SEO vs. PPC - Which Provides You the Better Value?

December 5, 2008

Organizations of all sizes are realizing the importance of online marketing, especially through search engines. Nowadays, people are more likely to end up on your website via a search engine than going directly to it. In fact, according to Jupiter Research, a Forrester Research company, 81% of users find their desired destination through a search engine.

This research makes it clear that it's very important for your brand to have a strong presence in the search engines, ensuring that you're in front of your target audience. However, there's still a big decision to make - whether to use SEO (Search Engine Optimization, or naturally ranking high in the organic results) or PPC (Pay-Per-Click ads, the Sponsored Links and purchased ads on a Google search) to get in front of your target?

Done correctly, both can get you on the front page of the search engines for targeted terms and in front of your desired audience. However, each has its respective benefits and costs. SEOmoz, a great SEO resource, recently published an article by the team at Enquisite quantifying the effectiveness of SEO vs. PPC.

The article details that organic results are 8.5x more likely to be clicked on than paid search results! That's a large disparity and is likely attributed to searchers gradually learning the difference between organic and sponsored results, and recognizing that organic results are typically the more respected resource. Also, researchers have used heat maps to show that searchers' eyes focus on the top organic results, with people barely noticing the ads to the right.

However, PPC holds a slight edge in conversion rates, as paid search results are 1.5x more likely to convert click thrus from the search engine. The SEOmoz article attributes, to the fact that the paid search result's "text and landing page is custom optimized by the advertiser."

So, looking at both of these numbers, it can be concluded that "the opportunity from organic search is 5.66x that of paid search."

So, given the flat out choice of ranking high organically or having great PPC ads - the overwhelmingly logical choice is organic. However, we all know it's not that easy or else those "Rank #1 in Google TOMORROW" robo calls would be much more effective. True SEO takes time, not get rich quick schemes.

PPC's true strengths are its speed and expansiveness. With a PPC campaign, you can be on the first page for a multitude of targeted terms within a day. However, the terms can cost anywhere from pennies to many dollars per click; also, for a PPC campaign to be done correctly, it's usually best to hire a firm that can manage it full time. This can mean that PPC campaigns can get very expensive, very quickly - especially when done correctly.

SEMPO, the Search Engine Marketing Professionals Organization, estimates that 87% of search engine dollars are spent on PPC vs. 11% spent on SEO efforts. That's more than $10 billion spent on PPC vs. just $1 billion spent on SEO. That means the strategy that's over 5x more effective, SEO, is only receiving 1/8 the media spend in the market! It's hard to justify the expense of a PPC campaign, knowing that SEO is more successful and the overall better longterm value.

Don't get me wrong, there are certainly times to use PPC - when you're first launching your company, it's a great way to get your name out there and build brand awareness. For a limited time offer or special event, PPC is an effective way to get exposure that SEO wouldn't have time to contribute to.

Also, PPC is more effective for products than it is for service companies; for example, we focus SEO efforts on terms such as Raleigh web design and Content Management Software; however, we do not engage in PPC advertising for these terms, because they're usually a waste of money for a services firm like ours. Yet we have an electronic payments client that runs a PPC campaign focused around its specific product offerings, and this strategy makes sense for their market.

However, when it comes to the long term lifeline of your internet marketing, the result is clear - SEO offers the better value in search marketing. You won't rank #1 overnight, but SEO is more affordable and the longterm benefits have been proven. All of these facts demonstrate that your company should spend more of its time and resources focusing on SEO vs. PPC.

What are other people's experiences in this realm? Anyone think that PPC is the more value-driven choice than SEO? Let us know your thoughts!


Alex Walf's avatar
Alex Walf
This is really a good article for those who want to start their paid campaign and are already confused and overwhelmed by these 2 really good options
James J Harper's avatar
James J Harper
SEO and PPC are both incredible essential for your website or business to work successfully. However, it depends on the required results in terms of what provides better value. If you are looking for website traffic rapidly and are willing to pay good amount, then PPC is definitely right for you. But, if you are tight-budgeted, then ranking higher using targeted SEO approaches is one of the best ways to improve your search rankings.
Sarah T.'s avatar
Sarah T.
Ah, can't edit comments :) Just wanted to add that even analyzing websites (using something like ) shows how few of my competitors use ppc, and those that do, usually they don't rank very well in organic. I think there's a reason for it.
Sarah T.'s avatar
Sarah T.
I'd stick with organic ranks. PPC is fine, but I myself have never clicked on ad result in serp. I'll just assume my clients don't, either. Besides, ranking for organic helps me keep my game up with quality content.
Colin's avatar
A huge misdirection in the PPC v SEO debate is that organic results get 8.5X the clicks of PPC ads.

That might be true, but 90% of all searches have no COMMERCIAL INTENT ie., the searcher is not looking to buy a product or service, the searcher is imply looking for information.

Smart PPC agencies and advertisers specifically target searches with commercial intent and use negative keywords to prevent ads showing for searches that are unlikely to result in a purchase.

So, PPC ads may not show for 70% or more of all searches which means that, of course, organic results are the only option and therefore they get a higher % of overall cicks.

Research shows that for searches with commercial intent the split between PPC and SEO is close to 50/50 overall and that is absolutely no surprise because with 4 ads now at the top of the page enjoying more space with callouts, sitelink extensions etc., and local listings appearing below PPC ads - organic listings are being pushed further and further below the fold.

Another complete fallacy is that many searchers avoid PPC ads because they are less relevant. That may have been true a few years ago but not now. Google's quality score has seen to that.

Google will do everything in its power to motivate more clicks to PPC because that is where it makes money. It is constantly rewarding PPC advertisers who provide a relevant and great landing page experience and is doing absolutely nothing to help and aid those companies relying on SEO.

After all, if was your business, YOU would do exactly the same.
Dev Chatterjee's avatar
Dev Chatterjee
The question I have is how do I find all these companies spending all this money on PPC. Because I sure would love to rank them for all their keywords for half of their PPC budget and 10X their revenues. :-)

Great post, BTW.
john sinclair's avatar
john sinclair
I have used ppc for a good few years now. I find it very expensive. I do not get the number of new customers that the clicks I pay for would suggest. I am diligent in weeding out negative keywords. I have often thought that competitors would use up the budget on clicking through to the website, The problem is I do not trust SEO organisations - certainly not the overseas ones that seem to permanently be on a hard sell.
Google are always tinkering with the adwords process as well so it is nigh on impossible to 100% understand how everything works.
I have now though decided to pause my ppc campaign and try SEO to see how it compares. Mine is a small company in the services sector.
simon lule's avatar
simon lule
hi ive used ppc for a long time but its expensive....people tend to click but dont write to the website..and here you find even your competitors try to click on your Ad so that your budget gets i would like to help drive me to how Organic and SEO works cause I would like to drop PPC for Organic..
Del Dominguez's avatar
Del Dominguez
Thanks for this. One of my challenges has been to offset the AWFUL damage that the overseas "marketers" have done on people trying to learn/do SEO. For example, many people have a bad taste int heir mouth for the term SEO and are likely more trusting of paid traffic since it might seem safer. Regardless, seeing some solid numbers on the matter might help me convince some people that my services are a better use of their marketing dollars.

Thanks again!
David's avatar
An audit on 2000 adword accounts showed that 90% of the keywords bidded on never converted to sales. Doing PPC with proper tracking will let you know what is being used by buyers and what is used by tire kickers and can tune your campaign immedietly. What measures do you put in place to make sure you are ranking for the money keywords with SEO? What do you do when they change?
Tabassum's avatar
I really agree with the fact that result can't happen overnight through SEO but if we do it effectively, it lasts for a longer time at an affordable cost,
Eric van Haaften's avatar
Eric van Haaften
Super article. We are trying to evaluate Seo vs. ppc strategies in the life insurance vertical. Little niche areas like estate planning or pension planning, because of high competition. Most of our blog pages are on pages 3- 5 . We are now doing link building which will take a while to notice results. We are thinking ppc on a few terms we don't see much completion. But, maybe we should just devote more seo to the specific topic vs. spending money on ppc. I guess we could do a little of both to see what works best .
Jalu Sakti's avatar
Jalu Sakti
Wow, it's so interesting that SEO is 5x more effective than than PPC advertising, and yet, so little people use it. I've heard that SEO is great because it provides trust and reliability to your website, which will convert to higher rankings in search engines. I've been learning about SEO and PPC in my college class, and I find both so interesting. If I ever had a website of my own, I would choose SEO marketing to help it get to the top of search results.
Ankit Roy's avatar
Ankit Roy
Yes it is, It’s my personal experience. Till 2013 my business was only in local market, just offline.
I made a website just for showing designs and dress models to my customers.
YNG media approaches me for SEO and social media of my websites. First I was not interested because it was going great but only because of my friend I agreed.
Can you believe what I got?
SEO and social media increased my sells almost 200% and I was like WOW…. So from my side. Always go for SEO.
Thank you for this post. It’s really helpful for all those small biz owners who are still missing SEO of their website.
John's avatar
Very good article. AdWords can be very dangerous if you just start a campaign and hope for results- you'll lose a lot of money and end up bitter that way. Make sure you constantly watch and adjust your campaign.

Another huge aspect to PPC is monitoring what happens AFTER those clicks- make sure you understand what people are doing on your website and make adjustments to it to maximize actions like purchases, downloads or contacts-the things that keep you in business. Survey your website visitors or use providers like, usabila, usertesting etc. and then LISTEN to what your users are telling you and make changes accordingly.
Miles's avatar
You are absolutely right about the fact that both are important. For startups PPC and brand promotion is the way to go first. Today SEO goes parallel with content marketing and PR. I think both are long term strategies if done properly while SEO is certainly not a short term strategy.
Janis Mednis's avatar
Janis Mednis
Both are important. While your organic traffic builds up, you can use PPC to provide instant cash flow. Also PPC is more "reliable" so to say, because you know your rank for sure while organic traffic tends to fluctuate a lot.
Scott's avatar
believe it is better to have good positions as a result of PPC and SEO. The problem for us really is that good and reputable SEO management is expensive, and PPC is very expensive for competitive spots. We spend a lot on both. We have tried shutting off the PPC and the phone calls fall off dramatically despite our very competitive positions with organic searches. This very simple experiment says a lot to us about the DIRECT effectiveness of PPC over organic searches. Organic SEO is tougher to quantify exactly because we don't know if people are clicking on our ads because they recognize us from another organic search etc. But the phone calls falling off right away tells me we are likely spending too much on organic SEO. I think SEO companies are facing stiff competition with the PPC because clients can essentially go around the traditional SEO tech companies in order to get good, if not better results from PPC over SEO. So what is the answer? Gotta drop rates on SEO and market to manage PPC ads for customers. Package SEO and PPC together at competitive rates. We are working on this issue as I write this comment..
Mike Jones's avatar
Mike Jones
PPC provide better value and it is for sure!
Lucie's avatar
What's up, yes this paragraph is in fact good
and I have learned lot of thingys from it on the tpic of
blogging. thanks.
Two trees marketing's avatar
Two trees marketing
Hey Guys,

Very interesting read, and as some people pointed out, it would be very interesting to see the true benefits of both.

I think we all know that long term seo is going become (hopefully) a cumulative gain, for lower costs.
There can be a lot of factors to take into accounts, yes you can niche very specifically via ppc to certain targets, but there'Rs nothing to say you cant do that with your seo also.

What we really need is a blend
Send the traffic to the site via HIGHLY Targeted ppc
Track those customers, and learn more about your market
Retarget to them
Bring them back with retargeting, and bring their peers to us via organic seo (Which we know now the details of from our research), and via social marketing among our ppc traffic/current readers etc

Oh and the guy who said you cant pick your seo terms-you clearly can
Its just for a number of reasons that you don't always get the terms you want, ie its outside the budget and you wont see a return for much longer/the competition is much higher etc

Take a leaf out of facebook's business plan, and target the other keywords and dominate first. Increase your traffic and roi from that and use to reinvest into the more difficult terms.

Daniel Daines-Hutt

Alex's avatar
Alex NMC team member
Great one.
Marco M's avatar
Marco M
I think that it's generally better to focus on SEO as a significant portion of people have adblockers that block PPC ads. And even if they don't I still think that most savvy internet users know to avoid PPC ads because they know that they have poorer relevance to the keyword, and that it's most likely going to be a commercial site.
VPS Hosting Queensland's avatar
VPS Hosting Queensland
As my experienced. for fast result we can use PPC & for Long term result we can use SEO.
Clay Schossow's avatar
Clay Schossow NMC team member

Thanks for the feedback! You're correct that the top spot on that particular image is a sponsored result, but I don't think that fact "refutes a lot of this" article. As you point out, people are going to look at those top results due to the way humans read -- the top spot could be a sponsored ad or it could be organic. Just depends on the term. Organic can guarantee you a spot up there without the cost.

Furthermore, the rest of the facts in the post still hold true, independent of that image. Conversions, click thrus, etc. are still statistically better with organic rankings than PPC.

I still (and always have) advocate that a combination of both tactics is the best strategy, but there's little doubt that organic is the more cost effective way to appear in the upper crust of rankings that people gravitate towards.
Alexander Spencer's avatar
Alexander Spencer
So your assumption that Cornell Universities Google Heat Map is displaying organic results at the top of the page is a bit off. I use the same image in physical presentations for some of my larger clientele. Look closely at the top result, it is a sponsored one... says it very clearly: Sponsored Links and a highlighted narrow box that encompasses the first result on the Digital Camera Search they are displaying. Kind of refutes a lot of this... You see it isn't truly about SEO vs PPC or Organic vs Paid, its simply human psychology, we read left to right top to bottom. If the organic listing is the top result it will get more traffic if a PPC listing is the top it will get more and the most competitive phrases almost always have 3 PPC results above the organics. People truly need to stop looking at one vs the other. THEY GO HAND IN HAND. SEO encompasses everything from Social Reputation Management to Article Writing to HTML Coding, it makes no sense that it doesn't include PPC just because the first SEO companies were directly competing with the first PPC companies. Internet Marketing is Internet Marketing is Internet Marketing. If you make the misinformed decision to use only one or the other you are damaging your ROI potential, who am I more likely to click on, the page with only 1 result at the top or the page that is a Sponsored and multiple Organics? Simple as that.
Search Engine Optimization's avatar
Search Engine Optimization
SEO and PPC are two different things but both have equal importance. PPC is a quick process and one time investment for bringing traffic to your website but results are visible after a long interval of time
Bulk Flash Drives's avatar
Bulk Flash Drives
This article is written in 2008 and I have some doubts about it's information. The author says about PPC ads as they only appear on the right side of page. I'm not sure when Google changed that, but PPC adds have been appearing in top middle for a while... first 3 results are always PPC, and not all the people know the difference, and I still think that that will most likely click on first 3 results. And as studies show first 3 results collect as much as 87% of clicks. And even if you get #1 position with organic listing, you will still be only #4. However, I have started SEO campaign a month ago and will certainly give it a try.
Robert's avatar
Robert NMC team member

I always wonder when people talk about PPC vs SEO as if both cannot coexist. PPC is used for one thing, strategic advertising, and SEO is an ongoing process of optimisation. The best companies spend time, and money on both.

George's avatar

While I am certainly an advocate for implementing a comprehensive online strategy that *includes* SEO, the heat map example used above clearly shows a bias towards SEO. The majority of the time, SERP's will place the top 3 PPC ads right in the "hot-zone" represented above, top-left portion of the page. In addition, the previous comments of a more detailed report that includes the ultimate result of these clicks is what any business owner interested in profit margins should be concerned with.

Clay Schossow's avatar
Clay Schossow NMC team member

SEO Firm,

Thats a great observation. Depending on the purpose of your site, PPC can be a good choice. Also, I think PPC can be effective to target periphery terms that you might not target through blogging or that just may be hard to win. So, while Staples should not pay for ads for their name, they could do well buying the phrase "buy pens online." There is definitely a time and place for both PPC and SEO, but SEO will offer the best long term gains at the least cost.

Thanks for the comment!

Seo Firm's avatar
Seo Firm

The right choice for website depends on particular needs and desires. Most websites get benefit mostly from utilizing a combination of these two approaches. Using PPC marketing can help quickly identify your best performing keywords, while implementing a longer-term SEO strategy will increase chances of ranking well in the organic listings to get long term good traffic.

SEO China's avatar
SEO China

I am not clear why PPC is good for products while SEO for services. You mean if I do SEO for my products, It is not as good as ROI from PPC?

 Clay's avatar

Thanks for the comments!\r\n\r\n@Trevor - very good points. As I noted in the post the speed and expansiveness of PPC are valuable - especially for marketers with specific goals. So, for companies with large marketing budgets, it can be worth it to run PPC campaigns, however, they should always be striving and dedicating resources to SEO too. Too many large firms just do PPC and figure that it's enough coverage.\r\n\r\n@Ryan - First, sorry for the SPAM Alert message on your comment - our SPAM protection gets a little over zealous at times. Average Order and Repeat Buys are two very interesting criteria that I'd love to see statistics on. I'd be wary of how the study was conducted though - since PPC is best for products, it makes sense that there would be repeat buys on PPC conversions, whereas good SEO may be for a services company only looking for a one-time purchase. If you have the study, send it over, I'd be excited to see it. Also, while this post was heavily based on SEOmoz, all of the data was gathered from SEMPO, which is a relatively independent source. \r\n\r\nThanks for your thoughts!

 Ryan's avatar

This research doesn't take into account average order value or the likelihood of the customer to become a repeat buyer. I'm not saying the research above is wrong, but I did read a study in Direct Magazine earlier this year that showed paid search did edge out over organic when taking these things into account. I'm not vouching for the validity of that research, I'm just saying this research could be biased as well since it is put out by an SEO organization. It'd be nice for some truly independent research that covers CPC, CPV, average order value, value per visitor, and lifetime buying patterns of each type of customer.

Trevor's avatar

Agreed. Jumping behind SEO is cheaper and converts more efficiently, but PPC has a lot more flexibility as you mentioned. Companies are limited to a select few keywords and phrases - if they're lucky - through SEO efforts. But, with PPC they can affix their brand to terms outside a domain's natural keywords and get on the first page the first day. PPC's flexibility also means that keywords can be bought ad hoc and dropped soon after for individual ad campaigns, a PR crisis, or marketing efforts outside those select SEO keywords they have chosen to build there site around. For a marketer flexibility, and speed DO have some unquantifiable value. Perhaps your post holds more true for smaller firms but for companies with the budget, running concurrent campaigns is a good idea to stay in-line with the ABT (Always Be Testing) mantra. Even if they run leaner PPC campaigns, they might want the assurance that they have the know-how to use PPC when SEO won't and can't help. -Trevor

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