Those at #SESCHI 2010 witnessed the epic battle of PPC vs. SEO. Queue the Rocky-theme music! In the red corner we’ve got SEO, and in the blue corner is PPC. This session saw the likes of Julie Batten, VP of media strategies with Klick Communications, and Stacie Susens, director of client strategy and development with Resolution Media, square off over which is the best online marketing tactic. aimClear live-tweeted this session (via @lindsaylorraine). Read on for full coverage of the pros and cons of both sides of the SEM debate, & find out which prevailed in the Search Engine Strategies ring…

Jamie Smith, CEO of Engine Ready, refereed the rounds, and threw in a couple punches of his own. Real estate for top organic rankings is getting diluted due to product extensions, local search, and more, he said. In fact, there might only be one organic ranking above the fold once you open those product extensions. He offered the following tip to optimize an integrated paid and organic search engine marketing initiative:

If your page is among the first couple organic positions in the SERP, try aiming for the lower PPC positions on the page. If you are lower in the organic ranking, aim for a higher position in paid search results. That way, when a user scrolls the page, your result (whether organic or paid) is always visible.

Jamie’s company conducted a study of PPC vs. SEO over the course of three years to determine which method was better for e-commerce companies. The results showed a significant increase in conversion rates of paid visitors each year, while organic traffic conversion rates stayed relatively flat. The value-per-visitor has skyrocketed for paid, but again, it remained flat for organic visitors.

“So, PPC all the way, right?” Jamie asked. Not necessarily. Which method to use should be individually decided based on business model, target market and metrics.

Round 1: SEO
Up next was Julie Batten to discuss the merits of SEO. She kicked off her presentation by asking the audience:

  • If I only have $1 to spend, should I spend it on PPC or SEO?

The bashful audience was slow to raise their hands (perhaps too busy live-tweeting?)… surely $1 would get them JACK!  One dollar is a different story than $1,000, but nevertheless, Julie offered five reasons why investing in SEO is the better choice across the board:

  1. Organic results are clicked more frequently than paid. Organic captures between 85-90% of clicks.
  2. SEO is under-invested based on performance.
  3. SEO builds long-term incremental value, meaning SEO continues to pay off months later. On the other hand, when a PPC campaign stops, traffic stops.
  4. SEO does not require an ongoing media spend, which means higher ROI. You don’t have to spend on both services and media.
  5. Not everyone can do SEO and do it well. SEO is difficult and ever-changing, so if your business does it well, you’ll gain a competitive advantage.

Julie then took a look at the considerations one-by-one, and declared a winner for each, for which she showed this nifty slide:


And her conclusion? It’s a draw! While there is a solid case for SEO, we have to be realistic, she said. SEO is too unpredictable to rely on it alone to maximize search visibility. Doing both PPC and SEO keeps costs in check while reducing risk. Right on!

Round 2: PPC
Stacie Susens then took the stage, and like Julie, asked which channel is better at reaching goals and target audience. She says PPC. Paid search is better, she maintains, because it’s easier to “get stuff done and done fast.” PPC produces results in days, as opposed to weeks or months for SEO. Paid search also requires less involvement from other internal teams, such as IT.

Natural search does have a few things going for it, namely:

  • It’s a long-term marketing strategy and has the highest ROI
  • It’s free, meaning there’s no media spend associated with an SEO program
  • It has more volume, meaning more people click on organic search results

PPC, on the other hand, also has some great qualities, including:

  • More control over things like the keywords to appear on, the message searchers see, website entry point, ranking on the SERP, and the ability to test to optimize performance
  • More diversity, meaning many more keywords can be sent to a paid search landing page

Wrapping up the point/counterpoint, Stacie also recommended an integrated approach to PPC and SEO for three reasons:

  1. Improved business results
  2. Increased efficiency
  3. Cross-channel insights

Unlike Jamie’s recommendation to aim for opposite rankings in organic versus paid results, Stacie showed why it’s important to aim for top rankings in both. The results of a study conducted by Google show that having the top organic and paid listings increases unaided awareness by 17 times, and increases purchase intent by 167%. Stacie’s company conducted its own study that showed that not bidding on brand terms led to a whopping 42% overall decrease in traffic on paid and natural search!

Stacie’s advice was four-fold:

  • Prioritize increasing natural rankings for keywords that are very expensive in paid search.
  • For keywords with natural search rank, test different paid search rankings to find the ideal combination.
  • For keywords with a below-the-fold natural ranking, bid high for paid placement.
  • Finally, identify top performing paid search terms to prioritize natural search keyword targets.

Stacie wrapped up with a few guiding principals:

  • Do your research
  • Let your goals guide your tactical decisions
  • Don’t over think it

In the end, Jamie, Julie and Stacie agreed that SEO and PPC were both winning strategies. Everyone hugged (not really) and all was good.

So what do you think? If a client only had $1,000 to spend, what would you recommend?

  • Nick Craig

    I think it would be fair to say that PPC is a long-term strategy as well if you look at it in terms of the long-term value of a customer or lead, so the argument that stopping PPC stops the return is slightly misleading. We always encourage our clients to think not just about the first sale, but rather how many sales they will go on to make to a customer over their ‘life’ with the company in question. If the client sells holidays, how many years does a typical customer stick with them, for example? When you actually sit down and help someone calculate the real cost of acquiring a customer through traditional means the results can be quite staggering (it’s often very expensive) yet when it comes to SEO and PPC, the expectation is often that customers can be acquired for pennies (or cents).

    If I had a $1,000, I’d stick it in a well-constructed PPC campaign and reinvest the profits in more PPC and SEO!

  • Lindsay Childs

    Great point, Nick. I like that. If your product doesn’t suck, the customers you’ve gained through your PPC campaign have the potential to turn into long-term customers. It’s easy for some marketers to forget about customer retention and become preoccupied with gaining new ones. Thanks for your comment!