Steady website traffic is the hallmark of a healthy business. There are many ways of driving traffic, from social media to word-of-mouth, but search engines are your most potent traffic tool.
GrowthBadger examined 3.25 billion website visits and found that search drives more than 60% of traffic across niches. Some of that traffic comes from paid ads, while others come from organic — nonpaid — results.
Organic vs. paid search is a common debate among search engine marketers. If you're wondering which to invest time and money in, here's what you need to know.
What Is Organic Search?
Organic search is a digital marketing strategy that improves a website's ranking on search engine results pages (SERPs). A SERP may include paid ads, which usually appear at the top of the page, and unpaid or "organic" results. Those results are free to achieve, but they take time and an understanding of Google's organic search ranking system.
How Search Engines Rank Organic Search Results
When you think of search engines, you probably think of Google. Google processes more than 90% of all search queries worldwide, which means it will likely drive most of your organic search engine traffic. So focusing your search engine optimization (SEO) strategies on Google's algorithm is a good start.
SEO is the ongoing process of aligning your website with Google's algorithms. Those algorithms determine the order in which websites appear on SERPs, and they all focus on one thing — user value. According to the search engine's ranking guide:
Google uses automated ranking systems that look at many factors and signals about hundreds of billions of web pages and other content in our Search index to present the most relevant, useful results, all in a fraction of a second.
Each ranking system does its part to find the best matches for a searcher's intent. Together, they focus on five primary ranking factors, which are:
- Meaning: The intention behind a search and what kinds of results will be most helpful
- Relevance: How closely a content piece relates to a user's question and meets their needs
- Quality: Whether the content is trustworthy and comes from an author who knows the topic
- Usability: Which website offers the best user experiences, such as fast page load speeds and readability on mobile devices
- Context: Data, such as location and search history, that helps Google understand which topics are more useful
For example, if a homeowner in New York uses search terms like "how to fix a leaky toilet," Google looks for information-rich instructional articles and videos. Articles by plumbers have a better chance of ranking higher. In this case, articles by New York-based plumbers probably have an even better opportunity.
Benefits of Organic Search for Businesses
Ranking highly matters because most people click on results closer to the page's top. According to SEO statistics from Backlinko, the first organic SERP result gets more than one out of every four clicks — 27.6%, to be exact. Compare that to 10th place, where the click rate is one in 40.
Organic SEO helps you earn higher rankings by giving search engines what they want. A solid organic SEO strategy pays off in multiple ways, including:
- Enhanced visibility and brand awareness: Google processes over 40,000 searches per second. A higher organic ranking means many more people see your content and may think of you when it's time to buy.
- Cost-effective long-term strategy: Any SEO cost, such as relevant content and expert SEO advice, pays off well into the future. You won't pay for every click as you do with ads.
- Targeted traffic and quality leads: SEO is all about "giving the people what they want." When you do it well, you reach consumers who match your business better.
- Sustainable and long-lasting results: If you keep up with changing Google algorithms and continue to publish fresh content, you can keep ranking highly for a long time.
In short, higher rankings mean more clicks and more attention.
What Is Paid Search?
Paid search lets you buy ads that appear at the top of SERPs. You design an ad and tell Google what keywords you want to target. If someone searches for one of those keywords, Google will compare your ad with others from competing businesses and chooses a few to show.
Google never displays more than four ads per page. Each ad you submit — and the page it leads to — must be relevant and high-value. That means using SEO for your ads and the landing pages they lead to.
SEO ads on Google are pay-per-click (PPC), which means you pay only when someone clicks on your ad. The average cost per click varies by industry and can range from about $1.50 to more than $9.00, according to Search Engine Land's findings.
Different Platforms for Running Paid Search Campaigns
There are two types of paid search platforms. First-party platforms let you run ads directly through the search engine — usually Google, but other engines such as Bing and Yahoo! also run paid ads.
Another option is to use a third-party advertising platform, such as AdScale or TrueClicks. Third-party platforms usually combine search engine functionality with other forms of paid online advertising, including social media or banner ads.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Paid Search
Paid search is a quick and easy way to reach new audiences, but it does carry an unavoidable up-front cost. Here are the pros and cons to consider before you make the PPC vs. SEO decision.
Advantages of Paid Search
- Immediate visibility and quick results: Paid search is faster than SEO. If Google chooses to display an ad you buy, you automatically appear at the top of the page.
- Targeted advertising and audience segmentation: Segmentation lets you show your ad to searchers with characteristics in common. You can target specific demographics, such as age or gender, as well as users with certain buying behaviors or histories of interacting with your content. This technique gives you a better chance of reaching your target audience.
- Flexible budgeting and cost control: Google lets you set maximum keyword bids and daily campaign budgets. For example, you might tell Google you don't want to pay more than $1.50 per click to target the keyword "best coffee in LA," and you need those click costs to stay below $25 per day. These adjustable limits let you control how much you spend on advertising.
Disadvantages of Paid Search
Let's face the elephant in the room — most consumers don't love ads. In an updated HubSpot survey on ads, 25% of users indicated they disliked search ads.
Ads still can have value, especially if they're engaging and lead to helpful information, but marketers must be aware of the downsides. Here are the biggest ones.
- Costly investment and competition: Google recommends a $10- to $50-per-day budget for search ads. Assuming you get enough clicks, that works out to $300 to $1,500 monthly. The average return on that investment depends on how much competition exists for your keywords.
- Dependency on ad platforms and algorithm changes: Ad platforms are the only way to run search ads, which means you're tied to that investment. You're also at the mercy of search engine bidding algorithms, such as Google's AdRank, which the search engine frequently adjusts to align with user needs.
- Ad fatigue and banner blindness: Consumers become desensitized to the same or similar ads over time. Prolonged ad fatigue causes people to ignore the message and potentially feel annoyed with the brand. It's similar to "banner blindness," which leads people to skip over advertising messages even when actively searching for the information presented.
None of these challenges are insurmountable. People may get tired of your ad, but you have plenty of ideas for the next one. Algorithms and competitors challenge you to fight for ad space, but those efforts may strengthen your ads.
Comparing Organic Search and Paid Search
The organic vs. paid search debate doesn't have an easy answer. Both forms of search engine marketing benefit your brand, albeit in different ways and with different trade-offs.
Cost and Investment
Paid advertising has more direct up-front costs. You pay for each ad that runs and earns a click. You also have to pay someone to create your campaign, design each ad, and track the success of each ad.
Organic search is a longer-term investment. In an Ahrefs poll on SEO results, more than 83% of marketers said SEO took at least three months to start working. For 17%, it took more than a year.
The good news is that SEO results are easy to maintain once they start. With paid search, you must keep paying for ads if you want sustained traffic.
Visibility and Click-Through Rates
Paid ads put you at the top of the page when Google chooses your bid. If you bid on the most relevant keywords and target the right audiences, you quickly become more visible to high-interest buyers.
However, when you account for the effects of banner blindness, organic search can be just as competitive. Organic results routinely have higher click-through rates than search ads. In one First Page Sage study, organic search results received 18 times as many clicks as paid ads.
More clicks mean more visitors to your website, but it takes longer to reach a competitive position organically. Paid ads are an effective strategy for getting that visibility in the meantime.
Traffic Quality and Conversion Rates
Paid and organic searches drive different types of traffic. Paid search drives higher traffic volumes in a shorter time, making it easier to align with a specific goal or promotion.
For example, if you were a retail seller promoting a new item in your women's clothing line, you might run an ad targeting women in a specific age demographic. The ad would take visitors to a landing page featuring that product.
Ad traffic is often more focused in that way, but organic search traffic typically converts better. Website traffic research from First Page Sage found that organic traffic has nearly double the conversion rate of paid search.
Conversion rate is the number of customers who took a specified action divided by the number who interacted with your search result in any way. For example, if 100 people click through to your website and 20 sign up for your newsletter, your conversion rate is 20%.
Trust is part of the picture. According to a recent Botify study on organic search, 51% of customers are more inclined to trust a brand that ranks highly in organic search versus one that runs an ad. When customers trust that you've earned your spot in search, they may be more likely to buy from you.
Long-Term vs. Short-Term Strategy
Ultimately, the question of organic vs. paid search comes down to when you want to see results. If you need a quick boost, paid search is an easier way to get it. Organic search is better if you're playing the long game and can wait for your investment to pay off.
The Sustainability and Longevity of Organic Search
Organic traffic is more fiscally sustainable than paid search because it doesn't require ongoing spending. Ads require you to pay for each click. With organic search, you pay to set up your SEO and create content. Search algorithms do the rest.
For that reason, organic search is a more reliable long-term strategy. A single blog post can generate traffic for months or even years, especially if you update old content to keep it fresh. Updating is a cost-effective way to revitalize your organic search efforts.
The Immediate Impact and Short-Term Benefits of Paid Search Campaigns
Ads rocket you to the top of the search results page. There's no waiting period involved — your ad is eligible for placement as soon as you start your campaign. You'll probably see an impact much sooner.
It's also easier to measure the success of an ad campaign than an organic SEO effort. Most ad platforms offer paid search analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, which lets you track the results of Google Ads and other ads on the search engine's network. That information helps you tweak your ad campaigns and get the most from your ad spend.
Maximize Marketing Efforts by Implementing an Organic Search and SEO Strategy
If you want your search engine marketing dollars to pay off for years to come, an organic search and SEO strategy is a must-have. It won't require ad spending, but it should still be an investment.
Yes, organic clicks are free, but professional SEO services will help you get better results. SEO experts understand and can respond to changing Google algorithms and help you make the smartest, most efficient choices.
At Compose.ly, we offer content writing and SEO solutions customized to your business. We'll audit your material, help you select organic keywords, and create optimized content via our team of vetted writers. Learn more today, and let us help you get the attention you deserve.