SEO vs. PPC: Build Your Digital Marketing Strategy

Selecting effective keywords is the key to online success. Here’s how to solve the search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) puzzle to craft a winning website traffic tactic. While there is plenty of overlap, the most powerful strategies take advantage of these differences to maximize spend, get more out of their campaigns, and deliver the increased traffic they crave.

The difference between SEO and PPC

llustration of how Search Engine Marketing works representing SEO vs. PPC

Before we dive in, it’s important to clarify what we’re dealing with, as there’s an often-overlooked difference between SEO and PPC strategies. Firstly, SEO focuses on boosting both the quality and quantity of free, organic website traffic from search engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo. However, with Google holding an astonishing 88% of today’s global search market, most marketers primarily focus their efforts there. Better performance on search engine results pages (SERPs) means a higher page ranking and more potential customers who will see, and likely click on your links.

statistic showing 88% of today’s total global search market is held by Google representing SEO vs. PPC

On the other hand, PPC is strictly advertising-based, with bids for ads placed on chosen keywords in a search engine’s sponsored links on platforms like Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn. The ads that get displayed are customized based on real peoples’ searches. Rates vary significantly depending on how competitive your predefined search terms are, with cost-per-click (CPC) averages hitting a high of $18.57 for the insurance industry vs. just 83 cents for the electronics sector. Combined with click-through rate (CTR), that gives you what you need to establish your expected return on investment (ROI). The goal is to optimize your ads for a higher conversion rate, driving traffic to a targeted landing page at the top of your conversion funnel.

Both strategies center around search engines and both target searches for their predefined keywords. However, for SEO the goal is to understand the full scope of keywords related to a topic, as well as search intent to learn about it in a broader context. In PPC campaigns, the goal is to find keywords worth bidding on based on their relative ROI. That means focusing on keywords that suggest strong purchase intent, rather than looking at the landscape as a whole.

The pros and cons of SEO vs. PPC strategies

1. Long-lasting traffic vs. a short-term fix

Organic traffic from an effective SEO strategy has staying power. While your pages rank highly, visitor traffic continues to flow to their site with little intervention needed from you. That’s not to say it will stay that way forever, but organic traffic generally remains fairly consistent.

PPC campaigns are like the gas in your car: when you have money to burn, you’ll see an instant boost to your website traffic, but once the cash runs out it will quickly roll to a halt. You’ve got to keep investing to get the returns you want, so a PPC strategy requires closer observation and detailed reporting.

At the same time, Google Ads’ strict rules on how your copy and content is displayed can work against your PPC campaigns, as they could lead to ads quickly becoming stale, with limited options for you to freshen things up. That might mean you end up paying for a campaign that simply doesn’t convert as effectively as it once did.

By extension, SEO takes at least 6-12 months to see a real change. PPC on the other hand can work fast, with visible impact in just days.

2. Keyword margin of error

SEO strategies have a substantial margin of error, as you can regularly tweak your targeting based on results. You might even find that you’re ranking for keywords that you didn’t initially target, which can subsequently be added to your keyword list. Either way, regularly conducting real-time keyword research is essential to avoid five of the most common SEO mistakes.

In SEO, keyword testing costs nothing, so you can target more ambitious keywords risk-free. You might even find doing so helps you increase your ranking for less competitive, long-tail keywords along the way.

In contrast, PPC has a small margin of error, largely due to the cost of bidding for each keyword. No budget is limitless, so your strategy needs to stay firmly targeted on the highest-performing keywords in real-time to stay ahead of the competition. Using Similarweb’s keyword research tool allows you to keep your data fresh with insights from the last seven days. Then you can make sure each keyword’s CPC and quality score remain exactly where you want them. The score takes into account your CTR, the relevance of your keywords, the quality and relevance of your landing page, your ad copy, and your account’s performance history. The higher the quality score, the better ranking your ad delivers for the least cost.

formula for google search: quality score times your maximum equals your CPC and ad ranking representing SEO vs. PPC

When planning your campaign, consider the time and resources you can commit, and whether SEO or PPC is likely to be the best approach for you. Once you’ve planned your strategy, focus on creating ad copy that is clear, concise, and speaks directly to your target audience’s concerns.

3. The relative importance of search volume and search intent

Time and again, marketers focus on search volume when getting into their PPC and SEO keyword research. It’s undoubtedly important for finding the most relevant keywords in any vertical, but for both strategies, search intent is even more essential. That means doing regular research is key.

Search intent helps you understand what users look for, so for an SEO strategy, it’s especially important. If you know why people search, you can create content that precisely answers those queries and ranks highly for organic traffic. If you don’t, you’ll simply be shooting in the dark.

Broadly speaking, there are four main search intents:

Four main search intents graphic representing SEO vs. PPC

  • Informational: “How to” or “What is…” guides, for example, “How to fix a boiler”
  • Commercial investigation: for example, Walmart vs. Target
  • Transactional: an intention to make a purchase, for example, “Where to buy waterproof kids toys”
  • Navigational: branded queries, for example, “Facebook updates”

For SEO, understand which search intent you’re dealing with to successfully align your content marketing and top-of-funnel incentives. Gather information about conversion rates and even when zero-click results satisfy search intents.

For a strong PPC strategy, it’s important to target keywords with high buyer intent to secure the greatest possible ROI. Undertaking effective research means you can remove any keywords with primarily informational or navigational search intents. For example, if you’re selling TVs, you’d remove keywords such as “what to watch on TV” or “what is a smart TV” in favor of “where to buy a smart TV” or “Samsung TV”. Securing the highest quality leads gives you the best chance of delivering conversions and increasing revenue.

Similarweb’s Keyword Generator looking at the keyword for what to watch on tv representing SEO vs. PPC

When should you invest in SEO or PPC campaigns?

Timing a marketing campaign is a fine art, and it’s heavily dependent on wider business and industry circumstances. That said, there are a few key moments when investing is likely to be a solid choice:

1. You are promoting a new product or invention

If you’re selling something innovative, PPC ads are likely the way to go. Your audience won’t know your product exists yet, so your best option is targeting ads at searches for the problem your product solves. You’ll need to work harder to show people what it can do, so think more strategically about the solution your product or service offers and target related keyword searches.

2. You are preparing for a big launch or campaign

Use PPC advertising for a one-off event such as a product launch, event, or campaign when you’re after a short-term boost to traffic. An SEO campaign simply takes too long to build, so in this case, investing in paid promotion is definitely the way to go.

3. You don’t want to constantly monitor your campaign

Although they take more time to build, SEO campaigns require less maintenance than PPC ones, largely due to the slow burn and lower risk that comes with the strategy. Plus, reporting tools can make monitoring relatively effortless, so if you’re after a more hands-off approach that’s potentially more cost-effective in the long term, SEO is probably your best bet.

4. You want to boost awareness

If you’re already bringing sales in from elsewhere and want to focus on lifting brand awareness, an SEO strategy is an ideal approach for maximizing long-term returns. It can help you build a loyal consumer base and generate top-of-funnel (TOFU) traffic.

5. You want to stay competitive

SEO and PPC are essential parts of marketing strategies for most companies. This doesn’t mean you need to make a huge investment or commit vast amounts of time to them, but it does mean that assessing your search engine rankings, organic search results, and paid traffic volumes is important to make sure your competitors don’t gain an edge over you in the market.

When is it best to include both SEO and PPC?

Applied together with proper targeting and the right tools, SEO and PPC strategies work effectively to deliver highly targeted short-term boosts alongside long-term investment in brand awareness. Here are just some of the benefits from combining your approach without having to spend a fortune:

  • PPC-generated keyword and CTR data can be fed into your SEO campaign
  • Paid ads can work alongside organic SEO rankings to increase your targeting of high-performing keywords
  • You can target high-cost keywords with SEO rather than PPC, saving useful budget for keywords with a better ROI
  • You can use advanced remarketing to customize PPC messaging after an initial organic search interaction
  • PPC can act as a testing ground for your longer-term SEO strategies
  • You can target users throughout their online journey to increase buyer confidence and brand awareness

Pro Tip: A combined approach doesn’t have to demand a huge investment and it might be the best way to deliver both high growth and build awareness across digital channels for a high-visibility strategy.

SEO and PPC real-time data banner

How Similarweb tools help you combine SEO & PPC

Information overload is a danger for any digital marketer, so you need tools that help you manage increasingly complex campaigns. Similarweb ensures that you stay ahead of search engine marketing (SEM) and PPC trends and employ a strategy that is correctly targeted and delivers the best ROI it can. Here are just a few of the ways it can help:

  • Powerful data
    PPC activity can give you valuable insights to feed into your SEO campaign. The real-time data generated by PPC, such as paid traffic performance and engagement trends can help you focus your SEO strategy around the highest-performing keywords and search topics. Use data on search volume, zero clicks, traffic share over time and organic vs. paid to prioritize the keywords you target.
  • Competitive targeting
    Many marketers place PPC ads against their competitors’ brand names. With competitive analysis tools, you can see who’s doing what and even place PPC on your own brand name to give your visibility a real boost. Similarweb also lets you uncover your competitors’ SEO and PPC strategies so you can win more keywords and rise above them in the SERP rankings.

Hit the ground running

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What is the difference between SEO and PPC?

SEO focuses on increasing the quality and quantity of free organic traffic from search engines. Whereas PPC is focused on advertising, bids for ads are placed on certain keywords and phrases in a search engine’s sponsored links.

Should I use SEO and PPC together?

When applied together, SEO and PPC strategies work effectively to deliver short-term traffic boosts and a long-term increase in brand awareness.

When should I use SEO and PPC?

You can use SEO and PPC separately and together, however, there are some instances where it will be more effective to use one of the two. For example, you should use SEO for long-term goals such as boosting brand awareness, and PPC for one-off events such as a product launch.

This post is subject to Similarweb legal notices and disclaimers.

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