In a digital landscape dominated by Google, the choice between SEO and Google Ads can significantly impact your online success.
In this article, you’ll learn about the benefits of SEO vs. Google Ads and the ideal scenarios for each. To help you discover the best approach for your business or whether to consider a combination of both digital marketing strategies.
What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of improving the organic presence of a website in search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and Bing.
So what exactly do you optimize?
The website’s content, technical structure, and user experience (UX). Optimization also involves earning and building quality links from relevant, high-authority websites.
What do you achieve with SEO?
By practicing SEO, you can improve the visibility and rankings of your site’s web pages in organic search engine results pages (SERPs).
When effective, you grow unpaid traffic, engagement, conversions, and sales as more online searchers discover and visit your site.
What Are Google Ads?
Google Ads is Google’s advertising platform. You can use it to help drive sales, leads, site traffic, and engagement by getting your business in front of people via paid ads.
You can choose from many ad options to suit your business and goals. The Google Ads ecosystem includes:
- Google Search
- Google Shopping
- Google Display Network
- YouTube Advertising
Plus, there are several Google Ad types to consider.
Search ads are text ad placements that appear in various places on a Google search results page. You’ll most notably see them at the top, identified as “Sponsored” or “Ad.”
Search ads get you in front of people searching Google for products or services that you offer.
They are pay-per-click (PPC), meaning you only pay Google when a user clicks on your ad.
How much you spend each time someone clicks on your ad is your cost per click (CPC). Calculated by dividing total campaign spend by total number of clicks.
Display ads, or Google Display Network ads, appear as text or images on over two million websites, videos, and apps. These ads don’t feature on SERPs.
You can build brand awareness with ads that reach your audience when they’re browsing online, checking Gmail, or using apps. Pricing is cost per 1,000 impressions (CPM) or CPC.
Here you can use engaging copy, visually appealing images, and a strong call to action (CTA) to keep your brand top of mind.
Shopping ads appear on queries that indicate a user intends to purchase a specific product. Like when someone searches for “cool pillows” or “black dress shoes.”
Shopping ads appear either at the top or the right side of SERPs. They typically include an image, the product name, its price, and your business name.
Sometimes these ads display one additional bit of information, showing product ratings or text highlighting a benefit—like free delivery.
Pricing is the same as for display ads: CPC or CPM.
This type of ad lets you specify negative keywords (terms you don’t want to appear for). But not which keywords to target, unfortunately.
Instead, your products will appear based on the product data you add to the Merchant Center. Google’s advertising platform decides which products best fit each search query.
Video ads are short videos that appear before or in the middle of a YouTube video. Driving subscribers, traffic, or conversions the advertiser’s way.
Video campaigns help you build brand awareness and reach potential customers as they watch videos on YouTube.
Pricing is CPC, CPM, or cost per view (CPV). You’ll need to set up your video ad from Google Ads, where you can also adjust the target audience.
Running app campaigns can potentially maximize downloads, engagement, and retention for your mobile app.
App ads promote your app at scale, resulting in app installs or in-app purchases. Pricing can be either CPC, CPM, cost per action (CPA), or cost per install (CPI).
You can also use them to re-engage current users of your app or drive more in-app actions.
Apps ads can appear on SERPs, display networks, and YouTube. Giving you ample exposure.
There’s a very valid reason why you should leverage app ads. There were 87 billion app downloads in 2022—likely to reach 200 billion by 2025.
SEO vs. PPC: Which Is Better?
The answer depends on your situation. SEO and PPC are two different approaches to getting more visibility for your business, so you might consider investing in one or both.
Need immediate results and cannot wait?
PPC ads can get you that in a matter of a few clicks. You have the potential to immediately appear on the first page of the search results, above the organic listings.
If you have the luxury of playing the long game, SEO is a highly cost-effective option. It can take months (even years) to reap results, depending on your goals. But SEO’s strong point is its ability to generate compounding growth and organic traffic without you having to spend money on paid search advertising.
Here are the pros and cons of both in a nutshell:
In a survey of 496 business owners and marketing pros on the use of Google Ads and SEO, 90% of respondents said Google Ads is effective. 87% highlighted SEO’s effectiveness.
But when asked to choose only one tactic, 64% of respondents said they’d pick Google Ads. 36% would opt for SEO.
Before deciding between SEO and PPC, consider the following:
- Your goal: If you want to drive traffic for a promotion or kickstart a product launch, PPC is the way to go. For steady, long-term growth, turn to SEO.
- Your performance: If you already have a strong search presence (thanks to solid SEO efforts), PPC could consolidate that with additional visibility
- Your margins: Some keywords cost more to target with ads than others. If costs are high, it might not make sense to invest in PPC if your profit margin isn’t ideal. SEO may drive stronger returns, so estimate your CPCs.
- Your customer values: With PPC, you can find that higher customer lifetime values account for higher click costs. Lower values may mean SEO is a better option.
When and Why Should You Invest in SEO?
You should leverage SEO as soon as you’ve launched a website or established an online presence.
SEO is a long-term strategy, and results take time. The earlier you get started, the better your foundation for success.
Even if you have an established website, ongoing SEO efforts are necessary to adapt to search engine algorithm changes and maintain rankings. 88% of marketers who already do SEO planned to allocate the same level of investment or more throughout 2023.
Since SEO focuses on organic, sustainable growth, you can see compounding returns over time. Generally speaking, as your website’s authority and visibility increase, your organic traffic has the chance to grow, too.
And, according to Rand Fishkin of Sparktoro:
“Building a content practice over months and years, then benefiting from your experience, your back catalog, and the habit of creation is a beautiful thing.”
Over time, quality content and great user experiences will help you build a strong online presence, trust, and brand recognition.
Image Source: SparkToro
Once your pages rank well as a result of the work you put in, they can potentially bring in a consistent stream of visitors. Without you having to pay Google a dime.
Investing in a Long-Term Strategy
Once you start ranking for your target keywords, there’s potential to retain those positions by keeping your finger firmly on the SEO pulse.
SEO tends to offer more stability, and your SERP rankings can remain relatively consistent if you:
- Keep up with search engine algorithm changes
- Optimize your site and content accordingly with timely maintenance and updates
If you’re successful, your business will appear in organic search results 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
PPC ads, on the other hand, will only display while you have the funds to run them.
Growing Brand Awareness
SEO can be one of the most cost-effective ways to improve your brand’s visibility. Likely leading to better brand recognition and recall among online users.
Organic listings place you in front of your target customers when they’re searching for products, services, and businesses like yours.
A strong organic presence can also improve the performance of your other marketing channels and strategies. Greater visibility can influence people’s perception of your brand on social media or when they see one of your ads, for instance. Online awareness could also bring more foot traffic to your brick-and-mortar business, potentially leading to more sales.
CPC Prices Are Too Expensive
Don’t have the budget to invest in PPC? Clicks from organic listings are free.
Suppose you identify a keyword with a $5 CPC and lack the financial means to bid on it. If you play your SEO cards right, you might eventually get into the top three organic SERP positions for that keyword.
First, a look at the average click-through rate (CTR) for the top Google search results:
Let’s assume a good organic CTR of 11%. And the ranking is estimated to generate 100 clicks per month.
With PPC, this would cost $500 monthly (100 clicks * $5 CPC = $500).
With SEO, you’d be getting the same traffic at no advertising cost.
You can identify keywords with a high CPC and low difficulty using Semrush’s Keyword Magic Tool.
Type a keyword that describes the product or service you offer into the text box—let’s say “cooling pillows.” Click “Search.”
The resulting report presents a list of related keywords with corresponding metrics, including keyword difficulty (KD %) and CPC.
In this case, CPC for the top keywords ranges from $0.91 to $3.03. Let’s consider a minimum CPC of $2 to be high for the purpose of our exercise.
To identify just the keywords with high CPC, click the “CPC (USD)” dropdown. Enter “2” for the lower end of the range. There’s no need to indicate an upper limit.
You get a list of keywords related to cooling pillows that have a CPC of at least $2.
To narrow your focus to opportunities of low keyword difficulty within the set of high CPC keywords, click the “KD %” dropdown and select “Easy” or “Very easy.” You could also enter a custom range of percentages to return keywords that fit into both categories.
For this exercise, we’ll opt for “Easy.” Which returns a list of keyword suggestions that fit our criteria of high CPC and low difficulty.
You might choose to organically target “king size tempurpedic pillow” to attract traffic that could otherwise prove costly with paid ads.
When and Why Should You Invest in Google Ads?
Google Ads can rapidly boost traffic and conversions when you need immediate online visibility with quick results. Google calculates that businesses average a $2 revenue for every $1 spent on Google Ads.
Sounds like a good investment, doesn’t it?
Paid advertising is a smart choice if you have upcoming time-sensitive promotions or product launches.
In a competitive space where organic rankings can be challenging to attain, ads can help you target valuable keywords. Here’s how.
Ads can deliver near-instant results. On the same day, you could be driving clicks and conversions.
If you choose to invest in search ads, for instance, they can appear as a “Sponsored” or “Ad” listing at the top of Google’s search results. Displayed among the very first items the searcher sees on the relevant SERP.
Ads allow you the opportunity to set and adhere to a specific and defined budget.
This works well if you have finite marketing funds to generate a defined amount of traffic or revenue. For instance, if you know you can spend up to $1,000 and need to generate 100 new sales.
You can also do SEO on a budget. But the results are not determined by what you spend—making it less predictable than ads.
Just keep in mind that paid ads only generate site visits as long as you’re paying for them. Once you stop, any associated paid traffic will drop.
Decide your spending limit, then set your budget cap so you don’t go over.
Easier to Measure
The return on investment (ROI) of your paid ad campaigns is generally easier to measure.
There is often clear data on how much you’ve spent and the results generated.
You can attribute purchases, customer form submissions, phone calls, and other conversions to your ad campaigns. Meaning you can directly measure the return on ad spend (ROAS).
Tracking and measurement features in the Google Ads platform make it easy to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of your ad campaigns. These may include, but aren’t limited to:
- Ad position
- Conversion rate
- Quality score
Profitable Keyword Opportunities
Only invest in ads if there are clear profitable campaign opportunities. Some businesses simply cannot remain profitable while paying for each click.
Say you run an ecommerce business in a competitive market. You may find that the CPC prices would eat into your profit margins. In this case, PPC campaigns may not be a viable strategy.
How do you know if you can profitably invest in PPC?
Open Semrush’s Keyword Overview to research and analyze potential keywords. Click “Keyword Overview” under “Keyword Research.”
Type a keyword that describes your business, products, or services into the text box. Click “Search.”
The Keyword Overview report will show you the CPC estimate for that specific keyword.
Using this information, analyze your margins to determine if the price is sustainable.
In this case, the CPC is just about $0.82.
Let’s assume the conversion rate for this product would be about 5%. Meaning one in 20 clicks will result in a sale.
In other words, you would have to spend a total of $16.40 on PPC to sell one product.
Is it profitable?
That depends on your product’s price and profit margin. If you’re selling for $100 with a 50% margin, then this might be a good opportunity for your business.
But if your margin is typically lower than what you’d spend to generate a sale, you might not make a return.
Should the initial keyword you search for not prove profitable, you may want to explore other opportunities.
For instance, “hiking shoes” may be too expensive. But the more specific “water hiking shoes” has a lower Keyword Difficulty (KD) and more affordable CPC rates.
Scroll down to the “Keyword Ideas” section from the Keyword Overview report. You’ll see a “Keyword Variations” list that includes related keywords.
Click the “View all [X] keywords” button.
This will take you to the Keyword Magic Tool, where you’ll see the full list of keyword suggestions. And the estimated CPC for each entry.
Use this list to identify keywords with a lower CPC that may fit your business goals better.
You may also want to conduct competitive keyword analysis to see what keywords others in your industry are bidding on.
When Should You Invest in Both SEO and PPC?
Ultimately, your decision to leverage SEO, Google Ads, or both should align with your specific business goals, target audience, and marketing budget.
If you’re in a highly competitive industry, investing in both strategies gives you an online presence across paid and organic search results. Which reduces your reliance on one channel.
You can activate a Google Ads campaign during peak seasons for a seasonal business or product, while SEO can maintain your visibility throughout the year.
Is SEO better than Google Ads?
One isn’t better than the other—they serve different purposes.
Google Ads can get you results fast (and twice the number of visitors as SEO) but require a budget. SEO is a long game that can take months and years to see results, albeit at a considerably lower cost.
Should I do Google Ads and SEO?
If you have marketing dollars to spend, yes.
Google Ads and SEO can work together to ensure your brand is consistently present online for increased overall visibility. Which helps you raise your SERP ranking, web traffic growth, and customer conversion potential.
Should I learn SEO or Google Ads first?
Learning both SEO and Google Ads is a good approach because both strategies can complement each other.
You might learn Google Ads first to generate revenue immediately while simultaneously working on your long-term SEO efforts. Or start with an SEO campaign to build a strong, organic foundation before getting your feet wet in paid ads.
Is SEO more important than ads?
SEO isn’t necessarily more important than ads. But it certainly can be, depending on how competitive your industry is.
SEO offers sustainable, long-term growth for a lasting online presence. Focusing on building an SEO strategy is crucial and cost-effective over time if you have a limited budget. And even if you don’t, it can consolidate your brand’s and website’s reputation, credibility, and authority.
How do I find keywords to target for my SEO or CPC campaigns?
Keyword Overview is the easiest way to find the right keywords to target. The database comprehensively summarizes all major keyword metrics, including search volume, CPC, difficulty, and user intent.
As your strategy evolves, your audience grows, and search engines roll out updates to their algorithms, consider more advanced ways to research your target keywords and refine your digital marketing campaigns.