SEO vs PPC: Here’s What is Wrong About This Comparison

Georgios Chasiotis

Georgios Chasiotis

Most businesses directly compare SEO and PPC in an attempt to work out which is better. Although in some cases and for some verticals, SEO can work better than PPC or vice versa, in general, any comparison between the two channels is simply the wrong way to go about things. 

SEO and PPC require different methodologies, investments, types of expertise and, of course, processes. We’re an agency that helps SaaS and tech companies improve their organic search performance, but we still believe that PPC advertising is an integral part of any successful SEO campaign. 

SEO and PPC should always co-exist rather than compete with one another, as each can be useful in their own way. In this guide, we’ll talk about how you can use both in order to grow faster, and why any kind of comparison between the two is counterproductive.

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What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO) & When it is More Useful?

Every once in a while, we see posts and comments online comparing SEO and PPC, trying to prove which one of the best acquisition channels is better. What’s wrong about this comparison is that it’s far too general. 

Simply put, you can’t be definitive about what the best channel is, since businesses in different verticals and lifecycle stages have different needs and capabilities. 

Let’s put things into perspective by explaining what each of the two acquisition channels actually mean. According to Moz, one of the most popular SEO software tools on the market, “SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization, which is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.”  

In other words, SEO means optimizing your website so you can get more traffic through the organic results on search engines like Google. This type of traffic—usually referred to as organic traffic—comes from searches that look for information on the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). Here’s what a SERP looks like for the term “SEO vs PPC”:

Note: The organic search results (as well as results from paid ads) may differ based on your location, browsing preferences and overall activity. 

The truth is that the SERPs are continuously changing as search engines like Google and Bing add more features (e.g. Featured Snippets) and capabilities to their search engines. Even though there’s a tendency to complain about the reduction regarding the amount of traffic websites receive organically, SEO still is one of the most significant channels for gaining traction. 

According to a 2019 study by Sparktoro, almost half of Google searches result in a click.

Paid, Organic and Zero-Click overview of Searches in Google.

What does that mean, practically? That more and more searchers can find the answer they’re looking for without having to actually visit a website. Especially for terms with higher commercial intent, the SERPs are dominated by features and functionalities that prevent users from visiting a website to get what they’re looking for. 

This also means that, in Andy Crestodina’s words, “Rankings are durable. Placement is not.” Google is constantly changing the way it serves its organic results, and thus even if you’ve managed to preserve your search rankings (e.g. how high you rank on the SERPs), your overall visibility may be lower. 

Let’s put this into perspective by using a simple example. Recently, we had to book a flight for our upcoming visit in Krakow for the Digital Olympus conference. So, naturally, we used Google to search for available flights for April, when the event is held. Here’s what the results looked like:

Paid Google Ads Results in Google showed on example of Searching for Flight from Thessaloniki to Krakow

Note: Digital Olympus is a 1-day event for digital marketing professionals around the globe. 

What you see at the top are paid results from companies that advertise on Google using Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords). If you click on that result, you’ll be able to search for flights while you’re still on Google, without having to visit the website of an airline company

"Search for Fligts" option on Google after paid results from companies that advertise using Google Ads.

Thus, pretty easily, our online research for air tickets could result in a non-click search. In this case—among many other cases—being in the first page of the SERPs may have a slight impact on your organic traffic. In our example, we’d have to scroll down almost two pages to get to the organic results. 

Moreover, when we get there, we’d see even more features that push the organic search results down further, making them even less visible to searchers like us who are looking for flight tickets for an upcoming trip. 

Search Features push the organic search results down further.

What does this tell us? That SEO has changed and if anything, if we want to continue getting organic traffic, we have to adapt. But what makes a good SEO strategy—meaning, what can someone do to get better results in terms of SEO? 

We can answer that question a) through our experience working with SaaS clients in truly competitive markets and b) through various correlation studies and surveys that have been conducted over the years. However, right off the bat, some of the factors that affect the organic performance of any website are:

  1. Publishing really valuable content that answers searches’ questions
  2. Providing visitors with a very good overall experience
  3. Having backlinks from high-authority and relevant websites
  4. On-page optimization (e.g. Title Tags, Meta Descriptions, Schema Markup)

Note: Even though from time to time Google gives hints as to what might be taken under consideration when ranking web pages on a website, we can’t be sure what exact ranking factors search engines are using and how important each of those factors are. In addition, most studies out there are correlation studies—and, as we know, correlation doesn’t prove causation. 

In general, we can’t be sure what exact factors affect search engines rankings. Even though SEO isn’t exactly a guessing game, since it’s an almost 20-year old industry, in most cases, we simply have to do our best to understand what drives higher rankings. However, as we mentioned earlier, higher rankings doesn’t necessarily mean more traffic. 

It’s a fact that SEO can be a cost-effective way of raising brand awareness for a business, educating your target audience and acquiring new users. However, we can’t overlook the fact that a) results are almost never guaranteed and b) SEO takes time. 

That amount of time always depends on competition, the current status and history of the website, and some external factors we can’t control such as Google algorithm updates. When communicating expectations to our new clients, this is what we share with them:

Clients's Expectations Overview presented in the period of 12 months.

Once again, this is not definitive, and is based on our experience and processes when working with clients. Roughly speaking though, we’d say that when it comes to SEO, results can be seen in 9-12 months. As you can see, SEO isn’t a short-term strategy.

When should you invest in SEO?

In general, we don’t recommend SEO to companies that haven’t yet found a product-market fit (PMF). Companies in the earlier stages usually have to deal with certain facts—facts that make SEO as an acquisition channel hard to work. Here are some of the realities that companies in this stage have to deal with:

Characteristics of the Stage in which companies haven’t yet found a product-market.

Although with a PPC campaign you can get results almost instantly, with SEO, you have to invest both in time and effort, and even then may not “live enough” to see results coming in. Thus, we advise early-stage SaaS companies (the market we serve) to invest in other channels and not in SEO. 

While link building, keyword research and other SEO-related activities are significant, we know that it’s practically impossible for early-stage companies to invest in them. This is why we believe that SEO is a post-PMF activity. 

When a company finds their PMF, it means it can then afford to invest in long-term marketing tactics like SEO. The same doesn’t apply to content marketing, which you can—and have to—use from day one. Thus, one of the things you need to consider for your marketing strategy after finding a PMF is SEO. 

Now that we’ve covered what SEO is, let’s take a look at what PPC is, when you can use it and why. 

What is Pay-Per-Click (PPC) Advertising & When is it More Useful?

Remember the research we did when searching to book tickets for the upcoming Digital Olympus conference in Krakow? On the first page of results in Google, we came across some search ads that looked like this:

Paid Search Engine Results Pages presented for the certain term: "flights from Thessaloniki to Krakow".

If we were to click on any of these results, two things would happen: 

  1. The company that runs the ad campaign would get charged with a CPC (cost-per-click).
  2. We’d probably be taken to a dedicated landing page that’s really relevant to our search query (in our case, “flight from thessaloniki to krakow”).

When it comes to PPC marketing, the search query is what triggers the ad and makes it eligible to show. Results here are more dynamic than organic results, which—depending on the query/target keyword—can be pretty steady. For example, here’s how the SERP for the term “digital transformation” looks for the past six months. 

Position history for the term “digital transformation” for the past six months.

Even though that’s a pretty competitive term with a CPC of $50, organic results here seem to be steady. This means that things in paid results are—in most cases—more dynamic. They can change with a simple adjustment in bidding by the advertiser or the company running the ads. 

Alternatively, a company that’s bidding for a particular term may suddenly stop bidding for it, and thus its ads will stop being displayed on the SERPs. The same doesn’t apply to SEO, where a simple change or update may take a couple of weeks to fully deploy.

In general, we find PPC campaigns to be particularly useful in various cases and for various industries. Since we work mainly with SaaS and tech companies, most of the examples we have come from such companies. SaaS companies—particularly B2B ones—use PPC as a quick and relatively easy way to acquire new users. 

This happens because commercial intent when it comes to B2B is more clear. For example, someone looking for “online course platforms”—a term with an average CPC of $8 and 2.3K monthly searches—is obviously looking for a course platform to create his/her first online course. 

Note: These numbers are estimations and come from Ahrefs.

Pay-Per-Click Ads on Google for term: "Online Course Platforms".

Interestingly enough, the organic results are quite different from the paid results at the top of the page. From an SEO standpoint, people searching for “online course platforms” are looking for comparison guides that list some of the best platforms in the market. From a paid standpoint, people searching for “online course platforms” are looking for a platform to start building their own online course. 

Since there’s an average PPC of $8 for that term, we can understand that companies advertising for that term are most likely right. Regardless, it is evident that PPC can be quite useful for small businesses that can’t afford to reach their target audience through more mainstream channels. 

Another thing we need to consider is that conversion rates for PPC campaigns—assuming the ads lead to dedicated landing pages—are usually better than organic landing pages. This happens because things are more targeted and specific when it comes to PPC. 

When should you invest in PPC?

The question that arises here is when should someone invest in PPC. This answer—once again—depends on the type of business you run, your target audience, your overall budget for online marketing, the structure of your website and your in-house capabilities in terms of design (for landing pages and other pages), among other factors. 

Given that we serve SaaS companies that have found a PMF, and based on the experience we have working with such companies, we believe you should consider PPC in the following cases:

1) You have a low-touch product that requires little to no human assistance

When you have a product that requires little to no human assistance, then PPC campaigns may be a good opportunity for you. A great example here is Slack, the popular collaboration software that you can start using right away, without having to get a demo from a sales person (unless you’re an enterprise, in which case it’s better to get a demo). 

For example, someone who doesn’t yet know what Slack is would probably search for something like “what is slack”—a term which, according to Ahrefs, has over 1K monthly searches.

A search term: 'what is slack", according to Ahrefs, has over 1000 monthly searches on Google.

The landing page in this case looks like this:

An Overview of Slack Landing Page.

The only thing someone needs to do while getting to that landing page is read a couple of things about what Slack actually is and then insert their email address to start using the product. Here, there is no need for educational content or for a demo with an actual human being, because the capabilities of the product are pretty straightforward. 

Once again, there are exceptions to what we’ve just mentioned. For example, an enterprise client considering Slack as a collaboration software may actually need a demo from a salesperson. However, in most cases, if the product isn’t complex then PPC is one of the best channels to consider.

2) You’ve raised money and want to boost your acquisition efforts

The second case where we find PPC to be effective and even necessary is when companies are raising money. This doesn’t mean you should start wasting this money on channels that don’t work, but rather that you are now able to increase your visibility online and be more competitive when you do so. 

Since Google Ads work with an auction system, where the cost of the click is determined by the number of bidders and their individual biddings, having more money to spend on PPC will help you become more competitive. Of course, being more competitive doesn’t necessarily mean being more efficient, but it’s definitely a way to get more out of your acquisition efforts.

3) You’re able to produce high-quality landing pages at a fast pace

Unfortunately, most companies that use Google Ads for their acquisition efforts don’t run their ads on dedicated landing pages. A dedicated landing page is a web page created to serve a very particular purpose (e.g. to target a particular target keyword).
There are many reasons why this might be happening. One of the reasons we witness very often is because most companies don’t seem to understand the importance of dedicated landing pages—and if something isn’t important to you, there’s no chance you’ll keep it on top of your priority list.

Unfortunately, most companies that use Google Ads for their acquisition efforts don’t run their ads on dedicated landing pages. A dedicated landing page is a web page created to serve a very particular purpose (e.g. to target a particular target keyword). 

There are many reasons why this might be happening. One of the reasons we witness very often is because most companies don’t seem to understand the importance of dedicated landing pages—and if something isn’t important to you, there’s no chance you’ll keep it on top of your priority list. 

We believe that companies with the capability of creating high-quality landing pages at a fast pace and optimizing them based on results should consider running ads to those pages. We also find that companies that can indeed achieve this are usually those that succeed in their PPC efforts.

4) You have a product with short sales cycle and have a small (or no) sales team

As we mentioned earlier, for a product that’s simple and requires no human assistance, PPC ads can be a very good acquisition channel. Very often, product complexity is connected to how long the sales cycle will last and whether or not a company needs a sales team.

The Graph of correlation between Product Complexity and Need for a Sales Team

Even though that’s not definitive, a product with high complexity may need a sales and customer success team more than it needs PPC. An example here is Marketo, which is a complex product that targets bigger businesses and enterprises. In this case, PPC may not be the best channel for acquisition. 

In the next section, we’ll look at what’s wrong about the comparison between SEO and PPC—the way it’s viewed by most PPC and SEO professionals today.

SEO vs PPC: Here’s What’s Wrong With This Comparison

Unfortunately, when people compare SEO and PPC, they do it for the wrong reasons. In most cases, they do it to prove that one of the two channels is better than the other, in an effort to help their prospects and clients justify an investment in the service they “happen” to sell. 

For us here at MINUTTIA, this comparison—the way it’s being done today—is simply wrong. Comparing SEO and PPC can obviously be useful and productive, but doing so just to ‘prove’ that one of the two channels is better than the other is misguided and can be incredibly misleading. Here are some prominent reasons why:

1) Both channels are important for different reasons

As we’ve mentioned repeatedly throughout this article, both channels are important, but for different reasons. For example, SEO is really important when you want to create a long-term and lasting footprint for your business. The same doesn’t apply for PPC, where the footprint on the SERPs ceases to exist the moment you turn off your ad campaigns. 

On the other hand, PPC comes in handy when you don’t have the luxury of time to invest in long-term strategies, and if you need tactics that can get you results right now. Let’s use an example to make this clearer. For the sake of the example, let’s assume you’ve recently launched a new feature, just as Albacross did a few weeks ago with Albacross Reveal

Launching a new feature and waiting for SEO to help you get some traction for it would be a mistake. The reason is simple: no one is searching for this feature/term yet. 

No data showed for the Search Term Albacross Reveal in Keyword Report in Ahref.

Thus, expecting to rank organically for a term that has zero search potential would be completely inefficient. In this case, PPC would be really helpful, as it could a) give you an idea of how interesting searchers find your new feature and b) help you raise awareness for said new feature. 

Of course, you should be able to bid on terms that are related to your feature’s capabilities—in Albacross’ case, this could be something like “website personalization”—but regardless, in this way, you would be able to spread the word about your new feature in almost real time. 

Thus, as you can now understand, both channels are important for different reasons.

2) Our efforts essentially have to do with the same property

When it comes to SEO and PPC, we have to keep in mind that our efforts have to do with practically the same property. If we’re talking about Google’s search engine, the only major difference between organic and paid results is the placement on the SERPs. 

There are some additional differences such as the real estate that each category of results has, but in general, the property the results live in is the same. Comparing the two as if they’re something entirely unrelated is therefore wrong and can be highly misleading. 

Of course, no one can deny that the practices followed for each of the two acquisition channels are completely different. However, those practices have to do with the same thing: trying to get people to click on a result (paid or organic) based on their search query.

3) Each channel can be useful for companies in different lifecycle stages

As we saw earlier, both SEO and PPC can be useful for companies in different lifecycle stages. For example, SEO may not be the best channel to invest in when you’re at an early stage, but it’s definitely something you need to consider after finding a product-market fit. 

Why? Because it can bring you consistent traffic that you don’t have to pay for. Yes, you still have to pay for content creation, editing, technical optimization or link building, but that isn’t the same as having to budget for advertising campaigns each month. Here are some facts for companies at this particular lifecycle stage:

Characteristics of the Company's Stage after finding a product-market fit.

It is therefore evident that SEO is something you should invest in only after finding a PMF. On the other hand, PPC is something you can invest in if you’re at an early stage. You can even invest in it if you haven’t yet built a product as a way of validating your assumptions and product ideas. 

Thus, we can understand that both channels can be useful for different reasons. This means that, combined, they can really help you with your acquisition efforts. This brings us to our next point.

4) The two channels can work together to bring about better results for a company

EO can’t—and shouldn’t—be treated as a standalone solution. Why? Because you should never build your house on another man’s property. In other words, your growth should never be based on only one channel. This is a huge mistake that numerous companies have made over the years. 

Especially when it comes to SEO, placing all your bets in one channel is simply too risky. To explain why this is the case, just think about the fact that your performance is heavily influenced by constant Google algorithm updates, any one of which could suddenly harm your website and decrease your visibility. 

Quick Tip: To monitor changes in keyword rankings daily, you can visit SEMrush Sensor—Google’s rank and algorithm tracking tool.

SERP Volatility by SEMrush for the last 30 days.

The same applies to Google Ads and any other channel for that matter. Thus, we can understand that together, two channels in most cases have a much higher and more positive impact on your overall growth. 

Even though we offer Content & SEO services, we always recommend to our clients that they use additional channels for their growth efforts. One of those channels, of course, is PPC advertising. Being present via two channels that practically belong to the same property (as we saw earlier) is always better than investing in only one channel. 

Now that we’ve explained why any direct comparison between SEO and PPC—the way it’s currently done by most people—is wrong, let’s now take a look at how to use PPC and SEO together in order to grow. 

How SEO & PPC Together Can Help You Grow

Having explained what’s wrong with the SEO vs PPC comparison, we’ll now look at how you can have SEO and PPC work together to grow your business. Below, we’ll give you some best practices and ideas that you can start testing out right away. 

1) Test-run organic landing pages before launching them

One good practice when it comes to having SEO and PPC working together to grow your business is to test organic landing pages before launching them by running ads on them. Those pages may not have to be necessarily new; in some cases, they may be part of a website redesign that you apply to your website. 

2) Run PPC ads to your best-performing content pieces

When you have a content piece that already performs well organically, you can give it an extra boost by running PPC ads targeting that specific page. This is a good practice that can help you amplify your best-performers and make them even more visible in the SERPs, using a holistic—search engine marketing (SEM)—approach rather than depending solely on organic traffic.

3) Link from your PPC landing pages to your content to educate visitors about your product

In most cases, landing pages that are used for PPC campaigns have one sole purpose: to get visitors to take action, which in most cases is to sign up for a free trial or provide their email to download a resource that’s relevant to their search query. 

However, we’ve found that for terms with lower search intent, educating visitors rather than “pushing” them to take the next step can be more effective. Thus, you can link from your PPC landing pages to your content, helping to educate your visitors before asking them to take any further action. 

4) Re-target your organic visitors for terms with higher commercial intent

Very often, especially when it comes to SaaS companies, the organic visitors that come to your website come for terms with lower commercial intent. This isn’t always the case, since you can also get organic traffic for terms with higher commercial intent (e.g. {company name} alternative or “vs” content pieces), but it does apply most of the time. 

Since many of your visitors come to your website for terms with lower commercial intent—meaning they’re a little less further along in their customer journey—you can then use PPC ads to re-target those visitors, giving them the “push” they need to move forward and make a buying decision. 

5) Decrease the risk of investing all your resources into just one channel

It’s more than obvious that when you’re investing in just one channel (as we mentioned earlier), you put yourself and your business in a difficult position. Things may be good as long as that channel is treating you well—but what about when something beyond your control (e.g. a Google algorithm update) occurs that dramatically affects your performance within that channel?

This can damage your business irreparably, and is why investing both in PPC and SEO is the best option for your business. It helps you split the risk between the two channels and avoid losses revenue from changes you simply can’t control. 

Now that you know how to have SEO and PPC work together for your own benefit, let’s wrap this up with some final thoughts. 

Wrapping Up

As we’ve seen throughout this guide, any comparison between SEO and PPC—the way it’s done in most cases—is wrong. If anything, SEO and PPC can help one another, and there isn’t any real debate about which one of the two ways of attaining growth is objectively better in all cases. 

In some cases and for some verticals, SEO may be a better channel than PPC, while in other situations, the opposite may apply. In general though, you shouldn’t be fully dependent on any one of these channels—or on any other channel for that matter. 

Thus, we advise our clients to “never build their house on another man’s property.” Being reliable on just one channel for your business growth (e.g.. Google or social media networks like Facebook) is highly unstable and can be downright dangerous for your business. 

What you should do instead is test different channels and, based on the results you get, double down on your efforts on the ones that work and stop investing in the ones that don’t.