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SEO or PPC: How to determine in which to invest

Mary Clare Riordan • July 16, 2015

By Patrick Cole, Digital Consultant


Many of our clients come to us and ask about the pros and cons of SEO and Paid Search. They are often looking for us to tell them which tactic they should use for their eCommerce sites—especially when they have a smaller marketing budget and have to choose one or the other, not both. Unfortunately, this is a complex question that cannot be answered without taking a lot of things into consideration.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Paid Search (or pay-per-click, PPC), although both search marketing, are very different channels that serve very different purposes. PPC is when a company bids on keywords to have their ads show up in search results, and then pays the search engine every time a user clicks on that ad. For organic search results with SEO, Google uses their proprietary algorithm to decide what websites show up and in which order. This algorithm is based on over 200 different factors, but the main areas that affect your search rankings depend on if your site is relevant and usable to searchers (on-page factors) and if your website has proven authority (the number of links and social mentions you have).

If you can only invest in one channel and are stuck between deciding between Paid Search and SEO, here are the main questions that will help you decide which marketing channel to invest in first:

  • How quickly do you need to start seeing results for your marketing spend?
  • Can your website be updated easily (technically and from a design perspective)?
  • Where is the majority of your current website traffic coming from?
  • Is your current traffic converting?

Why consider PPC?

If the current traffic coming to your site is substantial and comes from free sources (direct visits, referrals, organic search) and you just need to get more website traffic to sell more products, Paid Search is a good channel to consider. Paid Search these days goes beyond just bidding on keywords to show up in search results. It is about building brand awareness and having promotions show up at the right time users are searching for your brand and related products. It is also working with affiliates to help drive additional revenue for your brands while also creating optimized landing pages to help improve conversion rates for these customers. Paid Search also allows you to find the most qualified of customers by allowing you to target your consumers based on location, time, and intent and provide them with enticing messaging to capture that customer when it matters the most—the Zero Moment of Truth. The biggest advantage that Paid Search has over SEO is that it is instant; there is no delay in your campaigns launching and you can start acquiring users today for pennies to dollars a click (depending on the keyword).

Why consider SEO?

If your company does not have a strong digital footprint and you are okay with not having an immediate return on your marketing spend, SEO can provide immense long term value for your brand and website. However, SEO is also heavily dependent on developers making technical fixes to your site, so if making these changes are complex, SEO projects could end up being extremely costly. SEO used to be strictly about improving rankings for relevant keywords in organic search (and this is still important!). However, SEO these days goes beyond just keyword rankings. SEO is also about working with Creative and Design teams to create unique content and experiences your customers enjoy. SEO is also about improving your site infrastructure to help pages load faster for your users (this is especially important for mobile visitors). SEO can also help brand management to help keep any unwanted negative press stay out of the search engine results page (SERP). They can utilize analytics to improve the overall site experience for all users, whether they come from a Google search or an email campaign.

So which tactic should you invest in?

At the end of the day, there is tremendous value in investing in both Paid Search and SEO. Google has provided many case studies that show having your company show up in both the organic search and paid search results actually provides the highest amount of value. There really is no answer as simple as ‘Paid Search is the way to go!’ or ‘SEO will provide you the best long term results’. But not all companies have the luxury to pour money into both to make them effective.

In order to decide which channel to invest in first, you have to understand your company’s short and long term goals. If you want to generate a lot of buzz and start growing a user base ASAP, investing in paid media will be your best bet to start getting customers onto your site on day one and purchasing products. If your company wants to focus on creating great content that will resonate with users while also providing a long term source of free traffic, SEO should be your first choice.  Ideally, invest what you can in Paid Search to generate some traffic while you are optimizing your site for search. When you start seeing results, you can reconsider how well PPC has worked, and if you should re-allocate more to SEO or keep them both going in tandem.

Questions? Feel free to contact us.

Mary Clare Riordan

About the author

Mary Clare Riordan

Mary Clare Riordan is the Marketing Programs Manager at LYONSCG. When she's not running creative demand generation campaigns, you can find her cheering on Boston sports and Marquette basketball, running along the Chicago lakefront, or spending time with family and friends.

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