SEO vs Paid Search: A Primer
Last Updated: September 7, 2023
For traditional marketers, SEO and Paid Search (also known as SEM) often compete, as both seek to attract Google searchers and convert them into sales. However, Paid Search and SEO function differently as tools in your digital marketing strategy.
- SEO is a medium-to-long term strategy that requires a lot of effort but earns a high ROI
- SEM is a short-to-medium term strategy that requires little effort and earns a low ROI
Maximizing the effectiveness of these two channels requires a detailed understanding of each one. The table below breaks down their differences.
|ROI1Source: Digital Marketing ROI Statistics||748%
Slow ramp-up but high long-term
Low but provides rapid returns
|Average Conversion Rate2Source: SEO vs PPC Statistics: Conversion Rates Compared||2.4%||1.3%|
|Cost||Moderate during startup, low long-term||Moderate to high, increasing over time due to PPC inflation|
|Website Traffic Type||Organic||Inorganic|
|Execution Difficulty||High; Requires a skilled team to select keywords, analyze search intent, create content, and publish regularly.||Low; Any marketer can set it up, yet degree of success depends on skillful keyword selection and proactive maintenance.|
Overall, SEO should be seen as a primary marketing investment due to its high ROI and adaptability to nurturing campaigns. However, it can be difficult to execute in-house given that Google prioritizes search intent-focused thought leadership and consistent publishing, both of which are tough disciplines to master. In contrast, paid search is well suited to short term lead generation, a tool whose value is highest when paired with a longer term SEO campaign targeting the same keywords.
Below, we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each approach in more detail. We also explain when you should combine both approaches.
SEO: Advantages and Disadvantages
Modern SEO is as much an art as a science: simply creating and publishing content with keywords in its meta titles is no longer sufficient to rank. You must understand your audience, select keywords they actively search, vet those keywords for transactionality, and most importantly, create original thought leadership content that responds to their search intent. Done well, SEO Thought Leadership results in increased trust with Google and customers, creates industry authority, and generates qualified leads for your sales team. Below are the primary advantages and disadvantages of SEO:
- Highest long-term ROI among digital marketing channels
- More trusted by searchers, leading to higher conversion rates and shorter sales cycles
- Creates content that can be repurposed for your other marketing channels
- Rewards marketer skill and content quality over pure marketing spend
- Requires skilled team to build and execute a Hub & Spoke strategy
- Slower startup, requiring an average of 4-6 months before first results are seen
Paid Search: Advantages and Disadvantages
While SEO relies upon content quality to satisfy the factors that determine Google ranking, paid search, as its name implies, allows companies to pay Google to have their page placed above the search results page for their chosen keywords . These are seen by visitors before the organic search results, but nonetheless are clicked on at a far lower rate. The relative clickthrough rates of the top ad and the top 3 search results are shown below:
Compared to SEO, paid search allows companies to increase their web traffic very quickly without the need to invest in content creation and regular publishing. It is, however, lower ROI than SEO, and can quickly become expensive when used as a primary lead generator. The advantages and disadvantages of paid search are shown below:
Paid Search Advantages:
- Brings in visitors immediately, resulting in quick lead generation
- Relatively simple to execute, as positioning is dependent on ad spend and not content quality
- Ads are not affected by Google algorithm changes
Paid Search Disadvantages:
- Results last only as long as you continue to pay for them
- Low ROI long-term, with costs increasing due to PPC inflation
- Not trusted by searchers, resulting in colder leads
- Extremely expensive in competitive industries where ad buying is common
How to Combine SEO & Paid Search
SEO and paid search are not mutually exclusive; with the most successful digital marketing campaigns combining both. Because of SEO’s high long-term value, it functions particularly well as a primary marketing investment but many companies find the relatively long lead time challenging. Effectively executing on a Hub & Spoke strategy also requires narrowing keyword selection to a maximum of 4-6 focus areas, leaving out potentially valuable keywords outside the major hubs. Paid search can serve as a way to fill these gaps, providing short term lead generation, a testing bed for new keyword areas, and a way to drive leads from searches outside the main focus of an SEO campaign. The image below shows how a company that offers project management software might combine SEO and paid search.
As shown in the image above, another highly effective way to combine SEO with paid search is through retargeting campaigns. Retargeting is a strategy in which ads are served only to searchers who already visited your website, increasing the likelihood that they return and become a lead. This avoids the lowered trust of ads—the searcher has already formed a relationship with your website—while keeping your products and services front of mind.
Outsourcing Your SEO or Paid Search Efforts
Managing marketing campaigns that are able to optimize the strengths of multiple channels requires time and commitment. Therefore, many companies partner with an agency experienced in providing high quality SEO services and getting results. If you are interested in learning more about SEO vs paid search and how to best implement them, contact us.