Getting your website ranking on Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs) is a major goal. Yet once you scratch the surface on the best way to do this, there are countless blog posts, videos, and self-proclaimed ‘search gurus’ informing you that their way is the best way.
Needless to say, it can all get a little confusing. Luckily, we are here to help.
That is why we have put together this guide. To help you understand the different approaches to boost your SERP rankings.
Which approach is best for you will depend on several factors such as the type of website and the people you are targeting.
That is why we also go on to help you understand which one (or mix) of approaches is best for your individual needs.
What is SEO?
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is defined by Google as:
“the process of making your site better for search engines. Also the job title of a person who does this for a living: We just hired a new SEO to improve our presence on the web.”
Our own extensive guide defines it as
….in this guide, we will just be focusing on SEO in terms of making your site better for search engines.
Search engines use clever algorithms to decide which websites best answer people’s search queries. So, SEO is all about taking action to make your website more appealing to these algorithms.
The exact algorithms and ranking signals that search engines use tend to be closely guarded secrets. Yet, there are several SEO best practices that are accepted as good ways to improve your SERP ranking.
- Making your website mobile friendly
- Ensuring your website is easy to navigate
- Targeting keywords that are relevant to your website throughout your content
- Regularly publishing fresh content
- Ensuring your website loads as quickly as possible
Although search engine algorithms and ranking factors are unknown, we do know that search engines create their algorithms with a couple of things in mind:
- Delivering the most relevant content to searchers
- Ensuring that searchers have a smooth and pleasant experience on the website
So, as a general rule, if you:
- Keep your content high-quality and relevant
- Make sure your site offers a great experience
- Loads fast
- Produces relevant and high quality content
- Covers topics in depth
Then you should see better search engine results over time.
Search engines such as Google consistently alter their algorithms in order to better meet these two goals.
This means that some previously successful websites can suddenly see a dip in traffic. By focusing on quality and relevance, you go some way to protecting yourself from potential future updates.
What is PPC?
It isn’t all that difficult to work out what Pay Per Click (PPC) is.
Using PPC to boost search engine traffic is all about paying search engines for each visitor (click) they send your way. You pay a search engine based on a keyword or key phrase you want to receive traffic for.
There are other ways to target via PPC, such as Shopping ads, YouTube ads, Display ads and so on.
Models implemented by Facebook and LinkedIn are also pay per click models. If you advertise on any of these sites , you are likely doing pay per click ads.
But PPC isn’t as simple as providers telling advertisers:
“Give us $1 and we will send you a visitor”
Many factors come into play that will determine how successful your PPC campaigns are and how much you actually end up paying per click. These include:
- The match between your website and the keywords you are targeting
- The quality of your website to the search query
- How much you are willing to pay per visitor meaning max cost per click bid
- How much competition there is for the keywords you are targeting
- The past success of your search engine ads
- The past success of ads that have run for that keyword
It is arguably much quicker and easier to get visitors via PPC than through SEO.
Yet it is clear that it isn’t as straightforward as simply paying a set amount for every visitor you get.
This means that PPC can still be unpredictable both in terms of cost and results. This is even though it is typically easier to estimate both these factors than with SEO.
What is SEM?
SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing.
The term SEM is often used to describe PPC campaigns. This is primarily due to the fact that most ‘Search Engine Marketers’ typically focus their expertise on paid search advertising.
It might seem a little silly to use both SEM and PPC for the same approach to gaining traffic through search engines. This is very true and why ‘SEM’ isn’t being used correctly when referred to in this way.
To put it simply:
SEM is all about generating organic (via SEO) and paid (via PPC) traffic for your website.
SEO vs PPC vs SEM: Which is Best?
So, which approach is best for your website? In this article, we explore some of the positives and negatives that should be considered when assessing which option is best for you.
Positives and Negatives of SEO
SEO is the usual go-to for websites when they start thinking about driving traffic from search engines to their websites. This is due to several major benefits of SEO which are especially appealing to start-ups with minimal marketing budgets.
Website SEO is free. At least in terms of not requiring any direct investment.
This is unlike PPC which requires website owners to pay search engines per click that their ad receives.
For example, businesses can typically optimize their websites in the following ways without the need to invest any money:
- Researching keywords
- Creating high-quality content that targets relevant keywords
- Improving site speed
- Improving site usability
- Using the best meta tags
- Using schema on your site
You can find a big checklist here.
SEO is a sustainable business practice.
Unlike PPC campaigns which can only last as long as your budget, websites can continue to develop SEO best practices regardless of budget. You can also keep optimizing your website even if competition for those keywords increases.
Unless there are major updates to search engine algorithms and as long as you keep your content fresh, results should remain stable over time.
Promotes Better Practices
Search engines’ ultimate goal is to provide searchers with high-quality, relevant search results.
So, by making your website more attractive to search engines, you are making them better for users.
Some negatives of taking an SEO approach include:
There is no hiding from the fact that ranking highly on SERPs via the use of SEO can take a long time.
Exactly how long it takes can depend on several factors.
Experts widely agree that it can take anything from 3-12 months to start ranking for a targeted keyword.
This can be problematic for some websites.
For example, ecommerce websites that depend on traffic to drive profits could put in 3+ months of effort with little or no results.
This is a big time investment, especially when there is no guarantee of results after that time period is over.
Websites that are created to promote time-bound events (such as festivals, gigs, and markets) can also find slow results an issue. This is due to the fact that they may not even see any meaningful result until the event is over.
Difficulty Impacted by Competition
Competition does not increase the cost of SEO, but it can make it more difficult to rank for keywords.
This is because search engines want to deliver the very best results to their searchers.
If your competitors are doing more to make their website better than yours, then you need to do even more to outrank them.
Competition also impacts the SEO indirectly because search engines have been increasing the number of ad slots. These ad slots occupy more space at the top of the page hence pushing the organic results down.
There are plenty of tools that will help with improving your SEO and some of them are not free.
Potential Algorithm Changes
In the past, Google has suddenly made drastic changes to its algorithms with little or no warning.
This had led to websites that have previously seen huge volumes of search engine traffic suddenly seeing a drop in traffic overnight.
Unfortunately, this is just part of SEO, as you never really know when an algorithm might be updated or changed completely.
All you can do as an SEO is to focus on the website quality and hope that updates recognize this.
It Isn’t Actually Free
Psst. We are going to let you into a secret that contradicts a point we made in the ‘Positives’ of SEO – it isn’t actually free.
It is true that you don’t need to pay search engines directly in order to rank via SEO methods. However, it does take a huge investment in time, which is time you could be spending on other business activities.
It is also likely that you will need to outsource various parts of your SEO strategy such as web development and content writing. All of which will require a direct cost.
Positives and Negatives of PPC
This section will explore some positives and negatives of taking this approach.
Positives of PPC include:
One of the best things about PPC is the fact that you can start getting great results almost immediately.
This is unlike SEO, where results can take a considerable amount of time. Once you have set up your PPC campaign and hit ‘go’ it won’t be long before you start seeing traffic.
Targeting is another major benefit of PPC.
Unlike SEO, where you pick your keywords, optimize your website, and hope that you rank, with PPC you can target based on specific keywords.
You can also target searchers based on other factors such as:
- In-market audiences
- Search words or previous search habits
- Remarketing via previous interactions of your ad or websites
- Location Targeting
- Custom audiences
- Time of the day
PPC can be used to help quickly test the real-world quality of keywords.
You can invest considerable time into researching keywords.
Yet you won’t know how valuable one is to your website until you start driving traffic from that keyword.
Testing keyword with SEO is massively time-consuming. For example, you may spend 3-6 months targeting a keyword via SEO to find the traffic from that keyword is low-quality.
Instead, using PPC lets you quickly test how valuable traffic is from any keyword you choose.
There are elements of PPC which are unpredictable such as how much you pay per click and how much traffic your will receive. However, you do gain more predictability over these elements than you would with SEO.
For example, you can easily find industry-standard Cost Per Click (CPC) as well as estimated CPC ranges for each keyword you target.
These ranges can be assessed alongside search volumes and your budget to give you a fair idea of how much traffic you may receive.
When it comes to the negatives of PPC, it all comes down to cost. We explain this in a little more detail below:
There is no hiding from the fact that PPC can be expensive. However, this is ultimately down to how you use PPC and the benefits it brings.
Let’s use two (highly simplified) examples to illustrate:
On average, for every 1000 visitors to your website you make one affiliate commission which comes in at $100.
You use PPC to drive traffic to your blog. Your average CPC is $0.45. That isn’t a bad CPC as things go.
However, that means that for every 1000 visitors you gain from PPC, you are spending on average $450. But that $450 is only generating on average $100 in return.
In this case, PPC is VERY expensive and totally unsustainable.
Now imagine you are the owner of an SEO software company.
You sell your software directly via your website for $1100 per download. On average, for every 500 visitors to your website you sell one piece of software.
You use PPC to target a high-competition keyword.
This costs you $1.20 per click. For every 500 visitors you gain via PPC you spend $600.
This spend results in one sale ($1100), generating a profit of $500 after cost.
In this case, PPC could be considered a cheap way to make sales.
SEM: Finding a Balance
Take a look at example one again. Is it ridiculous that an SEO blog owner in this situation would ever use PPC?
Well, in isolation, yes it would be.
But when you consider the bigger picture, you will see that PPC can be used as part of SEM for almost all businesses. Here are a few reasons the SEO blog COULD benefit from PPC:
- They are using PPC to test keyword eligibility for SEO efforts
- They use PPC to drive email list sign-ups, which can be leveraged to generate sales at a later date
- They use PPC to target highly specific long-tail keywords, whose users convert at a much higher rate than the average website visitor.
The point is, almost every business would benefit from taking an SEM approach that leverages both PPC and SEO. However, for each unique business scenario, a different balance and approach will be required.
For example, an ecommerce store that generates $5 for every $1 spent on PPC is likely to lean much more heavily on PPC than SEO. On the other hand, an online blog that earns affiliate commissions is more likely to benefit from focusing on SEO than PPC.
SEO vs PPC vs SEM: Conclusion
It is clear that there is no ‘best’ approach to generating traffic from search engines. SEO and PPC both have unique benefits that can be leveraged by websites. Taking an SEM approach to finding the perfect balance between SEO and PPC will provide the best and most sustainable results.