When you want to find a specific product or a piece of information, you likely turn to search engines. With just a few keywords, search engines can deliver relevant search results, such as links to retail websites for the query “easy to set up tent.”
Showing up on the search engine results page can drive website traffic, which is why businesses aim to land on the coveted first page of a Bing or Google search. There are two ways to go about this: organic search results and paid search ads.
While you have to take different approaches for each strategy, the goal is the same: getting your product or content in front of as many eyes as possible. Here’s a rundown of the differences between paid and organic search results.
What is an organic search?
An organic search is a list of results that appears on search engines like Google and Bing when a user types in a query. Results are displayed on a search engine results page (SERP). If you want your site to rank among these results, you can use a combination of search engine optimization (SEO) strategies—such as backlinks, meta tags, and optimized keywords—to tailor your content to search engines’ algorithms, which choose the order in which results appear.
Elements of an organic search
The key elements of organic search are:
No payments from businesses
Companies cannot pay a fee to influence organic results. When a website appears on organic search rankings, it is the result of several factors, including using the right keywords and providing useful answers to a user’s query.
Search engines use complex algorithms to deliver organic results. These algorithms consider website content, relevance to the search query, quality of the content, site structure, and backlinks, among other criteria.
Search engine optimization
Through targeted keywords, fast load speeds, internal linking, and more, companies use search engine optimization (SEO) to boost organic search traffic to their websites. They design their sites to appeal to this important feature of search engine algorithms.
What is paid search?
Paid search, also known as search advertising or pay-per-click (PPC) advertising, is a digital advertising model in which search engines place specific results on a SERP. Advertisers pay a fee each time a user clicks on those links.
Since paid search ads appear at the top of the page above organic results, they’re a way for businesses and marketers to ensure their content, products, or services feature prominently in search engine results when users enter specific keywords or phrases.
Elements of paid search
Both search engines and advertisers influence how paid ads appear on the search. Here are the biggest factors to consider:
Paid ad placement
Paid search ads typically appear at the top or bottom of search engine results pages. Search engines mark them as “Sponsored” or “Ad.”
Advertisers create paid ads around relevant keywords that align with their brand. When a user searches for those keywords, the company’s Bing or Google ads may appear.
Cost per click (CPC)
Advertisers bid on the amount they’re willing to pay for each click on their ad. The higher the bid, the more likely it is that the search engine will display the ad for relevant searches.
Advertisers set a daily or monthly budget to control their spending on a paid search campaign. Once they exhaust the budget, the ads may stop appearing in Bing’s or Google’s search results.
Ad relevance and quality
Search engines consider ad relevance and quality when determining ad placement. Their algorithms favor ads that are highly relevant to the search query to provide internet users with the most useful content.
Organic vs. paid search
Search engine traffic to websites comes from a mixture of organic and paid search results. Here are some similarities and differences:
Process for website owners
- How they’re similar: Website owners take active steps to make their sites appear on a search page. Strategizing, as in targeting the right keywords, is a necessary part of appearing on both organic and paid search results.
- How they’re different: You can pay search engines to display your site among paid results but not among organic results. Instead, you can invest time and money on SEO, using keyword data tools to find relevant terms, creating useful content, and developing a backlinking strategy (when other websites link to a brand’s content) to build credibility.
- How they’re similar: Whether you opt for organic or paid search traffic, you’ll likely spend money to make your website reliably appear on search results.
- How they’re different: When you purchase paid ads, you pay search engines, using platforms like Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords). You don’t pay search engines for organic traffic, but you could hire content creators to produce relevant content or use paid SEO tools to help your website reach its target audience. If you run an ecommerce site, you might choose a paid platform, such as Shopify, that comes with built-in SEO tools.
- How they’re similar: Both paid search ads and organic results appear on the search engine results page after a user types a query.
- How they’re different: Paid search listings typically appear near the top of a SERP, denoted by words like “Ad” or “Sponsored result.” Organic results typically appear lower on the page and do not have any disclaimers.
Pros and cons of organic search
There are clear reasons for centering a search engine marketing campaign around organic results, but there are also a few drawbacks.
Advantages of organic search
Organic search comes with a few advantages over paid search channels:
No mandatory upfront costs
You do not have to pay any money for organic search results. Instead, you can optimize web pages on your own to land on a SERP.
Credibility and trust
Users often trust organic search results more than paid advertisements. Ranking high in organic search implies credibility, expertise, and relevance, which can positively influence users’ perception of a brand or website.
Higher click-through rates
Studies show that organic search results generally receive higher click-through rates (CTR) than paid ads.
Better user experience
Search engine algorithms prioritize factors like page speed, mobile responsiveness, and high-quality content. As a result, companies that aim to optimize these attributes can perform well in organic searches. Having a well-functioning website not only leads to a more positive user experience, but may increase engagement, lower bounce rates, and improve user satisfaction.
Sustainable over the long term
Over time, as a website gains authority and ranks higher for relevant keywords, it can experience steady and sustainable growth in organic traffic.
Disadvantages of organic search
Despite the advantages, organic search is not always as effective as a paid search campaign:
Dependency on search engines
Anchoring your digital marketing strategy around organic traffic puts you at the mercy of search engines. If those companies change their search algorithms or policies, it can have a significant impact on your site traffic and visibility.
Need for steady website maintenance
A successful SEO strategy requires continuous monitoring, updates, and adjustments to remain effective. Staying up to date with SEO best practices is essential to maintain or improve rankings.
Depending on your industry and the keywords associated with it, you may find yourself in fierce competition for top organic search rankings. Established, well-optimized websites can outrank your site in competitive search results, making it tough to capture organic traffic.
Impact can be slow
It may take months or even years to see substantial improvements in visibility and traffic as you optimize your site for organic search.
Pros and cons of paid search
Businesses looking for a surge in traffic may opt for paid search channels, which come with their own set of pros and cons.
Advantages of paid search
Paid search offers several advantages for businesses looking to quickly drive traffic to their websites:
A paid search can provide instant visibility on SERPs once an ad campaign goes live.
Search engines give advertisers control over ad-targeting options, including filters based on demographics, location, language, and type of device. This precision helps ensure that the paid search ads show up for the right people at the right time.
Paying only when a user clicks a link
Paid search is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising; advertisers pay when a user clicks on their ad. This approach ensures you only pay for actual user engagement.
A/B testing options
You can use search engine tools to run A/B tests on different ad variations, altering headlines, ad copy, and landing pages to determine what performs best. This data-driven approach allows businesses to continuously optimize their ads.
Paid search ads can appear in other places
When you buy paid search ads with Google Ads, you have the option of having them appear throughout the Google Display Network, a consortium of websites that show Google ads to users.
Disadvantages of paid search
Despite the positives, it can be risky to make paid search the sole focus of your overall marketing strategy. Here’s why:
Costs can quickly add up
Paid search campaigns require a budget for advertising costs, and the competition for popular keywords can drive up the CPC. Less-established businesses may have to limit their spending, either by running short campaigns or bidding for less competitive search results.
You only appear in search results when you pay
Unlike organic search results, which can show up in perpetuity, paid search results only appear on a SERP when an advertiser has an active paid campaign running.
Limited space for ads on a SERP
Search engines limit the number of ad slots on a SERP. Competition for those slots can be intense, making it difficult to secure a prominent position for desired keywords.
Inaccurate targeting can waste money
If not properly optimized, paid search campaigns can target the wrong audience, leading to wasted spending on users who may click on an ad despite having minimal purchase intent. This can cause you to blow through your ad budget with little return on investment (ROI).
Organic vs. paid search FAQ
When should you not use paid search?
You should not use paid search if you want your website to rank highly in search rankings for years on end. The economical way to achieve this is to optimize your site for organic search.
Do people trust paid search ads?
People routinely click on paid search ads, which shows an inclination to trust them. Still, research reveals that internet users tend to trust organic search results more than paid search ads.
How long does it take to see results from organic search efforts?
Organic search engine optimization can quickly show results if you’re competing for niche search queries and keywords. If you’re competing in a saturated market, it can take months or years for SEO work to produce better search rankings.
Are paid search ads always marked as advertisements?
Based on current practices at Google and Bing, the search engines always mark paid search results as “Ad” or “Sponsored.”
Can organic and paid search strategies work together?
Yes, many businesses use a blend of organic and paid search campaigns. This balances their needs for immediate impact and long-term sustainability.