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Own or rent a house? You already know a lot about search engine marketing.

The author

Arianne Donoghue

Paid Media Development Manager

Which one’s better: paid search or SEO? It’s been a source of debate (and occasional argument!) for as long as I’ve worked in the paid search industry.

But really, what’s better is both - and that’s what I want to explain in this article. Along the way, I’ll provide a handy analogy to explain the pros and cons of each channel, which should help to convince you that you need to think about both.

Back in May, I got drawn into a friendly Twitter beef with Barry – one that I’m still pretty sure he started just to wind up the PPC community, as evidenced by the reaction Stateside when they all woke up a few hours later.

It started like this:

… and ended nine tweets later.

Of course, I responded with my own seven-tweet tirade, which you all now get to enjoy because they turned into this article!

Why is SEO better?

SEO has some notable advantages over PPC, chiefly the fact that you get free traffic. No-one put it better than Kirsty Hulse:

Kirsty Hulse

It’s funny because it’s true. And look, there are more reasons to love SEO:

  • Knowledge graph
  • Immunity to ad blockers
  • Conversion rate often (though not always) better than paid search

This tweet reminds me of a conversation I had with a colleague in 2015, when we were both trying to find ways to explain the value of SEO to clients who just don’t see the point when they’ve already got PPC. Inspiration struck, and the analogy I came up with was…

Search Engine Marketing = the housing market

Bear with me – this comparison helps to get across all the pluses, minuses and the drama associated with search marketing. Let’s kick off:

A house = a website

Hey, we even already call it a “property” in Google Analytics, so let’s stick with that theme. In just the same way that our homes are the biggest asset we own, a website is an online business’ most valuable space.

Renting = PPC

There’s a reason renting is often referred to as “dead money” – you never actually own anything, and what you spend ultimately ends up in someone else’s pockets. Once you stop bidding, you’re gone! Put simply, PPC is renting space on the SERPs.

Buying = SEO

Buying a house means you’re putting down roots. It’ll take time – years, probably – and a lot of work, but once you’re in, you’re in. SEO is like that: while you can get great short-term results if the opportunities are there, your real improvements usually need to be tracked over several months or longer. You’ve got to keep putting in the effort if you want to get the results – we’ll come back to this later!

House prices = the algorithm

House prices underpin the housing market, affecting affordability and activity levels. In much the same way, the algorithms governing search results affect how easy or hard it is to rank, how much work you need to put in up-front, and a lot more besides.

Deposit = the initial up-front work

Ideally, you want the biggest deposit you can afford to buy a house, as the more you put in at the beginning, the less hard you need to work later down the line. And you’ve guessed it – it works just the same way in SEO. You need to work hard enough to meet the demands of the algorithm (which are house prices, remember!)

This can depend on factors like your location or your history, and the same can apply to the groundwork you need to put in to rank.

Housing market

Home equity = Rankings

As you keep paying into your mortgage, you keep building up equity. And if you’re doing SEO right, the longer you keep at it, the better your rankings become. (Again, we already talk about “link equity” in SEO, so it fits!)

This should be our day-to-day focus: increasing the amount of equity in our homes, increasing our rankings and enjoying the benefits.

Market crash = Major algorithmic change

This is the cataclysm that changes everything. One day you’re doing fine, riding high on page one, the next – well, Google makes an update and suddenly you’re back to square one. It’s like a market crash in property, where a combination of factors can see your home lose value, wiping out years of hard work and equity (i.e. rankings) almost overnight. (And yes, I’ve been there in 2008 – negative equity sucks, people!)

Mortgage payments = Ongoing SEO

I like to compare the regular, monthly SEO work that keeps things ticking over and helps maintain your rankings to the mortgage payments you make to the bank every month. They may not be flashy and exciting, but they need to be done or you’ll risk losing your house (aka, slipping down in the SERPS).

Maintenance = Maintenance

Nice and simple – just like mending a leaky roof, polishing the floorboards and touching up the paintwork now and then, your website needs regular TLC to keep it up to date with the latest specifications. This might include giving its look and feel a makeover, introducing a new CMS or ecommerce platform, or ensuring all redirects and canonicals are going to the right place. No-one wants a hole in their website’s roof, after all.

Landlord = Google

People who own their home are largely insulated from changes in cost, but many renters live at the mercy of their landlords – and in the search world, that’s the big G. Landlords can raise your rent and you’ve often no choice but to like it or lump it if you want to stay where you are: I’m sure you can see the similarities.

SEO isn’t free

To be clear, SEO isn’t free. While the clicks are, the work to get those clicks most definitely isn’t, and in fact they can be downright expensive.

SEO costs are structured differently to PPC. Often, you’re paying long before the clicks happen (as you do with a deposit on a house), reflecting the sometimes high cost of entry and the nature of a long-term investment. With PPC, as the name suggests, you pay as the click or impression happens.

There’s an argument to be made about risk here. You could say SEO represents a bigger risk: there’s no cast-iron guarantee, after all, that all your hard work will translate into clicks and traffic. You’re hoping it will increase in value, just like a property would.

You’ll also do work for SEO because you know they’re the right things to do and you know from past evidence that they usually lead to improvements. Like the housing and stock markets, the long-term trend is nearly always up, but a bit of market volatility can still result in short-term losses.

PPC is more straightforward: spend the money, get the clicks, and if it’s not working, stop spending. Like renting, you’re not tied to anything and there’s always the option to walk away. Mortgage holders don’t have that luxury.

Comparing to the past

The last comparison is to look at how things have changed for those of us working in search engine marketing today, against previous generations. Those of us in Generations Y and Z tend to have a harder time affording a home, as house prices have risen out of step with wages.

And the same can apply to SEO – there was once a time when SEO was as easy as hiding text in the background, using the right terms in your metadata and keyword-stuffing your exact match and anchor tags. It’s now much, much harder to get a foot on the SERPs ladder, and the tactics are constantly evolving.

This has led to a shift in mindset among the younger generations. We’re told Gen Y no longer thinks owning a house or car is as important as previous generations did, favouring flexibility and experiences instead – something that lends itself to PPC in a marketing context as well.

Where does PPC have the edge?

Google is increasingly moving towards pay-to-play – as is Facebook, where your content generally reaches around 3% of your audience organically.

Some ad formats, like shopping and local/map ads, are also exclusive to paid search. You won’t get these through organic reach (although I still remember the slightly crap Shopping, aka Froogle).

PPC also offers benefits from a tactical perspective: seasonal or short-term messaging, like holiday ads or special offers, can be turned around via paid campaigns with very little setup to ensure you’re always right there with your customers. You can’t make the same changes in your organic listings so easily.

Paid campaigns also let you change the message according to the customer – new customers can see a different ad to returning ones, for instance – which again just isn’t possible with organic. Along with remarketing, you can choose your audience and change your bids or exclude whole segments if required.

What now?

If you’re still just doing PPC and PPC only, I’d encourage you to think about retirement. PPC-only is fine in the short-term, but SEO offers assurance in the long-term (when it’s done right, that is). Consider the benefits of owning your home in retirement. 

If you’re doing SEO only, and you’re not up to anything shifty, good for you. But bear in mind you’re always subject to the whims of the algorithm, and you could be missing out on some of the quality traffic that only PPC can bring, or support in areas where your rankings are weaker than you’d like.

It’s my firm belief that both should have a place in your marketing strategy. Is your focus on the long term or short term? (Here’s a hint: you should at least have an eye on both.) If you can do both, then you definitely should – that’s what will bring the best results overall.

While there’s traffic and branding opportunities in both organic and paid listings, the big picture should be future-proofing your business against any changes waiting in store, and not limiting your exposure to a single channel is the best way to do it.

SEOers and PPCers shouldn’t fight – we’re both working in the same space. Rather, we should be looking at how we can each use our own strengths to add more value to the businesses we work for. Search doesn’t create demand, it harnesses it. And we should be looking at ways to drive paid traffic and leverage skills in outreach, content and PR to drive mid-to-upper funnel traffic for everyone’s benefit.

Let’s all be friends. And if you think the example can help your clients to understand the difference between PPC and SEO, please go ahead and use it!