What's the Better Investment—Paid Search or SEO?
October 2, 2019
Working with limited marketing resources often means prioritizing your initiatives based on the overall impact they can have on your goals. One of the main considerations in this pursuit is whether your time is better invested in paid search or in search engine optimization (SEO). This can be a tricky decision. In this guide, we walk through pros and cons of each approach, as well as the performance you can expect from each.
Paid search offers marketers the ability to seek out their intended audience, driving highly curated site traffic from visitors who align with the targeted personas. This is a powerful tool. In addition, paid search accounts can be deployed on a variety of platforms and in a variety of configurations to support your specific goals. Need to increase the number of high-funnel leads on your site? Try launching a lead generation campaign on Facebook and watch the leads come in. Want to increase your SERP presence on branded searches? Launch a branded campaign on Google Ads, and voilá, your ads now own most of the above-the-fold space on those queries. The most compelling reason for leveraging paid search is that this traffic can be driven nearly on demand. There’s very little wait time when considering paid search. If the site you are supporting is relatively new, then paid search should be strongly considered for this reason alone.
There are also some cons to the paid model, one of the most significant being that paid search traffic has to actually be paid for. Depending on your goals, market, and the platforms you plan on leveraging, the cost can vary wildly, but you're going to pay for every visit to your site that comes from a paid source.That being the case, it is important to be careful in the setup of your campaigns. Have a clear understanding of the goal you are trying to accomplish, and let that goal drive the strategy of the entire campaign from targeting on. (For some ideas on how this process works, check out how to tie your messaging to the right audience.)
Beyond understanding your goals, you will also want to outline how much you can afford to invest in these campaigns. These budgets are often aligned with months, but can be broken out in the manner that fits best with your organization’s needs. Knowing how much you can spend, as well as the goals you are driving toward, will be invaluable as traffic starts to roll in and you begin to see the return on ad spend that your campaigns are able to drive. Ultimately, this is the metric you will want to keep an eye on to ensure the campaigns you are running are healthy.
Search Engine Optimization
Most marketers are well aware that the better their organic listings rank on the search engine results pages, the more traffic they can drive to their sites. Therefore, improving where your listings rank for specifically targeted searches is an awesome way to increase the overall volume and performance of traffic to your site. This can be done with search engine optimization, or as it’s better known, SEO. One of the main benefits of investing you or your team’s time in SEO is that all of the traffic that comes to your site organically is free, although it does require labor.
An SEO initiative can be a complicated process because there are many factors that play into how your site ranks. Many of these, such as uploading a sitemap to Search Console or writing compelling title tags and meta descriptions, can be done relatively quickly. Overall, though, SEO work can be time-consuming and resource-intensive. One of the most important factors in determining where your listings will rank is the quality and depth of content on your site relating to the search in question. Building out this content should be one of your main priorities when optimizing your site for search, because it sends a clear message to search engines that your site is an authority on the subject. Remember that Google’s main goal is to provide searchers with a high-quality search experience, and that means directing them to sites that give them exactly what they’re looking for.
Using this understanding, you can develop an idea of exactly what sort of content you need to build on your site in order to get visitors the information they’re after. Start with a small group of terms that you would like to rank better for, focus on the terms most closely aligned with your brand and market, and begin working on content to improve your site’s rankings. Over time, you can expand your terms list to include things that may have originally been too broad or competitive. In this way, your site can see the number of organic visits increase steadily over time.
Another factor in your site’s ability to rank is the number and quality of external links to your domain. Google views each of these links as a vote for the quality of your site. Building up your site’s link equity is something that takes active outreach, which is another time-consuming undertaking.
As you can see, the front-heavy nature of SEO work means it often takes a greater time investment than paid search. It’s almost like an annuity, where time is invested steadily over the months while the return on that investment slowly grows.
When deciding which direction you would ultimately like to take, it’s important to consider a few things, first of which is the conversion rates you can expect from each approach. According to SmartBug’s research, organic traffic can be expected to convert at a rate of about 16 percent. This can vary, of course, but in general, organic traffic should be one of the highest converting sources in your portfolio. That said, increasing the volume of organic traffic to your site is something that can take months or even years of work on the part of your copywriters and developers, so sites that are relatively new may find that it is better, at least in the short term, to focus on paid search.
On the other hand, paid search traffic converts at a much lower percentage on average. According to this article from WordStream, the average conversion rate you can expect from a search campaign is 3.75 percent for all industries, while a healthy display conversion rate is 0.77 percent. This can vary depending on industry and platform, and your overall conversion rate will depend on how much of your budget is devoted to search or display, but understanding that paid search traffic will almost certainly convert at a lower percentage than organic should help you align your goals and expectations for each accordingly.
To summarize, organic will likely drive a better conversion rate, but building a solid portfolio of organic traffic to your site can be a long and time-consuming process. Although paid search traffic converts at a lower rate, it is an option that can almost instantly increase the amount of traffic to your site, and this amount can scale almost indefinitely with your budget. Now that you have a firm understanding of the pros and cons of each approach, you have the tools to align and prioritize your marketing initiatives.
About the author
Jennifer Shore was formerly the Director of Marketing of SmartBug and a Seattle-based writer who has received numerous awards for her work. In her role at SmartBug, she is responsible for the development, execution, and optimization of the high-growth lead funnel, nurturing, and customer acquisition. Read more articles by Jennifer Shore.