The two sides of the search marketing coin — pay-per-click (PPC) and search engine optimization (SEO) — both rely on keywords and search engines, but that’s where most of the similarities end.
An effective and efficient digital marketing program requires PPC and SEO to optimize both paid and organic search, but you will need to emphasize one or the other as your business needs shift.
For example, in March when the COVID-19 pandemic decimated many businesses’ web traffic, some businesses shifted focus to SEO as a way to improve traffic without advertising costs. But as the traffic returned, focus on advertising returned as well.
These nine differences between PPC and SEO can help you determine where to focus your initial efforts in search marketing. You’ll notice that in many of these, the two work together, rather than pitting one against the other.
The most obvious difference between PPC and SEO is the cost.
With PPC, you set a daily ad budget and the search engines charge you every time a searcher clicks on your ads. Once the PPC budget runs out, the ads stop running and the paid search traffic stops.
Widely thought of as free, organic search clicks do not come with a cost per click. However, there is a hidden labor cost involved in optimizing the site to improve organic rankings and entice visitors to click. In addition to the SEO manager, an SEO team commonly includes writers, but can also involve developers, graphic designers, user experience (UX) designers, and other creative skill sets. All of these different specialties contribute to SEO being a more labor-intensive option than PPC.
2. Time to Results
One of PPC’s strongest benefits is its instant gratification. PPC campaigns can be implemented quickly and the search engines know immediately when a new campaign launches. With PPC you see traffic immediately as the search engines are incentivized — by literally being paid — to send your site traffic.
SEO takes longer to plan, and also longer to mature. Simply optimizing your homepage might take a day for writing, a day for approving, a week to code, and a week or more to see results stabilize. That’s two-and-a-half weeks for a single, but very important, page.
3. How Long Results Last
SEO’s focus is long-term success, not quick results. Optimizations made on your website are there forever — or at least until the pages are updated again — improving your organic search performance. PPC performance, on the other hand, lasts only as long as you’re willing to bid on those keywords.
This long-lasting performance is the primary reason that businesses engage in SEO. It provides a foundational level of site traffic that can be increased by adding other marketing channels like email marketing, social media, and PPC.
4. Testing Optimizations
Since elements within a PPC campaign can be optimized quickly and measured easily within the ads interface, PPC is an ideal platform to test keywords and ad copy performance. More variables can be tightly controlled in PPC testing than in SEO. When you optimize an element for organic search, many other variables can change that impact performance — from algorithm updates to site code releases, to unforeseen marketing campaigns, and more.
Since it can be easily controlled, PPC is a great way to test optimized text that can be used for both SEO and PPC efforts.
5. Ranking Position
If you want your listing to be the very first result on the very first page of search results, you’ll have to pay for it.
PPC is the only way to display at the very top of the page for many search queries — particularly transactional or ecommerce-related searches. Organic results have been systematically pushed lower on the page, showing below as many as four ads, shopping panels, local panels, etc.
If top billing is your goal, PPC is your best bet for getting there.
Despite their lower position, searchers do show a preference for organic search results — when they understand the difference between them and ads, that is. There’s a stronger tendency amongst savvy searchers to trust the information provided via organic results rather than paid ads.
If you’re a control freak, PPC is your channel. You can control — to an extent — the keywords your ads show on, the messaging shown in the ad, and the extensions used.
With SEO, you have no control over… well, anything. The keywords your page ranks for, the text used in the listing, and sometimes even the images or details associated with the listing, are all beyond your control.
You can map keywords carefully, optimize precisely, use structured data and metadata, and do other things to provide suggestions to the search engines. However, they have an algorithmic mind of their own that determines the results that they compute searchers will find the most useful.
8. Where You Optimize
One of the biggest differences between PPC and SEO is where it happens. PPC is managed entirely within a user-friendly ads interface that the search engines provide. You’ll use spreadsheets and other documents, but at the end of the day, you’ll have to upload or input your work into the ads interface.
The search engines don’t provide a tidy interface for managing organic listings. Instead, all of your SEO work is done directly on your own website. As a result, your SEO efforts must also be beneficial to your user experience. When done well, SEO can also improve the performance of the other digital marketing channels, especially PPC.
9. Skills Needed
Both PPC and SEO require a baseline of creative and analytical skills. Analyzing keyword and performance data is necessary for both in order to determine what to optimize, and both disciplines require ad copy writing in some form.
PPC practitioners tend to lean to the analytical side, however. Very little copy is needed, or allowed, per ad, but strong analytical skills are required to quickly determine which aspects to optimize across a single ad or an entire campaign. Time is money in PPC because you’re competing in a new ad auction every time a user searches on a keyword that is contained in your account.
SEO tends to favor the more creative types that like to write. Yes, there are some heavy analytical skills needed, but just as much time is spent writing or optimizing copy, recommending how to structure navigational elements or other creative tasks.
In addition, SEO practitioners need to have some technical skills: at the very least a baseline understanding of HTML, working knowledge of content management, and the ability to work with developers. At times, SEO managers can even function as project managers as they work closely with a website’s team, making sure that the recommended work moves between writers, UX designers, graphic designers, and developers, as well as through all the approval gates.
At the end of the day, although PPC and SEO are based on similar foundations, they are two very different animals. When they work together, you can expect them to deliver the strongest possible search marketing performance.
Instead of wondering which you should do, create a plan that allows them to work together.