By Samuel Scott
In search-engine marketing (SEM) – the goal of which is to rank highly in Google search-results for chosen keywords – there are two general strategies: search-engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, so it is important to know when to use each one (or even both).
Before you make this marketing decision, you first need to determine and understand your overall business goals. As we at The Cline Group have always maintained, one’s marketing goal needs to be in line with one’s business goal before it can be integrated and executed successfully.
Is your business a start-up that needs to generate as much revenue as possible in order to exit through a sale before investor funding dries up? Is your firm producing a product or service that will revolutionize a sector and will need to grow over a long period of time as a result? Is your product a website that will aim to maximize advertising revenue? By understanding your goal, you can then develop an online-marketing strategy to achieve it.
First, however, you need to understand what exactly SEO and PPC are. Since we are nearing the end of baseball season, here is an example of Google’s search-results for the term “baseball jerseys”:
The search results that appear throughout the right-hand column and at the top of the main column are PPC ads that take people to a chosen website after they are clicked. Companies pay Google for each click that someone makes. The price – anywhere from a few pennies to more than $10, depending on the industry – is determined by an online auction in which companies bid against each other for their ads to appear (and appear most prominently) when a chosen search-term is entered into Google.
“Organic” (or “natural”) search-results appear below the PPC ads in main column. Each page shows ten of these results at a time in descending order based on Google’s still-unknown, mysterious algorithm that determines a website’s “relevance” and “authority” in the context of the search query.
In general, PPC strategy aims to get an advertisement to appear alongside relevant keywords for the cheapest possible price and in front of the most-relevant audience. The effect is instant, but it comes at a cost. SEO strategy focuses on, among other things, optimizing a website so that it will appear on the first page, if not near the top of the first page, of organic-search results for a given keyword. There are an estimated 200 ranking-factors that Google reportedly takes into account, so SEO is a lengthy, time-consuming, and very-competitive process. But there is little up-front cost (except for the time and labor of your staff or consulting firm).
In a nutshell, here is a comparison of SEO and PPC:
- Pro: Instant clicks to your website – People will typically start seeing your ads within an hour after submitting the advertisement to Google.
- Pro: Little time to implement – All you need is to research and list the keywords you want to target, write the ads, and set demographic-target and price settings.
- Con: Short-term results – Once you stop the PPC campaign, the ads will disappear. However, this can be useful in branding a new product (see below).
- Con: Up-front, additional costs – You will be charged immediately for each click, and sometimes it can become pricey if your industry is extremely competitive.
- Pro: Long-term results – Once your website has built up enough “relevance” and “authority” to rank highly in Google’s eyes for a certain keyword, it will usually be difficult for you to lose that position. (Until, perhaps, a competitor starts doing the same – SEM should be a permanent activity to maintain rankings.)
- Pro: No additional, up-front costs – You pay only for the labor of your marketing and IT department or your marketing agency. Rankings in Google’s organic search-results are free – it just takes a lot of time to get there.
- Con: You usually won’t see results for a while – Few people go past the first page of search results, so you will get relatively few clicks to your website until you are in the top ten (or even higher). It can take at least six months to see results.
- Con: A long time to implement – Contrary to popular belief, SEO is not just “putting keywords on pages” – and anyone who tells you that, in our humble opinion, does not truly understand the process. A revamp of your entire website will often be needed. (See our prior posts on “5 Reasons to Hire an SEO Before You Develop Your Website” and “How to Define an SEO-Keyword Strategy for Your Website.”)
When to Use What
A good rule of thumb is that PPC is best for short-term goals and that SEO is best for long-term ones, and a quality, integrated-marketing strategy usually combines them. Say that your store sells purple widgets in Florida and that you had needed to sell a lot of them over Labor Day weekend while ensuring long-term growth as well. You would likely want to do the following:
- Run a PPC campaign advertising a Labor Day sale on purple, Florida widgets in the week or two before the holiday
- Optimize your website over the long-term so that it will rank highly in future, natural-search results for “purple, Florida widgets”
Of course, there will always be exceptions to this general rule. If you are one of the aforementioned start-up companies, you might not have the time (and the VC funding) to wait for SEO’s effects to appear. So, you might want to focus only on PPC from the start to get immediate revenue and brand recognition. Conversely, if your business has little money, and you are looking for lower-cost growth over the long term, you may only need SEO.
The point to remember is that are numerous options in online marketing – as well as traditional marketing – today. One strategy might work for one company but not another. Therefore, it is important for each company to research and implement the best marketing-mix that will work for it. The question of the differences between SEO and PPC is just one that will need answering.
Samuel Scott is Senior Director of SEO & Digital Marketing for The Cline Group. You see more of his thoughts on Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Facebook. Scott’s personal website is here, and he is a contributor to Moz.