Organic Search vs. Paid Search: Which is Better?

Organic search vs. paid search — it’s an ongoing debate in the digital marketing community. Which is better? Which earns more significant results? And which should brands pursue as part of their strategy?

The short answer is that it depends. There are a lot of factors to consider, like how soon you need results, what kind of traffic you want to drive to your site, and what specific goals you have in mind.

And actually, the right answer for most brands is usually both. A combination of organic and paid search marketing is the best recipe for success long term.

But you probably want more details to help you decide, and if so, you’ve come to the right place. In the sections that follow, we’re going to dive deeper into organic search vs. paid search, the benefits of each (and the benefits they share), plus how you can decide how they fit into your brand’s current marketing strategy.

Quick Takeaways

  • Organic search requires no upfront investment, while paid search does have costs to launch.
  • Paid search earns more immediate results and attracts buyers with high buyer intent, while organic search builds engaged audiences over time.
  • Both organic search and paid search provide important data insights.
  • The best approach to search marketing is a larger organic search strategy complemented by paid search initiatives.

What is search marketing and why do you need it?

Search marketing is a digital marketing tactic used to increase a company’s presence on search engine results pages (SERPs) for sites like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. It drives organic and paid traffic to websites, helping companies attract and convert new customers who visit their sites.

Today, 93% of all online experiences begin with search engines.

93% of all online experiences begin with a search engine.

Source: WebFX

People use search engines for just about everything — to ask questions, look up contact information, learn about new topics, research brands, and more. They’ve become a part of the way people navigate the world.

As a result, brands that are not earning rankings on SERPs risk being invisible to their target audiences online.

How are organic search and paid search different?

The primary difference between organic search and paid search is its cost. As you can gather from their names, organic search earns natural results at no cost while paid search pays directly for prominent SERP positions.

Organic search works like this: companies use content marketing and SEO tactics to earn SERP rankings for keywords, phrases, and topics related to their brand. Users then see that content on their own results pages when they make relevant search queries, making them more likely to click and visit the site.

Paid search pays to jump above the organic search results and appear at the top of the SERP so that users see it first. It’s usually executed with a pay-per-click (PPC) model, where a company pays the search engine every time someone actually clicks on the ad.

Here you can see how they appear on Google’s SERPs:

Positioning of paid vs. organic search results on Google SERPs.

Image Source: Ahrefs

Organic search and paid search each have their own unique benefits, and there are also some benefits offered by both. Let’s take a deeper look.

Organic Search vs. Paid Search: The Benefits of Each

Organic search

Free to execute

Organic search marketing requires no upfront investment other than time. That’s because organic search rankings are driven by consistent, quality, high-value content — think blog posts, ebooks, videos, infographics and more.

When you create and publish content on a regular basis and use SEO tactics, you build a content library that draws the attention of search engines and shows up on your audience’s SERPs.

There are some expenses companies can choose to invest in, like freelance writers or an agency to handle content creation, SEO tools like SEMRush, or social media tools like Hootsuite that can automate content sharing.

But these costs are optional, and they’re definitely not required to get started. To launch your organic search efforts, begin with the following steps:

I’ve linked our guides to each of these steps above so you can use them as a resource.

Earns compounding results

Content posted as part of your organic search strategy continues to earn results long after you first publish it. Over time, great content will climb the rankings and earn more views. It may also be shared by your brand and other people on social media and linked on other websites.

This is especially true for evergreen content, which covers topics extra important to your brand and has a longer shelf life than time-bound content (like news commentary or announcements).

So, which organic search marketing may take a significant time investment, you can expect it to pay off in spades over time.

Establishes brand authority

When you create high-value content covering relevant topics for your audience, it builds your reputation as an industry expert. In other words, it establishes brand authority, which occurs when a brand has high levels of trust from their audience, customers, and peers. Brand authority has a number of benefits:

  • Other brands share and link your content
  • Consumers proactively seek out your brand
  • Search engines know and rank your content

Demonstrates value

Organic search marketing content does the important job of demonstrating how your brand can add value for your target audiences. When you create content that helps people solve problems, learn something new, or accomplish important tasks, you’re increasing their belief that your products and services can do the same for them.

Attracts the right web visitors

Organic search by nature attracts visitors who are naturally interested in the content you create and the products and services you offer. They click through to your site because your content resonated with them for a reason — not because you paid for it to appear at the top of SERPs. In other words, organic search marketing builds connection with your audience that, over time, turns them into loyal customers.

Paid Search

Earns immediate results

Unlike organic search, which requires you to begin creating content and then patiently wait a few months for the results to appear, paid search earns immediate results. You can expect platforms like Google Ads or Facebook Ads to approve your campaign request in just a few days, and for your numbers to get a boost soon after your ads are live.

Attracts users with high buyer intent

While both organic and paid search attract relevant audiences, paid search attracts more users with high buyer intent. Think about it like this: if you’re doing some initial research on a topic or a potential purchase, you’re likely to scroll through SERP results to learn more about it. If you’re ready to buy, then you’re more likely to click the ad at the top of your SERP that shows you the product you need.

That’s why paid search is a good option when you’re looking for a quick boost in a particular area, like sales of a certain product.

Has options for every budget

While paid search does require an upfront investment, there are options available for every size budget. You can create a custom budget and set your monthly ad spend across the paid search channels you use.

Keep in mind, however, that some industries are more competitive than others when it comes to paid search, and not investing enough in your paid ads can lead to empty dollars spent. Take time to research your industry and set a budget that keeps you competitive while adhering to your budget.

Benefits Offered by Organic AND Paid Search

Earn high ROI

Remember: 93% of all online experiences start with search. That means nearly all of your potential customers are using Google and other search engines to find brands. As such, search marketing is naturally going to earn higher ROI than some other traditional marketing methods.

Organic search, for example, has been found to earn 3x the leads and 6x the conversions of other marketing tactics. Google estimates that brands earn $2 for every $1 spent (a 200% ROI) on Google Ads.

Provides actionable user data

Organic search and paid search both provide actionable data insights that help you continually refine your strategy and earn better results. You can use demographic data like age, gender, and location to create accurate buyer personas. Keyword data helps you understand what search queries to target more aggressively. Click-through rates, conversion rates, time on page, and other behavior-related data is critical to understanding the effectiveness of your efforts.

Google Ads alone provides a plethora of data you can use to inform your strategies and initiatives, like the audience report below showing demographic data breakdowns:

Google Analytics audience report showing demographic data breakdowns.

Image Source: Google Analytics.ie

In short: a data-driven approach to search marketing is a must, and you can accomplish that with both organic and paid search.

Informs other marketing and sales efforts

The insights you get from your organic search and paid search marketing efforts can inform your marketing and sales teams for better results on other initiatives. For example, you might uncover a new audience segment you weren’t pursuing before. You can use keyword data to write more effective copy for print brochures. Behavior data can help you improve your website for better engagement.

These are just a few examples, but the takeaway is that the impact of search marketing data can extend well beyond your actual search initiatives.

Which should you choose?

Now that you know the benefits of paid and search marketing, you can probably see that the answer truly does depend. Some new businesses may have no budget for paid marketing, and in those cases organic search is the way to go. Others may be operating in such a competitive industry that some paid search efforts are required to stay competitive in certain markets.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: every brand should be using organic search marketing because there is truly no downside. It’s free. It has been proven to work for companies of every size and in every industry.

If you’re just starting out with search marketing, I recommend launching an organic search marketing strategy right away. That’s step one.

Once you’ve got that up and running, consider where you might need an extra boost. Think about what you know from your keyword research, and where opportunities exist for paid search marketing to really pay off. Then, launch a paid marketing strategy to complement your larger organic search marketing efforts.

The real answer, then, to organic search vs. paid search marketing is this: it shouldn’t be a competition. Whenever possible, aim to use them as a combined strategy to find potential customers at every phase of the funnel and meet them where they already are: on search engines.

Boost Your Search Marketing ROI with Awesome Content

Today’s digital marketing landscape requires every successful marketing strategy to be rooted in great content. But content creation also requires time — time you might not have if you’re busy launching or running a business.

The team of writers and SEO experts at Marketing Insider Group can deliver you optimized, ready-to-publish content every week for one year. Learn more by checking out our SEO Blog Writing Service, or schedule a quick consultation with me to get started!

Michael Brenner  is a Top CMO, Content Marketing and Digital Marketing Influencer, an international keynote speaker, author of "Mean People Suck" and "The Content Formula" and he is the CEO and Founder of Marketing Insider Group, a leading Content Marketing Agency . He has worked in leadership positions in sales and marketing for global brands like SAP and Nielsen, as well as for thriving startups. Today, Michael helps build successful content marketing programs for leading brands and startups alike. Subscribe here for regular updates.

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