SEO vs. Paid Search: One, the Other, or Both?

Businesses with any kind of digital footprint want to be found online. Two popular methods for achieving this are search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search ads (typically Google ads, as they dominate the search market in Canada). Which one to choose, if any? Read on to find out.


SEO helps generate organic traffic to your website. “Organic” in this context means that you didn’t (directly) pay to get your content in front of people. Users are finding your site through unpaid search results.

There are a few advantages to this. The most obvious one is that you don’t have to give Google boatloads of money – you spend a bit on creating the content in the first place, and then hopefully benefit from a steady flow of traffic in perpetuity. Once you’ve optimized your content and implemented best practices, it can continue to drive traffic without additional costs. You may also find that a well-crafted page will rank for a wider variety of keywords than paid ads, where you have to explicitly state which search queries you want to target.

There are downsides, though. Implementing effective SEO strategies requires time and effort – extensive keyword research, content creation, link building, and more. You should also not expect immediate results. It’ll take several months to reap the benefits of your efforts.

Also be mindful that the higher the competition in a particular industry or niche, the more challenging it becomes to achieve high rankings. The easiest way to check is to search for the keyword(s) you’re thinking of targeting. If the first few results are huge websites like Amazon or Wikipedia, you will want to adjust your strategy to target more specific keywords, especially those with local search intent (e.g. “XYZ in Moncton” rather than simply “XYZ”).

SEO isn’t a one-and-done strategy, unless those keywords have very little competition. It’s is a never-ending race against competitors. Once you achieve high rankings, it requires ongoing maintenance to ensure that your content remains relevant and up-to-date. This includes regularly updating and optimizing existing pages as well as creating new ones.

Paid Search

You’ve almost certainly seen paid search ads before – they’re the 2 or 3 ads that appear at the top of search results. They work by targeting specific search queries. This is alternatively often called SEM, Search Engine Marketing.

It’s a much quicker fix compared to SEO. Businesses will see immediate results (within a day of launch) in terms of increased traffic, leads, or sales. You also have the ability to target specific demographics, locations, and even devices, ensuring that your ads are reaching the right people at the right time – unlike SEO which is completely untargeted (not that it matters, since you aren’t paying for the traffic).

Paid search is also a good way to get to the top of search results that you wouldn’t be able to reach through SEO. It’s an expensive and brute-force approach, but if you’re up against Amazon and Wikipedia in organic search, paid ads can get you to the top of that page.

Just like SEO, paid search ads can also face high competition, leading to higher costs per click. They work on an auction-based system, so the more competition there is for a search query in a given region, the more expensive the ads will be. The advertiser (Google, or whoever) charges you a certain amount every time someone clicks your ad. Check out these extreme examples from a Hubspot study:

KeywordCost Per Click
houston maritime attorney$1,090.00
offshore accident lawyer$815.00
best motorcycle accident lawyer$770.00
18 wheeler accident lawyer san antonio$670.00
scranton personal injury lawyer$560.00

We don’t see those numbers around here – typical costs in NB are around $5 to $20 – but it still adds up, especially when you consider that not all clicks will become paying customers.

That’s also why I always bring up profit margins in this conversation. The reason that those maritime lawyers are willing to spend over $1,000 per click is because a case will be worth far more than that to them. On the other hand, if you’re running a coffee shop, you can’t afford to spend even $20 per customer (unless you’re very good at turning them into repeat customers!).

And finally, unlike SEO, the traffic generated by paid search ads of course ceases once you stop paying for the ads.

What to do?

If you’ll excuse the lawyerly answer – it depends. A common strategy is to blend the two, starting with SEO and SEM right away and then gradually tapering off the paid ads as organic rankings start to pick up. I’d treat this as a case-by-case situation depending on keyword selection, competition, budget, and timeline.