SEO vs. Paid Search: Harnessing The Power of Each to Work Together
November 18, 2021
We’ve all been in those heated conversations that put Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and paid search (or PPC advertising) on opposite sides of the ring. You know the ones I’m talking about. Those intense debates where a brand is eager to know whether SEO or paid search is a better use of their hard-won media budget for a specific initiative or goal. They seek a definitive answer, an answer that is one or the other: SEO or paid search?
The truth is that these two channels work best together as part of an integrated performance media strategy. When used together, owned and paid media types like SEO and paid search can drive immediate results while also positioning brands for long-term digital marketing success. SEO and pay-per-click advertising are partners, not adversaries. Used together, you can improve and galvanize your search engine marketing (SEM) coverage in the search engines.
That said, each channel has unique value and individual strengths. It’s important to understand these strengths in order to make the best use of each channel.
Where SEO Shines
The brand wants to see evergreen, long-term growth (has the time and patience for long-term results).
Changes to a website take time (weeks to months) to be thoroughly crawled, indexed, and eventually served up on the search engine results page (SERP). There are things you can do to try and expedite the timeline, like submitting a new sitemap through Search Console. In the end, though, it’s all up to Google.
Moreover, in order to accurately gauge the impact of your site updates, you need to wait long enough to have reliable data from analytics to see trends. For example, to definitively understand whether users actually like the changes to X page, capture 4-6 months of data. Less than that, and you might be making conclusions based on aberrations.
However, once you get an SEO program established (6+ months in) as part of your overall marketing strategy, it will be bearing fruit. You’ll see this in Google, Bing, and other search engines on an ongoing basis. SEO, once traction has been gained, becomes a source of long-term growth.
According to a recent study analyzing billions of search results in Google, the first organic result in Google Search has an average click-through rate of 28.5%.
Once your SEO program starts gaining traction, you’ll see an increase in not only organic rankings, but also website traffic.
The brand has strong paid search performance, but hasn’t done much organic work and there is clear, organic opportunity for them.
If a brand is performing strongly in paid search and has the media investment to fuel future success in paid search, it’s worth it to investigate whether there’s additional opportunity in organic search.
Not only is an SEO campaign more cost effective to run than a paid campaign in the long run, but – properly run – there’s no turning off SEO. It’s a permanent, evergreen channel.
Ask some of these questions as you gauge whether there’s opportunity for you in the organic space:
What is your brand’s organic search traffic like currently? Where does your website rank in organic SERPs for core keywords? These will begin to give you an idea of whether or not you’re missing out on serious organic traffic.
Are you able to consistently produce high-quality, optimized content able to successfully pass Google’s algorithm updates?
Is there a void in organic SERPs for a particular service or product that your brand is offering? If so, an SEO campaign is almost a no brainer and would surely capture additional website traffic.
If not, and you have serious competitors in organic SERPs, investigate them. Ask yourself if your brand has a high likelihood of successfully competing with them. And define your advantages (price, quality, shipping, etc.). Also ask yourself if your brand is going to be able to put together an SEO team and resources that are just as robust or more so than your competitors.
The brand is being pushed out of paid search due to increasing CPCs for its vertical and keywords.
With paid search advertising spend nearing $190 billion annually, an 18% increase over 2020, competition is on the rise so are average CPCs. In 2021, average CPCs ranged from $0.70/click to over $20/click within highly competitive industries such as insurance based on a Q2 2021 report by Statista.
SEO is now no longer a nice-to-have but a must-have, with 64% of marketers stating that they currently invest in SEO, according to a HubSpot survey. You’ll want to assess your brand’s current state in organic search using the same bullet points above.
If you’re going to be quickly seeing a revenue drop because you’ve pulled back or stopped paid search, then you need to quickly assess where you can outshine your competitors in the organic search landscape, and put your people and financial resources to work there ASAP.
The brand’s goals are exclusively informational.
If selling a product or service is not your brand’s goal, then SEO is for you. For brands trying to communicate information – perhaps for a political campaign or a non-profit’s mission – SEO will be incredibly helpful. This is because the underpinning of any SEO campaign is well optimized content targeted at particular demographics aligned with search intent.
It’s also easier to build trust with an audience when you’re not trying to sell them anything. However, be prepared to have subject matter expert writers involved. Especially in areas such as science or medicine, writers should have specialized degrees and publish under their real names. Google then sees them as legitimate and ranks your content accordingly.
Where Paid Search Shines
The brand needs results and needs them yesterday.
Paid search can be particularly helpful in urgent and time-sensitive scenarios. As long as you can pay the CPCs, you’re in control and can almost guarantee eyeballs on your ads. (This assumes you have a paid search expert executing and optimizing your campaign.)
The brand has a limited-time campaign, like a sales event, to execute.
In this scenario, SEO changes would take too long to get indexed and populated in organic SERPs (assuming the campaign lasts no longer than month or so). In comparison, you can have paid search ads up and running and generating clicks within a matter of hours.
The brand wants to be the literal, first result in SERPs (which is always reserved for paid ads).
Google places paid ads at the very top of the SERPs. So, even those brands who are #1 in organic search results for a given keyword are never actually the first result that users see.
The brand has a (virtually) unlimited performance media spend and wants to dominate SERP’s for a particular vertical and keyword(s). (SEO would also come into play in this scenario, but with a distinct strategy).
This is the ideal scenario where your brand is flush with cash. Again, if you can afford whatever the CPCs are or might become, then you’re almost guaranteed eyeballs on paid search ads. And if you have a paid search team that knows their stuff, you’ll have conversions. Once your brand’s ads are reliably filling the top of the page, there’s the possibility of adding in (or amping up) SEO to have an integrated strategy.
Creating an Integrated SEO and Paid Search Strategy
When looking at SEO vs PPC, they both have individual strengths. However, the magic really happens when you can harness the power of each channel for an integrated strategy. Taking your return on investment from each even further, you could add retargeting and conversion rate optimization to your mix. That’s how you build substantial business value from each channel.
The ultimate goal is to have a holistic strategy. As a key ingredient in this, each channel then supports the keywords, audiences, goals, vertical, metrics, and initiatives to which it’s best suited. This, in turn, helps the channels achieve complementary goals.
As Google itself states, “Using SEO and Google Ads together may give you the best chance of bringing traffic to your site in the short term, and enhancing your business’s presence online for long-term success.”
For example, keywords that have exceptionally high CPCs can be targeted as part of your SEO campaign. You can write excellent, well optimized content on a beautifully laid out site. And as a result, you’ll get eyeballs and conversions on the related products for the cost of just doing SEO well.
Then, for the keywords whose CPCs are much more affordable, and for which you don’t need a large amount of supportive content, you can target via paid search. Of course, there are search terms and verticals that occupy a gray area. You’ll have to do a cost benefit analysis on a case-by-case basis.
An integrated strategy also means making sure the channels are working to support one another. For example, say you’re running a paid search campaign targeted at mobile device users, but your site’s mobile speed is notably slow. The slow site speed will impact conversions and the overall effectiveness of your PPC campaign. This is a great opportunity to integrate with the SEO team, who can provide suggestions for increasing mobile speed. The corresponding page load acceleration gains will then improve your paid search performance.
Closing The Gap | Original Omnichannel Research
Explore “Closing the Gap: Adopting Omnichannel Strategies for Stronger Brand-Consumer Connections”, a comprehensive report exploring where consumers are spending their time and where advertisers are investing their media budgets. The report reveals opportunities for marketers to close the gap using omnichannel strategies.
Mikey Brazile is an SEO Manager at Catalyst. He has worked in search for over a decade in both client side and agency roles, working on SEO campaigns for companies in nearly every vertical, from local small businesses to global travel brands, big box e-commerce companies as well legal and non-profit organizations. When not engaged in search, he is a devoted classical pianist and harpsichordist and serious oenophile.