The Difference Between SEO and PPC – and Why it Matters

“We’re still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution.”
— Scott Cook, Intuit co-founder

As the internet grows, many business owners are struggling to be noticed by Google and contend with increasingly competitive forms of online marketing.

For a long time, web-savvy folks — including us — touted the benefits of search engine optimization, which makes websites easy for Google to find.

But now that so many industries and companies are developing a web presence, online marketers — like us — are turning toward pay-per-click ads that have a more direct and measurable impact per advertising dollar.

Before we dive into the difference between these forms of online marketing, however, let’s take a quick refresher on how Google’s search engine works — including the reason why Google doesn’t actually search the internet when you type something in.

The Difference between SEO and PPC (and Why it Matters)

Understanding Search

There are billions of possible results in any given Google search. Which one shows up at the top?

In Google’s How Search Works video below, engineer Matt Cutts explains that a search engine performs three functions:

  1. it crawls the web,
  2. it indexes pages, and
  3. it ranks those pages based upon over 200 factors.

When search terms are entered into Google, the search engine looks through its index, not the entire web, to produce the most relevant results. The 200+ factors mentioned above constitute Google’s algorithm to determine how web pages are ranked. The algorithm asks questions, such as:

  • How many times does this page contain my keyword?
  • Do the words appear in the title? In the URL?
  • Is this a high quality or a low-quality website?
  • Is the site mobile-friendly?

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is a broad term for tactics that make websites more likely to succeed according to Google’s algorithm.

More specifically, these techniques are designed to improve a website’s position in the results of a search for targeted words or phrases.

Websites that rank higher in searches, especially those that make it to the first page of results, see much higher levels of traffic than those that do not.

SEO comes in two general forms: on-site and off-site.

On-site SEO involves optimizing your site with keywords that you want to rank for in your potential customers’ Google searches.

On-site SEO best practices include:

  • Making the site easy to crawl for Google with clear links, navigation and URLs
  • Providing keyword-rich content that is relevant and valuable for users
  • Usability: good design and framework of the site
  • Mobile-responsive: site works on any device
  • Speed: loading speed is one Google’s 200+ ranking factors

Off-site SEO focuses on driving traffic and getting relevant links from other websites back to yours. Depending on the industry, ranking highly on Google for specific keywords can take 3-6 months of dedicated on- and off-site SEO work, and possibly longer if the industry is already competitive online.

What is PPC?

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is a service offered by search engines like Google and Bing, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and other publishers of highly trafficked websites.

Today, Google AdWords is the most popular and effective platform for PPC campaigns.

In AdWords, users bid on keywords and phrases — like “donuts Costa Mesa” — and create advertisements for those keywords that appear in a Sponsored Links section.

When the ads get clicked, the campaign is charged according to the going rate for that particular keyword. PPC campaigns through AdWords are common because of the massive traffic Google receives.

Online marketers also like AdWords campaigns because of the wealth of data Google provides, which includes information like click-through rates, keyword quality, bid amounts and more.


We describe SEO as a “passive” online marketing strategy. Building momentum through SEO is a long-term strategy that takes a lot of time (and money).

And as we mentioned above, successful SEO campaigns can take at least 3-6 months to start ranking, which means your marketing team won’t be able to tell how well the campaign is going for quite a while.

On the other hand, paid advertising gives you greater flexibility, visibility, and accountability — it’s an “active” strategy. With PPC ads, we can create an ad, test it with a campaign, and know in a week or less if it’s working.

Of course, not every business has the budget for a pay per click campaign, and clicks can be expensive. But as algorithms continue to improve, we’re getting a lot closer to a day when we can know exactly how much it will cost a business to acquire a new customer.

You could make the argument that only large businesses are going to be able to compete in this new advertising world, but smaller companies that offer a better or different service will always be able to find an audience.

The internet is all about specific searches (the “long tail”) now, which means that you can find your niche and market directly to that group.

The ability to reach your online customers through PPC is becoming more powerful all the time, and businesses (large and small) can take advantage of these opportunities.

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