Paid vs Organic Search: What's the Difference?

by Erin Good on June 7, 2019

Before we dive headlong into the differences between paid and organic search, it's critical that you understand a bigger picture first. Paid and organic search are both parts of a much larger umbrella in the world of sales and client acquisition – they're both forms of inbound marketing. And if you're trying to use your website to drive more visitors who could potentially become your customer/client/patient, then inbound marketing is something you need to know about.

An Overview of Inbound Marketing

Quality inbound marketing creates a valuable experience for both potential and current clients. It's a process that involves attracting visitors to your website or retail location by providing content that's valuable to them. You're not trying "interrupt" their daily life with an ad.  Instead, you focus on attracting and assisting the right kinds of prospects through helpful content that you provide. 

Search Marketing

Search marketing (not to be confused with search engine marketing, or SEM) is a term utilized to describe the different types of marketing that exist for a website via search engines like Google. Search marketing is a form of inbound marketing that bring together both organic search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search strategies (PPC ads).

The Anatomy of a SERP

It's important to remember that while both organic and paid listings appear on search engine results pages (SERPs), they're displayed in different locations on the page. Major search engines like Google have space set aside (usually at the top and/or the bottom of the screen) for paid search results to appear. Organic results, on the other hand, are the normal result listings that appear after performing a search. 


What is Organic Search?

Organic search results are those results that appear in the list of results under the paid ads, and under any type of local map listing that may appear.  You can't pay to have your website placed on that first page of organic search results. But you sure can put time and effort into getting yourself ranked on that first page. 

The easiest way to understand organic search is actually to remove marketing from the equation entirely. If you type anything into a search engine, the list of links that pops up beneath the ads on the search results page is made up of organic results. 

Organic search rankings are determined by a number of factors, but all of them can be summed up into the basic idea of "search engine algorithms." Basically, search engines are designed to show you a list of websites in a certain order based on what the searcher was hoping to find – also called their search intent. Your site can show up in the organic results depending on how well you match the search intent. You do this using a combination of keywords, maintaining a high website quality,  your geographical location, or other factors.

Where paid search results are actual advertisements, organic search doesn't require you to put together or pay for ads. Your website will be shown in a long list of other sites as a normal search engine result. In many cases, this is beneficial when consumers don't like to feel targeted by advertisements and opt to browse organic search results. 

I don't want to confuse anyone into thinking that your organic search results are entirely free because they are most certainly not. Increasing your organic search results ranking requires time, money, and resources; however, making an effort to increase your rankings can be extremely beneficial to both your organic and paid search efforts.

Read this blog for more information on "Why Organic Search Results Aren't Really Free"

The benefits of organic search

There are several reasons that organic traffic is considered the most valuable traffic in the marketing sector – especially as it relates to Google. The search engine is incredibly finicky about their rankings and always making tweaks to try to serve up the best results it can based on the search. If you can stay fluid, adapt to their system, adjust your content accordingly, and rank within the initial handful of search results, Internet users will automatically understand that your content is of high quality.

In fact, results that are displayed on the first page of Google have been shown to receive 92% of all Google search traffic. When you start crunching the numbers, that figure is no joke. While optimizing for organic searches takes considerable time and effort, the upsides to your efforts will become clear. 

Is it time to refresh your website? Look at our tips for website design

What is Paid Search?

Paid search (also known as SEM and pay per click or PPC advertising) gives advertisers an opportunity to pay a fee in order to have their website and information about their product or service appear on search engine results pages in the form of an advertisement. The most common type of PPC ad is text ads that look a lot like organic results, but appear at the very top of the page.

The reason they are called Pay Per Click ads is that you only have to pay for the times your ad was clicked and you received a visitor from the search engine results page. However, there's a lot that goes into making sure your ad appear in the list of ads at the top of the page. It's more than just who's willing to pay the most.  You actually have to have good organic SEO for your ads to appear at the top of the list and not cost you a literal fortune. (Yes, you get to control how much you're willing to pay per month. But, the more you pay per click, the fewer clicks you'll get.)

The benefits of paid search

Digital ads and inbound marketing are a winning combo

Paid search campaigns offer several benefits to the organizations who elect to use them. (They must, right? Or else, why would people keep paying for them?!) 

  • Quick to get results - Paid search can be incredibly quick to execute. Unlike optimizing for organic search, which can take considerable time and dedication to building up a repertoire of quality work (somewhere around 6-8 weeks for Google to really start to notice). Paid search campaigns can be set up and turned on in a day or two. Many companies opt to use paid search to begin marketing efforts while they work on organic search issues in the background. 

  • You're highly likely to find qualified leads - Generating qualified leads (that is – people who'll actually consider handing their money over to you) can be easier with PPC ads because you're handing them an answer to their specific question on a silver platter. 

  • For keywords with high commercial intent in the US, clicks on paid search listings have actually been shown to beat out organic clicks by a margin of nearly 2:1. This translates to a whopping 64.6% of consumers that click on Google Ads when they're looking to purchase an item online. 

  • You can track results easily - When set up correctly, you can get some really good data about how many leads (and possibly also how many customers) you received as a result of your ads. Tracking how well your ads convert will help you know if you're making more than you're spending on ads. It's also possible to track organic visitors' activities but you may not be able to make as strong of a correlation to the money spent on SEO to a specific transaction like you can with ads.

So Organic Search or Paid Ads?

>> Both!

There's no silver bullet when it comes to successful inbound marketing. If you're committed to creating the best results possible, you'll do well to look at both paid and organic search tactics as a part of your marketing efforts. Paid search is a great means of increasing short-term traffic and targeting the customers who are most likely to convert; organic search requires more effort, but provides ample long-term payoff for the time invested. One without the other translates to missed opportunity. 

If you have more questions or would like to chat about your current search engine strategy, we would love to speak to you. 

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