SEO Vs. PPC: A Breakdown of Search Engine Marketing

It’s estimated that there are 40-60 billion Google searches in the U.S. each month (and the experts at Moz estimate that this number is actually low). That’s a lot of searches, and your business has the opportunity to answer those questions and prove your expertise to potential customers with search engine marketing (SEM).

Focusing on your brand’s SEM strategy will ensure that you’ll be where your audience is so you can drive more brand awareness, web traffic and leads.

In this post, I’ll explain the difference between two forms of SEM — search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click (PPC) — and provide examples of when and why you would use each.

[Related: The Big List of Content Marketing Acronyms]

The difference between SEO and PPC

Would you rather plant a fruit tree or go to the supermarket?

Both will help you put food on the table. The first option can take months or years to bear fruit, but with a little maintenance, it can pay dividends for decades. The latter provides immediate results.

That’s one of the main differences between SEO and PPC. Let’s dig a little deeper.

SEO takes time to see results

After publishing an excellent blog post or webpage, it can take over a year to see your content climb to the first SERP. Even then, you might need to further optimize that content for the keywords you want to rank for.

For example, Brandpoint’s top-performing blog post was “What Is a Mat Release?” for over three years. In May 2017, we wrote a post titled “Native Advertising vs. Sponsored Content: What’s the Difference?” which became our top-performing blog post in Sept. 2017. It took four months for this post to bear fruit, and that’s because we targeted words with relatively low competition.

[Related: Real-life SEO Success Stories]

PPC ads provide instant gratification

A recent study states that 75 percent of searchers on Google don’t look past the first SERP. When implementing a PPC campaign, your content is immediately moved to the top of the first SERP for any term you decide to buy. This could take months with SEO.

You’ll see impressions, clicks, conversions and sales within hours of starting your PPC campaign. That’s the beauty of PPC advertising.

So, what’s the best strategy?

The answer to this will depend on your organization’s current goals, marketing budget and resources.


Do you want your organization to appear on SERPs for keywords relevant to your business? Most companies will say yes, which is why SEO is often a built-in, continuous process for many marketing teams. However, some organizations have foundational issues to address before they can focus on SEO. Make sure you have a strong website, an understanding of your audience and keywords they’re searching, and valuable content to optimize accordingly.

These things are important for a PPC campaign as well, but PPC generates immediate results, which is valuable for short-term goals like a product launch or a quick bump in site visitors and sales. PPC campaigns also allow you to directly steal spots from competitors.


A well-optimized piece of content may reach the first results page for free. However, it may cost you in terms of resources (see below). Even though a PPC campaign will take some of your budget, you can make adjustments as needed to stay within that budget, by targeting less expensive keywords, for example.

Team resources

A PPC campaign may not take long to set up, so time won’t be as big of an issue. But SEO requires time to create an original piece of content, which may involve multiple people. You will need a writer (preferably one with SEO experience), a designer, and possibly web development support if there are deeper technical SEO issues preventing your pages from ranking properly. SEO is all about quality content, and this takes more than just a few minutes.

Let’s take a closer look at two fictional organizations with two very different goals and how they might use PPC and SEO in their strategies:

Example 1: A start-up company

Start-ups tend to wait until they’ve been comfortably funded to devote a sizable budget to marketing since it’s not as critical as product development, payroll and other immediate needs.

The first dollar a start-up or small business should spend on marketing should go to building a basic website to highlight their product or service, leadership and mission. This plants the seed for eventual SEO success.

The second dollar should be spent on PPC. If you’re not sure your company will be around in 1-2 years, you’re probably interested in generating immediate results. Find keywords that are relevant, cheap and have good search volume. Generally, Google AdWords will provide the most comprehensive results. But with some A/B testing and monitoring up front, you should be able to develop a consistent stream of conversions.

Any additional content development should occur without eating up a significant portion of your budget.

[Related: How Content Impacts the AdWords Quality Score]

Example 2: An established organization in a competitive industry

For established organizations, let’s assume the website is already built, is set up for tracking and has an acceptable user experience (UX). This company should focus on executing an excellent content strategy, while also dedicating a sizable budget to PPC.

Developing those content marketing assets is the long-term game plan that will help you reach people searching for things related to your expertise, and your brand will become a better, more dependable resource for your audience.

PPC ads should focus on targeting highly valuable keywords directly related to what you sell. Since you probably have the budget, you can afford more expensive clicks. But also try remarketing campaigns for visitors who have been to your site (or parts of it), bidding on your competitors directly and testing out different platforms and ad formats.

A healthy SEM practice

A healthy SEM practice is one where PPC and SEO serve complementary roles. While growing your own garden will provide long-term sustenance, the immediate results of going to the grocery store are necessary as you maintain and nourish a better, bigger garden. The result is more searchers clicking on your content, discovering your brand and making a purchase (and probably more people wanting an invite to dinner, too).

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated for relevancy and clarity.

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