Comparisons between pay per click and search engine optimization as online marketing techniques can get very specific and advocates on each side even become heated about the question of which strategy is better. The practical, if boring evaluation of PPC vs. SEO marketing is that they each have their own value and weaknesses, but are best when used in concert as part of a performance marketing campaign at the hands of a skilled and diverse online marketing firm. So that’s a different conversation. But one worthwhile way to think about the comparison is in terms of the cost structure of each approach and where the risks of each are.
PPC pricing is relatively straight forward and comes in a few forms. On major search engines, advertisers bid on a rate for their desired PPC ad keywords. This can make advertising in a competitive industry where specific keywords have lot of congestion more expensive. PPC ads on content websites are usually sold at a flat rate. This makes the cost less variable. In each case, ad hosts implement some set of algorithms across their platforms to attempt to show the keyword ad only to a targeted group. However, one major drawback of PPC advertising is that these hosts have no incentive to make sure the targeting is specific enough to increase conversions, as they are only concerned with increasing click through rates so that they can generate their income.
Beyond the ability to only pay for actual site visits from clicks, the other major benefit of PPC models is that they are easily adaptable so they can be continually optimized based on performance. This means there is less of an up-front investment risk, and continued attention and investment is almost sure to improve effectiveness as keyword targeting and copy get streamlined and more accurate. This process of optimization makes PPC more expensive because it adds the cost of the human labor needed to analyze PPC data and make informed adjustments. In the PPC vs SEO discussion, this is one of the ways that the two methods are relatively similar; constant monitoring, analyzing, and adapting are standard and essential for a campaign to achieve maximum effectiveness.
SEO is a far more labor intensive and uses a broader range of activities, all to improve a site’s ranking on “organic” or “natural” searches for the target keyword phrase. The general approach to doing this includes redoing a site’s site map so that it is more accessible to search engines’ web crawler bots, making it easier for them to index accurately, improving the keyword density on that site, and increasing inbound links to the site from other quality websites. However, there are also a number of other things that must be done now, as indexing algorithms are becoming more complicated in an effort on the part of the search engine companies to make it more difficult to manipulate the results. As such, there are a number of different payment schemes that range from hourly rates to project-based consulting to contract services, and the prices vary widely depending on the online marketing firm, the ranking desired, and the design of the campaign.
This is a big difference in the PPC vs SEO debate, because it tends to mean that the client bears all the risk by paying upfront, and unless the deal is results-based, which it rarely is, there is no guarantee of a specific performance or search ranking. The point that should be obvious is that the strengths and weaknesses of these two approaches mean that they pair well together, and work best when combined and coordinated as part of a broader search engine marketing campaign, but that may do little to settle the debate about which is better.