Are you thinking about running paid ads, but unsure if you should do SEO instead? Read on to discover when PPC safely trumps SEO and justifies the paid ad spend.

As an inbound marketer, I personally avoid paid ads whenever possible. If you're thinking, "I don't want to spend money on ads" ...I'm totally with you! I'd rather gain visibility through awesome content that naturally ranks well and gets shared to its relevant audience. SEO produces long-term gains with interest dividends, while PPC yields results only so long as it's fueled by an advertising budget.

"SEO is to working out... as PPC is to liposuction."

- Angie Schottmuller, SEO & Conversion Optimist, Three Deep Marketing

However, I must confess there are a few cases where PPC will trump SEO opportunities. As an SEO, it's important to know your channel weaknesses! (Note: That doesn't mean I'm endorsing liposuction. It was just an analogy.) Below is a quick summary of factors that I personally evaluate when scrutinizing a campaign to see if it justifies a paid advertising budget.

You might want to consider PPC on top of SEO when you need...

1. More Visibility, More Clicks

If you don't rank well organically, paid search ads are an easy way to quickly get prime real estate visibility, especially for mobile search. Moreover, even if you do rank well, it's possible that the prominence of a paid ad or the repetition of appearing in both organic and paid results will boost click-through rates (CTR). Keep in mind also that optimal placement for relevant ad visibility isn't always at the page top. In the case of a news blog, Q&A forum, or even a product detail page, presenting a PPC display ad at the bottom of content as a closing call to action can be very effective.

2. Faster Results

PPC empowers quick action for real-time campaigns and quick wins in cases where SEO will take some time to complete. If you're about to endeavor on a content strategy project and need more traffic in the meantime, PPC can provide a jump to start gaining ground now. When it comes to real-time or immediate response, PPC makes it possible to almost immediately get in front of your audience. For example, Oreo's social media team brilliantly responded real-time during the 2013 Super Bowl XLVII infamous blackout with a "you can still dunk in the dark" Twitter ad. Epic! The same could not have been accomplished with SEO.


3. Beyond the Search Result

SEO specifically focuses on presenting the best answer in search results. However, PPC can assist in cases where users are not using a search engine. For example, search volume for a relatively unknown company or product would be extremely low.

  • Display Ad Networks - PPC display ads (a.k.a. banner ads) on ad networks or social ads on LinkedIn or Facebook can help reach the targeted audience based on industry, topic, user demographics, and more.
  • Remarketing - Display ads can also significantly help boost conversion in the case of retargeting (a.k.a. remarketing), where users that visit a website page will then see a corresponding display ad for that page as they visit other pages across the web. (It creates somewhat of stalking impression for the user; however, it's also a means of nurturing that helps close the deal.) There are several impressive advanced technologies out (e.g. Facebook Exchange [FBX], MediaMath, etc.) that allow you to cross target audiences based on user behavior between Google searches and Facebook profiles. Very cool stuff!

4. Difficult or Non-Ranking Keywords

PPC can fill the gaps in cases where you don't (and possibly don't want to) organically rank for a keyword.

  • Highly Competitive Workaround - PPC can deliver an edge in cases where organic search results are extremely competitive with rankings held by brands or websites that you'd struggle to outperform.
  • Brand Positioning Bypass - Some keywords don't align to brand positioning or voice and therefore won't be included for on-page optimization. For example, health spas may run ads targeting "fat farm" search queries.
  • Trademark Trauma - When brands trademark terms with unique custom names or obsess over including the trademark symbol suffix on every instance of the word, they hinder SEO both for search engines and site search. The symbol suffix modifies the root word and reduces relevance of the keyword match. Besides that, no one types ™ or ® to search. For example: "Andersen® Windows Frenchwood®" -- the registered trademark suffix modifies the root keywords, and the use of Frenchwood® misses out on opportunities to target the high volume search term, "french doors." (This is an endless battle for SEOs and legal teams. Educating the legal and product development teams is a key first step. While the bureaucratic shenanigans wage on, PPC can actually drive traffic and get some work done.
  • Spelling & Semantics - Different dialects, terminology and spelling variations complicate SEO, especially for businesses with broad or diverse geographic target markets. (e.g. soda/pop/coke, optimize/optimise, etc.) SEOs can optimize pages for a primary keyword with scattered on-page mentions of variations. However, one phrase still needs to have focused optimization priority. For example, across the United States, window grilles (the thin, decorative grid-like overlay) are known by dramatically different phrases -- grilles, grids, dividers, bars, and muntins. Google has gotten smarter about synonyms and misspellings, but that's not always enough. Optimizing semantics is a challenge for both search and usability. When it comes to conversion, using words that users understand and best relate to is critical for gaining attention and boosting confidence. PPC campaigns with ads and landing pages segmented by regional terms bypass the confusion, avoid SEO duplicate content, and provide necessary relevance to boost conversion.

5. Advanced Targeting

With SEO and organic rankings, you have negligible targeting options. You can create unique, focused content, but you still have no means of controlling specifically what does or doesn't show to users in search results. With PPC ads, you can dial-in targeting with specific corresponding messages to such fine detail that it can radically outperform SEO, even with ad expenses.

"The more segmented, personalized, and relevant your message, ...the higher your conversions will be."

  • Keyword Match - Paid search ads can be planned for exact or broad matches as needed. Perhaps more importantly, negative match keywords (the cases you don't want to appear for) can also strategically be maintained -- a feat impossible for SEO.
  • Geographic Targeting - PPC ads can target language and ZIP or postal codes.
  • Device Targeting - PPC ads can specifically include or exclude users on smartphones (mobile) or tablets.
  • Demographic Targeting - PPC social ads on Facebook and LinkedIn leverage profile data like education, employment, interests (music, TV, movies, books, etc.), age, marital status, and much more.
  • Behavioral Targeting - PPC ads can be tuned to display (or not display) based on their web visitor behavior. (e.g. first-time vs. repeat visitors, users being referred from specific website, users that previously visited a particular page, users clicking through a specific website page sequence, users spending a certain amount of time on a page, and more!)

The key aspect to understand in doing this targeting, is that every time you segment a piece of content, you basically duplicate it and apply a minor variation. The more relevant segments and variations you do, the higher your conversion will likely be. However, the more duplicate content you'll have for SEO as well. For example, segmenting a campaign by 3 different headings, 2 different offers, and 10 different locations would result in 60 individual landing pages that are about 90% or more similar. No user wants to find those pages in a site search or search engine result. PPC can bypass any duplicate content concerns and present a focused. optimally relevant message for a specifically targeted user.
Note: Finely tuned and targeted, or retargeted, ads are far the biggest PPC win of all, especially for social demographic segments and mobile ads!

6. Stability

For websites with organic rankings vulnerable to search engine algorithm updates/penalties (e.g. Google Panda or Penguin), PPC is a necessary, vital channel for providing a consistent, reliable search result presence. Google and Bing routinely update their ranking algorithms, the mathematical formula used to calculate what content should rank first. In attempt to cheat these algorithms, some websites use questionable or prohibited tactics (a.k.a. black hat SEO) instead of creating unique, quality, value-added content to boost rankings. Google cracked down hard and continues to penalize such sites via major algorithm updates called Panda (Feb 2011: hates thin, low quality, duplicate content) and Penguin (April 2012: hates low quality backlinks, over-optimized content). Many sites are still desperately trying to recover from these algorithm updates. Many more ride the edge of what's acceptable SEO and risk a major or total loss of rankings every time a minor algorithm update rolls out. For those recovering, and those about to be hit, PPC can serve as a safety net in driving search traffic.

Reality Check: There is no shortcut for achieving reliable, future-proof search rankings. If you employ black hat or questionable SEO tactics, it's a not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN you will be penalized, and the penalty will cost you exponentially more in terms of time and budget compared to doing it right the first time. If you're not sure if your website or SEO's use black hat or white hat tactics, contact us for an SEO evaluation. (Note: Three Deep is committed to future-proof, white hat SEO tactics only.)

PPC vs. SEO Key Takeaway:

At the end of the day, it's important to understand that SEO and PPC are not polar enemies. Rather, they are two sides of the same coin that can be used together to optimally reach your target audience. Just be sure NOT to select your channel strategy via a coin toss. Use guidelines like the ones above to scrutinize when paid ad spend is justified and work it in as an SEO supplement, not a replacement.

Thoughts? Can you think of additional circumstances that would justify running paid over organic campaigns? Did any of these stand out to you as opportunities where you'd now like to explore PPC? Share your ideas in the comments below or contact us for a free PPC consultation. If you enjoyed this post, please share socially!