Today’s article has the goal to demystify search engine marketing and answer the most important question: SEO vs. paid search marketing, which is best? But first, let’s go through the terminology. 

Lots of people mix up search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimization (SEO). But actually, these two terms are not synonyms. In fact, SEO is a part of search engine marketing. Search engine marketing includes all marketing activities that have the goal of getting more website visits through search engines (e.g., Google). This includes both organic and paid visits. SEO, as opposed to SEM, is only about getting organic visits, while paid search marketing is about getting paid visits. Paid search marketing is often referred to as PPC (Pay Per Click). 

So, to give a broader explanation, the goal of your SEO strategy is to increase organic traffic to your website. In other words, you want your website to rank as high as possible on search engines like Google for specific keywords. Your paid search marketing strategy, as opposed to your SEO strategy, has the objective of making your website appear among the search results. Your website will typically appear there in the form of a sponsored ad, most of the time on a Pay Per Click (PPC) basis. 

In this article, I will discuss both strategies by answering 4 essential questions regarding SEO vs. paid search marketing:

Which strategy is more inbound? 
Which strategy leads to better results?
Which strategy is more cost-effective?
What is the overall best strategy? 

1. SEO vs. paid search marketing: which strategy is more inbound? 

Based on the definition of inbound marketing and the goal of this strategy, it is clear that an effective inbound marketing strategy focuses more on SEO vs. paid search marketing. Actually, in the beginning, inbound marketers used to completely disregard paid search marketing. That’s because they viewed advertising as an outbound method only. But is that true? 

No! An Inbound Marketing strategy can, if done correctly, include advertising . In an Inbound Marketing strategy, one of your goals is to get new customers by creating valuable content for them. You want to help them with their problems. So, if you advertise your most helpful and useful pieces of content, then go for it. It is an Inbound Marketing tactic. But, if you want to promote your product offering with headlines like “50% off, buy today”, then it is definitely not inbound. 

SEO vs. paid search: which strategy is more inbound?

2. SEO vs. paid search marketing: which strategy leads to better results?

Studies have proven over the years that organic links generate better results than paid links. Actually, it was found that 70 to 80 % of all searchers completely ignore paid ads on Google. This means that they only look at the organic results. I personally rarely look at the ads on Google. What about you?

Moreover, 70% of marketers believe that SEO lead to better results than paid search marketing. In fact, the closing rate of SEO leads is around 15%. The closing rate of outbound leads is only 1.7%. So, from both the consumer’s side and the marketer’s side, SEO is better than paid search. Nonetheless, PPC, or paid search marketing, has been confirmed to be a powerful tool for many companies. The reason is that PPC offers a chance for new players to be seen. Also, it leads to better short-time results. PPC can lead to an increase in brand awareness by as much as 80%. 

As an entrepreneur or a startup, it is quite hard to rank well and to compete with big companies. Actually, it can take months before you see the results of your SEO strategy and start ranking higher on Google. That’s where paid marketing can help. With paid marketing, you can get results from day 1. Plus, you can compete with big companies for high volume keywords

SEO vs. paid search: which strategy leads to better results?

3. SEO vs. paid search marketing: which strategy is more cost-effective?

It is quite hard to reply to this question, because it depends on the industry you are in. Some industries get better results than others with PPC. Nonetheless, you are likely to have a higher return on investment (ROI) with SEO.

The reason is that when you create content on your website, for example a blog post, you’ll pay for the production of the content. So, if you are writing your blog post yourself, the cost will be in time rather than in money. On the other hand, if you are hiring someone to write the blog post, then the cost will be the number of hours spent writing the blog times the hourly rate. In any case, no matter how many people visit the blog post, the cost stays the same. Of course, blog posts need to be updated once in a while. So, that cost should also be considered, unless it’s about an evergreen subject. 

With PPC, it is the complete opposite. I mean, it’s even in the name Pay Per Click. You are paying every single time someone is clicking on your ad. It can really add up and cost a lot of money. Also, if you have a bad conversion rate on these clicks, you might be paying more than what you are receiving in return. It can be a double-edged sword.

To summarize, unless you have absolutely amazing conversion rates on your ads, SEO is more cost-effective than paid search marketing.

SEO vs. paid search: which strategy is more cost-effective?

4. SEO vs. paid search marketing, what is the overall best strategy? 

So far, you’ve learned that SEO fits best in an Inbound Marketing strategy, leads to better results, and is more cost-effective. So, of course, it is a better strategy overall than paid search marketing. This means that you should spend most of your search engine marketing efforts on SEO.

But, if you are starting a new website, and you need to create immediate awareness to survive, then paid search marketing is generally more effective. However, you have to make sure that your paid search marketing strategy fits with your Inbound Marketing strategy by only creating “inbound ads”. 

To know if an ad is inbound, ask yourself the following questions: 

Is this ad valuable for my target group?
Is this ad helpful for my target group?
Does the landing page show what was promised in the ad?
Does the ad respect the brand image of my company?

You can take a look at the examples below to get a better idea.

Examples of inbound ads on Google

So, a mix of both search engine marketing strategies is probably the way to go for most startups and entrepreneurs. But, the most crucial aspect of your search engine marketing strategy should always be SEO. Nonetheless, if you are struggling to get awareness and visitors on your website, you will probably want to consider PPC. Be careful not to forget your SEO strategy though, as it is the one that will lead to the best long-term results.

SEO vs. paid search: what is the overall best strategy?

To sum up

In the beginning, I would suggest that you spend around 70% of your search engine marketing budget on SEO, and 30% on paid search marketing. Adjust that number depending on your conversion rates, but keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to allocate more and more of your budget to SEO and less and less to paid search marketing. You’ll be able to achieve that when you get more brand awareness and start ranking better on Google.

I hope this article helped you understand the differences between search engine optimization and paid search marketing (SEO vs. paid search). As it is quite a complicated part of an Inbound Marketing strategy, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me if you need help or have questions regarding this article.

Also, don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter below to be notified when I publish new blog posts.


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Posted by:Erika Naud

Hi there, I am an Inbound Marketing blogger, and I would like to share my stories about Inbound Marketing with you. I started learning about Inbound Marketing in the beginning of 2018. At that moment, I was an intern in a startup. Right away, I knew that I loved it. That's why I decided to write my master’s thesis on the subject. With my amazing thesis partner, Laura Mészáros, we dug into the Inbound Marketing theory. Ultimately, we found what should theoretically be included in a successful inbound marketing strategy. Later on, I took a position as Marketing Manager in another startup. It was an amazing opportunity for me because I could implement and test the results of my thesis. Being under time pressure, I created some processes and guidelines to help me save time in my everyday tasks. After a while, I realized that my theoretical and practical knowledge of Inbound Marketing could be helpful for other startups and entrepreneurs. I wanted to share my insights, processes, and guidelines to help others, and that's why I decided to create my blog. I hope this blog will be insightful for you and help you create a powerful inbound marketing strategy. All the best, Erika

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