In a perfect world, you’d have a marketing budget for SEO and Google Ads, but unfortunately, that’s not the world most small business owners live in! We always recommend pursuing both SEO and Google Ads for businesses that can afford it, but there’s a certain point where a budget is so tight that it’s better spent on one or the other, rather than dividing it between both. If that’s the boat you find yourself in, this is the blog post for you. Instead of giving you a wishy-washy, “choose both!” kind of answer, we’re going to give you the knowledge you need to make an actual decision about which is best for your business.

SEO vs Google Ads

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. The term is ubiquitous in the digital marketing world for good reason—being found via search engines is critical for nearly all businesses these days. 

When you build a website, Google will usually find it and index it even if you do absolutely nothing to optimize your web presence for search. But just because your website is indexed, that doesn’t mean it will show up for the searches you want it to. 

Let’s say you’re a landscaper, but in the winter, you also do snow removal work. If your website only mentions landscaping, it won’t show up when people search for snow removal in your town. If your site only makes a mention of snow removal in passing, it’s unlikely to show up at the top of the search engine results, although it may show up somewhere after the first few pages. If, on the other hand, you build out a dedicated service page outlining your different snow removal packages and such, you have a better chance of landing at the top of the search engine results pages. This is known as on-page optimization.

Now, what if another landscaper also offers snow removal and has a similar service page on their website? Maybe they have backlinks from your town’s chamber of commerce website or your local newspaper, but your site has no backlinks. When all things are equal, Google will prioritize websites that have backlinks from trustworthy sources, as well as active business profiles on Google. This is known as off-page optimization.

Google also wants to ensure that websites it ranks highly are safe, easy to use, quick to load, and free of errors. These technical factors are another factor in SEO.

SEO aims to optimize all aspects of your web presence—both on and off your site—in order to give you the best chances of ranking well with Google. There are no guarantees with SEO because you can’t control Google’s algorithms and rankings. That said, we know the main factors that Google looks for in a website, and by following SEO best practices, you can increase the likelihood of ranking well.

What Are Google Ads?

If you’ve been dabbling in digital marketing for your business for a while now, you may remember the days when Google Ads was still called AdWords. Google Ads are a way to bypass SEO, rankings, and algorithms and land your business at the top of the search engine results pages (SERPs). There’s a catch, though—you have to pay for that spot.

Google search ads give you the ability to target very specific searchers (and search queries) to drive qualified, relevant traffic to your website. These paid placements are just above and below organic search results. Google Ads are not the same as display ads on a website—they are text only, formatted in a similar manner to organic search results, with the primary difference being that they are labeled as ads. 

If this sounds like a fantastic alternative to SEO, well, we have to tell you: there are a few more catches. You have to bid on keywords, which means there are no guarantees that you will always appear on the first page of SERPs, as a competitor could outbid you. Google also assigns Ad Quality Scores for each ad, which along with your bid, determines where your ad will end up on the page. 

The Differences Between SEO and Google Ads

As you can see, there are some significant differences between SEO and Google Ads. This is what makes them nice to use together—because Google Ads can generate faster results, while SEO builds long-term success, the two channels act as complementary strategies. But as we mentioned up-front, this is not a fluff piece to sell you on both if that’s not in your budget! Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of the pros and cons of Google Ads and SEO.

The Pros of SEO

Here are reasons why you might want to choose SEO:

Lower Cost

Although it can depend on the level of competition in your industry and location, generally speaking, SEO costs less than Google Ads. In addition, if you’re on a tight budget, you can invest in a one-time SEO project and still get some lasting results from that. However, as soon as you stop paying for Google Ads, your ads go away and you stop generating traffic, which brings us to our next point…

Continuous Traffic Generation

Although Google’s algorithms change frequently, at the core, they’re always the same: Google rewards quality content from trustworthy sources. If you invest in SEO (including quality content development), you’re likely to get a continuous source of traffic from that investment. Tweaks and changes may be needed to adapt to changing standards from Google, but the content you build will always have value.

Larger Potential Audience

Because more people click on organic results than on ads, SEO can allow you to target a broader audience—one that you may not have the budget to reach with Google Ads. This can be beneficial for companies that aren’t necessarily targeting local customers, like online stores.

Consumer Trust

There’s a portion of consumers who will click on the first result on Google, no matter what it is. Then, there’s another portion that will scroll past the ads and go straight to the organic search results. Ranking highly through organic efforts can win you more trust from potential clients and customers.

It’s an Asset

Your SEO is an asset that can grow over time. As you continue to invest in SEO, you will see higher rankings that drive more traffic and conversions. While it’s best to make a consistent investment in SEO, think of it as building a house. You start with a good foundation, then you build your house. Maybe someday you add another room or a swimming pool in the back. The house only gains value with each new addition you make.

The Cons of SEO

Here are some of the downsides of pursuing an SEO-only strategy:

Getting Results

SEO can take time to generate results, and sometimes you just don’t have the time to wait. If you want to advertise an upcoming sale or promotion, it makes more sense to use Google Ads than SEO.

Tracking Is a Bit More Complicated

Some aspects of tracking are more complicated with SEO than Google Ads and require an extra investment of technology. For example, if you are investing in local SEO and want to track phone calls from your website’s SEO traffic, we recommend investing in Dynamic Number Insertion (DNI) tracking so that your phone call tracking doesn’t sabotage your local SEO

Local SEO Has Limits

With local SEO map results, you’re limited by proximity—even if you serve a wide area. The good news is that you can still gain organic website listings, though.

Your Control Is Limited

SEO means you’re at the mercy of Google and its ever-changing algorithms. Going back to our house metaphor, it’s like building a home on someone else’s land—and you only get along with that person some of the time. The situation is always going to be a little precarious! 

The Pros of Google Ads

Here’s why some small businesses choose Google Ads over SEO:

Faster Results

As long as you’re willing to make large enough bids, you’ll see more results with Google Ads—and if you target the right keywords and audience, you’ll not just see traffic, but a return on your investment. If you can’t wait for the slow build of SEO, Google Ads is a better fit for you.

Robust Tracking

Because Google Ads is a money-maker for Google, it has a vested interest in keeping its customers happy with robust tracking and metrics. Google Ads comes with several options for tracking conversions to help you measure your ad results, including: 

  • Website forms
  • E-Commerce orders
  • Calls directly from ads
  • Calls from your website
  • Imports from sales that occur off your website (offline sales)

Targeted Advertising

Google Ads is known for its ability to target audiences with precision, but even more powerful is its ability to allow you to target specific search queries that match what you have to offer. Google allows you to advertise your products or services to consumers precisely when they are looking for them.

The Cons of Google Ads

Here are some of the downsides of advertising with Google Ads:

Higher Costs in Competitive Markets

If you work in a competitive niche in a competitive market, you can expect to pay a lot per click—for example, some attorneys will have to pay over $50 per click to their site. This is why precision targeting is important to filter out anyone who may not be interested in making a purchase or using your services.

It’s Not an Asset

We liken Google Ads to renting a house vs. owning one. When you stop renting, you don’t have an asset. After you stop paying for Google Ads, the traffic you’ve been getting comes to a complete halt.

If You Only Had to Pick One…

When Should You Choose SEO?

It will take a longer time to see results from SEO, but once your efforts start to be rewarded, you’ll generate continuous traffic over a longer period of time. Good SEO increases brand awareness, and it builds value for your website. We recommend SEO if your budget is smaller, if you already have an established business, and if you aren’t in need of immediate results.

When Should You Choose Google Ads?

Google Ads is an excellent choice for newer businesses that want to focus on sales and leads. They’re also a better option for anyone who wants faster results.  

Can SEO and Google Ads Be Used Together?

Of course! As mentioned above, the two strategies complement each other. If you’ve reached a point where you can devote an adequate budget to both SEO and Google ads, we recommend using ads to test which keywords convert best, then focusing your SEO efforts on these keywords.

Need Help With Search Marketing?

At Main Street ROI, we specialize in SEO and Google Ads services for small businesses, and we provide one-time projects as well as monthly management services.

Click here to request a quote for Google Ads

Click here to request a quote for SEO