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SEO vs. PPC: Which Should You Use?

Marketing @ Ahrefs. I read, breakdance and try random life experiments.

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  • Referring domains 36
  • Organic traffic 567

Data from Content Explorer tool.

Are you struggling to decide if you should invest in SEO or PPC? You’re in the right place.

Three years ago, I was working at a new startup.

With just a teeny marketing budget, I had to choose: SEO or PPC?

With no real marketing experience and an interest in content creation, I decided on SEO. I implemented strategies I learned from SEO blogs, and eventually managed to rank the site for a few keywords related to our product.

Would it have been better to use PPC right from the get-go? I’ll never know.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a lot about both channels since then. And in this post, I’ll compare the pros and cons of both SEO and PPC, explain how you can decide which is better for your business, and show how we use them in tandem at Ahrefs.

But first, let’s cover the basics.


Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your website and webpages to rank in the organic results in search engines like Google and Bing.

The challenging part about SEO is that you can’t pay to appear here. Search engines have algorithms that calculate the quality and relevance of your page and rank you accordingly.

As such, a big part of SEO is figuring out what the search engines deem important, and then optimizing your website and web pages accordingly.


Want to learn how SEO works? Here’s a simple tutorial you can follow.


Let’s look at the advantages of SEO:

1. Organic traffic has staying power

As long as you can rank highly in Google for your desired keywords, you can generate consistent search traffic to your website.

This is what it looks like if you succeed with SEO:

Organic traffic for the Ahrefs Blog via Site Explorer

Our entire marketing team could take a short break and traffic would continue to flow.

Contrast that with other marketing channels.

Paid marketing is like a faucet. Turn on the tap and traffic will flow. But as soon as the tap is off (i.e. you run out of money), your traffic will dry up.

Likewise for social media. In today’s world, social media is a pay-to-play game. Refuse to pay and your engagement will likely drop.

This is why plenty of marketers consider SEO one of the best channels for long-term, scalable results.

2. SEO is often cheaper in the long-term

The Ahrefs blog ranks for over 120,000 keywords and gets an estimated 240,000+ search visitors a month.

If we were to buy that traffic through PPC, it’d cost us an estimated $733,000 per month (or $8.8 million per year.)

Given that there are only three to four people on the team creating content, and we’re not getting paid $2 million each in salaries, it’s reasonable to say that SEOis cheaper in the long run.


Here are some downsides to SEO.

1. SEO takes time

In 2017, we conducted a study to find out how long it takes to rank in Google. We randomly selected two million pages and tracked the positions of all keywords they ranked for.

Turns out: only 5.7% of pages rank in the top 10 for at least one keyword within a year of publishing.

Even most of the “lucky” 5.7% take about 2–6 months to rank in the top 10.

As you can see, SEO takes time.

If you only have a short window to make an impact, SEO might not be the right strategy for you.

2. SEO requires unique and authoritative content

Imagine that you’re trying to prepare a delicious plate of duck confit. Who would you rather learn from, Marco Pierre White or me?

The answer is obvious. With Marco, you’ll create the perfect dish. With me, you’ll burn the duck.

People are the same online. When it comes to consuming, sharing and linking to content, people prefer to learn from subject matter experts.

Therefore, to do well in search, you’ll likely need expertise.

If you’re the domain expert, great! Create the content yourself. If not, hire someone to create it for you. You could even interview authorities, like Malcolm Gladwell does for his books.

The problem is that these solutions can be too expensive and time-consuming for small-and-medium-sized businesses with limited resources.


Pay-per-click (PPC) is an advertising model where you pay for clicks to your website. It’s typically associated with search engine advertising like Google Ads.

Today, most social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Quora have also adopted PPC as their primary business model.


What are some advantages of PPC?

1. PPC is fast

For SEO to work, you might need to wait days, weeks or even months. For PPC, it’s much quicker.

You can head over to any ad platform and start a campaign right away.

2. PPC allows for granular targeting

With PPC, you can play around with different types of data (demographics, geography, etc.)

As such, you can control and pay only for the people you want on your website.

3. PPC allows for quick experimentation

The nature of PPC is fast feedback. You can set up a campaign, run A/B tests and monitor the results to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

Comparatively, SEO is slower and thus it can be difficult to attribute success or failure to any single individual change or tactic.


PPC is not all sunshine and roses. There are some downsides.

1. PPC can get prohibitively expensive

If you’re in a competitive industry like insurance, PPC can get expensive fast.

For example, it’ll cost you $40 per click on average if you’re bidding on the keyword “car insurance.”

DropBox experienced this firsthand in 2009. After experimenting with Google Ads, they quickly discovered that they were getting a cost-per-acquisition (CPA) of $233 — $388. The worst part: their product was only $99.

They were losing money running Google Ads.

2. PPC can lose effectiveness

While PPC is easy to scale, scale effects can work against it.

As Andrew Chen puts it:

The longer your campaigns run, the less effective they become – people start seeing your ads too often. The messaging becomes stale, and novelty effects are real.”

Ad blindness is real. You’ll have to constantly create new copy, images and refresh your existing ads in order to make them work in the long-term.

3. You’ll need money to make money

With PPC, you’ll need money to begin a campaign. It is also likely that you’ll lose money in the first few months as you figure out how to optimize your campaigns.

You need to be realistic about how long it takes to optimize a PPC campaign.

If you’re a new startup with a $0 marketing budget, it might be costly for you to begin running profitable ads.

SEO vs PPC: Which is better for my business?

The real answer: it depends.

Neither is better or worse than the other. Both are legitimate sources of traffic.

That said, there are some situations where one channel may make more sense.

Here are a few:

1. You have an innovative product

To get organic traffic, you’ll need to target topics that people are already searching for. But if you’re building a disruptive company with an innovative product, it is likely that no one is looking for it.

Think back to the famous quip by Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” If Google had existed back then, people would be searching for “how can I make my horse run faster”, rather than “car.”

No one would have searched for “ride hailing” before Uber was formed in 2009.

In this scenario, it might be better for you to leverage social media PPC to build awareness for your product or service.

2. You’re gearing up for a launch / you have a one-time offer

Are you preparing for a Kickstarter launch or promoting a one-time event? SEOmight not be the right strategy.

SEO will take time. Your event might be over before you even start ranking.

In this case, you might want to consider using PPC or other channels like influencer marketing.

3. You’re trying to promote commercial content

Generally speaking, people don’t want to link to commercial content like landing pages.

To rank one in organic search, you’ll have to consider using strategies like the Middleman Method. Here’s an animation of how it works:

If you need results quickly, then consider using PPC as you can drive traffic directly to a landing page.

4. You’re building a site with the intention to sell

According to EmpireFlippers, this is the formula for how a website is valued:

If you wish to sell your site, you should “manipulate” the multiple in your favor. How? Using SEO.

Buyers love SEO because you don’t have to monitor the campaign actively. Once you rank in Google for your desired keywords, it often takes less work to manage compared to PPC.

One reason for this is the vicious cycle of SEO.

Ranking in the first place means more and more people link to you naturally over time. And because links correlate with rankings, your rankings stay put.

With PPC, ad blindness and scale effects are present. You have to constantly manage and refresh your campaigns so they don’t break or go stale. Plus, if the ads stop working, the business could potentially die overnight.

Not a good sign for buyers.

Thus, if you’re into the website flipping business, it might be better for you to focus on SEO.

Recommended reading: Just How Much is Your Website REALLY Worth? A Simple Valuation Guide


Don’t see yourself in any of those scenarios? Then run experiments to figure out which is better for your business.

For this, I’d recommend using The Bullseye Framework. Created by Justin Mares (Founder, Kettle and Fire) and Gabriel Weinberg (CEO & Founder, Duckduckgo), this is a simple framework that can help you find a traction channel.

Here’s the 3‑step process:

  1. Brainstorm potential traction channels. Who is your target customer and where can you find them? For example, if you’re selling jewelry online, Pinterest Ads might be a viable channel.
  2. Construct small cheap tests to determine if the idea is good. Before you invest a significant portion of your budget into a marketing channel, make sure it delivers ROI for you. For example, you might want to run a small PPC campaign on Pinterest to test if it actually drives sales.
  3. Double down on the best channel. As you’re running simultaneous traction tests, one of these channels will emerge as a “winner.” (i.e. gives you the best ROI.) This is the channel you should invest in.

If you want to learn more about the Bullseye Framework, read this guide or their book Traction.

SEO and PPC: Using them in tandem

The best businesses use both SEO and PPC because they compliment each other. After all, if both channels are profitable, why wouldn’t you want to do both?

This is exactly what we do at Ahrefs.

SEO is our second largest driver of users (after word of mouth). But we don’t neglect the paid side either. Both channels work, so we leverage the two to maximize their effectiveness.

Here’s what we do:

1. Use Facebook Ads to build awareness

Each post we publish takes 10–20 hours to write on average. Not wanting that work to go to waste, we run Facebook ads to get it in front of as many interested people as possible.

Running PPC ads also seems to help us acquire backlinks, even though this isn’t our primary aim.

This makes sense. After all, nobody can link to content unless they know it exists. PPC ads help with this.

For example, the SEO audit guide being promoted in the ad above currently has 519 backlinks from 239 referring domains.

Interestingly, we didn’t do any outreach for this post. We only promoted it via our newsletter and Facebook ads, which means the backlinks came about because the right audience saw it.

2. Retargeting

Retargeting is a form of online advertising that allows you to target visitors who have left your website. This gives you the opportunity to persuade visitors to come back and reconsider a purchase.

Here’s how it works for us at Ahrefs.

We get tons of search traffic to our blog.

Some people that read our articles decide that Ahrefs is the tool for them, and sign up right away.

However, most don’t. And because so many people read our blog articles, they may not realise that we have a 7‑day trial.

So, if they’ve visited certain pages on our site, we retarget them with an offer to pick up our trial.

As you can see, it’s not complicated.

We mainly use Facebook ads for retargeting. But keep in mind that that’s not the only platform that allows retargeting.

You could do retargeting on most other PPC platforms too.


As of July 2019, we’ve stopped running most retargeting ads on Facebook due to privacy concerns.

3. Pursue keywords your competitors are bidding on

Imagine if you could see the keywords your competitors are bidding on in Google Ads? That way, you could find potentially lucrative keywords and pursue them either via PPC or SEO.

Luckily, you can. Just paste a competing domain into Site Explorer and head to the “PPC keywords” report.


Use the “Exclude” filter to remove branded keywords.

Here, you’ll see the keywords your competitors are bidding on, the landing pages they’re sending traffic to, and the ad copy they’re using.

Consider targeting keywords that may also be lucrative for your business via PPCor SEO.

Final Thoughts

Imagine that SEO is an apple and PPC is an orange. Can you say an apple is better than an orange, and vice versa?

Both are fruits. Both provide vitamins. And both are vastly different.

If you want a complete diet, you should have them both.

After all, you should be taking advantage and leveraging all marketing channels that work for your business.

Any questions? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter.

How Much Should Local Businesses Spend on Google AdWords?

When you first start out with Ads you might think that your costs are based on the same aspects as you know from other advertising channels:

  • A radio spot costs the same no matter your industry

  • Banners along the highway cost the same whether you’re a dentist or sell socks

But Google Ads isn’t one of the ordinary advertising channels. It’s built as an auction marketplace, and the commodity that Google sells are website visitors. How much you should spend on Google Ads, therefore, it depends a lot less on the channel itself and more on your industry.

The Answer Is: It Depends

Instead of seeing “Google Ads” as what you’re spending money on, then you need to realize that you’re spending money on a lot of mini-markets inside Ads – keywords. Each keyword group will come with its set of prices and factors to consider.

When you bid for clicks (website visitors) in Google, you’re not bidding for the same clicks as everybody in the world. You’re only bidding for the clicks that are relevant to you, and your competitors.

When it comes to how much you should spend on Google Ads, it, therefore, doesn’t matter how valuable a sock store thinks that a potential customer clicking on their ad is. It matters how much you and your competitors believe a potential customer is worth, and those customers will have wildly different values depending on the industry.

This results in wildly different answers when you ask me how much you have to spend on Google Ads. The answer is: It depends, and what it depends on will be uncovered in this blog post.

Minimum Amount you Should Spend on Google Ads

Even though there isn’t an official minimum ad spend on Google Ads, it doesn’t mean that you should automatically start working with $2 or $5 as a daily budget. Over the years, I’ve heard the following argument regularly:

“I just want to test with a small budget and if it works then I will increase my budget.”

Even though the theory behind this makes sense, it doesn’t translate well into real life. If we compare it with traditional advertising, then it compares to saying that you’ll buy a small classified text-based ad in a newspaper. And if you get any results from that tiny ad, then you will buy the big full-page ad.

The logic that the small, inexpensive ad has to produce results to buy the bigger, more expensive and more efficient ad is flawed at its core. The more expensive something is (especially when the pricing is auction-based), the higher value it should have under ideal circumstances.

Note: I’m not saying that you always derive the true value of products/services during auctions, so let’s not get caught up on semantics.

Recommended Monthly Budget You Should Allocate to Google Ads

My usual recommendation for starting budgets in Ads ranges from $1,000 to $10,000 per month.

The final number depends on your industry, the cost-per-click that you’ll find in it and how likely you are to succeed. The better equipped you are to build and optimize Google AdWords campaigns, the higher your starting budget should be.

If you’re just starting out with your business for the first time and have never used AdWords before, you should go for a lower budget unless you hire help. If you on the other side have worked with AdWords before and seen success, then you can start off with a higher budget.

As you increase the money you spend on Google AdWords you will receive more clicks, which in return will give you more data to work with. And if there is one thing that you’ll find valuable, then it’s having data.

One Big Investment Over a Quarter or a Minor Investment Over a Year?

A mistake I often see is advertisers using a small monthly budget, but never really succeed. Over a year, they might have spent $12,000 with little to show for it.

If they instead had taken those $12,000 and invested them in a single quarter ($4,000 per month) it would benefit them in two distinct ways:

  1. You will be able to see in a shorter time frame whether an advertising channel will produce workable results or not

  2. You’re more likely to succeed because you will be able to compete on even terms with other advertisers

Some industries are notorious for having keywords with a very high cost per click. Some keywords are upwards of $50-60 – PER CLICK!

This isn’t the average though, but a couple of industries are up there:

  • Locksmiths

  • Financial Services

  • Pest Control

  • HVAC

  • Plumbing

The keywords for these industries range from $10 to $30 on average. If you only commit to $1,000 per month for any of these industries, then you will not receive any noticeable results and will most likely categorize Google AdWords as a non-functional marketing channel at best (or a scam at worst).

The recommended budget depends on what the average cost-per-click is in your industry and the geographical area you’re looking to target.

How to Find Out How Much Your Cost Per Click Will Be?

If you’re basing your cost per click, and thereby budget, off the wrong keywords then you will end up being overly optimistic in terms of how little budget you need. The good keywords – the ones that attract new customers – are also more expensive than other keywords.

For example, if you are a cleaning company you shouldn’t use the keyword cleaning, but instead go after keywords that are more specific and have a higher intent to purchase like:

  • Cleaning company Miami

  • Housekeeping services

  • Maid pricing

These keywords will be more expensive because there is a higher competition. They have a higher competition because there is a higher ROI associated with the keywords. A potential customer is much more likely to be looking after an actual cleaning company if they use keywords like cleaning company in Miami vs. keywords like cleaningmaid, etc.

Difference in Cost Per Click Between Keywords With Intent to Buy and Informational Keywords

There is a huge difference in the cost per click that you will find for various keywords.

Let’s go with the example that you’re a local cleaning company. The first list of keywords represent keywords that are typically used by searchers to find more information.

  • Cleaning jobs = CPC $0.8

  • Salaries as cleaning lady = CPC $0.3

  • Cleaning supplies company = CPC $0.2

At the same time, if we review the average CPCs for keywords that are typically used by searchers that are ready to purchase, then the cost per click goes up with more than 1,000%:

  • Cleaning company = CPC $9.2

  • Cleaning company Miami = CPC $6.4

  • Local cleaning company = CPC $8

That’s why it’s so important to base your cost per click and thereby budget on the right keyword list.

Note: If you are a cleaning company and can’t recognize the CPCs that I’m listing here, then remember that there are differences in prices based on your Quality Score, geographical targeting, and your ad position.

How to Think Of Your AdWords Costs As An Investment vs. Expense

One of the biggest concerns that I hear from new advertisers is that they’re worried about the added costs of using Google AdWords. They worry about how that expense will cut into their existing profits. The words to notice here is how Google AdWords and advertising, in general, is being regarded as an expense that will take revenue away instead of an investment that will bring revenue.

The best way to turn AdWords from an expense to an investment is by using tracking.

Tracking essentially makes the difference between whether you think that Google AdWords is an expense of it’s an investment. Knowing what you get out of your expense makes it an investment. Investments with positive returns you increase, expenses you seek to decrease.

Will AdWords Be A Good Investment?

I love hearing this question because it’s easy to answer. When you’re considering AdWords, then I always say that if you have a good business, then AdWords will be a good investment for you.

Yes, you need to take your website and your competitors, etc. into account. But when all comes to all then it’s much easier to advertise for a good business than to advertise for a bad business.

If you don’t have any revenue today, have tried various advertising models, can’t seem to get word-of-mouth business and are scraping to get by, then I’m sorry to say it, but maybe Google AdWords isn’t where you should start out.

If you, on the other hand, have a good business, you know you do a great job, your customers love you and you know what differentiates you in the local marketplace, then AdWords will be one of the best decisions you have ever made in your business life.

Just know that how your business stack up against your competitors will translate into how well you can compete in Google AdWords. If your competitor has better margins, he can outbid you. If your competitor converts website visitors and leads better, then he can outbid you.


I like to end my blog posts with a couple of key takeaways:

  1. What you’re going to spend on Google AdWords depends on what industry you’re in

  2. The required ad spend fluctuates a lot from industry to industry

  3. When calculating your costs, remember to use the right keywords

At the end of the day, you should spend as much on Google AdWords as makes sense for you. If you’re not getting a positive return you shouldn’t spend money. If you have a positive return, you should spend as much as your cash flow and business can handle.

Wondering how to get more reviews on Google?  Why wait for your customers to correctly guess that your business needs more reviews? Let’s get proactive today on getting your business pumped with quality, Google reviews.

There are two approaches to generate honest-to-goodness reviews

  1. Offer incentives
  2. Engage with clients directly about their experience.

Sometimes you can even combine the two methods.  Engaging your customer is actually good customer service and will often prompt a (hopefully) positive review on your Google My Business page.  If you’re new to your line of business and want to generate more buzz around your business, I recommend an incentive-based campaign to attract quality testimonials.

First of all, make it easy to leave reviews.  Every time you ask for a testimonial, provide a link and clear directions on how to find you.  Make your directions so easy to review that somebody’s grandmother can do it with grace.

If you have created an email campaign to generate testimonials, then include a button or link to the location where you are wanting reviews.

Timing is everything

Next up, make sure the timing is right.  If you ask too late, the moment has passed.  If you ask too early, clients will not have experienced your products/services to the degree that they would be able to provide confident and accurate feedback.





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