PPC or SEO? The Ultimate Search Marketing Battle

"Pay per click is just frittering money away when SEO is free."

The argument rages on. Is PPC or SEO more effective? Which is easier? Which is faster? Which is better? There are compelling points for and against each. But any marketer with the budget and resources should utilize both for their strengths and the integration that can be achieved. Each has its place. Still there is a friendly rivalry between the two sides, and it played out in today's session. The audience was the clear winner.

Here were the participants:

Moderator:
Andy Atkins-Kruger, Managing Director, WebCertain

Panelists:
Todd Friesen, VP Search, Position Technologies
Brad Geddes, Founder, bgTheory.com
Rand Fishkin, CEO, SEOmoz.org
Rhian Ryan, Sr. Online Marketing Analyst, Earthbound Media Group
Rae Hoffman, CEO, Outspoken Media

Rand started things off with a brief presentation to shoot down a few myths about PPC. Here are the highlights:

• PPC has a better conversion rate. It's true that PPC converts slightly higher than SEO in a keyword-to-keyword comparison. But 88% of the traffic comes from SEO and 12% from PPC.
• PPC is easier to customize. Search engines have more controls on what can and can't be included in a paid search ad. Best practices aside, an SEO can make a title tag say whatever they want.
• PPC is easier. PPC is easier to set up in the short-term. But it's just as easy for your competitors, eliminating the competitive advantage.

So SEO offers more traffic, fewer limitations and higher barriers to entry. But PPC does have some legitimate advantages:

• PPC can be updated immediately. With PPC, a marketer can quickly change a campaign's keywords and where they point, often within minutes. Changing SEO keywords, which are woven into titles and copy and anchor text, among other places, takes much longer. Never mind that search engine spiders then have to crawl the updated site.
• PPC will hold its place on SERPs. With the incorporation of real-time search, natural search results get pushed down the SERP. Real-time results are positioned front and center. But paid search ads make search engines too much money to be displaced.

The session was mostly audience questions, which brought out some interesting information. Each side faces certain limitations. PPC is controlled by a budget. It will get ads onto pages very quickly, but at a price. Successful ads will draw clicks and lead to conversions. But successful ads often require testing. Those clicks cost more money. And maintaining a campaign month after month costs even more money. SEO, for its part, is limited by brainpower, creativity and level of effort/manpower. There's a lot that can be done, but it won't yield many dividends right away.

Although we like to pit the two sides against each other, integration of SEO and PPC is actually the most productive approach. Having a paid ad on a SERP increases the likelihood of conversion on an SEO listing. And data from each side can be invaluable to the other. The trick is to actually share.

It's hard to gauge just how to split a budget between PPC and SEO. None of the experts would commit to an exact breakdown without testing keywords and researching competitors. Client and industry, not to mention campaign goals, would all be important factors. Successful online marketing campaigns aren't one size fits all. Attribution is a problem inherent in integration. If SEO and PPC are both involved in a conversion, which gets the credit? Do they split it evenly? Does one get more credit based on the role it played? There is no good way to determine this at the moment.

The discussion drifted away from the PPC/SEO competition, but with worthwhile results. PPC types have issues with search engines' push for personalization because of session query matching. People's searches on the same term can have different intentions on different days. This makes matching PPC ads to keywords a bit more challenging. Most long tail traffic from SEO comes without having to optimize for it. If search results are good for a company's top phrases, the rest will follow. Longer phrases containing those main keywords will also rank well. No work has to be done.

The consensus after the session was that marketers shouldn't be limited to SEO or PPC. Integration is the best approach. Each has different strengths and weaknesses. And they compliment each other well. A company with the time and resources should leverage both to reach its marketing goals.


This guest post was written by Norm Elrod, who is a Digital Media Consultant and freelance writer who contributes to Search Engine Watch, SmartBlog on Social Media and AOL. He blogs about his experiences in the job market at Jobless and Less, which has been featured in The New York Times and on NY1. His marketing and editorial experience includes positions with Acronym Media, The NPD Group and Sony Music Entertainment. Norm holds a BA from Franklin & Marshall College and an MBA from Fordham University. He lives with his wife and two cats in Queens.