Eli Schwartz


Very often in conversations about digital marketing, I hear SEO (free search traffic) referred to as the opposite side of the spectrum of SEM (paid search marketing). In this view, SEO and SEM teams are competing with each other for resources and budget. In my opinion, this is not the right way to view these teams and is in fact counterproductive.

I prefer to view paid and organic as efforts that should be working in concert to achieve the same goal – converting a search engine user into a user. The user that will click a paid or organic listing is essentially the exact same person. They both signaled their intent to a search engine via their search query and in both cases, the search engine answered that intent with website listings. Once the results are visible, the user could choose to click either a paid or organic result, and their choice would likely be dependent on which listing met their need the most. (For a branded result, they might click paid just because it was there).

Focus on core competencies

Since they are both going after the same user, it pays to strategize each channel’s core competencies and have them focus on their strengths. There is no reason for either channel to win all the users just because one is paid and the other is free. The bias can go either way: organic is the best because its free or paid is the best because its advertising.

Unfortunately for marketers we live in a competitive world and sometimes we do have to pay for traffic, but it should be the right traffic. Likewise, for organic. Free is good, but if people are not going to click a free listing it’s not worth wishing and praying that they will.

Advantages to SEM:

  • The bid can control the placement which means that when it is important to be at the top of the page like on a brand listing, this can be implemented with a higher spend.
  • The message can be targeted to the intent. On an organic page, the content speaks to the broadest possible audience since a page can rank on anything. However, for paid listings, targeted pages can be created for specific search terms. Even further, targeted ad copy can be used for a query to make sure that the user knows exactly why they should click.
  • Paid is (almost) instant – SEO can take a really long time to kickstart whereas paid can start working almost as soon as an account is funded.
  • Paid is easier to build– At some point an SEO campaign is going to require support from a number of different functions like design, content, engineering  and product just to launch an SEO page. Paid can be done without the need for any cross functional support since there are tools that allow marketers to build landing pages on demand.

Advantages to SEO

  • SEO is free. At some point paid has to justify its budget and if that justification can’t be made, there is no sense in continuing to spend. Organic is free and very low cost to scale.
  • Barrier to entry is far lower. There are going to many instances where a paid campaign might be too expensive to even try, but SEO can pave the way and show whether it might be a profitable area to invest. Examples could be new product lines or expanding into new countries.
  • Top of funnel. Since paid obviously has a cost, it needs to generate conversions and cannot afford to be just an awareness channel. SEO can easily be something that generates awareness or introduces potential users to a brand.
  • Lower cost. There will inevitably be paid keywords that drive conversions but are too expensive to continue buying. Instead of investing in a losing campaign this can be an area where SEO can fill in the gap.

Paid and organic working in tandem

Understanding the core competencies of each channel should give a great sense of how these channels can work together to convert users into customers. Organic can and should focus on traffic that is less competitive and a lot higher in the funnel. It can also help in the midfunnel with case studies that might get a user on the phone with a sales rep but still not be ready to close.

Paid should pick up the baton where organic is less targeted. Paid retargeting could follow organic users around the internet and remind them to come back and buy. Additionally, paid could dominate brand placements at a very inexpensive cost in a way that organic never could.

Typically homepages rank organically on brand queries, but paid can create specific brand pages that meet a brand intent like “brand x has the best customer service” or “brand x is better than brand y”.

Solving the paid vs organic problem

In my opinion, part of the issue with why paid and organic appear to be opposed to each other is because they are in different org structures and rarely need to talk to each other. In order to work more effectively, I think paid and organic teams should meet frequently and discuss specific challenges.

This would put the teams on a path of thinking of how they can solve their joint problems. Organic can become aware of paid keywords that may not be converting well enough and paid can learn more keywords that they should be targeting.

In this way, both teams will be more effective at reaching their goals. With a more efficient spend, the paid team will have more budget to go after strategies and keywords that are currently unattainable. Similarly, the organic team can focus their efforts on converting more people from search that are just too expensive to chase with paid advertising.

When paid and organic teams collaborate, everyone wins. With a united front they could truly dominate search in a way that no competitor with a disjointed marketing team could ever beat.