Why SEO's (Sometimes) Suck at PPC Marketing



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?.

About the Author

Larry Kim is the Founder & CTO of WordStream. Larry splits his time roughly 50/50 between developing WordStream’s PPC management platform, and executing the company’s SEO strategy.

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Aug 08, 2012

There's people that think SEO is easier than PPC? I mean.. REALLY?I'm actually flabbergasted. 

Barry Adams
Aug 08, 2012

 As a SEO-focused digital marketer that dabbles in PPC, I agree with parts of your argument, Larry. PPC and SEO do indeed require very different skills and mindsets and there are few complimentary aspects. But when you argue that PPC may be worth more bang for its buck, I fear I must respectfully disagree. Yes PPC can be incredibly effective in terms of ROI, with every click leading to a profit of some degree. With SEO that feedback loop is much harder to close, as good SEO has all kinds of complimentary side-effects. For example a site that is first discovered via a generic organic search (the result of SEO) can see return traffic on branded search, direct traffic, and even PPC. In the latter case PPC will get the full credit for the conversion, but the presence of the site in the earlier stages of the purchasing process (discovery, awareness) all contribute to that final conversion. The moment you stop your PPC ads, your revenue from PPC stops as well. Whereas with SEO, money spent today will reap rewards for months - if not years - down the line. So I would argue that the ROI of SEO is substantially greater than that of PPC, and enjoys more longevity to boot.

Larry Kim
Aug 08, 2012

Thank you for your comment. It sounds like you are conceding here that the value of SEO is immesurable, yet conclude the ROI of SEO is substantially higher.

Barry Adams
Aug 08, 2012

Sorry, where do I say it's 'immeasurable'? Have you ever used web analytics? Do you know what multi-channel attribution modelling is?Measuring the ROI of SEO is harder, but definitely achievable. And inevitably it shows higher ROI than pay per click. Your statements to the contrary are false and misleading.

Larry Kim
Aug 08, 2012

Hi Barry, thanks for your comment. I'm glad that you're doing a great job at reporting and analytics.I've found however (and argued in the article), that most SEO's (not you) are far less interested in doing a realistic assessment of the true costs and value of SEO, as you have wisely done.

Aug 08, 2012

How is the value of SEO immesurable? Consider what x amount of clicks would cost you with PPC, compare to the clicks you get from SEO and you have your value of SEO. Keep in mind the clicks generated through SEO efforts will keep on coming whereas PPC you stop, clicks stop. If you want to estimate full cost of your SEO efforts, just add up all the costs involved (salaries, budgets, whatever it may be) and figure in how long it would take to run PPC ads to equal the amount you're spending on SEO.

Larry Kim
Aug 08, 2012

This comment nicely highlights the difference in PPC/SEO mindsets that i was trying to call attention to.THe aproaches described above only takes into consideration the quantity of clicks (typically an SEO strategy), and not the value derived from those clicks (typically a PPC strategy).

Mark Kelly
Aug 09, 2012

100% agree with Barry on this - I think this comment sums up both SEO and investment in content:"with SEO, money spent today will reap rewards for months - if not years - down the line."The trouble starts only when trying to convince a client of the above when they all want to see results yesterday :-)

Aug 08, 2012

Following on from what Barry said, I too agree with a lot of this. The main similarities are clearly keyword research & conversion optimization. However, Once a PPC campaign completes, the traffic stops. That's not the case with organic listings where we have articles ranking for many years.For me, PPC has high yielding, short term value. Where as SEO has perhaps less conversion focused and sporadic traffic, but with long term gains. So the €1000 spent on SEO can go a long way and often convert more over time. SEO though is not all about ranking, and this is where i see the field migrating to in many ways. Our skill sets are broadening all the time, and we do indeed need to outsource a lot of jobs, as there simply are too many for one person to handle alone, especially for Enterprise level. Some of these new jobs we have aquired are:- Building sitewide link architecture & url structure- implementing Rich Snippets / Structured Data- Maximising PR- Page theming & optimization- Social Media integration for Referral marketingI see the SEO role as becoming consultant like in many ways. We fit between many departments such as the dev team, marketing, content team & social media. Like the dev guys, we are always looking forward and eager to implement new features & strategies. I'm not referring to grey or black hat one-upmanship on google, i simply mean trying to improve the website as well as its rankings. As that is what SEO these days is all about. conversion funnel: Social Media -> content -> ppc -> seo -> site 

Larry Kim
Aug 08, 2012

Hi Conor - thank you for the comment. I agree that it sounds exciting. (but also complicated and expensive).Please see my point in the article about not being fully transparent about the true costs of SEO. 

Douglas Thomas
Aug 08, 2012

I whole-heartedly disagree here. I started in production of SEO tasks, learning the trade from the bottom up, then moved to hands-on PPC management. I think this piece mischaracterizes not only the work of decent SEOs but also the apples-to-oranges comparison of PPC and SEO.I explain PPC to organic folks by saying "it's the same principles, just you pay for your position." Which is especially helpful for understanding quality score and how to evaluate keyword values. However, the user you're marketing to is a totally different creature. PPC is a much shorter sales funnel in most cases, where organic users tend to be more willing to poke around a site to find what they want exactly. This puts a greater focus on conversion optimization, certainly.But I think what's worse in this comparison is that SEOs aren't supposed to worry about conversions -- if that's the case, there's no way to calculate ROI and then... well, what's the point? If SEOs aren't looking at these factors, maybe it's more a matter of "What SEOs Can Learn from PPC Marketing," but I shudder to think what kind of marketing isn't focused on driving business...

Larry Kim
Aug 08, 2012

There's a lot that SEO's and PPC's could learn from each other.SEO's could learn that it's the quality not the quantity of clicks that matter.PPC's on the other hand could learn a lot from the creative genius of SEO's.

Ken Fobert
Aug 08, 2012

Interesting view on the mindset of an SEO when it comes to PPC marketing. I myself started out more heavily in PPC and I think back in those days PPC was more complex than SEO. But as you mention Larry, SEO has become more than "just SEO", it includes email marketing, social, content marketing and all types of inbound.I think with all the types of inbound marketing that are included under SEO, they far outweigh the benefits of just PPC.When comparing SEO and PPC you really have to look at everything that contributes to "free traffic" to come up with a more accurate ROI for SEO. Content marketing  for example helps build a brand's trust and authority with consumers and creates a bigger audience. Social Media helps brands build a personal relationship with their customers and again trust and authority. Emai marketing allows brands to sell to their customers over and over.The cost of SEO may be greater than PPC initially, but I think it far outweighs PPC in the long term.

Aug 09, 2012

Since when was email marketing part of SEO? Since when was social media part of SEO? If you are doing social media marketing to get more likes and +1s for SEO purposes primarily, you've got the wrong end of the stick.I used to do SEO and moved to PPC and I can testify as to how PPC is much more straightforward. With PPC, you work with Google; with SEO, you are trying to game Google who is trying to crush you all the time. The only difficult bit in PPC is trying to get the bid right all the time. It can also be an expensive road if the ROI is not there. Everyone bidding for the same high-traffic keywords can get some kicked out of the auction.But the advantage of PPC is that you have a tap that you can open and close for traffic and accurately select the kind of traffic. You can get traffic within minutes of getting your site up and running, no need to wait to get out of the sandbox or up the ranking. No need to optimise the site for SEO; it could be all in flash, images, etc. As long as you are making money out of PPC, why worry about stopping it?Many mention the long-term benefits of SEO. What happens if there is a change in Google's algorithm and your site's ranking tanks after all your years of labour? It happened to many out there with Panda and they still haven't recovered more than 1 year later.There's no Panda, Penguin or other monsters in PPC. 

Aug 09, 2012

Buying the traffic I get from my target SEO keywords would cost me about £20,000. I've so far spent about £300.PPC's advantage is that its instant, scalable, and testable and refinable. SEO's advantage is that its dirt 'effin cheap, and the links can generate traffic beyond mearly through SERPS.And, lets be honest, neither is rocket science. 

Matt Bennett
Aug 09, 2012

 Barry and Douglas hit the nail on the head with various points which invalidate your points. As happens so often, you've taken your own experiences of SEOs (by the way there's no apostrophe in SEOs or PPCs) and applied them to the industry as a whole, and as a result you've inadvertently made yourself look naive.  I work with blue chip brands who would loose serious revenue if it wasn't for our continued SEO efforts. There are certain high volume keywords that convert terribly within the SEO channel but we see significant drops in sales across other digital channels if we loose the number one ranking for those keywords. The main reason being brand consideration which is generated during the research phase. I'm sure you'd be shown the door if you included the above statements in a PPC pitch to this type of client. Google are not trying to run SEOs out of town. I was recently invited (with a selection of other SEOs from leading UK agencies) to a Google webmaster session where the official word from them was "we need SEOs to help big brands improve their websites". Picture 30+ SEOs sitting in Google, the first time SEOs from the UK have ever been invited to attend an event of that nature! That was a few months ago... I'm not sure if all your SEO bashing posts have been done to market your PPC services over other people's SEO offering - or what I suspect is that you're trying to be controversial - because that's great for SEO! Ironic...

Larry Kim
Aug 09, 2012

Thanks for your comment matt.The point of this article is more about higlighting the differences in the PPC and SEO mindsets, and how those differences can quite often lead to misunderstandings and failure. It is less about the virtues of PPC vs. SEO.

Aug 09, 2012

Bulls***. This enitre article is about how 'silly SEOs should see the light and move to PPC' and how they're being misleading about the cost and value of their services. You clearly have a misperceived notion of the goals and work of seos. It's not about gaming the system to get "clicks" anymore. We're just as concerned about getting quality traffic and improving conversion rates as any PPC campaign, if not more, and you could just as easily calculate ROI. Good keyword targeting doesn't cast as wide a net as possible, it choose to optimize around terms that actually describe the content of your site and your business so you rank for the terms that you would actually want to be found for. There are plenty of bad SEOs out there just as there are plenty of bad PPC guys. I've seen agencies bid on the most ridiculous broad match terms that clearly drive no value for their site.The bottom line is that different channels work for different businesses.

Larry Kim
Aug 09, 2012

Hi, thank you for your comment. I respect your opinion, and find myself agreeing with a lot of what you're saying. Particularly your comments about thre being just as many bad SEOs as there are bad PPC guys, and that different channels working for different businesses!

Victor Pan
Aug 09, 2012

Woah what a hot debate! Matt, I think everyone's reading too much into the misleading title meant for controversy (classic comment bait).Want to know what would be truly ironic? A black hat SEO claiming that SEO's long term value excedes PPC. Remember guys, SEO comes in many shades and good ones are few and far between, so don't be so quick to generalize and say SEO is always better than PPC in the long run...I agree that value attribution to SEO has always been a tough task as it requires in-depth tracking (entry page, click-stream, to goal completion) and well defined agreements between marketing functions. Most companies don't have the coordination to set it up correctly, so I definitely applaud those who have been able to. However, please think about the SEO who starts out as a link-builder, content copy-writer, or social media 'expert'.... Think it's easy to determine the ROI of a link attained, a blog posted, or tweets back to a customer inquiry? PPC is definitely easier than SEO because it's a narrow, well-defined function with easily attributable ROI. Pair that up with the need for an SEO to coordinate with an e-mail marketer, content writer/video creative, social media expert, graphic/UX designer, link-builder/PR and PPC advertiser, and you've got a tough branding experience to get across to your customers (which you should have segmented and provide different experiences based on their needs - different messaging for different personas). If there's anything SEO's can learn from PPC's, it's that killer ability to send targeted content. But I digress... let's all hold hands and work together guys.Just like how the general sentiment about NBC's coverage of the Olympics is positive, but extremely negative on social media, I think we have the same situation here. Every SEO here who has commented about the long term benefits of SEO isn't offering Platinum $200 SEO packages with GUARANTEED #1 SERP on Google - you guys can see the forest beyond the trees. The real problem lies in those spammy SEO's who are equally bad at PPC.Re-read the whole passage by exchanging 'SEO' with 'black-hat SEO' for the lulz.

Tom Andrews
Aug 10, 2012

Personally try and encourage all my clients budget permitting to use SEO + PPC concurrently long term, for somesearches looking at 10 organic, 7 places+ listings not to mention the adwords, so doubling up on best keywordsmakes sense.Adwords using broad match for a test period also a great way of finding the types of keywords people actually searchfor which could then be used for SEO campaign as well.The one thing I would say about SEO keywords, is for some of them they do hold rank for a long time onceoptimisation ceases, needs a bit of luck and some keywords drop within weeks of optimisation ceasing, alsowith google adwords some areas are very expensive cost per click, pricing some clients out of the market.

Aug 12, 2012

Hi Larry,why did you change your title from "why SEOs usually..." to "sometimes". This is very unprofessional. One of the fundamental of principles writing and journalism is that you don't make any substantial after-the-fact changes on your article.  You should stick to your original statement, not flip-flop.  

Tom Hill
Oct 05, 2012

Thank you for this article, I was just balancing between 2 different services and couln't choose the one that fits my purpose the most.I guess I'll pick PPC as it seems more effective and easy.I was offered bot services not once, by the way.

Ireney Michalese
Feb 01, 2013

This is great. I would be interested to learn more about the Internet Marketing and how can do easily. Thanks for the information!

Mar 18, 2013

Good stuff...Although PPC works for business, still SEO is a nice way to get clicks form search engine where many of people like to click the nature result rather than Advertising content.

jcb master
Mar 20, 2013

I really like the ability to automatically feed your blog into your email newsletter. However, is there a way to easily add custom content to each blast. In my email blasts, I would like to not only include the recent post on the blog, but some additional call to action.

Eran Malloch
Aug 23, 2013

Hi Larry & fellow SEO folks,Good contentious article to kick off the comments. Well done from a link bait point of view... :-)I got started in the online marketing industry about 8 years ago doing SEO but quickly took up and specialised in PPC not long after that.I kept up to date and active in the SEO side of things for about 4.5 - 5 years, but then my employment circumstances saw me totally focus on PPC from then on.So, a couple of comments about SEO vs PPC.1) SEO is MUCH MUCH tougher now than it every used to be. Back in the "old days" we had most of our links built by a team in the Phillipines submitting to a large list of directories, and also did a fairly large chunk of article publishing with a smattering of spinning involved to vary the links somewhat.Hardly what I would call scrupulously clean white hat now days, but that's what was done back there, and for the most part, it worked fine.Nowadays, I would NEVER consider doing that kind of sh*t. Talk about an invitation to have the big Goog give you a kick in the head for being an idiot!SEO is a TOUGH gig now. LOTS of hard work, creativity (as Larry mentioned) and long term thinking & planning.If you get it right, you can achieve some pretty darn good results.However, it's slow, hard to control and always in the back of your head should be the concern that Google is going to unleash another zoo animal on us and kill off all our hard work.Clients who got smashed with things like panda don't give a damn WHY it happened. Just that the big bucks they have spent on SEO has suddenly nose dived their traffic, leads and sales.I have LOTS of respect for quality WHITE hat SEOs who are killing it out there. You folks are rock stars and deserve lots of kudos.And let's be honest, it really is the dodgy black/gray hat SEOs who are screwing this up for the rest of us. If we could just ship them all to Sibera to suffer in the cold, life would be much better for the SEO market.Of course, that's not going to happen, so C'est la vie!Now, moving onto PPC.I admit it. I am totally biased. I lurv PPC. And there are LOTS of reasons for that.One of the main ones is that it's fast!I can have a campaign up and running in a day, with leads & possibly sales arriving pronto!Money loves speed, and when it comes to a client's money they are giving you to run their campaigns, they love speedy positive ROI even more!SEO can take months or even years to drive results in many (but not all) cases, so being able to produce traffic and leads/sales straight away is a buzz and keeps the clients happy.Secondly, it's massively more controllable than SEO.I can target new landing pages any time I want, change the keywords that drive those clients and split test things to maximise ROI til the cows come home with PPC.SEO struggles to do just about all of that, especially fast!Thirdly, PPC is a fabulous way to conduct market research, find what works best, and continually optimise your ROI for the campaign.Lastly, I don't need to outsource it to a team in the Phillipines 'cos I can do it myself. :-)Having said all that, I think the very best way to operate is to use both PPC *AND* SEO. They can do amazing things together.BTW, if you're an SEO who has not had much success with PPC, I highly recommend you start again. Get some quality training first and you'll find it  a lot easier to achieve results.There's a variety of excellent books on Amazon on the topic, from authors like Perry Marshall, Brad Geddes, Howie Jacobsen and so forth.Roughly $20 will get you started on the correct path.Lastly, I wrote a fairly long article on this topic some months ago that some of you might hate (or enjoy ;-) ). Note that the majority of my negative 'trash talk' against SEO in this article is aimed squarely at black hat seo types. So you white hat folks are a much nicer breed of online marketer that I like hanging out with... :-)http://bit.ly/16TYBRgI agree with Larry that we can all learn something valuable from each other. The 2 disciplines are NOT mutually exclusive!OK, time to run. Thanks for stimulating the convo Larry and all you enthusiastic SEO disciples.

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