This week, I wanted to tackle the eternal argument in the search engine marketing world. Which is better – pay per click or search engine optimization? For many people new to the SEM world, it may seem like you need to pick one or the other. But, it’s really a trick question. Each marketing strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Pay per click can be pretty scary to new advertisers and small businesses. It isn’t cheap – those clicks can really add up. Many people unfamiliar with the format assume that they’ll only be paying a few cents a click to get coverage on the search engines. Unfortunately, due to the increased competitiveness in online advertising, those days are long behind us. But, PPC can be a highly effective form of advertising if done properly.

PPC does have a few advantages. First off, it’s fast. You can set up a new campaign and have ads running in a matter of minutes. Second, it’s easy to track. Search engine marketing platforms like Google AdWords tie statistics to the keyword, ad, ad group, and campaign level, making analysis and optimization easy. And third, PPC can guarantee you visibility on the first page of search results (at least some of the time), provided your keyword bids and quality scores are adequate.

Of course, there are some disadvantages to PPC as well. As mentioned above, it’s expensive. Most advertisers need to commit to a bare minimum of $50-$100 per day in ad spend. Competitive product categories require even more. Plus, if you want to scale your account to generate more conversions, you will always have to pay more. Running a PPC account is a constant battle to stay ahead with your return on ad spend. Also, your PPC expenses are highly dependent on your bid competition. If a big-spending competitor starts bidding on your keywords, you can see a massive increase in your bids if you want to keep the same position. Or, if several competitors enter the space, you could easily see yourself being priced off of the first page results. And lastly, optimizing a PPC account takes a lot of analysis and expertise. The bigger your account, the tougher it is to keep track of all of the moving parts that make it work.

For the more budget-conscious advertiser, search engine optimization may seem like the way to go. If you can rank well on good keywords, your hits and conversions come for free. Advertising is infinitely scalable, since you don’t have to pay more for additional leads. Your only limit is what your market can bear.

But SEO isn’t some miracle cure for online advertising. SEO is based on a series of inscrutable algorithms and partial guesswork about what might be effective. You could work for months on a linkbuilding effort or optimizing your site structure only to find that a Google algorithm update has invalidated all of your hard work. Also, SEO takes a long time to be effective. You might not see results for months after you start optimizing your site.

So which is better? Neither. A comprehensive SEM strategy involves both. You need PPC for immediate results and data gathering, but you need a good SEO strategy to scale without additional cost and support your PPC ads with organic results. PPC data helps you determine keyword phrases to target via SEO, and SEO results add credibility to your PPC ads on the search results pages. You should start working on your PPC and SEO efforts in tandem. While your SEO work gathers momentum, your PPC ads should fill in the gap and generate conversions while your site achieves ranking. So it is a trick question – don’t let anyone tell you that you can have a complete marketing strategy without using one of these two methods.

About Shawn Livengood

Shawn Livengood is a search engine marketing professional based in Austin, Texas. He has extensive experience managing pay-per-click ad campaigns for clients in various industries, from small home-based businesses to large international companies. You can connect with Shawn on Google+.
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One Response to PPC vs. SEO

  1. Excellent overview of the pros and cons of PPC and SEO Shawn. I tend to view PPC as a short to medium-term solution, with SEO being a medium to long-term stragegy. You’re right than neither is better than the other, and they both have a role for most businesses.