Why SEO's (Sometimes) Suck at PPC Marketing

April 27, 2018

When it comes to search marketing, SEO’s are from Mars and PPC’s are from Venus.

Just over a week following the release of our War on Free Clicks infographic, dozens of whiny SEO’s have come out of the woodwork with ludicrous sob stories about how they purportedly tried and failed to get PPC to work for them and/or their client.

Sure, PPC isn’t easy – I get that, and I’ve even written a few articles about how some small businesses are struggling with PPC.

But, seriously – compared to SEO?!! PPC is a total cakewalk. Like rolling off a log. Easy as pie.

SEO, on the other hand, has recently become a complete nightmare-circus – I’m talking about the keyword analytics “not provided” brouhaha, Panda, Penguin, unnatural links notifications, the increasingly ridiculous and never-ending SEO workflow, etc., etc., etc.

In my article today, I’ll describe the 4 crucial differences between the PPC and SEO mindset. Hopefully by understanding the differences, you’ll be more open-minded if PPC doesn’t respond the way an SEO thinks it should!

PPC Strategy vs. SEO Strategy

PPC and SEO may occupy the same search engine results page, but their underlying success strategies are completely different, hence search marketers often pit organic vs paid against each other.

SEO strategy is generally about casting as wide a net as possible, trying to rank in the top organic spot for as many relevant keywords as possible. Incredibly, still to this day, the most common SEO metrics are still keyword rankings and the volume of organic search traffic to a site over time.

PPC strategy is pretty much the complete opposite – it’s far more refined. The goal is usually to exploit a narrow portfolio of high-quality keywords that maximize click-through rate and cost per conversion, not just clicks. We even use things like negative keywords and match types to make our ads show up on fewer searches, not more. This is because the way AdWords works is that keywords with low click-through rates get dinged with super high costs and low exposure (or no exposure at all), and vice versa.

Miss-set expectations that arise as a result of failure to realize this key difference in strategy is by far the most common reason why most SEO’s end up sucking at PPC.


When the PPC going gets tough, SEO’s turn tail and run away. They say things like: “See boss? I tried, and I couldn’t get it to work,” and then regress back to their challenging SEO workflow. It’s like they secretly want to fail.

It’s remarkable when you contrast this low level of effort with the backwards somersaults they’re willing to do for SEO, where you have Google actively trying to run SEO’s out of town, inflicting all sorts of penalties designed to make their lives miserable, and yet they remain completely undeterred and focused on exploiting the next SEO loophole.

Come on, my fellow SEO’s, buck up! As with anything else in life, you get out of PPC that which you put into it. If you can’t get PPC to work on the first try, iterate and improve. Take advantage of killer AdWords features like sitelinks and remarketing, and run your account against the AdWords Grader. If any SEO applied even a tenth of their creative genius towards PPC marketing, he/she would be way ahead, and well on their way to achieving great success!

Not Being Completely Transparent About Costs

Does this sound familiar?

“We paid for 5,000 clicks this month, whereas over the same time period, we got 10,000 clicks from SEO for free!

Well of course PPC looks expensive compared to “Free.”

But let’s be honest here. SEO isn’t and wasn’t ever free, and it’s quickly becoming one of the most complex and costly forms of marketing out there. I’m talking about the cost of your time, the blogger, the link builder, the link clean-up guy, the social media guy, the SEO manager, the consultants, all of the cross-departmental overhead, etc.

By being less than fully transparent about the true costs of SEO, many organizations are deluding themselves about the relative efficacy of SEO vs. PPC, often declaring defeat in error.

Not Being Completely Transparent About Value

All of those “free” clicks from SEO aren’t worth their weight in PPC clicks. Not by a long shot.

Take WordStream’s own website for example. We generate a crap-ton of SEO traffic, but nearly half of WordStream’s SEO traffic comes from countries that represent approximately 0% of our sales. And the search queries that generate the most traffic are informational keyword searches like 'what is google adwords?', or branded keywords which we probably would have gotten even if we did no SEO work.

If you compare SEO clicks vs. PPC clicks based on a more meaningful metric, such as cost per actual sale, the average value of an SEO click is generally nowhere close to PPC, which offers far more granular targeting options. Sadly, this kind of objective, thoughtful analysis is not always done.

Are You Saying PPC Really Can Work for My Business?

In my 10+ years of experience working with over a thousand small businesses, I’ve found that almost any kind of business can make PPC work for them – it’s mainly a matter of finding a more narrow set of targeted, relevant, high-intent keywords that drive affordable leads and sales.

I doubt that your business is the one exception here.

Hopefully, now that you’re armed with this insight about the differences between the SEO and PPC mindset, you’ll have the added wisdom to change your approach in executing PPC rather than declaring PPC defeat!

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Read the follow-up article - The Long-Term Value of SEO: Does SEO Value Last Forever?.

Larry Kim

Larry Kim

Larry Kim is the founder of WordStream and CEO of MobileMonkey, a chatbot building platform.

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