Organic Search vs. Paid Search – Which Is More Effective?

Most of the time, when we talk about search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM), the focus is on organic search. It comprises all the tried-and-true tactics for improving your site’s ranking on the search engine results page (SERP). These techniques, though they don’t cost anything, can take a great deal of effort. 

You need to understand your audience. Who they are, what they’re interested in, and why. Your website’s language and content must be geared towards your primary demographic, designed to provide them with exactly what they’re searching for. 

You need to do keyword and topic research, choosing a single topic/long-tail keyword for each piece of content you create. Building out from there, you need to write content that’s unique, creative, and ideally evergreen. This content must be organized into a website that’s easy to understand and navigate, with fast load times and business information on each page.

The trade-off for that time and effort is that organic search allows you to cultivate your website and brand for the long-term. It’s a gradual process that allows you to slowly build up your expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (E-A-T). Outlined in Google’s Search Quality Evaluator Guidelines, a website with a high E-A-T score demonstrably provides its users with consistently high-quality, well-optimized content. 

As you might expect, that’s excellent for both your traffic numbers and your brand’s reputation. It’s a much shorter-term tactic than organic search, 

Paid search, on the other hand, is a little different. On the SERP, you’ve likely noticed a few sponsored links above the main entries. These ads are the paid results, generated through the Google AdWords platform. 

How it works is simple. 

First, use the AdWords Keyword Planner to determine which keywords you want to bid on. Generally, you’ll want to focus on keywords with low or moderate difficulty and modest traffic levels. If a page is already receiving search traffic, you can also check what keywords people are using to find it. 

Once you’ve decided which keywords you want to target, your next step is to determine which ones you want to exclude. Google defines these as negative keywords. Generally, these are search terms that indicate a lack of interest or purchase intent.

Start by building out a shortlist of negative keywords through a combination of your own searches and the AdWords Keyword Planner. You’ll be refining this later. For now, brainstorm possible search phrases that are irrelevant to your brand.

Once you’ve planned out your keywords, it’s time to bid. Depending on your campaign, you have a few different options. Per Google, they are as follows. 

  • Cost-per-click (CPC). You only pay when someone clicks on your ad. This is a good choice if you’re just looking to generate more traffic.
  • Cost-per-thousand-viewable-impressions (vCPM). You pay to have your ad appear at the top of the SERP a certain percentage of the time, then pay for every 1,000 times your ad appears. 
  • Cost-per-acquisition (CPA). When bidding, you set a conversion goal, such as purchasing a product or signing up for a newsletter, and how much you’re willing to pay for each qualified lead. After enabling conversion tracking, you’ll still pay for each click, but Google will attempt to get you as many conversions as possible. 

Note that there is a fourth option, cost-per-view, but it exclusively applies to YouTube — for simplicity’s sake, we won’t be discussing it here. 

While organic search is focused on the long-term paid search is a bit smaller in scope, focused on drawing in immediate, qualified leads. This makes it ideal for events like sales or the launch of a newsletter, less so for consistent growth. That aside, the primary drawback is cost. 

As you may have already surmised, the question of organic vs. paid search isn’t dichotomous. Each has its place in your overall SEM strategy. Each plays a role in traffic and customer acquisition. 

Ideally, you’ll want to use both — paid search to bring in short bursts of content to specific pages, and organic search to increase traffic to your website as a whole. 

About the Author

Terry Cane is the COO at, a reliable and supportive SEO hosting partner. You can follow/tweet her @SEOhostnet.