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SEO and PPC: Which Is Better?

October 29, 2012

Simon Fryer
Simon is CandidSky's Search Director, with strong roots in organic SEO and analytics, and a disturbing passion for spreadsheets.

In this post I’d like to take a look at the two main forms of search marketing; organic search engine optimisation and paid search listings (pay-per-click). First of all, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Below is an image of the search results page for the query “Digital Marketing Manchester”.

[Click to enlarge it]

What’s most striking is the amount of space ‘above the fold’ provided for each type of Ad. It’s quite clear that the paid adverts take pride of position. This is because that’s where Google makes it’s money, but Google’s war on free clicks is another discussion for another time.

Quite often we’re asked ‘which is better, SEO or PPC?’ and ‘which is more cost-effective?’. In truth the answer to this depends on a number of factors, but is primarily driven by two things; budget and level of competition. I’d like to look over the strengths and weaknesses of each channel, and hopefully offer some guidance on which might be best for you.

But first, let’s ease it in gently with an infographic on search marketing in 2011 :

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)

SEO is the art of making search engines love your website, by optimising your content and making the site relevant to the right searches, then developing the popularity of your page or site by gathering links from other websites.


  • It benefits your entire site – ‘Linkjuice’ flows to a website from external links. However, internal links also pass this equity through your site, so if you build links to one section of your site it benefits every other page that is being linked to internally, and will strengthen the organic ranking potential of your site as a whole
  • It’s long lasting – Provided you have built strong, sustainable links in a white-hat way, the time or money you invest in SEO will pay dividends time and time again, making it easy for you to launch new pages and products down the line.
  • It provides one of the highest returns-on-investment of any marketing channel.


  • You’ll need to be patient! – Some aspects of SEO can provide quick returns; namely any changes you make to your website. These will be taken into account as soon as a search bots crawls your site and refresh the index, but the real benefits come from linkbuilding. When it comes to external links you may not even see the benefit of the links you have created in 3 months, let alone a few weeks. You’ll either need to learn and understand how SEO works, or use an agency you trust so that you don’t come back a month later feeling as if you have been ‘burned’.
  • Brand Domination – Some results pages are dominated by big brands for a number of reasons: they have bigger marketing budgets, they acquire a vast amount of links naturally, and Google now favours them over brands it’s not familiar with. If you’re operating in a market where you’re directly competing with websites like Amazon then you have a long, hard, expensive road ahead if your aim is to beat them.
  • Algorithm Updates – Google releases algorithm updates thick and fast. Many of them have very little impact on search result rankings and SEO, but there are also a number of key updates (or filters) which have dramatically changed the landscape of SEO; Penguin and Panda being the most obvious ones. Algo updates are a fact of SEO – Google control their algorithm, and if they want to change it they will. An SEO just has to roll with the punches. That said, if you’re acting in an honest, white-hat way, there’s nothing to fear from these updates.

Pay-Per-Click (PPC)

Google Pay-Per-Click is where the money is for Google, and it’s a feature that’s in constant development with Remarketing, Product listings, Text adds, and Adsense comprising the core services.


  • It’s instant – You can use it to quickly respond to demands and opportunities without having to invest time beforehand.
  • It’s 100% data driven – If you can understand the data, and have a sufficient grasp of mathematics, you can run a cracking PPC campaign.
  • It’s simple at low investment levels – with a few hours a month, agencies or business owners can run effective pay-per-click campaigns.
  • Competition is manageable – Unlike organic SEO, if you want to get your listing above your competitors’ all you need to do is bid higher for that particular keyword.
  • Testing – You can measure, test, and improve everything in a PPC campaign: ad copy, landing pages, keywords etc. It’s just a matter of running tests, reviewing the results and implementing improvements based on your findings.


  • If you stop paying, you stop earning – Unlike organic search optimisation, the moment you stop running a PPC campaign you lose all of those visitors. If you plan on relying on paid search advertising then you need to factor it in as a permanent running cost.
  • It can break your bank – If you don’t manage your campaign carefully, you could end up paying for thousands of visitors who haven’t bought anything from you
  • They don’t carry as much trust – Although data points to an increasing number of clicks going to paid ads, organic results often get a better click-through rate because of the levels of trust involved with each channel; sites rank highly in organic listings because, for the most part, they deserve to be there. Anyone can roll out a PPC campaign and get it to the #1 listing by paying more.

So which should you choose?

What would I suggest? Combine forces!

In my opinion, organic SEO and PPC fulfil two different roles. Whilst on the surface it would seem that they both achieve the same thing in a different way, you’re going to get the most out of your search marketing by carefully using them together to mitigate each other’s weaknesses.

Where organic competition is so high that achieving a top 5 placement isn’t realistic with your budget, PPC adverts will allow you to capture these searchers without breaking the bank on organic SEO.

Running thousands of PPC adverts for all your long tail search terms won’t scale well; the time and budget needed to manage your campaign will increase exponentially. It’s far better to create SEO content that targets these keywords and use your organic techniques to improve the ranking potential of that piece of content.

Whilst a well run organic campaign shouldn’t be subject to algorithm updates, we can never predict exactly what ‘the big G’ has planned for us. If, for any reason, you’re impacted by algorithm updates you can use paid adverts to fill the gaps whilst you get your house in order.

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