SEO vs. Paid Search: What's The Difference?

Written by Kara Burns


Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, and paid search, or pay-per-click / PPC, are two of the most effective digital marketing tactics when it comes to generating qualified website traffic. Both SEO and paid search give digital marketers the ability to be incredibly selective when determining which search engine queries may lead a prospective customer to their website or landing page.

In this article, we’ve outlined some of the key differences between SEO and paid search, as well as the benefits of making them key components of your digital marketing strategy.

SEO and paid search have the same general purpose: to drive qualified traffic to your website or landing page. However, they also rank among the most advanced digital marketing tactics, which may make it difficult for marketers with minimal experience to understand what they are, how they work, and how they can be used - both independently and in tandem - to drive meaningful results and ROI.

What is paid search?

Paid search can be used to place ads on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

In general, paid search works like this: When a user's search matches one of your target keywords, your ad may appear - along with other paid ads - in the search engine results. If someone clicks your ad, you pay a fee based on your bid for that keyword, as well as other factors, such as how many other advertisers bid on that keyword. The actual auction is quite complex, but the video below does a great job putting it into perspective. This per-click cost structure is where the names pay-per-click / PPC came from.

Popular platforms for paid search campaigns include Google AdWords and Bing Ads. Each platform has its pros and cons, although Google AdWords tends to be the preferred choice among marketers.

3 scenarios when you might want to use paid search:

When you need immediate results

For time-sensitive matters such as sales / special offers, events or product launches, paid search can be highly effective at driving immediate results when you simply don't have time for SEO (more on this later). Once your campaign is finalized and approved, your ads will be eligible to show almost immediately.

When you need to reach a specific audience

Paid search is also valuable when targeted traffic is needed. PPC campaigns allow you to target users by the context of their search (keywords), geography, day of the week, time of day or even based on the type of device they're using. This can be beneficial to drive qualified traffic to your website or landing page - in a timely manner.

To increase visibility for specific keywords

The top three paid ads appear above the organic search results, providing an excellent opportunity to rank highly in search engine results for your desired keywords - even if your site doesn't appear high in organic search rankings for those keywords. Plus, if your site already ranks highly in organic search rankings for your desired keywords, adding paid search to your digital marketing mix can help maximize your visibility for those keywords, producing powerful results.

What is SEO?

SEO is the long-term process of optimizing a website to maximize its appearance in the organic, or unpaid, search results. SEO is critical to a website's long-term success, as it has been shown to drive up to 80% of all website traffic over long periods of time.

Generally speaking, Google is the largest and most important search engine, generating more than 100 billion searches per month. This online search dominance makes Google the Holy Grail of SEO.

3 scenarios when you might want to use SEO:

When your focus is long-term

SEO often takes a long time to produce meaningful, lasting results - often requiring 6+ months to generate measurable ROI. All of the techniques that go into creating a search engine optimized website take time to propel that website to the first page of a search engine’s results.  

When SEO success is achieved and maintained on a long-term basis, a website is more likely to consistently remain on the first page of results, driving a continued steady flow of traffic. As months and years pass, this can result in high levels of website traffic, leads and sales.

When you want to be seen as a thought leader

If your goal is to be seen as the thought leader in your industry, or to serve as a credible resource for users looking for highly specific / specialized information, SEO is a great fit for your needs.

Achieving high organic search rankings for relevant reaches requires consistent content creation and resourceful SEO planning. However, when done properly, SEO has the potential to establish your company / brand as a thought leader in your industry.  

When you're willing to invest time to achieve a high ROI

When your website starts to rank higher in organic search results, it will appear more credible to prospective customers, which will result in high, sustained levels of website traffic. Once you begin to see an increased amount of clicks, conversions and revenue are sure to follow, resulting in an extremely high ROI over the long-term.

Between SEO and paid search, which should you really be using?

The answer is both! When used together, SEO and paid search can drive more traffic to your website and / or landing pages. Plus, both SEO and paid search complement each other when used strategically in your digital marketing plan - paid search offers the ability to drive immediate results and increase brand awareness, while SEO helps drive credibility and consistent long-term traffic, leads and sales.  

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