Which is better: paid or organic search?

Some searchers place more trust in the organic results from search engine optimization; while for others, paid search is more effective and measurable. Our experts assess both.

Ken Saunders
President, Search Engine Experts LLC
More than 20 years of marketing, IT and Web design experience

Search engine optimization (SEO) is more effective than paid search due to its effects in three significant areas: trust, vol­ume and relevance.

First, people tend to use the same search engine for all of their queries and come to trust that their search engine returns high quality organic results. Searchers under­stand that the search engine controls the organic results while the paid search results are controlled by the advertisers. Because of this, they trust the organic results more than those displayed based significantly on the highest bid.

Second, studies have shown that 100%of searchers are willing to click on an organic result while only 10% to 30% are willing to click on a sponsored link. The pure volume difference means that those sites that rank well in the organic results will get more clickthroughs than those ranked well in paid search.

Third, the search engine algorithms have been refined to the point that their organic results are highly relevant to the search term. Compared to paid search where companies can bid on virtually any term that they choose, searchers know that the organic results will consistently be more relevant than the sponsored links.

Taken in total, the relevancy of the returned results generates trust in those results, which in turn generates a higher vol­ume of traffic to the organic results. There­fore, a good SEO program will generate more quality traffic, and be more effective for a site than paid search.

William Leake
CEO, Apogee Search Marketing
Twenty years in marketing and related fields

In the not quite age-old debate between paid search and natural search, in this vola­tile economy, I don’t see how you can’t invest long and strong in paid search, or pay per click (PPC).

Properly implemented, paid search can have a same-day impact on Web site sales, leads and inbound phone calls. SEO gener­ally takes multiple months or quarters to perform on high-traffic searches. In this economy, that can be the difference between you having a job or not. It also is totally flexible. Unlike SEO, it’s incredibly easy to tailor and adjust campaigns.

PPC is more measurable, to a greater level of granularity, than any other form of mar­keting, on-line or offline, and that superior measurability and ability to closely align with metrics is of even greater importance in times of economic scarcity. Because it can “own” as many keywords as make sense economically, PPC typically drives far more total business than SEO, which may furnish you top rank­ings on tens or hundreds of keywords, rather than the tens of thousands you can achieve with paid search. Its data also provides rapid and powerful guidance for driving many other marketing campaigns.

Perhaps most importantly, absent PPC conversion data, how do you choose your SEO keywords? In natural search, the SEO who wins, assuming equal competency, is the one who starts with the best keyword choices. Without running paid search cam­paigns first and choosing keywords based on conversions and not potential searches/eye­balls, odds are you’re choosing poorly.


While Saunders argues SEO is controlled by the search engine rath­er than advertisers, Leake contends starting with the best results rely on the informed keyword choices that come from paid search. Leake’s view of paid search as the foundation for measurable metrics is a point worth noting.

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