marketplace, getting noticed by the people you want to reach is a serious challenge.
Once you start looking into online marketing tactics to promote your website, you’ll notice two marketing options get a lot of attention: search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click advertising (PPC).
Often, new website owners with a limited budget try to figure out: “In the argument of SEO vs PPC, which should take dominance?”
Before you can determine which tactic makes the most sense for your business, you need to understand what they are.
SEO and PPC are the two sides of search engine marketing (SEM). They have one main thing in common: they help you get found by people searching for what you do on the search engines, especially Google.
But they also have some notable differences.
What is the Difference Between SEO and PPC?
The difference between SEO and PPC is all about where on the search engine results page (SERP) you show up and how you get there.
- What is PPC Marketing? With PPC, you buy spots on the SERP that show up at the top of page (if you pay enough), at the bottom, or to the side. PPC results often have the word “Ad” next to them, or show up in an image carousel with shopping details at the top of the page.
Brands get those spots by paying for them. Search engine ad platforms use a pay-per-click bidding model to sell ad results. The businesses willing to spend the most, get the best placements for the keywords they bid on, but they only pay when someone actually clicks on the ad, hence the name “pay per click.”
An SEO strategy operates differently.
- What is SEO Marketing? With SEO, you work to earn spots in the organic results—that’s the term for all the results on the page that haven’t been paid for. For many search terms, that means they show up below PPC results, but not always. Sometimes organic results can claim a rich snippet, like the answer box that shows up at the top of some SERPs.
SEO results can’t be bought, they have to be earned. You claim organic spots by practicing a number of SEO tactics, including:
- Working to optimize your website for relevant keywords you want to target.
- Making sure your website provides a good user experience, especially when it comes to things like site speed and mobile friendliness.
- Working to build authority for your website by earning backlinks from other sites.
Those are the basic differences between SEO and PPC to be aware of, but what does that mean for website owners?
SEO vs PPC in 7 Categories
Small business owners don’t have a lot of money to spend on an online marketing strategy, so what you really want to know about SEO vs PPC is how they shake out in comparison to each other in terms of things like cost and performance.
Here’s how the two SEM tactics compare in seven main categories.
This is a tricky category for comparison. While it may seem like there’s an obvious answer, since PPC is paid advertising and SEO must be earned with work, you may assume PPC is more expensive. In reality, measuring SEO vs PPC in cost is complicated, as which costs more will really depend on how you approach each.
To truly see results with SEO, most website owners will need to hire an SEO expert to help. A recent survey found that SEO consultants charge an average of around $500-$1,000 a month. While technically, you can spend nothing on SEO but time, more realistically, you should expect to spend around this amount.
One benefit of PPC is that costs are within your control. You can set a maximum daily spend within Google Ads, and the network will stop running your ads once you’ve gotten enough clicks to reach that amount. That means you can name your budget and never go over it. But if your budget is too low, you’ll run through your maximum spend too early in the day to get the results you want, and it will take longer to accumulate the data you need to build better campaigns.
According to one survey, small businesses that do PPC spend an average of $9,000-$10,000 a month. That doesn’t mean you’d have to spend that much, but it probably means that’s the amount others have found gets the best results.
Winner: SEO, usually
SEO is all about doing your best to signal to Google the keywords you think you should rank for, and proving you’re authoritative enough to gain those rankings. While you can target specific keywords, you ultimately have very little control over what terms you’ll show up for, where you’ll show up in the rankings, and how your website will show up on the SERP.
For that last point, you can provide your own meta descriptions and use schema markup in the hopes that Google will display the information you’ve provided on the SERP. But it’s still up to the search engine how your website shows up—if it shows up at all.
With PPC, on the other hand, you have much more control. Paying for ads means you can decide:
- Which relevant keywords your ads show up for
- Who sees your ads, in terms of categories like demographics, geography, and consumer behavior
- What your ads look like, since you decide on what the ads says, and can include elements that increase clicks like images, or ad extensions that provide useful information such as special deals and delivery information.
3. Speed of results
SEO is a long game. Expect to spend months, or even years, practicing SEO tactics before you start to see results. And even then, your first results won’t be for high-competition keywords.
For example, a small business that sells hot sauce will see results for long-tail keywords—the SEO term for keywords that are less competitive—like “hot sauce shop san antonio” or “ghost pepper hot sauce” long before it has the chance to claim a broad term like “hot sauce.”
That doesn’t mean SEO isn’t worth doing. It absolutely is! There are plenty of benefits to SEO. It just requires patience.
With PPC, by contrast, you can start showing up on page one and getting new traffic the first day you launch a campaign. PPC is often a smart choice for businesses who are doing SEO, but want to start driving traffic faster while they’re waiting for SEO results to pay off.
4. Amount of work
Both SEO and PPC require ongoing work. With PPC, you need to complete keyword and audience research to figure out the best targeting for your campaigns. Then you need to set up your campaigns, monitor them to learn what’s working, and make updates to improve your results and make sure your budget goes further.
As with PPC, SEO should start with keyword and audience research, then you have a list of tactics to stay on top of:
- Optimize each page of the website for your chosen keyword by including it naturally in the title, headings, page copy and meta tags of the page.
- Consistently create high-quality content to keep your website fresh and target more of the keywords on your list.
- Undertake link building strategies to get other websites to link back to yours.
- Maintain a SEO-friendly web design
On the whole, doing SEO well usually requires more work than PPC.
As you’d expect, people generally trust the results that have earned top spots more than those that paid for them. 46% of people said they consider organic results more trustworthy than PPC ones, and 65% said they were more likely to click on an organic result for product-related searches. SEO is therefore a better way to earn the trust of people searching for the kind of products you sell.
That said, a sizeable portion of the population—around 57%— don’t even register the difference between the paid and organic results on the SERP.
Google’s always changing how the SERP looks, so that number is subject to change, but there’s a certain type of consumer that won’t think any less of your PPC ad than if you earned that top organic spot.
6. Click-through rate
Recent data shows a clear winner in this category, but also shows that a lot depends on the type of device people are using. The click-through rate (CTR) for organic results on desktop computers is at over 65%, as compared to a little under 4% for PPC ads. On mobile devices, organic results get around a 40% CTR, with mobile earning a little over 3% (many searches on mobile don’t result in a click at all).
Either way, organic results get more clicks, making SEO rankings more valuable for traffic once you get them.
Analytics give you the power to consistently learn from everything you try, improve your campaigns based on that knowledge, and get better results over time. With both SEO and PPC, you can tap into valuable analytics.
Google Analytics, which is entirely free, provides a lot of data on how much of your traffic comes from organic search, where you rank for target keywords, and which pages people are finding through SEO.
And you can supplement all that free information with the additional data included in paid SEO tools that helps you clearly identify how your website compares to your competitors in rankings and what they’re doing differently to achieve the rankings they have, such as their backlink profile and the keywords they’re targeting.
While SEO tools can provide a lot of useful information, ultimately there’s still a lot of guesswork behind why certain pages rank higher than others.
By contrast, the analytics provided in PPC campaigns can tell you exactly which ads perform well. And because you control every part of the ad, you can do A/B testing to gain insights into what your audience responds to—providing information you can apply not only to your future PPC ads, but also to every other part of your online marketing campaigns.
SEO vs PPC Frequently Asked Questions
Even with that extensive rundown, you may still have some questions. Here are answers to some of the common questions website owners have about the difference between SEO and PPC.
Which Is Better: SEO or PPC?
It depends on your priorities.
PPC drives faster results. You can start getting visibility and traffic on day one, but you have to continually pay for every person it sends to your website.
SEO is slower, but once you gain relevant rankings, the results last longer. A good ranking will continue driving traffic for as long as you stay near the top, and you can count on getting more traffic from a good SEO ranking than a PPC one. And while there’s a cost to the work involved in getting on page one, once there all the traffic it sends your way is free.
Does PPC Traffic Help SEO?
Not directly, but some of the metrics SEO experts commonly believe to be ranking factors require getting more relevant traffic, which PPC sends your way.
For example, when people click on your ad and like what they see long enough to stick around, it results in a lower bounce rate and longer time spent on site—both metrics that signal to Google that people are happy with the page they land on.
You can’t buy SEO results with PPC ads, but getting traffic from relevant visitors is one of the first steps to doing a lot of things that do pay off in SEO.
How do PPC and SEO Work Together?
Good question! While the framing of this piece has pitted SEO and PPC against each other, for most businesses the goal should be SEO and PPC working together.
PPC helps you get the initial boost you need in visibility and traffic when your website’s new, or when it’s underperforming based on your goals. It’s a good strategy for short-term wins while you’re waiting for your SEO work to start coming through.
SEO is the long-term strategy that delivers bigger and more reliable results once it starts working. But it’s hard when you’re starting from scratch, and PPC can bring some of the initial traffic and attention you need to get your SEO efforts off the ground.
For the Win: SEO and PPC Integration
A good online marketing strategy combines the two tactics. If that sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. But you don’t have to learn both SEO and PPC from scratch to start getting more traffic for your website.
You’ll get better results, faster if you outsource the job to someone who already knows what they’re doing. HostGator offers both SEO and PPC services. Our team includes skilled professionals with years of experience in both types of SEM. If you’re ready for your website to start delivering bigger results, let us help.
Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.