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In a digital world, figuring out how to market your business adds new options that we couldn’t have even imagined 20 years ago. While the days of full-page ads in newspapers and magazines are not completely gone, the focus has pivoted toward the online space where websites and social media dominate our daily lives.

Two of the main ways we can influence potential customers to discover our digital presence are through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay Per Click advertising (PPC). Each of these have the benefits and drawbacks, but are both important tools in the digital marketing landscape.

Differences Between SEO and PPC

We hear these two terms thrown around a lot, especially when the question is asked “how can I drive more traffic to my website?” Both SEO and PPC are based on keywords to make your website more visible, but there are vital differences between them.

The main difference is that SEO is performed on your website and generates free organic traffic, while PPC is set up externally and traffic going through it is paid for on a per-click basis.

To benefit from either SEO or PPC, you will need to perform at least some sort of market research to uncover how potential clients are most likely to search for your website. Keyword research is a very important factor. Without it, there is the danger of focusing on search terms that may seem appropriate, but end up with very little measurable traffic.

What Is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization is the process of prioritizing the content, format, and technical components of your website to match the way that search engines index and rank properties. The preferable way to do this is from the ground up before the website ever goes live, but for the most part, a website ends up being optimized after a period of time where the original version does not rank as well as hoped for in search results.

The goal of SEO is to appear on the top of the first page, or as close to it as possible, in search results on sites like Google and Bing. Users are more likely to click on organic search results than ads, knowing that search engines prioritize those results based on the relevance of a site rather than the amount of money they are willing to spend.

Google search results for analytics

SEO Advantages & Disadvantages

When looking for long-term organic search results, Search Engine Optimization is the way to go. You will have to have patience as search engines begin to understand your intentions and pick up external signals pointing to your site, but in the end, it will be worth it.

SEO Pros

Free Traffic – You do not have to pay for incoming traffic coming to your website from search engines. Organic search results are maintained by algorithms that decide what the most relevant result is for certain keywords. This is not to say that an SEO campaign is completely free – you will have to spend time and/or money to create a good strategy and follow through on it.

Long Term Results – The results that you attain through optimizing your site for search will last for long after you stop working on it. Rankings may change with time as competitors change their optimization strategies as well, but traffic does not just stop. PPC traffic, on the other hand, will immediately be cut off as soon as you stop paying for it.

ROI – When planned strategically from beginning to end with a solid strategy in mind and an appropriate update schedule, SEO will normally beat out PPC when it comes to Return On Investment, especially when dealing with large scale websites. Even minor changes to your site can have a lasting, positive impact, and if you are able to perform web editing tasks yourself the initial investment could even be zero.

Easy Learning Curve to Start – Armed with some basic understanding of web development, strategies based on how SEO works, and a site audit, there are many simple edits you can make to your website in order to give it the best chance to succeed in search engine rankings.

Establishing Authority – A good SEO campaign has, at its core, quality content. This content reflects on the knowledge of the author, and by extension, the website. Imagine a time before the internet, where would you look to find out how to unclog a sink? You would probably ask a friend, who hopefully would either know, or direct you to a reputable source.

Imagine in this scenario that Google is the friend, and the reputable source is a website. Your friend will want his recommendation to be the best possible one so he doesn’t end up looking bad. When you create quality content that people trust, Google views and ranks your website more highly.

Brand Awareness – In your online content plan, there will be certain facets of your company that you want to always be known for. When a successful SEO strategy targets these company highlights, your website will appear and be recognized as one of the leading choices for people looking for those keywords.

Increased Website Value – Websites can sometimes be purchased based on speculation, where they are used like real estate to be improved upon and later flipped. A website optimized for search engine visibility may have a much higher resale value than another that has a keyword branded domain name but disjointed content and poor indexing.

If reselling is your intention, SEO is a great way to make sure the monetary value of the website is as high as it can be.

SEO Cons

A Long Time Before Results – Google and other search engines update their databases on a regular basis, but with the number of websites on the internet, it is very unlikely to see an immediate, dramatic impact on search results. So many factors come into play with search engines that you may see volatile SERP movement within a week, but in general it can take 2-6 months for the final results of your work to become stable.

Difficult to Master and Apply Advanced Techniques – The world of search engines is always changing, and keeping up with how websites are ranked is almost a full-time job in itself. Once you get past the basics of creating content and obtaining incoming links, there are many new skills to learn to make sure your site ranks as high as possible.

Not Focused on Buyers – If you are optimizing for buyers to find specific products, high ranking organic search results are hard to attain unless you have a very unique product.

Requires Targeted Content – Virtually all quality SEO campaigns will require investment in new written and graphical content. If you are able to provide that yourself it is not as big of a deal, but if you have a highly aggressive plan in mind you may need to obtain that content either by hiring, contracting out, or pivoting existing employees to writing.

In addition, the content cannot be written poorly or without a plan in mind. Keyword and competitor research plays a large role in what content to write, how that content is constructed, and how keywords are targeted in natural language. 201 Creative can generate content briefs to help your writing team in these areas.

When SEO Is Right for You?

Search Engine Optimization is the best way forward when looking for long term, stable, organic search traffic. The benefits of recognized authority and increased brand awareness are immeasurable and cannot be attained with a PPC marketing strategy.

Smaller websites targeting a local audience can benefit quite a bit from an SEO campaign. The budget spent on a month’s worth of PPC ads could possibly pay for an SEO plan managed to benefit the business for the long haul.

What Is PPC?

Pay Per Click is a paid advertising system where a keyword-targeted snippet points to a specific page on your website. Each time your link is clicked, you are charged a certain amount based on the popularity of the search term you have targeted.

While there are different systems in place for determining the order of ads, generally the website that is ready to spend the most money per click will appear at the top.

PPC is a general term that covers everything from Google Ads to Facebook Advertising, but for the most part we will be focusing on PPC ads that appear in results in search engines. These are identified in Google with a bold “Ad” tag before them at the top of result pages.

Illustration of how PPC works

PPC Advantages & Disadvantages

Pay Per Click advertising is most beneficial when looking for quick, focused results within a short period of time. When looking for an agile marketing tool and have the sustained budget to beat your competitors, definitely consider PPC.

Just like with SEO, there should be a good amount of research involved when targeting your PPC campaign. If you aim for the wrong targets, you may be wasting money on clicks that do not meet the needs of your site visitors.

PPC Pros

Top of the Page – Ads displayed on Google and Bing appear at the top of the page above organic search results. When your ad loads, it will be visible to most viewers without them having to scroll.

Instant Results – Once your PPC ads have been created or updated in the ad console, the changes appear immediately. This gives a flexibility that SEO cannot match. It makes A/B tests easier when comparing one marketing strategy against another, and also gives a near-instant ROI accounting.

Great for Selling Products – Direct clicks to your product pages from PPC ads are easily obtainable as long as you have the budget for it. These ads drive highly motivated buyers who are often already planning on purchasing the result of their web search.

Able to Scale Quickly – With quick and accurate data available, and the ability to edit your ad campaigns on the fly, you can scale up an effective campaign quickly, or shut off a failing campaign to ensure you don’t waste money on clicks that don’t convert.

PPC Cons

Every Visit Costs Money – Each visitor you receive via a PPC ad costs money. With low traffic keywords this will not matter as much, but high volume PPC campaigns can become prohibitively expensive in a short period of time. There are caps to make sure you do not surpass your budget, but once that cap is reached your ad will not display.

ROI – After a long period of time, the amount spent on a Pay Per Click campaign may far exceed the amount spent on SEO. Since you have to continually pay for traffic, there is no end to your yearly spend. If you cancel your PPC ads, the traffic will just…stop.

Scaling is Based on Budget – While PPC campaigns are amazingly agile and set for scaling, the amount you can scale is based on whether you can afford to pay more on an ongoing basis.

Can Lose Effectiveness – If you saturate all the industry results pages with your ads, there is a strong possibility that potential clients will start ignoring them.

When PPC Is Right for You?

If immediate results are required from your marketing campaign, PPC is the right choice. In situations like a time sensitive or one-time offer, it would be almost impossible to ramp up an organic SEO campaign that peaked exactly when the offer is available.

PPC is very effective when going after highly targeted traffic like retail products, where industry giants like Amazon effectively control the entire front page.

If your site is not yet optimized for search, or if there are specific problems with the way search engines view your site, PPC or other paid advertising campaigns may be your only option.

Bringing SEO and PPC Together

While they have different methods and costs, both Search Engine Optimization and Pay Per Click can exist together, and with a long term strategy can benefit each other in many different ways.

When a website is just getting off the ground, a good strategy is to begin a PPC campaign while still waiting for SEO results. This gives the benefit of obtaining immediate traffic while building for the future. As SEO efforts gain traction, you can lower your PPC budget or even remove it entirely.

Since changes appear immediately and A/B testing results are easy to create, keyword and conversion results in PPC ads can be used to craft your SEO strategy. The keywords and ad text used in your highest converting PPC campaigns should be crafted into focused content for long term SEO results.

Remarketing opportunities exist when studying the results of SEO campaigns, giving you data to start more complicated PPC funnels.

Is SEO or PPC Better?

The answer to this question really depends on your business and overall digital marketing plan. 

SEO works better for long term results but you have to wait for the ROI to really make itself apparent. 

PPC gives immediate results but you have to be careful with your budget.

The best results come when mixing SEO and PPC together, using data from each that can be used to enhance the other.

Whatever your digital marketing strategy is, 201 Creative is available to help you craft and implement a plan to drive more traffic to your website.

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Jared Bauman

Jared Bauman is the Co-Founder of 201 Creative, and is a 20+ year entrepreneur who has started and sold several companies. He is the host of the popular Niche Pursuits podcast and a contributing author to Search Engine Land.