Should I Prioritize SEO or PPC First?

Are your digital marketing dollars better spent on search engine optimization or paid ads? It depends.

by Catie Leary

Inbound Marketing | PPC | SEO

Reading Time | 6 min

SEO and PPC are two of the most common types of campaigns you’ll find within a digital marketing strategy — but what exactly are they? Is it necessary to do both? If you’re on a tight budget, which should you prioritize?

In this article, we talk about the strengths of each campaign type and explain under what circumstances you might choose one over the other.

What is SEO? What is PPC?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is the long-term process of enhancing a website and its content to rank for desired keywords on search engines such as Google and Bing. SEO is technically “free” — though you do have to put in the time, money, and resources to doing the actual work to improve your rankings.

PPC, short for “pay-per-click,” is an online advertising model used on search engines (like Google and Bing) and social media platforms (like Facebook and LinkedIn). With PPC, you have to pay to play — but as the name suggests, you only pay when a user actually clicks on one of your ads.

SEO and PPC both have their fair share of pros and cons, which is why we often hear clients ask:

“Is it better to focus on SEO or PPC?”

Generally, when we’re asked this question, our team usually answers with the following:

“Why don’t we have both?”

We generally recommend running SEO and PPC campaigns together because they complement each other very well. However, we understand this isn’t possible (or even necessary) for every business out there. Many businesses have limited budgets that force them to choose between SEO and PPC.

So, if that’s the case for you, you might be wondering which should be prioritized? There’s no simple answer because it depends on the unique goals of your business and your historical digital marketing efforts.

You might want to prioritize SEO if:

You’re cool with being in it for the long haul.

Putting serious muscle behind your digital marketing means making a long-term commitment — especially when it comes to SEO. We’ve stressed time and time again that SEO is a long game. It can take weeks and months to truly see the results of your efforts, so if you already know you plan to give it at least a year of your time and money, going forward with an SEO campaign is a smart choice.

You already have a strong organic search foundation.

Does your site already receive a fair amount of organic traffic from Google? Do you naturally rank well for certain keywords without doing much work? Have you had SEO campaigns in the past? Then you’re already in a strong position to improve upon that.

You’re looking for sustainable gains in traffic, leads, and overall brand awareness.

Users are more likely to click on organic search results than paid ads. If you’re trying to not only get leads in the short term but also elevate your overall online presence and gradually increase traffic to your site, then SEO is the way to go.

Plus, unlike PPC, the fruits of your SEO efforts (i.e., your rankings) are an asset that continues to provide you with value even if it’s been months since you put in any real work. With a PPC campaign, your presence disappears right when you stop paying. Even if you paused your SEO campaign for a bit, your natural search engine authority doesn’t immediately dry up.

You might want to prioritize PPC if:

You’re starting from nothing.

Whether you’re a brand new business or an established brand that is only just now dipping its toes into digital marketing, it can take some time to find your place within organic search results. Especially if the keywords you’re going after are extremely competitive. Paid search campaigns can be a great way to find an initial foothold.

You want a top SERP position without the months of work.

While a targeted SEO campaign might eventually get you ranked on page one for your desired keyword, it’s important to remember that many search engine users rarely look beyond the first few results. Luckily, with PPC ads, you can get your marketing messages at the top of the page.

Even if you aren’t a new business, PPC is valuable if you are trying to go after certain competitive keywords. For example, let’s say you are a dog groomer based in Atlanta. If search engine users in that area are searching for “dog groomer,” there’s a strong chance that Google will provide a shortlist of relevant businesses to consider. If you’re not on that shortlist, you might want to target the “dog groomer” keyword with a PPC campaign, which would put your business above that shortlist.

PPC results for dog groomer

You want more creative control over your marketing messages

When optimizing your website for SEO, titles and meta descriptions are basically the only SERP-facing marketing messages you have control over. With a PPC campaign, you can include additional information and content — such as your business location, clickable phone number, ratings, hours, and related links:

PPC results for baby clothes

If you’re an eCommerce business, you can even include visual elements, such as product images:

PPC results for wide-brim hats

In addition to these customization options, another way PPC gives you more control over your marketing messages is with A/B testing. This allows you to determine which calls-to-action and images perform the strongest.

You want tight control over your budget.

Yes, PPC does require you to pay money every time a user clicks on your ads, but with careful management, you never have to worry about blowing out your budget.

You can set exactly how much you’re willing to spend per day. This makes it a surprisingly cheap method for getting leads. Sure, you’re still paying per click, but if you’re choosing the right keywords and managing your account carefully, PPC can offer a fantastic bang for your buck.

You don’t want to worry about the ups and downs of search engines.

In an SEO campaign, you’re very much at the whim of Google’s super-secret search engine algorithm. On the other hand, your success with PPC advertising isn’t dictated by the powers that be — it’s controlled by your budget and keyword choices.

It makes sense. Google isn’t going to force you to jump through hoops to give them money. If you pay money to advertise, you’ll get exactly what you pay for.

Still not sure whether you should prioritize SEO or PPC?

To reiterate what we said at the beginning of this article, the answer to this question really depends on your business.

In a perfect world, you’d be able to do SEO and PPC at the same time, but if that’s not possible, here is what we recommend:

  • If your organic search presence is close to non-existent, you might find more success attracting leads and sales in the short term with a PPC campaign — at least until you’ve built up enough organic search clout.
  • If you already have a respectable organic search presence that has yielded leads, building upon that strong foundation with an SEO campaign can translate into more leads, traffic, and brand awareness.

Topic: Inbound Marketing

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Catie Leary | Contributor

Catie has spent the last 12+ years honing her digital storytelling skills as both a journalist and a content strategist. In her spare time, she enjoys powerlifting, karaoke nights with friends, reading science fiction, and hanging out with her three cats.