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Marketing | Jan 21
Jessica Greene on July 1, 2019 (last modified on July 19, 2020) • 21 minute read
SEO best practices can get your content and landing pages displayed in organic results and answer boxes. But even “position zero” organic results appear below PPC ads—assuming your audience isn’t using ad blockers (in which case they don’t see PPC ads at all).
Both channels have their advantages, and both have their disadvantages. So which one should you choose?
To find out, we asked 58 marketers to tell us which channel generates more sales for their businesses (and/or their clients’ businesses).
And while we didn’t uncover a clear winner for the great SEO vs. PPC debate, we learned a lot about when each channel works best—and when using both channels is ideal.
Editor’s note: If you decide to use SEO and PPC in tandem, you’ll need a central place to measure your KPIs for both channels. Databox makes it each to pull metrics from Google Analytics, Google Ads, and Bing Ads—along with more than 70 other tools—and display them all on a consolidated, shareable dashboard.
First, we asked our respondents to pick the channel that generates the most sales for their businesses. With 70% of the votes, SEO was the clear winner:
And while it would be nice if a one-question poll could answer the question fully and decidedly, nothing in marketing is ever so simple. So we also asked our respondents to explain why they chose the answer they did.
Here are their reasons for favoring one channel or the other—or for preferring to use both.
Why do 70% of our respondents argue that SEO is better than PPC for generating sales?
Some say SEO is better because that’s where they’ve seen the greatest results:
Others argue that SEO is better for very specific reasons.
“For long-term results, investing in SEO is a much better and more profitable tactic,” says Brett Downes of AmazonSeoConsultant. “With SEO, once you are on page one, you tend to stick there if you continue to work on it. With PPC, you have to pay to display, so if you stop, you disappear. PPC is like a tap and SEO is like a river.”
Shawn DeWolfe Consulting’s Shawn DeWolfe agrees: “PPC feels like lifting a lead zeppelin. Put enough force (i.e. money) behind it, and traffic will come. But as soon as you stop paying, the traffic stops.”
“SEO has driven many more sales for us due to the fact that it is sustainable,” says Mike Goldstein of VRG Web Design. “High rankings in the search results do not go away simply because your company’s budget runs out.”
“If you can spare a few months of technical, organic SEO, you’ll see lasting results bringing in real traffic,” says WebTek’s Alexa Kurtz.
“For our digital marketing agency, we’re all about creating something that will sustain us in the future, including our own marketing tactics. This is why we put the majority of our efforts behind SEO practices,” Kurtz says.
“Investing in getting better organic results brings more and higher quality business,” says Simon Rodgers of WebSitePulse.
David Bailey-Lauring of Blu Mint Digital says that “PPC drives higher bounce rates and is damaging to page dwell time. Being found organically through search has better CTR, dwell time, and lead generation results.”
Eric Hoppe of Crowd Content says that SEO leads to higher conversion rates: “We’ve found that our conversion rate on organic traffic is substantially higher than with PPC. I believe this shows a stronger intent to purchase or convert among these searchers—and that an organic click is more valuable than a paid click.”
“PPC can put your name, logo, and message in front of the right eyes, but it’s not as intentional as SEO,” says Jonathan Mentor of Successment – Vivid Digital Branding. “With a strong SEO strategy, you get in front of prospects that are further in the buyer’s journey and more likely to convert.”
SEOBANK’s Chris Labbate agrees: “SEO has proven that it has a higher conversion rate than PPC and is a better long-term investment for most companies because the exact keyword being ranked is matched to the exact query being searched.”
“One of our largest clients contacted me and mentioned that she had been reading our blog for quite some time,” says Dragon Social’s Tony DeGennaro. “She had already educated herself and decided that we were the right people to work with. This helped validate our choice to focus on SEO, and it has paid off tremendously.”
“Even though it’s incredibly hard to build the authority of a website, when you rank organically for a high-traffic keyword, the leads pour in,” says Heather Baker of TopLine Film. “The leads that come in through PPC tend to be lower quality, more expensive, and much lower in volume.”
“PPC is faster to get results, but in terms of ROI (cost-effectiveness), SEO wins when done properly,” says Willie Jiang of SolarMetric.
Queen City Buyer’s Matt York agrees: “SEO drives low-cost sales to my business, whereas PPC drives high-cost sales. Because of the relatively small size of my company, SEO is a much more sustainable business model. It brings enough free business to keep us busy.”
“For our local/small business clients, SEO has proven to be the more effective channel,” says Michal Rutkowski of Active Business Growth.
“For example, one of our car-detailing clients now gets the majority of its website traffic through organic search. Acquiring the same amount of visitors through PPC would come at a significant cost,” Rutkowski says.
“It took us a little while to get to our desired rankings, but once we did, we started earning more than $140,000 a month with a team of four people,” says WPBeginner’s Faizan Ali. “The overall cost was much lower than what we were spending on PPC, which is why we stuck to SEO for the foreseeable future.”
“PPC is expensive, and it cuts significantly into your profit margins,” says Ruti Dadash of Panthera Plus. “Make the calculations beforehand, and if the cost of customer acquisition is likely to equal or exceed the expected profit, then PPC is not the way to go.”
“SEO may take longer to bring in results, but the profit is greater and the effects are longer-lasting,” Dadash says.
“When looking at our revenue source channels, SEO is still the largest driver of sales,” says Balazs Hajde of Authority Hacker.
“We have a lot of experience optimizing our ROI for the content we create, so after summarizing our costs for production, the number of people we bring to the site with SEO would cost significantly more if we were relying on PPC only,” Hajde says.
“Fewer searchers are clicking ads; they’re clicking on the results of the knowledge graphs, local packs, and position zero results,” says Knowmad Digital Marketing’s Chris Stele. “These are places PPC can not place you in no matter how much you spend.”
Rachael Jessney of Atelier agrees: “We have found that SEO has, on the whole, been more successful for us than PPC in driving sales. Many of the people we are targeting work in the marketing industry, and they are less likely to click on ads than those in other sectors.”
And Spa Espana’s Arron Norris says that “we have customers who avoid paid ads because they know that the business has little-to-no technical help for the customer if needed; they are only trying to sell their products and not actually helping them.”
“If you rank organically, people are more likely to trust you as a business,” says Colin Mosier of JSL Marketing & Web Design.
“When I’m looking for a product/service on Google, I tend to skip past the ads. They’re only there because they paid for those placements. However, I know that companies rank in organic positions are there because of the quality of their sites/businesses,” Mosier says.
Tom Shelton of Top Explainers agrees: “SEO has been crucial for our business. It drives free organic traffic to our website based on keywords that our target market is looking for, and by having them come to our website and consume our content, it builds trust in our brand.”
And Nextiva’s Yaniv Masjedi says that “the reason we lean on SEO more heavily is that we feel it’s a powerful way to legitimize our company and its offerings. With SEO, we have many offsite placements in industry relevant publications. Our prospects see that we’re an industry authority.”
While 70% of our respondents say that SEO is better than PPC, 30% disagree, arguing that PPC is better at generating sales than SEO.
“PPC has been more effective at driving sales for our clients because of the laser-targeted way of getting in front of potential customers,” says Revenue River’s Diana Nguyen.
Honest Marketing’s Filip Silobod agrees: “There’s no doubt that PPC is a better channel because you get to target the exact demographics—ages, locations, etc.—you want to.”
“The advantage of having laser-targeted visibility with PPC is undeniable,” says Divining Point’s Jordania Nelson. “PPC ads give you more granular control over who you’re showing your message to, making it more strategic and catered to what your audience wants to see.”
“We are a young company with a newly-launched product line, so while I do believe that SEO is the more effective in the long-term, PPC has been more effective in driving sales for the companies I work for—Mobials and AutoVerify,” says Samantha Kohn.
“SEO is a slow process. It takes time to build your organic ranking and requires significant research, monitoring, and management to ensure you stay on top of any algorithm updates.
PPC is the way to go if you want to grow quickly.”
“It has been extremely effective for our business: 80% of our marketing-driven sales leads come from PPC advertisements, and they convert at a rate of 30%.”
“As a provider of automotive-focused digital retailing tools, our approach has been to create PPC ads that are hyper-focused on specific target markets, mainly decision-makers in the automotive industry. These ads take potential clients to landing pages that have been carefully optimized to continue the ad’s messaging.”
The Advisor Coach’s James Pollard says that “PPC has been more effective at driving sales because it allows me to research and test instantly.”
“While SEO can take months to see if something gets results, I can run a paid ad and see results within a few hours. Plus, by testing again and again, I can improve my ads tenfold in a short period of time,” Pollard says.
Ishan Makkar of MakkPress Technologies agrees and offers these tips:
“And there are a lot more parameters you can use, such as ‘do you have more customers from desktop or mobile?’ or ‘have you excluded regions that show up in reports but aren’t relevant?’” Makkar says.
Editor’s note: Want a better way to measure the results of your PPC ads? Grab the free Google Ads PPC Performance dashboard below to see all of your most important metrics in a centralized view. And if you also run Bing Ads, we have KPI dashboards for those, too.
“It’s easier to target purchase-intent keywords with PPC,” says GrowthHackers’ Jonathan Aufray. “With SEO, you rarely have the ability to rank for the keywords you want with 100% success. But with PPC, you have complete control over the keywords you want to target.”
This can be particularly helpful for ecommerce sites, as Auto Accessories Garage’s Jim Milan explains: “It is difficult to show up at the top of search results organically for specific product searches because oftentimes Google favors the website of the manufacturer of these products for those kinds of searches.”
“PPC has been a more effective method for driving sales for our business because, in our case, the conversion rate has been higher for PPC traffic to our website. This may be because we have been able to show up at the top of search results with ads that are directly related to a specific product.”
“We utilize a specific type of PPC ad known as call-only ads that wouldn’t otherwise be available in normal search results outside of the local pack,” says Jeromy Sonne of Moonshine Marketing.
“These ads allow us to directly connect over the phone with potential new customers and make a human connection in a way that a normal SEO strategy wouldn’t let us do.”
“PPC can be used to get your company name out there and drive more brand awareness because your ads are showing up at the top of the SERPs for relevant industry keywords,” says Noelle Del Grippo of Sagefrog Marketing Group.
“Bidding on competitor brand keywords is also a great way to help increase brand awareness. If a user searches a competitor’s brand name, your company’s ad will also show up at the top of the page, showing the user that you also offer the same services.”
While some respondents shared their love for SEO and others made a strong case for PPC, many said that the best approach is to use SEO and PPC together.
“SEO and PPC are the two arms of digital marketing,” says Daisy Campbell of Canz Marketing. “While you can compare which has been more effective at a given time, in a given situation, for a given business, most businesses can’t solely rely on one of them. Both the techniques go hand-in-hand.”
“In other words, our current growth and clients are the results of our strategically integrated SEO and PPC efforts,” Campbell says.
“There’s a misconception in the minds of most business owners that they need to focus on one or the other,” says Daniel Christensen of Morningdove Marketing. “Utilizing the two in tandem is a winning strategy.”
So what are some of the best ways to use SEO and PPC in tandem? Our respondents explain.
“The best thing about the quick results we get from PPC campaigns is that we can see what keywords and phrases resonate with our clients’ audiences,” says Doug Stewart of Appleton Creative. “In turn, we use those keywords and phrases while writing new content for SEO.”
And Stewart is not alone in this approach. In fact, 86.5% of our respondents say they use PPC campaigns to inform their SEO efforts:
“PPC helps us identify which keywords leads are interested in and, therefore, drives our SEO and content strategy,” says Andrea Moxham of Horseshoe + co.
“Rather than viewing SEO and PPC as an either/or decision, you should think more strategically about how to turn your PPC campaigns into learning opportunities for your SEO campaigns,” says LeadCrunch’s Emma Valentiner.
“Then, over time, you can develop content that reflects what’s working for PPC and funnel that into your SEO-focused content development,” Valentiner says.
“We usually use both SEO and PPC in unison to generate leads and sales,” says Ben Johnston of Sagefrog Marketing Group. “Usually, we see SEO as a great way to generate leads, but PPC is excellent for addressing potential clients at various points in their buyers’ journeys.”
“The best approach is to cover both sides of the coin; create content or SEO campaigns that are targeting keywords that are relevant to your buyers’ journeys, and if the organic space is too competitive or doesn’t fit the content that makes sense for your site, turn to PPC.”
“SEO is a long-term strategy, while PPC is designed for immediate results,” says Kayla Kelly of Paypro. “SEO will increase your organic traffic over a period of months or years. PPC lets you temporarily bypass the time-consuming SEO process to get a link to your site at the top of search results for your chosen keyword.”
And as COFORGE’s Eric Melillo explains, those two differences can be put to use strategically. “Our recipe is as follows: for long-term traffic generation, we start building SEO by creating blog content around our core topics and do lots of outreach, social, etc. Then we leverage PPC in a few areas.”
“In the first few months while we’re building organic, we’ll get some traffic flowing to our lead offers with PPC. We slow PPC spend as organic visits increase. Then, we’ll use PPC again around keywords that are struggling to rank.”
“And as we start converting leads, we’ll use paid search as a counterweight to re-engage cold leads with a new offer,” Melillo says.
And while PPC is usually considered a short-term play because of its cost, Miva’s Luke Wester says that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. “If you are able to create a positive ROI in PPC, it can also be an effective long-term strategy.”
“It’s important to think about your customer’s buying cycle—how customers move from a lack of awareness to researching and consideration before they’re ready to buy at all,” says Assemblo’s Steve de Niese.
“SEO can be a great way to tap into audiences before they’re close to buying through educational content. Building retargeting lists for your PPC campaigns can then serve more direct sales messages to these audiences as they progress down the chain,” de Niese says.
Whetstone Education’s Libby Fischer agrees: “While SEO helps keep our brand top-of-mind through digital PR and content creation, PPC is the main driver of sales because we can influence potential clients at the exact moment they are searching for a solution to their problems.”
“Whetstone has used SEO as a way to rise in Google’s search rankings and educate our customers. But we have used PPC to make that final conversion that takes someone from an interested party to a paying customer.”
“We have found PPC to be more effective, but only when its added to a strong existing SEO strategy,” says Chelsea Vaal of FUSIONWRX.
“Although PPC is a great bottom-of-the-funnel tactic since you can reach people with intent to purchase, you will quickly lose the people who click on your ads if the rest of your online presence isn’t strong.”
“Effective SEO efforts also ensure that people who click on your ad but don’t convert right away can still find your business if they perform another search later. We always make sure our PPC customers have a strong website and accurate directory listings before investing in PPC advertising.”
“When doing PPC, it’s also important to have a good SEO-optimized landing page that repeats the offer, presents more information, and has an immediate CTA,” Vaal says.
“I’ve spent more time on SEO efforts, but more money on PPC,” says Jacob Landis-Eigsti of Jacob LE Video Production. “Both have given me a positive return on investment, but SEO has given me four times the number of leads and clients.”
“However, if we have a slow month, I restart PPC, but most of the time SEO brings in all of the clients that we need,” Landis-Eigsti says.
Duncan Pacey agrees: “PPC gets me those sweet short-term boosts I want to promote specific campaigns—or just to give my website a little nitro.”
“SEO and PPC are two different ways to drive sales for your business, and they both have their own pros and cons,” says Inbound Law Marketing’s William Chan.
“The best channel for you depends on what you’re selling,” says Ryan Walker of Gazelle Interactive. “If something is highly transactional and has a low price point, it will sell fast, and therefore a PPC Google Shopping campaign will be beneficial.”
“If your industry has expensive keyword searches such as law, insurance, real estate, etc., SEO is highly valuable. It will give you long-term clicks after 3-6 months without paying per click. SEO is recommended, however, for any industry as you can always benefit from the exposure and the free organic clicks,” Walker says.
Deyan Drazov of VIP Spades says that the best channel for your business “depends entirely on whether you are after short-term or long-term results.”
“SEO efforts do not yield short-term results. It is a continuous process which could take months for you to even make a single sale. PPC, on the other hand, could give you immediate results,” Drazov says.
“Both SEO and PPC appeal to a very different kind of business owner/executive team,” says Inflow’s Tory Gray.
“Paid search can return results much more quickly, appealing to startups and other organizations that want results now, at a premium cost per conversion. This premium can be more or less expensive depending on how well optimized your account is.”
“Search returns ‘free’ results on a much longer timeline (3-6 months generally speaking). This tends to appeal more to SMBs, those with small budgets, and those attempting to reduce costs.”
“But SEO acts like compound interest that builds upon itself, helping you grow conversions with less work (and much less cost) over time. It can help greatly reduce a business’s overall cost per acquisition.”
“In general, I’d advocate for a layered approach. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Do SEO and PPC, but also social (organic and paid), email, non-search digital advertising, affiliate advertising, etc.”
“No one channel is the be-all and end-all,” Gray says, “and depending on any one channel at the exclusion of others makes you too dependent on external forces and can/does hurt your business.”
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