SEO vs PPC: Which Is Better?

Website traffic is everything when it comes to marketing your business online.

Not just any traffic is good enough. Rather, there are two vital things that the web traffic must have for it to be suitable: high quality and large volume.

In other words, you must be able to attract a large number of people who are potentially interested in what you are selling. Otherwise you would be wasting resources attracting people who cannot buy your product or service. Such wastage would significantly hurt your return on investment (ROI).

There are two basic options available to marketers for use to drive traffic to their businesses: search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising.

While you can implement search engine optimization (SEO) for free and drive high quality organic traffic to your website, pay-per-click (PPC) advertising as the name suggests is a paid method of generating website traffic. Both methods are tried and true as far as generating web traffic is concerned. However, when you want to drive targeted leads to your website, you’ll want to know which is the better option between the two.

Starting point: understanding the difference  

seo vs ppcSEO, or Search engine optimization refers to the activities you undertake to increase the volume and quality of traffic that goes to your website from organic search engine results. It comprises of several tactics, techniques and strategies that slowly and steadily help increase the visibility of your web content to search engines.

An optimized web content ranks highly on search engine results pages (SERPs) for searches that are related to it. By obtaining a high position on SERPs, such content tends to get many clicks and drives a lot of visitors to the website.

A quick Google search for the word “SEO” returns the following results:

SEO results


The results at the positions numbered 1 and 2 are the highest-ranking web contents for that search term (keyword: SEO). Obtaining that position at the top of the SERP is the product of intense SEO practice.

Pay per click advertising…

You’ll notice that there are three results (unnumbered) on the above screenshot that have a small ‘Ad’ mark right before the URL. These are Pay-Per-Click (PPC) results. When you run a PPC campaign, the search engine (like Google) places your ads alongside the organic search results for related searches.

The model works in that you pay a certain amount of money each time a user clicks the ad.

The downsides of PPC advertising

Running a PPC campaign means that you are paying for every click, and not for actual conversions.

Paying for wasted clicks (those that fail to convert) can significantly shrink your ROI. Additionally, pay-per-click advertising comes quite on the higher side in terms of upfront costs. This is by far the main downside of PPC advertising as a way of generating web traffic.

There are unideal cases where you can spend more money on your PPC campaign than what you are getting from sales. It would not be a good idea therefore to go for a PPC option if you are operating on a shoestring budget that’s common with new startups.

It would be a good idea to build traffic organically before you can consider this paid option.

Web traffic from PPC is limited to the campaign period

The other sad reality about PPC is that you only get visitors as long as your campaign is running. As soon as you stop channeling cash into the campaign, the traffic comes to a screeching halt. PPC is all about getting what you pay for – no more (but less is possible).

What happens when you run out of your ad spend? You get no traffic, that’s what! This can be especially dire in case your campaign has taken up more money than it has generated in sales.

Without a good survival strategy, the consequence can kill your business since you have to keep fueling your campaign with money to continue getting traffic and making sales.

It can be time consuming to optimize PPC ads

Paying for every click on your ads does not mean it will be an easy ride to run a PPC campaign. There is a learning curve that you have to go through if you are to see any tangible results.

Your unique selling propositions (USPs), ad relevance, campaign settings, ad testing, call to action (CTA) and a few other factors will affect the volume and quality of traffic that your ad can generate despite the size of your budget. The process can be fairly demanding even though the payoff is great if you conduct it properly.

In most cases, you’ll have to hire an experienced marketer to do it for you. This is the surest way to increase your click-through rate (CTR) with a minimum cost per click (CPC).

How PPC advertising can be advantageous

Despite the limitations, successful cost-per-click campaigns can be extremely effective in driving qualified leads to your business off the bat. For a campaign that is well-targeted to high-intent searches, you can expect up to 65 percent click-through rate.

One way to ensure you get the highest CTR is by customizing and optimizing your ads to target some specific high-intent keywords.

High conversion potential

Compared to organic visitors, pay per click visitors are 50 percent more likely to buy what you’re selling.

This high conversion rate is a major plus as far as the PPC option is concerned. Though you will likely spend much more than you could on search engine optimization, leads that the paid search generates are 1.5 times more likely to convert.

In terms of revenue, you can earn $3 for every $1.60 you spend on AdWords.

It only makes sense to be particularly interested in AdWords since nearly 80 percent of companies focus their PPC campaigns on AdWords (Google’s paid search service). The tech giant has the lion’s share of the internet business, controlling well over 77 percent of the search market.

Google PPC share market
Source: Smart Insights

Instant results

The rewards of a PPC campaign are instant and can give your business an immediate shot in the arm. Ready prospective customers can start seeing your ads and clicking them immediately the ads go live.

We are talking about people who are visiting your website ready to buy; as quickly as within 24 hours of publishing the ad. This kind of promotion can be particularly beneficial since the campaign can increase awareness about your brand by up to 80 percent.

This set of data implies that a well-run PPC advertisement can give your new business an instant brand visibility in any market. Pay-per-click is therefore the best option if you are looking to get quick results and you don’t have the luxury of time.

Away from PPC advertising pros and cons, you’ll want to know how these strengths and limitations compare to those of search engine optimization. That’s when you can determine which option is more suitable for you, or when to use either of them.

Advantages of search engine optimization

SEO is a long-term strategy, and if you execute it correctly, the gains in the long run can be tremendous.

Continuous long-term benefits

While traffic from PPC advertisement ceases once you stop running the campaign, a website that is well-optimized for search will continue to receive qualified leads even when you are not running the campaign.

Continuous long-term benefits from SEO
Image source

That’s essentially free traffic for your website, free leads for your business and eventually free sales.

Once you implement a working SEO infrastructure, you can be sure to get incremental traffic to your website and continue to make sales. SEO is therefore a far more sustainable marketing option than paid advertising. It can continue to bring in high-quality organic traffic for years down the line.

Low cost of conversions

So long as you carry out your keyword research effectively and implement a highly targeted SEO campaign, you’ll receive traffic and a large number of leads your website receives will convert.

According to the Search Engine Journal, your SEO leads will often close at a 14.6 percent rate compared to only 1.7 percent closing ratio of outbound leads.

In this regard, both SEO and PPC advertising have the advantage of high conversions subject to the effectiveness of the campaign. Only that SEO has the benefit of organic traffic – you don’t pay for it – yet you make sales out of it.

Potentially high return on investment

Those who handle their SEO in-house will always pay a lot less for the traffic as opposed to the costly PPC option. Since you can launch and run a powerful SEO campaign without paying much for it, the organic traffic that your website receives comes at a near-zero cost.

There is a huge difference between the cost of generating leads organically and the revenues you make from their conversion. This huge difference is the direct equivalent of your return on investment.

Users prefer to click organic search results to ads

Search engine journal reports that 93 percent of all online experiences start with search engines. More importantly, people have an ingrained tendency to ignore ads in favor of organic search engine results on SERPs.

Apparently, between 70 to 80 percent of people ignore paid ads on search engine results pages. That is to say: more than 70 percent of clicks on search results are organic, hence the need to optimize your content to rank among the first five results on search engine results page (SERP).

The limitations associated with SEO

Every marketer who has tried their hand on SEO knows that it’s not plug-and-play. It can take a while before you start seeing results on your SEO campaign, usually three to four months or more.

That’s why successful SEO is more of a time investment than a cash one, but if you put time into the work of optimizing your web content, the reckoning is likely to be pleasing.

Ever changing search engine algorithms

Google controls the search engine practice, and it is constantly changing the rules in an attempt to level out the playfield. The two main objectives of constantly updating these algorithms are to provide users with the best experience and to eliminate black hat SEO.

As the tech giant implements changes in its algorithms from time to time, what comprises good SEO also changes. This means that you must also constantly update how you approach SEO with each update or you might risk getting lower rankings.

As HubSpot reports, algorithm changes over the years such as Google Panda, Penguin, Hummingbird and RankBrain are the biggest SEO challenge that 40 percent of marketers complain about.

Here’s a super-detailed history of Google’s algorithm updates that have constantly caused disruptions to the SEO practice.

There’s no guarantee of reaching page one

You could implement a good SEO plan, but most other SEOs are doing the same. Everyone wants to hit the first page in search engine results pages – because that’s where the cream of the search traffic is.

If many people are trying to rank for the same keyword as you, you may never hit that first SERP. This can be especially frightening since 75 percent of users never scroll past the first page of search results according to HubSpot.

It is therefore important to invest in keyword research to find out the best keyword to help you start off on the right foot and maintain the trend through the long run.

Final verdict

Whether to choose search engine optimization over paid search advertising is a question of balancing the pros and cons of the two options and meticulously weighing the odds. What works in your favor? Do you want a constant stream of visitors to your website long after you stop running a campaign or are you looking for a quick brand rollout? Do you have the time to invest in long haul SEO or are you willing and capable of investing money instead?

How you respond to these questions will determine whether or not SEO outweighs PPC advertising for your marketing situation, or vice versa. At the end of the day, it all depends entirely on your goals, both in the short and the long run.