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The SEO vs. PPC Debate – Which Tactic is Better?


In digital marketing, there is perhaps no more heated debate than that between SEO and PPC. Some marketers swear by playing the long game with SEO, gradually building up traffic over time until they have a powerful set of organic rankings that delivers their pages a steady, free flow of traffic month after month. On the other side of the coin, there are proponents of PPC who believe that simply buying traffic efficiently is the best way to grow a site and make conversions. 

This article is going to jump into these murky waters and attempt to sort things out. Of course, the good news in all of this is that you don’t have to make a decision regarding which one is better or which one you are going to use. You can, and probably should, use both to some degree within your digital marketing plan. We believe that this is an interesting and informative debate, so let’s get started. 

An Introduction to The Two Contenders

SEO vs PPC Comparison Summary

Before we can really compare SEO and PPC in any meaningful way, we need to make sure we are clear on what these marketing tactics are and why they are so popular. The information in this section might be a review for you, but we’ll summarize it quickly to get everyone on the same page. Then we’ll dive into the strategy discussion of playing the long game versus the short game. 

  • SEO stands for search engine optimization. The goal in SEO is to create content on your site that’s going to rank highly in search engines for specific search terms. This can be accomplished through a variety of methods, including using the right words in your content, attracting links to your content from external sites, optimizing code and on-page elements, and more. When you successfully rank highly for various searches that are relevant to your business, you’ll be able to bring in a steady flow of traffic without continuing to pay for advertising. While SEO isn’t truly a source of free traffic – there is plenty of time and money invested in the work required to reach the top of the rankings – it can feel free in the future after you’ve invested in it. The takeaways here are that SEO should be considered an investment that will take time to pay off, but it will continue to pay off for a long time in the future. Learn more about SEO here.
  • PPC stands for pay-per-click. On the other side of the traffic spectrum is PPC. There is nothing free about it, as you will pay for each and every visitor that lands on your site through this channel. That cost will vary wildly from one niche to the next – some markets have PPC traffic available for just pennies, while others demand several dollars or more per click. To bring in PPC traffic, you simply write some ads and run a campaign through any of the various PPC platforms available on the web today. Google Ads is an overwhelmingly popular choice, but Facebook is another big player in this space. The takeaways here are that you will immediately begin driving traffic to your site, but you need to continue paying for this tactic. When you stop paying for advertising, your online presence will disappear completely. Learn more about advertising here.

Speed is the Primary Difference

Both SEO and PPC can be used effectively to get people to your website. One of the key differences between how these two tactics work comes down to speed. With SEO, you are playing the long game while PPC is focused on getting results as fast as possible. 

The difference in speed between SEO and PPC can be attributed to how each of these approaches works. With search engine optimization, it’s going to take time to build your rankings and grow a large enough collection of content to rank for a range of search terms. Google and other search engines are going to need to get to know your site and will want to see if it is popular with users. While there is the occasional story of a website that hits it big quickly with SEO, those cases are the exception and not the rule. Usually, SEO takes a long time. It’s an investment that requires plenty of hard work and patience along the way. 

Speed is the primary difference summary

PPC works differently, so it offers a different path toward potential success. There really isn’t any patience required here, as you just pay to have your ads begin to show in the search results. If you already have an offer up on your website, like a product or service you are selling, turning on PPC ads could potentially lead to sales in just a matter of moments. The speed of pay-per-click can be intoxicating, but the costs aren’t to be ignored. 

Building a Balanced Approach

You don’t have to choose which of these options you like better and then use that one exclusively moving forward. You can – and should – use a blend of these two methods to make sure you are getting the best possible results out of the money and time you put into digital marketing. It’s likely that one of these two will prove to be better than the other in your situation, but that doesn’t mean the other should be left out in the cold. 

The goal here is to create a solid strategy to use PPC and SEO in parallel. By pairing them together, you get the best of both worlds – the speed and immediate impact of PPC, and the investment in the long-term benefits offered by good SEO. Here are a few tips that should help you work on this type of balanced approach to marketing –

  • Set up an SEO schedule. You need to be making consistent, steady progress on your SEO efforts if you are going to see benefits over time. Since SEO is more of a long play, it’s easy to set it to the side for a while as you work on things that feel more pressing or urgent. The problem is that without any structure you just won’t end up making the necessary investments – you’ll let them slide for too long and you won’t make progress. So, with that in mind, create a realistic schedule that you can stick to week after week or month after month. Included in your schedule could be things like the types of content that you want to create, the number of new pieces of content that you are going to post in a given time period, or how many of your existing pages you are going to go through and optimize and improve. 
  • Find reasons to use PPC. Unlike SEO, PPC isn’t something that you have to be using all the time. Rather, you should pick and choose when to deploy a new campaign in support of a specific initiative. For example, if you have a new product launch coming up, you might want to run a PPC campaign ahead of that launch with the goal of getting people to sign up for your email list. Then, when the product does launch, you could run a new campaign that takes interested parties right to your sales page. During quieter periods for your business, you can put a pause on PPC activities to save up the budget for another event coming up on the calendar. 
  • Track your results. You’ll want to carefully track how these two forms of marketing are performing so you can tweak how you spend your time and money to get the best results. In some niches, SEO is brutally competitive and you might find that there is only so far you can go in this area. That doesn’t mean you abandon it completely, but perhaps you take a step back so you can put more time and money into other avenues (not only PPC but other types of marketing, as well). It’s only through collecting good data on your efforts that you can make informed decisions to move forward. 

SEO Content can improve PPC campaigns

Well-crafted SEO content can serve as a foundation that supports your PPC campaigns and makes them more effective. When someone clicks on an ad, you need them to arrive somewhere on your site. You shouldn’t just take them to your homepage. 

Ideally, when a customer clicks on an ad, the content they’re taken to is specific and directly connected to the messaging in the ad. This synergy ensures a cohesive message across both organic and paid search channels, enhancing the user’s perception of consistency and credibility. 

When planned properly, you can get the benefit of investing in organic SEO content on your site, while also ensuring that your ads are leading to high-quality, relevant, helpful landing pages and supporting content that converts.

Making Seasonal Adjustments

We’ve touched on this briefly above, but it deserves its own section because of the importance of varying how you approach marketing online. As the year progresses, your business will likely have busy periods and slower periods, and you should match those up with how you work on SEO and PPC. 

During busy times, you’ll likely want to lean into PPC, investing money in getting as many people as possible to land on your site and see what you have to offer. This is probably the time of year when buyers are the most likely to make a purchase, so be aggressive with your marketing and try to make a big splash. 

On the other end of the spectrum, SEO is a perfect activity for when things are quieter. During the off-season in your niche, work on putting together as much quality content as you can, targeting the keywords that you have identified as being important to your business. Then, when the busy season comes back again, you will have laid a good SEO foundation so you can put that on the back burner for a bit without losing track of it completely. 

Never Stop Testing

You are never finished with either SEO or PPC. There simply isn’t a line to cross at which point you will be “done” – there is always more to do, improvements to make, and optimizations to pursue. It’s important for digital marketers with any business to embrace this perpetual improvement mindset instead of thinking that they will just work on a project for a while before checking it off and moving on to the next. You’ll surely go through stages of working on various plans within SEO and PPC but don’t think that the job can ever be done. 

Never Stop Testing Quote

Why won’t you be able to put these to the side and consider them finished? In a word, competition. No matter what niche you are in, there are always other people in the space trying to take customers away from you and bring them over to their side. So, for example, you can’t sit still on Google rankings that look great at the moment. If you’ve done an excellent job of SEO and are ranking near the top currently for a bunch of important terms, that’s great – but don’t expect to stay there for long without continuing to work at it. Someone else will be coming for those ranking spots and they are sure to pass you unless ongoing maintenance and optimization are performed. 

As we mentioned earlier, you don’t have to pick a winner here and pledge your allegiance to only that type of marketing. There is room within your marketing strategy for both, and a diversified approach to growing a business is usually the most sustainable and reliable. With that said, you’ll probably put more of your effort into one of these channels than the other, or you might vary your degree of focus throughout the year as business needs and goals change. We hope the discussion above has helped to give you a clear picture on this important topic and good luck with whatever you decide to pursue!

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About Chris Auman:

Chris Auman is a veteran digital marketer with over 25 years of experience in the trenches. As Sanctuary’s founder and President, Chris has successfully guided online marketing efforts for companies large and small.

Learn more about Chris.

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