SEO vs. PPC: Which Should You Focus on First?
Here’s the scenario. You’re just launching your marketing campaign and want results. Not only that, you want the most bang for your buck. You want to make sure the time and money you’re putting in will bring a large volume of high-quality traffic primed to convert. In other words, you want a rock solid ROI. While there is a plethora of different avenues you can take, it often boils down to one of two choices:…
Here’s the scenario.
You’re just launching your marketing campaign and want results.
Not only that, you want the most bang for your buck.
You want to make sure the time and money you’re putting in will bring a large volume of high-quality traffic primed to convert.
In other words, you want a rock solid ROI.
While there is a plethora of different avenues you can take, it often boils down to one of two choices: SEO or PPC.
Both are tried and true and will drive targeted leads to your site.
But which option makes the most sense for your campaign?
More importantly, which should you focus on first?
In this post, I highlight the pros and cons of each option, drawing on my personal experience.
By the end, you should know with certainty which path to take.
By the numbers
By now, I am sure you know I’m a huge fan of statistics and data in general.
I find I tend to make better choices when I take the emotion out of it and simply look at the numbers.
So, let’s take a look at some recent statistics from WebpageFX regarding both SEO and PPC.
2017 SEO Stats
- 93% of online experiences start with search engines
- 70% of clicked search results are organic
- 14.6% of all SEO leads close (as opposed to 1.7% of outbound leads)
- Google fields more than one trillion searches per year
- 89% of marketers say SEO is successful
2017 PPC Stats
- PPC visitors are 50% more likely to buy than organic visitors
- 65% of all high-intent searches result in an ad click
- Search ads increase brand awareness by as much as 80%
- 32% of companies use PPC to sell products directly to consumers
- On average, businesses earn $3 for every $1.60 spent on AdWords
Both of these strategies tote some impressive numbers.
If you plan and execute your campaign correctly, you will get qualified leads, and a reasonable number of those leads will convert.
And while the outcome is essentially the same, the way you get there is completely different, depending on the path you take.
Let’s now go over the pros and cons.
The advantages of SEO
Perhaps the biggest reason marketers choose SEO over PPC is its cost-effectiveness.
The bottom line is you’ll pay a lot more for your traffic with PPC than with SEO, especially if you handle it in-house.
Just look at what the average CPC is like for some of the top industries:
The legal industry is hands down the worst with a whopping $5.88 CPC.
It takes a sizable budget to get a PPC campaign up and running.
And if you’re new to the game, you have to deal with the inherent learning curve, which means it can take awhile to get your CPA and ROI to where you want them to be.
SEO is much cheaper and involves more of a time investment than a financial one.
If your marketing budget is minimal, SEO may be your only option.
Another benefit is the long-term results marketers tend to get.
Here’s a chart showing the difference in long-term performance between organic and paid traffic:
Notice that SEO starts off slowly initially, but over time it grows tremendously.
This makes SEO far more sustainable than PPC, potentially resulting in high-quality, organic traffic for years to come.
Finally, you’re likely to have a higher ROI with SEO.
Just think about it.
Every single click you get through PPC comes at a price.
The only way you can drive traffic to your site is to pay for it.
This inevitably diminishes your ROI.
But with SEO, it’s pretty much straight profit.
Because you’re acquiring your traffic organically, the returns are inevitably higher.
Even if you “take your foot off the gas,” you’re still going to drive traffic to your site.
This basically means free traffic.
The advantages of PPC
Hands down, the biggest advantage is the immediate surge in traffic you often get:
Right off the bat, you can bring qualified, ready to buy leads.
Better yet, you can specifically target keywords with buying intent.
This makes it perfect for new businesses with little to no brand equity.
PPC helps you drive traffic and boost your brand’s visibility in a hurry.
If you want nearly instant results and don’t have the luxury of waiting, PPC is your best option.
Another plus is the conversion rate.
While you may end up spending more overall, paid search results are 1.5x more likely to convert.
And this makes sense, considering advertisers can customize and optimize their ads and specifically target high-intent keywords.
I also think there are way more PPC opportunities today than in years past.
While Google AdWords has had and continues to have the lion’s share of business (almost 80% of companies focus on Google for PPC), there is now a buffet of other options available.
For instance, Bing Ads are starting to catch on, and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter offer paid advertising.
The bottom line is you’re not stuck with AdWords.
The downside of SEO
To be fair, it’s not all puppy dogs and rainbows all the time.
One of the top complaints marketers have with SEO is the fluctuation of search engine algorithms.
In fact, “40% of marketers say algorithm changes are the biggest challenges to SEO.”
Over the years, major updates, such as Panda and Penguin, have caused serious disruptions to the SERPs, and many marketers have felt the negative impact.
So it’s important to point out SEO isn’t a set-it-and-forget-it strategy.
It requires plenty of maintenance, and you need to stay updated on current trends.
Just the thought of an ugly penalty is enough to make many SEO marketers squirm.
Just recently, some sites saw their traffic decline by as much as 90% with Google’s “Fred” update.
Not to freak you out, but penalties can happen even if you have the best intentions and would never dream of engaging in any black-hat SEO tactics.
The best way to keep your site safe is to always follow ethical, white-hat techniques and put emphasis on creating the best possible content rather than trying to capitalize on the next big thing in SEO.
I also recommend staying up-to-date on SEO trends, especially major algorithm updates.
It takes time to see results
If patience isn’t your strength, you may find the SEO process very frustrating.
It simply isn’t a strategy that will deliver major progress overnight.
I don’t care how experienced you are and how many epic backlinks you’re able to generate, you can’t expect instant miracles.
Simply getting Google to index your content can take a considerable amount of time.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how long it takes, but I’ve heard it could take up to four weeks for Google to index new content.
And it can easily take months before any real impact becomes evident, so you have to be in it for the long haul to thrive with SEO.
Reaching page one is no guarantee
What’s the primary goal of SEO marketers?
Get your content on page one for your targeted keyword phrase.
That’s the name of the game.
But this is obviously harder than it sounds, with no guarantees.
Even if you do everything right, there is a nearly infinite number of factors that determine where your content ends up in the SERPs.
And failing to reach page one is very disheartening because it’s almost like being invisible.
Considering “75% of users never scroll past the first page,” you won’t be raking in traffic if your content misses the mark.
If you want to quickly see how you’re ranking for various keywords, here’s how you check.
First, go to SEMrush.
Type in your URL.
Click on “Start now.”
Scroll down to “Top Organic Keywords” and click on “View full report.”
Check the position of the keywords you rank for:
The downside of PPC
I already mentioned PPC comes with much higher upfront costs.
And that’s usually the biggest issues marketers have.
Just take a look at some of the most expensive keywords at the moment:
“Insurance” is a ridiculous $54.91.
And the scary thing is PPC costs are increasing.
As more and more marketers compete for traffic, most platforms are inevitably raising their prices.
Google AdWords can be especially cutthroat.
In some cases, the money you spend to acquire traffic will outweigh what you’re generating from sales.
If you’re a new startup with a shoestring budget, PPC may simply not be in the cards from a cost perspective.
Optimizing your ads can be difficult and time consuming
It’s not like you can just slap up some ads on a PPC platform and instantly get a high volume of highly targeted traffic.
Just learning the basics takes time.
Fully optimizing your ads to minimize your CPC and increase your CTR takes even longer.
It’s a fairly arduous process even for experienced marketers.
This means you may end up spending more than you should until you get the hang of things.
Your traffic ceases when your campaign ends
Here’s the real downer.
The second you stop funneling money into your PPC campaign, you bring zero traffic.
Of course, this means you’re also getting zero sales from PPC, which is definitely food for thought.
While other marketing tactics—such as SEO, social media, content marketing, etc.—require maintenance and upkeep, they should still drive traffic to your site even if you take a break.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with PPC.
To maintain your traffic and leads, you have to continually “stoke the fire,” putting money into your campaign.
Examining all the angles
At this point, I’ve covered the good, the bad and the ugly aspects of both SEO and PPC.
Like any other area of marketing, each has its pros and cons.
Before you commit to either, look at all the angles and figure out which strategy best matches your short-term and long-term needs.
When you should focus on SEO first
If you’re working with a small budget, PPC may not be feasible, so SEO is the obvious choice.
In this scenario, it’s about investing time rather than money into your marketing campaign.
It’s by no means an easy path, but you should eventually see a favorable ROI over time, and it may look something like this:
You’re looking for long-term sustainability
Here’s how I view SEO.
It’s like trying to get a huge boulder rolling.
There’s a lot of initial effort involved, but once in motion, it continues to gain momentum. After a while, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
To me, it’s well worth the effort.
As your campaign develops and your archive of optimized content grows, so will your traffic, leads and sales.
Staying the course in SEO is what has enabled me to bring in huge traffic for highly desired keywords like “content marketing.”
Sound SEO practices helped me outrank even Wikipedia for this term:
You don’t need instant results
As I mentioned earlier, SEO is all about the long-term vision.
It’ll take time to get legitimate results, especially if you’re a new brand.
But if you don’t need mega results right away and are more interested in the long game, SEO totally makes sense.
Here’s what you can expect by engaging in an SEO campaign:
The first month’s results are probably going to be pretty puny.
But things typically start to heat up at around the six-month mark.
That could be considered the tipping point.
If you’re in a position to wait a bit until big leads pour in, SEO is usually your best bet.
When you should focus on PPC first
The way I see it, a PPC-first campaign needs to have two components in place.
You should A) have a sizable budget and B) be looking for lightning quick results.
Once you launch your campaign, choose your keywords, choose your budget and set up your ads, you’re likely to get a significant influx of traffic.
Sometimes, this can happen in as fast as 24 hours.
Just like that, your brand is exposed to your target audience with minimal heavy lifting on your part.
As long as you follow best practices, you should see a favorable ROI with PPC.
Although it’s probably going to cost you more than it would with SEO, the payoff is much quicker, and you can save yourself a lot of time and energy.
If you choose to go the PPC route, I should point out you’re by no means stuck with Google AdWords.
Don’t get me wrong, AdWords is still viable and can definitely produce results.
But I’m seeing more and more marketers opt for Bing Ads these days because it’s less expensive than AdWords and can help marketers reach a different demographic.
And as you can see with this quick search for “camping tents,” there’s plenty of prime real estate for your ads on Bing.
Facebook now has a robust advertising platform as well, and with two billion monthly users, you’re practically guaranteed to reach your audience.
Check out this post I wrote to learn more about Facebook advertising.
For more ideas on alternatives to AdWords, refer to this guide from PPC Hero.
When a brand is initially launching its marketing campaign, two strategies that usually receive first consideration are SEO and PPC.
Both can get results, but they accomplish it in two very different ways.
SEO is all about planting a seed and waiting for the fruit to grow.
It takes awhile, but your brand can be positioned well once you gain favorable rankings in the SERPs.
The best part is the exponential growth many brands experience once they get over the SEO hump.
PPC, on the other hand, is all about an instant payoff.
It requires a larger upfront investment, but the results are almost immediate.
You can essentially go from being a no name brand with zero sales to crushing it with PPC overnight.
The only issue is it will cost you, and it lacks the sustainability of SEO.
I wish I could tell you which tactic is best for every single brand 100% of the time.
But things are seldom this black and white.
Choosing which tactic to focus on first depends on several variables and specific goals you have for your marketing.
However, examining the pros and cons, while looking at all the angles, should give you a good idea of what’s best for your brand.
If you were launching a new campaign, would you be more likely to go with SEO or PPC?
SEO vs. PPC: Which Should You Focus on First?