SEO vs. PPC: SEM Showdown

Amongst digital marketing folk, there is a perpetual disagreement over which is the most powerful method of search engine marketing. Some say you can’t beat a high ranking in the organic results, were as others prefer the data-driven control offered by pay-per-click strategies.

Search engine marketing (SEM) generally covers two areas of digital marketing:

  • Search engine optimisation
  • Pay-per-click

In most niches, the ideal situation is to rank first for organic search and appear first in paid ads on the SERP (search engine results page). With SEM, the goal is to occupy as much ‘real estate’ on the front page of the results as possible. A prolific appearance in #1 positions across the SERPs not only gets lots of clicks, but is a huge credibility booster, and helps foster trust in your brand for potential buyers.

Any good digital marketing agency will use an integrated approach. This approach involves often using PPC to get clients quick results, whilst rankings climb. When it comes to SEO, results can sometimes be quick, however it’s no secret that the most impressive results can take months to be realised.

When to use SEO?

The leading advantage of SEO is it’s potential as a long-term growth strategy. Attempting to use it as a short-term strategy is nearly-never effective. Using short-term biased methods usually trigger penalties from search engines like Google. Well-performed search engine optimisation will create results that last for years. And more importantly, you’d don’t have to pay for every click

Attempting optimisation of your website can be risky unless you’re an expert. SEO should always be left to the professionals. It’s very easy to cause significant damage to your website rankings. The most common mistake is building the wrong type of links, or using the wrong anchor text for backlinks

The organic results can be a very turbulent landscape. The reason for this is the dynamic nature of the ranking algorithm that dictate the organic rankings. The algorithm is updated daily, with major updates on a less regular basis. The major updates can make or break the rankings of a business. Hence, solely relying on SEO for your customer acquisition can be a risky strategy.

For building brand awareness, investing in organic search is incredibly cost-effective across industries. SEO has trees added benefit of adding of increase perceived trust in your brand. With an organic ranking higher than the competition, it builds credibility in your brand..

However, in a business environment where many niches are heavily crowded, SEO has become increasingly difficult. This is because getting quick rankings is near impossible for most niches, and it can be incredibly difficult to overcome established incumbent rankings in challenging markets. In those types of markets, it could take well over a year to get any worthwhile leads as a result of SEO efforts.

When to use paid traffic?

PPC marketing can bring in sales from day 1 – that’s the key advantage. However, it will also incur a cost from day 1. The cost per click (CPC) depends on the competitiveness of the market and the perceived value of a click. For example, if there’s a large amount of companies that are competing to sell a high value service/product, you can be sure of a high CPC. A high CPC quickly incur costs, however you’ll always be in control thanks to pre-defined budgets.

Setting up these types of ads can be challenging, however, Google has recently undergone an overhaul to its ad platform. Not only did the name change from ‘Adwords’ to simply ‘Ads’, but the user interface has been simplified. The new user-interface is designed for non-experts to create ads and track the progress of their ads with easily understandable data. This has massively lowered the barrier to entry to online advertising. Whilst it’s probably better to use a professional, it’s much less difficult to operate on your own compared to SEO.

One important variable with PPC is the landing page. The success of a campaign is heavily dependant on the quality of the landing page. A good landing page is designed to create conversions i.e. sales. Using paid ads, you can split test landing pages to optimise for conversions using the vast array of data viable on ad platforms like Google. Whereas with SEO, this is much more difficult, as pages have to be set up for SEO-purposes primarily – which may be at the detriment of conversion rates.

Which has the CTR (click-through-rate) advantage?

Organic search is the   clear winner in terms of click-though-rate. On desktops organic search results, around 65% of click head to the organic results, with only around 4% opting to click on the paid listings (read more here). For lower volume keywords, such as when targeting local searchers, there may simply be too little demand to create enough traffic using PPC due to the lower CTR.

Ultimately, this means that scaling-up paid ads can be tricky – sometimes the clicks needed just don’t exist. And scaling-up can mean targeting poorer-converting keywords, which may increase the cost of acquiring a customer significantly. With SEO, thanks to vastly superior CTR rates across niches, there’s often more clicks available. Hence, for those that aspire to scale to more impressive heights, an organic search strategy is a must.

So which one should I choose?

Ideally both. They operate more efficiently in tandem. For example, the higher quantity and quality of data derived from PPC can be fed into SEO efforts. Furthermore, every keyword has different levels of competition and a different CPC. A simple integrated strategy, would be to invest in long-term SEO strategies for keywords that have a high CPC (so long as organic competition doesn’t seem insurmountable).

As mentioned both aspects of SEM can be extremely difficult in more-busy niches. Therefore, it isn’t always the optimum marketing method. In these cases, it may be more effective to allocate efforts of other marketing methods. Youtube, instagram, and Facebook advertising have become incredibly effective in the last 5 years. Don’t restrict yourself to SEM strategies if they’re not the right fit for the market.