Is SEO cheaper than PPC?

Every now and then someone says to me that PPC is really expensive and they’d rather go down the route of using SEO to generate enquiries or sales for their business. But as with all things marketing mix orientated, it’s never an all or nothing approach and it’s important to understand where each tactic fits into your plan.

“Is SEO cheaper than PPC?” It’s a question that I get asked all the time. I can virtually guarantee at some point a prospective client will come to me and either try to tell me that SEO is cheaper than PPC or ask me the question. But there is a lot to take into account when you try to answer the question “Is SEO cheaper than PPC.”

To start with each business has different USPs and objectives and each business operated within a different marketplace.

I’ve been involved in SEO and PPC for the majority of my career in marketing. In that time I’ve seen businesses succeed and survive based on their reliance on one or both of the two sides of the search marketing coin.

I think it’s fair to say that SEO, when done well, will deliver better long lasting value to a business. In the long run, organic search marketing activities build and build and you get a cumulative impact, both in terms of growing organic traffic to a site but also in terms of growing the brand and bottom line of a business.

What’s more, over time a well-optimised SEO strategy will be likely to deliver a much higher volume of leads than a PPC campaign.

I say all this with this one caveat: it’s no longer 2008. In 2008 businesses were still starting to move online. Sure a lot of businesses had made the move, but many of them hadn’t been serious about it or hadn’t really understood the potential the internet afforded them. In those days just needed to post a few blogs or turn on an AdWords campaign and they could almost guarantee they’d get traffic and sales or enquiries. In 2017 every business worth their salt has an SEO strategy and enough history to help them naturally rank. Many others operate successful (and unsuccessful) Google AdWords accounts.

And whilst many businesses can struggle to get their SEO strategy into gear and expect more immediate returns, PPC can provide a way for businesses to start getting business through the door more rapidly.

But when working out which approach is best for you – or what percentage you’ll put towards either approach – it’s always best to start with an understanding of the customer.

A good place to start is to map out the customer life cycle. It’s doesn’t have to be complicated. Just note down how your customers are going to find you, what they do when they do find you and how you’re going to keep them once you’ve got them. If you do this you’ll start to see where search sits in the mix, and what proportions of SEO and PPC you’ll require and at which stage.

And when someone asks me the question “which is cheaper SEO or PPC” my first response is although they are both search marketing techniques their intent of the user is different and therefore they’ve got to be considered separately rather than comparatively.

What’s so good about organic traffic?

If you rank highly you’re going to get a lot of people seeing your brand in the SERPs, even if they don’t click through. This is great for brand awareness and I often try to calculate how much this would cost a company in advertising revenues were it to have to be replaced.

It’s also important to recognise that this isn’t just your average brand awareness. By being viewed for specific search terms you’ll get associated with the industry you’re in. If you’re lucky you could use the SERPs to generate top of mind awareness without them having seen another ad or even having visited your website.

Likewise, this high concentration in the SERPs is going to positively impact the perception of your businesses credibility. Even if you’re customers have yet to read your Feefo and Trustpilot reviews!

All this lovely visibility in the SERPs is going to give you more traffic. This free traffic (kind of free, but we’ll come back to that), gives you loads of opportunity to fill the awareness end of your marketing funnel and eventually to convert to customers.

Whilst SEO is a busy space and there are lots of people out there helping businesses climb online, there are still plenty of opportunities for new players. Remeber SEO may deliver long term success but you can never say it’s cheap. In fact done well, it’s anything but.

And if you don’t think the keywords are there for your business or industry it’s likely you’ve not been creative enough in your search marketing thinking. Your business would be in trouble if you attempted to pay for all the organic keywords that come through. There’s just too many and the scope is too large.

Probably one of the best things about SEO is that when you’re done with it, it just keeps working for you and can do for years. PPC, on the other hand, stops sending traffic as soon the money plug is pulled. This means if you develop the right SEO strategy early on in your businesses development, and stick to it even when it’s not delivering returns, you’ll get the point that your competition can’t get close to touching your lead.

But we have to be real about this. SEO costs money. It’s a long term investment your business should make in order to secure long term business opportunities. In most cases don’t expect to see a return on your investment anytime soon. And don’t expect to see traffic going steady. That’s not how it happens. It comes in fits and starts. Remember also you’ll be competing against the big boys for a lot of keywords and many keywords will be competitive because the market has become very established.

Long gone are days when a well-optimised website is enough. In order to get the rankings you want it’s likely you’ll have to develop and distribute a large amount of killer content. Our bread and butter these days is the creation of content for SEO benefits. That’s because most companies don’t have the resource to create the kind of search orientated content at the quality levels and velocity that’s required to get them ranking.

And even if you do get rankings and traffic a lot of that traffic is going to be at the top of the funnel. It’s going to be awareness and education orientated. So what are you going to do with it when you get it? This is where nurture campaigns come into their own. This is the method of delivering the right content to a potential customer at the right time in their buying journey. They may start with awareness and education but you need to warm them up so they get to a transactional phase. This is about really understanding your customer. Their wants, their needs, their pain points. Their very darkest desires.

OK. By Now you probably get that SEO is hard work. So what about PPC? Is that any better? In the medium term is PPC cheaper than SEO?

So the thing that I love about PPC is that you get what you bid for. There are so many variables in SEO, you can never say for 100% sure that what you’re doing is going to work. With PPC it’s different. It’s precision marketing at it’s best if it’s done right.

When bidding with PPC you can ensure you get your ads at the top of the SERPs – above all those organic listings – and if anyone says “I never click on the ads at the top” they may not do – but lots do – but everyone see the ads. This means you can get brand visibility for the specific keywords you need to get visibility for – this is so much more cost effective than traditional print advertising.

I remember years ago, Google went through a phase of selecting random pieces of content for the snippet in organic rankings, rather than the meta description. Such a pain in the neck! But in the world of PPC, you are paying for the listing. It’s an advertisement and you get loads more control. In addition, Google has improved the options you have including featured site-links, maps, callouts, telephone calls.

You can get hugely improved click through rates if you use the visual Product Listing Ads (PLAs). This is something that you won’t see in the organic listings. If you’re relying on organic listings to drive traffic, and a PLA appears on your keyword, you might find you rapidly lose traffic from that source.

One thing about SEO is it can take a long time to see your returns. With PPC it’s lightning fast. What’s more, you’ve got in front of them when they’re looking for it. There’s no need to nurture. You can get a lead and turn PPC off whilst you’re working on that lead if you want to. You can work out what your cash flow can afford and set a limit per day, or just turn it off when you have a flat spot.

The rapidity at which you can make changes to your PPC campaign means you can create false doors and test the potential of the market before wading in with your size 11s. It also means you can swap and change your message and generally test to see what your audience engages with the most.

In the olden days, you used to be able to see every keyword that was driving traffic to your website through Google Analytics. When Google was starting to introduce Google Plus they said they could no longer support this function through GA. But guess what? They still tell you exactly what your potential customers are using to trigger your ads through Google Adwords, which when coupled with all the juicy conversion statistics provides some fantastic marketing intelligence. Of course, you can and should use all this information to inform your SEO activity. Just bear in mind that there is often a difference in intent between PPC and SEO queries.

This marketing intelligence can be used to come up with a split testing strategy, coupled with the ease of using search query reports to syphon off keywords that aren’t relevant, means you can easily and quickly work on increasing the ROI of your campaign.

And whilst the cost of advertising through PPC can see expensive and hard to manage at first it can be optimised over time to bring costs down. The thing is though, whilst you’re getting to that point it can cost a lot of money, and those figures can run out of control if you don’t keep on top of it. Plus I’ve known some people that get almost addicted to the optimisation process, in a similar way that a gambler may believe they’ve got a system, and completely overlook that they’re losing too much (or worse believing they can win it back).

Plus if you stop paying for that traffic you know what’s going to happen, you’ll stop getting traffic. And although you might have built up some marketing halo which drives additional branded queries through to your page, be in no doubt that will decrease over time as well. Be conscious of that because many people don’t see a correlation between the two things, and are constantly looking for what they’ve done to damage their organic search or even their brand.

But even with SEO, if you stop investing, eventually you will be overtaken and you’ll drop out of the SERPs. Take it from me, GrowTraffic was number one for freelance SEO consultant for years, then I took my foot off the peddle and we dropped like a rock. Fortunately, now there are multiple people in the business – in both Lancashire and South Yorkshire – that’s not the kind of keywords we’re reliant on.

On top of keeping on investing, you’ve got to keep an eye out that you’re not getting into PPC bidding wars. These can be very real and the only business that benefits from them is Google. I’ve done it over the years, bidding up to £60 maximum cost per click just to ensure a competitor is priced out of the market. Where could that go if everyone keeps pushing the costs upwards? I often think there is minimal accountability for PPC executives in terms of the specifics of what they’re doing, and as they aren’t spending their own money who knows how much they’ve over inflated the market. Similarly, there are a lot of people who don’t know what they doing and this has the same impact.

Remember also the relatively low barrier to entry for PPC means that your competitors can fairly easily copy what you’re doing and outbid you. This is in contrast to SEO where everything is front loaded, so only the bigger players can copy a unique strategy that’s been working for years, and outmanoeuvre you.
It’s therefore really not the case of answering the question “which is cheaper PPC or SEO?”, it’s more about answer the question “what’s better for my business PPC or SEO?” or perhaps “how much time should I put into both SEO and PPC?”.

If you’re a local business, you’ll probably find that SEO is the way to go to get a few leads trickling in. If that’s good enough to get you going that might be the way to go. But if you need to get a greater volume of leads for more competitive keywords you’re probably going to have to invest in PPC in the short-term, whilst you put in place a focused SEO strategy.

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