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Last week I was consulting on search engine marketing efforts. After a brief audit of paid and organic marketing, it became clear that my client is using pay per click (PPC) to drive traffic to their home page. They thought that by buying clicks to home page they will improve their search engine ranking. My next step was to go back to basics and explain the difference between PPC and SEO (Search Engine Optimization).

A couple of hour later, the SEM picture was clear. We had SEM strategy, goals, and targets for PPC and SEO separately. The client understood what the final result will be and expectations from each marketing channel.

When choosing between PPC and SEO, it is important to understand the differences. Each is used for different purpose, has different expectations, implementation, and tracking. I do recommend to implement both. However, if you have to choose between the two, consider the following.

Start with PPC when:

  1. You have a new website. You need to get traffic and generate conversions. It is usually hard for new websites to hit the ground running. While you are establishing your authority on the internet, a focused PPC campaign can help you with leads and sales.
  2. You are a small website that is relevant to local market or small niche. If there are not enough searches for your specific product, it might be more profitable to get sales through paid advertising.
  3. All you want to do is to sell one product. Google does not look favorably on sites that have one or two pages. For some affiliates or merchants who want to have a product page that generates sales, sometimes pay per click campaigns is the only way to go. It is very unlikely that you will be ranking high. Don't waste your time on SEO.

You are ready for SEO when:

  1. You are an established website with sizable traffic. It is best when you already rank for some keywords so you can improve your ranking with SEO. It is also helpful if you already rank for your branded keywords (company name, products). Improving is much easier than starting from scratch. However, if you are a new site, keep SEO in mind and design your site accordingly if you want to stay in the market long term.
  2. You have plenty of visitors but want to convert them better. You want your visitors to do what you want them to do on your site - buy or interact with you. SEO can bring you visitors who are already interested in your product, similar product, looking for solution, etc. If you send them to the exact page that matches their interest, they are more likely to buy from you (obvious, of course). SEO will help you target them better.
  3. You know that your content is relevant to your customer already and you want to gain more online visibility. You know that your customers love you and all you need is more online exposure to show people how awesome you are. SEO (and social media) can be a great tool to achieve better online presence.

Now, that you know what PPC and SEO can do for you, let's talk differences and similarities.

How SEO is different from PPC

  • - SEO effort is long term. You can expect results within 3-6 months based on how agressive you are. There is a lot of work (read: expense) upfront associated with SEO as well as maintenance costs. Most importantly, you will have to create quality content to rank. Polishing turds will not get you anywhere.
  • - SEO goal is ranking and traffic. The process looks like this: you work on your site, you rank higher, you get more traffic, you work harder to keep your high ranking position. The more keywords you rank for, the more relevant traffic you get.
  • - SEO focus is content. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. If you have nothing of value, people will not care about your site; they will not link to you.
  • - The way you attract clicks is by relevance. If searchers decide that your link is relevant to their search query, they will click on your link. The higher you rank, the more exposure (eyeballs) your link will get. Hence, you fight for that link by writing great titles and attractive descriptions.
  • - Quality equals ranking. Not completely true, but simply put - yes. If you promote your good quality content, people will find it useful and link to it, talk about it, share with friends. It will get hyped and popular thus lifting your ranking.
  • - Your website pages are indexed by search engines. That one is simple - in order for your page to appear in search results, search engines need to know about it. You make the page found-able (read: crawlable) and relevant - it will appear in the results.
  • - There are long term benefits Popular pages will continue to generate traffic even if you do not work on them every day. If the value is there, the interest will be there.
  • - You track ranking and traffic. Some advanced SEOs also track conversions. That is very helpful when you are trying to prioritize the efforts. But ultimately, SEO is responsible for ranking and traffic - that's all.

How PPC is different from SEO

  • - PPC pays off short term. You launch a campaign and clicks start coming in right away.
  • - PPC goal: click-throughs. You want people to click on your ad - that's the main goal. Of course, you want them to convert, but before they do that, they have to click. The click through rate will show you how effective and your ads are to the user query. You have to understand what searchers are looking for extremely well to offer them your solution.
  • - PPC focus is conversion. Of course, you want people to convert when they come from organic search, but with paid advertising each click cost you money, so you want every user to click and buy. After all, you want to make profit, right?
  • - You attract clicks by compelling offer. A searcher is looking for a solution to a problem. Your ad offers the solution. It has to match the search and be better than other PPC competition on the search results page. Make your offer the most compelling.
  • - Quality equals the number of click-throughs. The more people click on your ad, the better it is. That is why you have to constantly test your ads and your offers.
  • - It is better if pages not indexed by search engines. The goal of your landing page is not to rank but to convert. Usually, there is less text, more visuals, more targeted content. Often, the content is duplicate. My advice is to always remove PPC landing pages from the list of pages you want search engines to index.
  • - PPC offers short term benefits. Once you stop ppc efforts, the traffic goes away. This reinforces the idea that all you want from that traffic is to buy.
  • - PPC tracking: click through rate, bid amount, conversion rate, quality score, cost per acquisition, etc. You want to track more with PPC to make sure that your efforts are generating return on investment (ROI).

How PPC is similar to SEO

  • - Both PPC and SEO have to be relevant to search query. People search for a solution - you offer them what they are looking for. If your page is not relevant to the query, people will bounce back after clicking. If it is your PPC ad, you will also have to pay for an unproductive visit. Search engines do not want that, users do not want that, you (when you think about it) do not want that either. Think relevancy.
  • - Key components are similar. In SEO it is title, description, and relevant content. In PPC it is headline, ad copy, and landing page.
  • - Both PPC and SEO focus on the customer. At least they should. If someone is searching for something, it is best to understand their expectations and offer the best solution of all.

And that was the differences and similarities of PPC and SEO in a nutshell.

Where to go from here

I hope by now you understand the different goals, implementation, and expectations of SEO and PPC. Should you do one, the other, or both? There is no right answer. You have to look at your business to make the decision for yourself. Align your business goals with your strategies and go for the one that gets you to your objective faster.

Which one will work for you?