What’s Best – SEO or Paid Search? [Part 2]

Welcome to part 2 of this article which examines the relative benefits of both SEO and paid search. In Part 1 we looked at the pros & cons of paid search and saw there are some very compelling reasons for using it.

Time now to switch gears and look at Search Engine Optimisation (commonly abbreviated to SEO).

SEO is relatively ‘geeky’ and so many marketers struggle getting their heads around it compared to paid search (commonly abbreviated to PPC). However to ignore SEO is a mistake because it’s a great way of driving additional customers to your website. Having said that we’ll start with looking at the cons.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) Cons:

The first thing to understand is that, contrary to popular misconceptions SEO is NOT ‘Free’. Whereas PPC is a ‘pay as you go’ model, SEO has front loaded costs and is, arguably, more expensive then PPC in the shorter term. The analogy to renting versus owning a house has been made.

SEO, especially in competitive areas, involves a lot more time & hard work than most people anticipate. Invariably changes to the website are required. This involves not only changes to site architecture & structure, but also changes to the content. Then the hard work really starts with link building…

Other negatives of SEO compared to paid search are:

  • Limited keywords – as previously noted a page can usually only be optimised properly for 1 or 2 related search terms (keywords) which limits the number of keywords you can target compared to paid search.
  • Lack of control over position – SEO is all about trying to influence search engines so they recognise your page as being highly relevant for a certain keyword phrase and thus rank it in the first page or two of organic search results. In SEO there are no guarantees in terms of ranking positions, despite what some con artists may state. The reality is you can’t guarantee what you don’t control & SEO is about influence, not control. So unlike paid search you can’t readily change where your listing is positioned in the search results. In contrast with PPC you can actively modify bids & preferred ad rank positions to test if, say, position 3 works better than position 1.
  • Lack of control over landing pages – for the same reasons you do not have the same level of control with SEO determining which pages Google selects to include in its organic results compared to the high level of control paid search offers.
  • Results take time – for people used to the relatively instantaneous results seen from paid search this is one of SEO’s biggest drawbacks. The plain simple fact is that SEO takes time before it shows results – and the more competitive the keywords you want to rank for the longer the wait. Generally it takes 3 – 6 + months before a site starts to rank for the primary keywords being targeted. If you need results yesterday, SEO is not the answer!

The time before results get seen combined with the limited level of control means that for most marketers SEO requires a ‘leap of faith’. For this reason we find most are far more comfortable starting off their search marketing efforts on a limited scale with paid search, then based on its success scaling that up and then later adding in SEO.

SEO Pros:

Having read about the cons you may well be wondering why you’d bother with SEO. Hang in there, the reasons are very, very compelling. Essentially it comes down to performance & cost.

  1. More traffic – 70 – 75% of all search traffic is organic, rather than from paid search advertisements. The reason for this relates to the buying cycle. When people are in the early stages of information gathering & research they are far more inclined to focus on organic search results rather than paid ads. So if your SEO efforts get you ranking well in the organic results your chances of prospective buyers going to your website are enhanced.
  2. Higher conversion rates – conversion rates from organic results are often higher than paid search traffic.
  3. Lower cost over time – whilst SEO is definitely not free and takes more time, money & effort upfront than paid search the cost over the longer term is much lower because you’re not paying per click. For this reason getting good SEO work done on your website is a smart long lasting investment.

So which is better, SEO or PPC?

Really it depends on your objectives & situation. However we usually recommend running an integrated search marketing campaign with both to exploit complementary strengths of SEO & PPC. A typical SEO/PPC mix for a new website is often:

  1. Start with PPC campaign
  2. Implement SEO campaign
  3. Progressively reduce PPC when SEO kicks in
  4. Continue SEO with tactical PPC if needed

Do you need both SEO & PPC?

This debate frequently comes up when a client who has been using paid search for a particular keyword starts to rank well organically for it. “Great, we’re ranking organically so now we can ditch paying for this traffic using PPC”. That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw, especially for your brand name, however there are several reasons to stick with PPC even when you’re ranking well organically.

  • Increased chances of being clicked on. With organic listings Google & other search engines normally will only show a maximum of 2 listings for any one website. So even if you are in the enviable position of having 2 results on page 1 of Google, by also having a PPC paid ad you increase your presence on the page by 50% & thus chance of being clicked on. Whilst you’d prefer they click your organic listing, as long as you’re bidding a sensible amount for paid search you still win.
  • Paid & Natural Search Performance Synergy. There is evidence that having high organic & paid search results for a keyword leads to an uplift in performance for both – effectively a 1+1=3 effect.
  • A study in March 2007 by iCrossing (Search Synergy: Natural and Paid Search Symbiosis) concluded that “Running natural and paid search campaigns in an integrated manner leads to superior online performance versus running either of them alone.”

  • As the chart shows online performance for a range of key metrics improved significantly when natural & paid search were integrated. Why this happens is not clear – some speculate that having top results in both organic and PPC listings can help build the credibility of the site (Customer: “Hey, these guys are all over this page! They must be the industry leader” or something along those lines.)
  • Other reasons for running both SEO & paid search include:
    • You have control over your brand message
    • Prevent competitor brand squatting in PPC search space (Prevent “Broad Matching” algorithms, and unscrupulous practices from putting your competitor’s ads above your natural search link for brand searches)
    • It’s insurance. If you slip from the organic rankings for a day or two, your paid ranking will maintain your presence.


  1. SEO & Paid Search are each very effective ways of driving additional traffic to your website.
  2. For maximum search marketing performance use both together & leverage their complementary strengths.

Mark Sceats

About the Author Mark Sceats

Mark is a Partner and Senior Consultant at SureFire which he founded back in 2002. Prior to establishing SureFire he worked for KPMG Consulting. Today Mark heads up SEO, embracing the challenges that can come with complex website implementations. Outside of work, his interests beyond his family are running, snowsports, diving and fishing (badly).

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