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Paid search versus SEO: a closer look

Paid search versus SEO: a closer look

Increasing online visibility can have a dramatic impact upon your business, but how should you prioritise the budget that you have available? There are a number of channels that you can seek to use, but may small business owners wonder whether they should focus on paid search or search engine optimisation. We thought that we’d begin the week by taking a closer look at the pros and cons of these two approaches.

What’s the difference?

Paid search refers to using platforms that enable you to pay for positioning on the leading search engines. The best known platform is probably Google AdWords, which enables advertisers to bid for positioning within Google. But there are alternatives available, notably including Bing Ads.

Search engine optimisation (SEO) involves a slightly different approach: it’s essentially about demonstrating to the search engines that your website is the most relevant for a given search term (or keyword). This might be achieved via a variety of methods, but the key difference here is that, unlike in the case of paid search, you don’t have to pay each time someone clicks on to your website or views your listing within the search engine results pages.

So, on that basis, SEO has to be the way to go, right? If only the situation was that simple!

Paid search: a closer look

With paid search, you would typically set up your advertising campaigns and bid, based upon how much you are prepared to pay per visitor. You can set an overall budget (usually on a daily or weekly basis), meaning that you define how much you want to spend overall and how much you’re prepared to pay for each visitor arriving on your website. There is a basic simplicity here that makes the process easy to understand.

An experienced professional will be able to get your advertising up and running within a short timespan, meaning that you’ll soon have new visitors reaching your site. So a key advantage here is the immediacy of this approach.

But there can be difficulties too: if you’re not experienced in using the most popular platforms, then it becomes all too easy to waste money. Indeed, the default settings tend to promote a poorly targeted approach to advertising, which can soon eat up your available budget. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of horror stories out there about Google AdWords advertisers that have spent a lot of money, without seeing much by way of returns. There’s also the question of how much to bid and whether you will face a lot of competition.

Ultimately, paid search works rather like a tap. Once you turn the tap off (by exhausting your budget, or opting to pause your advertising), the flow of visitors stops flowing.

Search engine optimisation

SEO, on the other hand, works somewhat differently. As long as you have gained positioning, you won’t have to pay for each visitor. So the tap remains open, as long as that positioning is maintained.

But gaining and maintaining positioning is easier said than done. In reality, it will usually take months to achieve positioning in the first place and can take a lot longer in competitive markets. Don’t forget that all of your key competitors are likely to be targeting the same space. This means that you’ll need to spend money on SEO consultancy to make headway. Once you achieve positioning, you’re then faced with competitors who will be seeking to shift your website out of the way. So you’ll have to pay for an ongoing service, in order to maintain that positioning.

This may sound strange, since you’ve undoubtedly seen SEO companies offering to achieve positioning within a matter of weeks. Although such promises are easily made, consultants taking unethical shortcuts will often do more harm than good.

There’s no free solution

As you can see, you either pay for positioning via paid search, or you end up paying to gain and maintain positioning via SEO. There’s no such thing as free exposure, for the most part. The solution that’s best for your business will depend upon your objectives. Many business owners actually end up opting for a combination of the two approaches, using paid search to gain initial exposure quickly and viewing SEO as a medium to long-term strategy.

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