With Google processing over 4 billion Internet searches every day, the battle for consumers’ attention has never been more difficult. And, unfortunately, search engines are where your website needs to be if it wants to get in front of prospective customers or clients. Specifically, your website needs to sit atop the first page of search results if you want to see any real business from the web.

To get there, you will need to try one of two marketing tactics:

  1. Search engine optimization (SEO)
  2. Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising

While both will ultimately help you achieve that goal, they go about it in very different ways.

So, how do you know which of these marketing tactics is best for your website? Does it make more sense to invest in search engine optimization or PPC advertising? Do you even need to make a choice or can you use both? Read on to see how the two strategies stack up.

Search Engine Optimization vs. PPC Advertising: Which Do You Need?

Search engine optimization and PPC advertising differ greatly when you look at them side-by-side. Take time to consider the following differences and weigh them against your business’s needs.

The Basics

Pay-per-click advertising is a type of marketing campaign that runs strictly on search engines. You bid on keywords you want your website to rank for. Your campaign then runs paid ad results at the very top or very bottom of Google results when your target audience searches for your keyword. Every time someone clicks on your link, you pay the accepted price you originally bid.

This is what PPC search results look like:

ppc advertising example picture of a google search results page

Search engine optimization is the method by which your site plays by rules set by Google (and other search engines). Basically, Google has an algorithm that grades websites based on certain factors. As websites abide by those rules and win more and more visitors in the process, websites appear higher in search results.

This is what SEO search results look like:

seo search results serps example

These rules are always changing, but, in general, Google tends to look for things like:

  • Responsive design
  • Fast loading times
  • Security measures (like an SSL certificate)
  • Content optimized around relevant keywords
  • Regular posting of new content
  • High-quality links to and from the site

Effort

Most search engines have their own PPC advertising tool; Google AdWords and Bing Ads being the most popular. This makes the setup of a PPC campaign fairly simple in terms of time and effort since it’s just a matter of configuring audience parameters.

SEO, on the other hand, is a long-term game. Configuration of initial SEO efforts can be done during the website development process. However, they need to be regularly maintained and updated since search algorithms change all the time.

Cost

While it’s easy to write this off as a paid search marketing versus organic search marketing debate, you have to pay for both PPC and SEO. It’s just not always clear how you do that with the latter.

With PPC, you set a budget for an advertising campaign. You then bid on keywords and, upon winning the bid, are able to display your ads whenever someone searches for those keywords.

If your campaign isn’t set up properly, there’s the potential to lose a lot of money—if the wrong audience is targeted, wrong keywords used, wrong timeframe set, or even if you allow Google to handle the setup for you. So, you have to be careful if you want this to be a worthwhile investment.

With SEO, many people assume it’s “free”. That’s true if you’re looking at how much you have to pay search engines to allow your site to rank. There’s absolutely no cost.

However, there is a lot of work involved in optimizing for search, and it’s ongoing. If you consider how much you spend on developing a website, generating new content weekly, and optimizing everything inside and outside the site, you’ll realize there is an actual cost to SEO.

Placement

One of the greatest benefits of using PPC advertising is that you have much more control over how and where your site appears in search. You can choose what sort of details you want to display around the search listing. And you also get to decide where in the results your ad will appear.

Now, CTR (click-through rate) studies like this one from Advanced Web Ranking will tell you that the very first search results get the majority of clicks.

screenshot of an seo click-through rate study by advanced web ranking

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the first paid result is what every visitor will look at. As more and more users become wary about paid advertising and use ad-blocking technology, the first organic search result might actually get more clicks solely based on the trust factor.

Competition

While there is no hard or fast rule about what size business should use PPC advertising, there are certain industries that fare better as evidenced by this recent benchmark report by WordStream:

Average click-through rates:

wordstream average click-through rate study for google adwords across all industries

And average conversion rates:

wordstream conversion rate study for google adwords

Show some clear winners when it comes to PPC advertising. But, then, you have to consider how much those clicks and conversions are going to cost you:

cost per click study of google adwords across all industries by wordstream

When you’re bidding on keywords in a competitive space, you might discover that all the money spent and the ensuing results just aren’t worth it. At least not right now.

SEO, however, is good for every kind of website, though perhaps more so for those using local SEO to target consumers. If you do everything right on your website, and then devise a strong external linking and authority-generating strategy, you can do well in search regardless of the competitive landscape.

Timeframe

There’s no arguing this one:

PPC is the fastest way to get to the top of search. We’re talking instantly landing the top spot as soon as your campaign launches. That said, you lose that listing altogether once your campaign ends.

SEO is the slow way to success in search. Even with the most robust SEO program in place, it could realistically take 6 to 12 months to get to the first page of search results. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time, it just requires more patience. Plus, keep in mind that SEO success is much easier to hold onto. Unless your site seriously violates something in Google’s search algorithm, it’s not very likely you’d lose a top spot shortly after attaining it.

Summary

Back to the original question: Should you invest in SEO or PPC advertising?

To be honest, the chances of PPC succeeding without any SEO work in place are slim. Without a website optimized not just for search, but also for the user experience, those clicks you pay for will prove worthless when very few of them turn into leads or conversions.

I guess what I’m saying then is you need both. SEO and PPC advertising are both highly effective ways to get your site to the top of search. It’s simply a matter of knowing how to wisely invest your time, money, and effort in both marketing strategies.