PPC or SEO? The Ultimate Search Marketing Battle

Okay, so I had this awesome introduction written up but then Word locked and I had to start over. It’s pretty much par for the course since I don’t think any of the panelists have presentations (which in Fishkin’s case is a good thing — we don’t need 70 slides in 30 seconds, Rand).

Can’t tell the players without a program: Brian Lewis, Engine Ready, is moderating this motley crew of speakers. From left to right: Rand Fishkin, SEOmoz.org; Michael Gray, Atlas Web Service; David Naylor, Bronco; Christine Churchill, KeyRelevance; and Karen Weber, Irwin Union Bank.

PPC or SEO panel at SES Chicago

They’ve promised a fair fight tonight, this morning, whatever. Look, I haven’t had any coffee or breakfast yet. [Hehe! You’re funny when you’re grumpy, Susan. –Virginia] Anyway, the dudes are SEO, the chicks are PPC. Everyone gets a couple seconds to introduce themselves.

Engine Ready did a test to see which converted better: PPC or SEO. They saw that PPC converted better and had a higher average order value (AOV). Putting it on a value per visit scale, PPC still won, and it also had longer time spent on site. (This is all traffic, not keyword to keyword, as Naylor points out. And the debate begins…) With that handy advantage given to PPC, Christine Churchill is going to go first.

She takes a quick jab out first calling the guys “spammers” and promises to filibuster so that the SEO guys never have a chance to speak.

Why Go PPC?

Agility advantages:

  • Gives immediate online presence
    • Have a new site? Have ads in an hour
    • Start getting a return on investment sooner
    • No ramp up time. Small ones can be up in an hour
  • Great for seasonal items or time sensitive promotions
  • Great for testing
  • Easily test effectiveness of new marketing message or site design change
  • Quickly gather feedback on market conditions or demand
  • Regulate traffic volume
    • Sales pipeline empty? Use PPC to push traffic
    • Overloaded? Pause campaign or cut back spend
    • Have limited sales season? Saturate market while demand is high (income tax for example)
Christine Churchill at SES Chicago 2009

PPC targeting advantages:

  • Provides opportunity for high visibility in multiple channels
    • Search engines
    • Content sites
    • Mobile phones — often the only thing people can see on a mobile SERP is the PPC
  • Expands reach beyond search results
  • Control over placement on the search results page
  • Better control over titles and descriptions
  • Control over landing page/message
  • Limit marketing message to specific geographic areas

PPC accountability advantages:

  • Often easier to sell PPC to management because the concept is similar to traditional advertising. You buy ads for money
  • PPC has direct accountability
  • Easy to track measures of success like ROI


  • PPC is an effective method for driving qualified traffic.
  • PPC gives you accountability.
  • PPC… something else on the slide. [Maybe something about how PPC allows for responsive agility? –Virginia]

Brian gives round one to PPC. I sense bias.

Karen Weber is next, also for PPC. She’s going to give us her top five reasons why PPC rules.

Top 5 Reasons Why PPC Rules

1. Speed

  • Quickly get in and out of market
  • Quickly manipulate keywords to those driving conversions
  • Quickly change bid prices and take advantage of opportunity (see the keynote lessons)
Karen Weber at SES Chicago 2009

2. Flexibility

  • Turn on and off campaigns — seasonal, new products, promos, short term initiatives, time sensitive campaigns
  • Change ad copy
  • Change landing pages
  • Change number of keywords

3. Unlimited

  • Target a much wider range of keywords — misspellings, brand, competitors, plurals, all iterations, fat middle, long tail [She says you can only target one keyword per page with SEO and that PPC allows you to target unlimited keywords.]

4. Goal Driven

  • Adhere to budgets
  • Manage to: ROI, CPA, etc.
  • Immediate impact on sales
  • Use scenarios to drive strategies

5. Controllable

  • Budget
  • Specific landing pages
  • Ad copy
  • Keywords
  • Target: geo, day/time
  • Search engines
  • Duration

In conclusion:

slide by Karen Weber at SES Chicago

Rand Fishkin is up first for SEO. He brought a presentation. Bother.

He asks who optimizes for Google [everyone] and why don’t all of you optimize for Bing? His point is that Bing is 10 percent of the market, like PPC is for clicks. And why would you go for the 10 percent when you could be going after the 90 percent?

slide by Rand Fishkin at SES Chicago

Yes, SEO is more challenging. Yes, it’s less controllable. But people click organic results 10x more than they do on paid.

…That was the whole presentation.

David Naylor at SES Chicago 2009

Dave Naylor is going to make his case without a presentation. He says he’s going to switch sides to PPC. Hee.

They launched a new site and it got written up in Gizmodo, Engadget, etc. They got 1.6 million unique views.

PPC is for testing. He calls the idea that you have to have one keyword per page for SEO “bunkem”. Hee.

He says for seasonal, just think ahead. Start six months ahead.

Complaining that you’re getting too much traffic is like buying a gun and running around and shooting people and then getting shot by the police because you didn’t realize they had guns too. [Can’t liveblog. Laughing too much.]

Michael Gray jumps up and says your SEO can help your PPC. Good domains get better pricing than bad domains. Yes, some things work better for PPC than for SEO, but whatever.

Aaaaaand he’s done.


Brian Lewis talks a bit about how PPC is expanding beyond 70 characters. Now you can do videos and advertise your own products in the actual SERPS.

Michael: AdBlock is one of the top ten extensions. Just saying.

Dave: Those are taking up more real estate, yeah, but that’s ONE guy getting it.

Rand: The number of clicks on PPC when down down down and now it’s slightly up again. Every time Google’s stock price take a hit, PPC clicks go up.

Christine: Google’s been testing ways to get more clicks on PPC — ad site links, etc. Click rates on mobile are going up.

Dave: It’s checkbook SEO. They’re buying to get rid of their competition. PPC is great for little businesses when they first get started but they can’t campaign against the big guys.

Christine: She disagrees with Dave. Her small clients do very well by focusing on keyword selection and careful buys.

panelists at SES Chicago 2009

Rand: SEO levels the playing field. [Drink!] With PPC you’re competing on price against people whose business model is more mature than yours. SEO rewards your performances and PPC rewards when you have a better business cost structure.

Christine: How long does it take you to get your SEO clients to implement your changes?

Dave: They don’t change the PPC landing pages either.

[This is chaos.]

Rand: The great things is that if big companies aren’t implementing changes in PPC, you can win if you’re nimble and quick. You don’t have to pay a consultant, you can do it yourself.

Dave: We try to do knowledge transference with our client. I want my clients to be self-sufficient so they don’t need me anymore. He wants challenges and he thinks that SEO or PPC should be taken in-house once they learn how.

If you have to outsource one, which should you outsource PPC or SEO?

Karen: Outsource PPC

Rand: PPC

Christine: PPC

Rand: If the debate was which do you invest in first, I’d invest first in conversion rate optimization.

Which tactic helps social media most?

Rand: It depends who you are. If you’re big and powerful and you haven’t done social media yet, the paid channels — Facebook, Stumbleupon, Reddit, Digg — could be very powerful if the demographics are highly aligned. It’s not nearly as well defined to do organic social media.

Michael: It’s all case by case basis.

Dave: …Is social media PPC or SEO?

The panel says it’s both.

panelists at SES Chicago 2009

Brian brings up the problem of last click counts. Their Engine Ready study was all last click information.

Michael: If you show up earlier in their research phase now that Google is personalizing everything, that’s even more of an advantage.

Dave: It’s all marketplace. If you know which car you’re going to buy, there’s no research there.

Christine calls personalization better for PPC than SEO.

Rand says it’s good for everyone as long as you get in right at the beginning of the buying phase.

No one seems to know if personalization occurs based on just organic data or both paid and organic.

Lee Odden offers that Google Search Suggest comes from both paid and organic search, and it’s also based on number of results.

Everyone agrees that SEO has gotten harder and PPC has gotten more expensive.

How do you pick an SEO company?

Dave: Do you know anyone else who owns an online business? Do they have an SEO? Are they happy? Ask them.

Rand: Search “recommended list” [which brings you to SEOmoz’s page].

Dave: That’s a good tip. Whatever you’re selling, search “Recommended: Your Product”. People will go, “Oh, Google recommends them!”

Rand: Ask questions instead of asking for RFP. Ask for references.

Someone in the audience says that PPC and SEO are synergistic. The panel agrees and explains that the title and the conceit of the panel was just for fun. [Duh.]

Dave: I’ve never been SEO organic clickfrauded. Hee.

Does personalization benefit Google or the user?

Four people in the room think it’s Google. Michael Gray raised both hands.

Rand: Google culture is that they listen less to the scientists and more to the search team.

Dave: That’s the problem right there.

Rand: [More Google defense]

Dave: Does anyone think the real-time search is a huge reputation management problem?

[And then we do some testing of the real-time search and everyone agrees that it’s totally not cool and they feel like they have to censor themselves now.]

Someone volunteers that in Canada they’re definitely seeing PPC clicks affecting organic listings.

Susan Esparza is former managing editor at Bruce Clay Inc., and has written extensively for clients and internal publications. Along with Bruce Clay, she is co-author of the first edition of Search Engine Optimization All-in-One Desk Reference For Dummies.

See Susan's author page for links to connect on social media.

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3 Replies to “PPC or SEO? The Ultimate Search Marketing Battle”


The Center for Media Research has released a study by Vertical Response that shows just where many of these ‘Main Street’ players are going with their online dollars. The big winners: e-mail and social media. With only 3.8% of small business folks NOT planning on using e-mail marketing and with social media carrying the perception of being free (which they so rudely discover it is far from free) this should make some in the banner and search crowd a little

Great coverage, Susan!

Apart from putting together a catchy title, why does it have to be “either.., or…” and not “both.., and…” (the comment about them being “synergistic” is right on the money)? [rhetorical question]

I think that SEO is something better than PPC because if you got a good rank in search engines then your rank will be stable even after you did not work for some time.


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