Digital Marketing & Production

Team Mindshare

Which is Better: Paid Ads or Organic Rankings?

Organic v paid

Which is Better: Paid Ads or Organic Rankings?

Before we dive into this article, it should be noted that it is part of an ongoing series of posts that we have been creating along the lines of SEO from both a technical and promotional standpoint -> 

  1. From March of 2021: Is SEO As Important Today As It Was In The Past? You May Not Think So, But Not So Fast
  2. From June of 2021: Google Page Experience Algorithm Update 

When choosing a digital strategy, companies often need to decide between investing in paid ads or building content and backlinks to naturally generate rankings via search engines (aka organic rankings through SEO (search engine optimization)).  

There are pros and cons to each. Organic is a natural way to put content on the web and as we all know, content is king. Once organic rankings are achieved, great things happen as further defined within this article. Paid ads, on the other hand, can be more expensive at the outset, but you can position your ads almost instantly against highly competitive terms that it would take months to gain visibility on organically. So, while it will take much longer to gain visibility through SEO, you are at the same time building up the relevance of your site domain which means that you’ll be in a solid position to dominate for the long haul. It becomes a toss-up of: which is the best choice?

Organic strategy is multi-faceted – requiring content development, backlink building, keyword research, and on-site (aka on-page) optimization. Paid ads are those that one pays for to get their ad in front of more people quickly. Over the years, the appearance of paid ads has evolved to look very much the same as organic rankings.  Paid ads allow companies to ‘strike while the iron is hot’, leveraging such tools as sitelink, location, callout, promotion, and call extensions to expand the real estate that they occupy above natural, aka organic, search results. And with the introduction of a cost-per-conversion model (vs. cost per click) – the value proposition of paid ads has become that much more attractive. 

However, what many companies have found is that when they combine both strategies, they get a better return on investment (ROI). Not only does it lower the cost per ad but it increases viewership – so it sounds like the perfect partnership, right?

It can be assumed that your optimal strategy for digital marketing is to implement both paid and organic to see faster and more responsive results with higher ROI.

We will look at the differences between both practices and why when they are used together, optimal results are achieved.

What’s the Difference Between Organic and Paid Ads

Let’s run through the basics between the two forms of search engine visibility.

Paid ads are a form of advertising that affords advertisers the opportunity to show an ad to a specific audience.

The goal is to make money from this type of advertising by showing relevant and exciting ads to the person viewing them.

Google, Bing, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube all offer paid advertising options, along with many other emerging platforms.

Conversely, organic ranking are achieved over time, through ongoing content development and relevance (i.e., backlink) building to drive up relevance.

Organic rankings may not result in the instant gratification one enjoys as a result of running paid ads, but they can be seen as more credible and often have a higher ROI since the nature of these listings is often viewed as being more authentic. In order to attain top rankings organically, especially on more competitive terms – companies will much more often than not need to have a good amount of relevant content as well as industry recognition around the concepts that the keywords reference. 

SEM Advertising (aka PPC)

You might look at SEM and confuse it with SEO. They can work together, but it’s essential to understand the difference.

SEM (search engine marketing) is about paid advertising, which can incorporate SEO elements but is less focused on organic search.

SEM is also known as PPC. Often you’ll hear about PPC (Pay-Per-Click) when talking about paid ads. The cost of paid ads is usually based on a cost per click (CPC) or cost per thousand impressions (CPM) model. The CPC is calculated by dividing the cost of an ad by the number of clicks it receives, while CPM is calculated by dividing the total cost of an ad campaign by 1000 impressions.

The objective of SEM is to maximize the number of visitors to a website by ranking higher in search engine results pages. A company can buy ads on Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media platforms.

SEO (Organic Rankings)

Organic rankings across the various search engine result pages (aka SERPS) are the web page listings that most closely match the user’s search query based upon relevance.

Organic listings, or organic results, are pages of content and websites that appear in the search engine’s index because they are relevant to a specific keyword or set of keywords. They are not paid for, and they do not appear in advertisements.

Organic is when you’ll often see SEO (search engine optimization) utilized. SEO helps optimize content for higher visibility, not on the contingency of paying for the placements. SEO means using specific high-volume keywords integrated into the content to reach the ideal audience and their search.

Organic rankings themselves are free, but can often be very costly to obtain and take a good amount of time to capture – especially when it comes to the highly coveted top 3 positions. 

70% of marketing experts agree that SEO yields better results than SEM

So in additional to the lower average cost per click and higher click-through rates revealed via chart a, organic traffic clearly entails the highest engagement rates of all channels.

Organic marketing is a strategy that generates traffic to your business over time rather than using paid methods. Organic marketing is also called “inbound marketing” because it brings people inwards to your company.

Organic advertising includes creating content that will attract people to your company and convert them into customers. There are three phases of organic marketing: generating awareness, creating interest, and building trust.

The first phase of organic advertising generates awareness for the product or service. This can be done by creating content around the product or service, which will attract people interested in what you have to offer. The second phase is creating interest in the product or service. This can be done by making content that informs potential customers about the benefits of purchasing your product or service, which will instill trust.

Organic content will take longer to filter through search engines and rankings than a paid ad. However, people often trust organic ranking content over paid ads – of course, this all depends upon the quality of the content and the emotive connection that the messaging creates with the target consumer.

Here are Core and More Technologies, we did an analysis of Q1, 2022 data across a large segment of our client base which revealed the following.  For organic traffic vs. combined paid, direct, social and referral traffic, the results are as follows for organic:

  • Bounce rate: -26%
  • Pages per session: +38.5%
  • Average session duration: +89.2%
  • Conversion rate: +18.7%

Case Study

A fantastic example to back up this thesis is a case study using SEO and SEM tactics. It proved a success between implementing both strategies.

The chart below shows each example of marketing: paid, organic, and both. While the impressions are more vital with the paid ads, the cost is extraordinarily high, at about $20 per click. You don’t see movement or price from organic, but the combination of both is incredible.

While impressions are lower than paid ads individually, using both SEM and SEO still acquires many clicks, and the cost per click is much lower.

The case study indicates that the combination of SEM and SEO marketing results in a 104% increase in traffic, a decrease in CPC by 36%, and an overall 36% increase in CTR. 

The results prove the success of finding a healthy balance in marketing strategy and the benefits of using both.

Organic v paid

Chart ‘A’ above depicts overall spend for a client of a period of time – whereby the CTR and Avg. CPC have proven to be 36% more favorable in their respective engagements. This translates to a savings of over $7 per click.  When evaluating the long-term investment in SEO, this is a critical, yet sometimes difficult-to-define data point. A reputable SEO firm that is really doing their job will leverage a multitude of resources – like Google’s own keyword forecaster, or other third party tools like SEMRush or SpyFu – to establish a baseline estimated CPC and then apply that number against a client budget to determine potential savings – which should be coupled with forecasted conversions and per sale value to create projections on ROAS and ROI.

Understanding Quality Score

Quality score is the metric which drives ad rank.  At the time of an ‘auction’ – herein defined as when a query is entered and an ad is served, ad rank determines which advert will position above or below the other. Some of this depends upon maximum cost per click – the amount that one is willing to pay, and quality score.  Quality score is determined by a triangulation of keyword relevance to ad copy relevance to landing page relevance. It goes much deeper than that, but from a high level that summarizes how quality score plays in to drive lower CPC and higher CTR.

Benefits of Both

Lots of agencies or businesses might try one or the other. Implementing organic and paid simultaneously can help eliminate losing precious time to uncover optimal performance for your business.

You don’t have to wait to review organic analytics. You can quickly see the results.

Organic content is a great way to get your business in front of potential customers, but it is not easy to manage without the right tools.

Better Analytics

Depending upon your industry, advertising via paid ads can become a very costly affair.  

If you plan to invest in paid ads – it is best to do so while also optimizing your website pages on an ongoing and systematic basis for better organic results. Since you’re running two different methods, organic can help leverage paid ads to run better.  And, invariably across our entire client base – when company “A” has better organic rankings than company “B”, company “A” ALWAYS pays less per click across all ad platforms than company “B”.


Depending upon your industry, advertising via paid ads can become a very costly affair.   

If you plan to invest in paid ads – it is best to do so while also optimizing your website pages on an ongoing and systematic basis for better organic results. Since you’re running two different methods, organic can help leverage paid ads to run better.  And, invariably across our entire client base – when company “A” has better organic rankings than company “B”, company “A” ALWAYS pays less per click across all ad platforms than company “B”.

Higher ROI

You can make more back when implementing both strategies at once. You’ll commit more time to focus on analyzing the data, but you can save the cost of execution.

It’s much more expensive at the outset, but ultimately you can reach a larger audience for much less money.

Organic content and paid ads can work together as a marketing plan because they benefit your company in different ways. Organic entails higher engagement, but takes more time to generate results and requires a significantly higher investment in supporting content and backlinks. Paid ads can create awareness for the company quickly and the results are tangible.

Both options offer benefits to increase ROI; but results are better when used together.

You Now Have an Answer!

Often the role of a marketer or business owner is to choose between organic investments or paid advertising.

Instinctively, most people would choose one or the other. Primarily due to budget costs or time constraints.

Organic Content: Organic content is free and can reach a wider audience. 

Paid Ads: Paid ads allow you to be seen by a more targeted audience which means that you will see better results. You can expect more from your efforts when implementing both options versus wasting time testing.

We’ve concluded that your best bet is to use both — you get the best of both worlds.

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