It seems like such a simple question. “Should I do SEO or PPC?” We hear it all the time in Portent’s dedicated small business digital marketing team. “Where should I invest my time and treasure to generate the results and the revenue that will allow my new business to survive right now? And to thrive in the future?” The answer of course is: it depends. But before we try to give any blind guidance, let’s start with a 101 level overview including some resources to learn more about each channel. If you’re more advanced, we’d suggest starting with the Portent Digital Marketing Stack explorer or the Digital Marketing Stack Explained series.
SEO primer for small business
Spoiler, we’re not going to do the entire guide to SEO in this article. Instead, I recommend small business marketers start with this broader article on SEO for small business that covers a lot of the basics. Alternatively, this guide from Moz is a great primer. The team at Moz offers a whole Learning Center that explains the ins and outs of all things SEO as you get started.
Very basically: SEO is the marketing strategy of increasing your visibility on search engines. Search engines like Google have a variety of ranking factors that they take into account via an algorithm when deciding which page or site will rank, in which position, whenever a user types in a search or “query.” The sheer number of ranking factors alone makes this an extremely complicated and always-moving target.
One big consideration for small or new businesses looking at SEO is that the age of your site, the depth of content you’ve produced, and the number of other sites that link to you over time are huge indicators of trustworthiness and value for search engines. Read: if you’re new here, you’re probably not going to get a seat at the table right away.
Why should I care about SEO?
The vast majority of web traffic for most sites comes directly from the major search engines like Google. There are literally billions of searches happening each day on search engines and that number is continually growing.
The simple fact is that all businesses can benefit from making themselves easier to find, and search engines are the primary place where people are conducting research or actively shopping for products and services online.
PPC primer for small business
Again, we’re not going to do the entire rundown of PPC or paid search marketing in this article, but we’ll cover the basics and provide you with additional resources as a jumping-off point, including this comprehensive beginner’s guide to PPC.
The acronym “PPC” stands for pay-per-click, and although this simply describes the nature of your advertising agreement with any platform (you pay only when someone clicks your ad), it’s become synonymous with buying ads on search engines. You may hear this referred to by a couple of other names that are useful to know: most commonly that’s “search engine marketing” (SEM), and “paid search.”
The basic concept is simply that you’re paying to get your ads shown in a search results page (SERP) of any search engine, be it Google, Bing, or otherwise. There are a variety of places you can run PPC ads, but Google’s AdWords offering is the industry standard because Google has the lion’s share of the internet’s search volume.
Again, if you’re a little more advanced or simply in need of additional strategies to get more out of your paid search dollar, we’ve got plenty of additional PPC resources on the Portent blog. If you’re a small business, you may want to start with 11 Tips for Low Budget PPC Advertisers or How to Set a PPC Budget.
Why should I care about PPC?
PPC or paid search is a critical component of almost any digital marketing program. Ranking organically in search results is incredibly competitive and can take years, which doesn’t pencil for most businesses that need to drive meaningful revenue this month, let alone this year. Paid search advertising offers businesses of every size the opportunity to pay for visibility right now with prospective customers who are actively searching for specific products or services.
Sounds pretty good, right?
So where should I invest first?
The short and sometimes difficult answer is, of course, both.
Organic and paid traffic should both play a role in your overall customer acquisition strategy. Beyond the basic math of more qualified impressions leading to more clicks, there is fantastic research available on the benefits of showing a paid search result, even when you already have the coveted number one organic position. And if you’re not showing up in organic results, it’s a no-brainer.
That said, when budget and resources are tight, you still need a place to start. Let’s break down what might warrant investing more heavily in one channel over the other in the short-term.
When is SEO the right choice for short-term investment?
The seemingly obvious benefit of SEO is that organic clicks are “free.” To be more accurate, search engines won’t allow you to pay them directly to change the order of search results. Fantastic, who doesn’t like the idea of “free” customer acquisition?
But earning your way to a highly sought-after position in search results is not without opportunity cost. It takes significant time, energy, and resources to create the kind of digital presence that’s going to show up for any valuable search. Investments in a blazing fast site, creating content that’s truly attention-worthy, diagnosing and optimizing signals you’re sending to search engines. This effort ads up to a very real investment. Often you may find yourself going up against much bigger brands with long-running, high-quality sites. This can make sniffing the first page of Google search results a long shot in the short term, even if you’re working diligently on it.
Do these pros and cons sound like they align with your immediate business needs (e.g. long-term visibility)? Are you in it for the long-haul of consistent, high-quality content production? Do you have sufficient financial runway to start this flywheel, even if it were to take several months or even years to start driving meaningful traffic or customers? Do you have the teams in place that can tackle both content production and technical site optimization? When you look at tools like SEMrush for the types of user searches you’d hope to show up for, is the competition fierce or relatively soft?
Once you’ve had a chance to wrestle with these questions, and if you’ve decided that SEO investment is something that fits your business from a cost/benefit standpoint, you’ll need to focus that effort. Let’s look at a few things that should be on your list for immediate action.
While the age of your site, the number of other sites that have linked to you, and other things that happen “off-site” are huge drivers of authority within search engines, there are a lot of things that you do control that can add up to serious gains. From setting up a fast website at the architecture level, to fine-tuning the way you’ve organized site content, technical SEO has a huge impact on whether and how you’ll show up for prospective customers in organic search. One of the best places to start for most businesses is a technical SEO audit from an expert. It’s entirely likely that if you’re running a small business online that you have major “opportunities to improve” issues with your site. Technical oversights like sloppy or extraneous code from your old web developer, hacks to change or add functionality, rearranging content without understanding how to redirect old pages, all of it adds up over time. And all of it sends signals to search engines that your site is probably lower quality and less useful to show in a results page.
Identify those site-wide technical SEO issues and tackle them first.
Remember when we alluded to the number of other sites that link to you as something you couldn’t really control? Well that’s not entirely true. Creating and promoting content that provides incredible value for the users you want to attract is the fuel that drives your organic search effort. Once you’ve tuned the engine by fixing the high-impact technical SEO issues, it’s time to add that fuel. Strategic content production is a big part of long-term SEO strategy, in that you’ll need to identify what to write, how to make that content insanely useful, and where your users are.
Very simply: perform keyword research using tools like SEMrush to understand which words, phrases, and questions your prospective customers type in search engines, and then write content that addresses those questions more effectively than anyone else. Rinse and repeat. Create and refine detailed service pages that give prospects the exact information they need. Start a blog that shares your wisdom regularly with your customers, prospects, and industry. Do whatever it takes to make your site useful and significant.
The upshot is that if humans think your site is useful enough to use then search engines likely will too, and reward you in kind. As the flywheel builds, other site owners may see your content as highly useful too and link back to your content, creating a virtuous circle of growing visibility.
If you need help getting this process started, we published an ebook with exercises and worksheets to help you research, plan, and create killer content.
When is PPC the right choice for short-term investment?
While the siren-song of “free” traffic and long-term growth sound amazing, any entrepreneur or small business knows that if the register isn’t ringing today, we have a serious problem.
As a channel, PPC’s biggest strengths are its ability to drive immediate returns, and your ability to test or decide exactly when and how you want to appear for a prospective customer. If you hypothetically decided tomorrow that you want to attract customers looking to get a car smog tested in Fresno, California, it’s as easy as signing up for AdWords and giving them a credit card. In no time, you can be showing a highly-targeted ad to people searching “smog testing,” “smog testing near me,” “smog testing in Fresno”, etc. and paying only when users actually visit your site.
That said, the major drawback with PPC is the cost and the fact that it’s truly pay-to-play. You’re paying for every click to your website, and when you shut off the spend you cut off the flow of new leads. Still, compared to traditional media like a billboard where you pay for the ad space and pray that your message actually lands, PPC provides infinitely more insight into what’s working, as well as some reassurance that you’re not wasting precious dollars on all the wrong eyeballs.
While it’s still very possible to set up an ineffective PPC campaign if you’re new to the platform, with a little expert help that’s easy enough to shore up, and provides highly targeted and measurable flow of new business.
How does this line up with your needs and goals relative to SEO? Do you need customers right now? Is your business highly seasonal so you need to ensure visibility and drive maximum traffic at key moments? Do you lack the resources to pursue a long-term SEO strategy with both high-quality content and technical optimization?
In our experience working with literally hundreds of small businesses, PPC is an ideal investment for most in that it produces results, creates breathing room by growing revenue, and allows us to systematically test what advertising messages resonate with prospective customers.
An investment and long-term focus on SEO can be challenging if you only have say a $1,000 digital marketing budget at the outset, but it will pay dividends over months and years if you can invest in it. And in those early days, even $1,000 per month can carry you pretty far with a laser-targeted PPC account. Regardless of what you choose to do: get the right help, track everything, watch your results closely, and keep striving for better.