By the end of this day, Google users will have performed over five billion searches, which will generate over $150 billion in 2020. Likewise, Facebook will surpass last year’s revenues of $70 billion, which comes almost entirely from its ad network.
Google and Facebook are the largest traffic acquisition channels thanks to their large user bases, which you can attract through both organic and paid means.
But what is organic traffic? How does it compare to paid traffic? Should you prioritize one over the other? Let’s find out through head to head comparison of organic vs paid traffic.
What is organic traffic?
Organic traffic represents the visits that come from search engine results. These visits are considered “organic” because the website owner didn’t pay to show up high in the search engine results; rather, they showed up naturally.
Given that Google represents over 85% of the search engine market, talking about organic traffic is equivalent to speaking of Google traffic.
You acquire organic traffic from Google through SEO. To optimize your website, you need to:
- make it easy to crawl and index
- optimize your pages for select keywords
- write quality articles relevant to your audience
- build links from authority sites
Doing these steps is important because there are over 200 ranking factors Google uses to analyze your website and decide how high your content should appear in search results. While no one knows with certainty how Google uses them, we have a good idea which ones matter the most. You can find a list of these factors in this post from Backlinko.
When Google’s algorithm recognizes that your website is a quality and relevant source of information, it will rank it high in search engine results, which will drive traffic to your website.
How organic traffic impacts your bottom line
SEO gives website owners the chance to mine Google’s endless user base, who use search queries to fulfil several objectives:
- Find general information—e.g., “types of tennis shoes”
- Find particular information—e.g., “Nike shoes”
- Find commercial offers—e.g., “buy tennis shoes”
The nature of the user’s queries defines the behaviour once they reach a website. For example, users who carry commercial search queries will be much more likely to convert because that type of search implies a desire to buy a product. What’s more, consumers are highly influenced by the information they find online, as research from Salesforce and Publicis.Sapient found 87% start a product search online.
Even those who carry informational searches are potential customers; with the right approach, you can convert a large portion of your traffic into leads and customers.
Organic traffic is a scalable marketing channel with a low upfront investment; Google takes time to rank a page, but once it does, it usually keeps it for a while.
What’s more, organic traffic compounds in a virtuous cycle. Once a website has a high authority, it can get traffic from many pages all at once and rank pages faster, which helps acquire more backlinks, which drives more traffic, and so on.
Pros and cons of organic traffic
Ranking for search terms associated with a buying cycle lets websites attract profitable traffic for free. The sheer scale of Google’s user base makes organic traffic a powerful marketing channel.
Unlike paid traffic, positioning a website in Google requires a deep understanding of its ranking algorithm, which is secret and constantly changing. While Google has shared some of the most critical elements they use to rank a website, SEO takes time—months, if not years—to bring the desired results.
Once Google ranks a website, it tends to keep its results for years. SEO still requires constant attention as any other marketing channel and a lot of care in implementing tactics within Google’s guidelines.
What’s more, the benefits of attracting organic traffic from Google rest almost entirely on the top ten results that lie on the first page. According to Advanced Web Ranking, 67% of all clicks go to the first five organic results.
A study done by Backlinko found similar results:
- 59% of Google users visit a single page during their search session
- 6% visit four or more pages to get an answer to their query
- 9% make it to the bottom of the first page of the search results
Google’s emphasis on first-page results creates a zero-sum dynamic where only a few sites benefit from organic traffic. Unless you rank on the first page, and within these results, in the top result—if possible, in Google’s knowledge graph—you will struggle to attract organic traffic.
Let’s summarize the pros and cons of organic traffic:
What is paid traffic?
Paid traffic represents the visitors you attract by paying for advertisements. After they click on your ads, these visitors come to your site, which are usually at the top or bottom of Google’s search results, or within Facebook’s (or other social media platform) feed.
Google encourages advertisers to bid for specific keywords relevant to their target audience. Using our previous example, an online retailer of shoes could bid to rank for the keyword “buy tennis shoes.”
Similarly, Facebook allows businesses to promote content to specific audiences that they can create from scratch (using Facebook’s Audience Insights) or by contacting their website visitors and email subscribers through ad targeting options called “custom audiences.”
Google and Facebook make ads fit seamlessly within their platforms to avoid interrupting their user experience while acknowledging the presence of ads in their searches and feeds, respectively.
How paid traffic impacts your bottom line
Paid traffic is like a traffic-generating faucet you can open and close at your wish. All advertising networks charge companies only when their target audience interacts with their ads, whether that’s a click, impression, or action.
Unlike organic traffic, which usually builds up slower and is hard to control, paid traffic drives an immediate influx of visitors. Even though there’s no algorithm to please, Google and Facebook have strict policies that their advertisers must respect.
With paid traffic, you can grow your business while keeping your profits intact. Imagine 10% of your visitors become an email subscriber, 20% of which end up spending $200 individually. Based on these numbers, you know that, on average, attracting 100 visitors will generate you $400.
If you were to run a paid traffic campaign, you could spend up to $4 per click to break even (100/$4). Spend $2 per click, and you can make $600 in profit. Repeat this process, and you can grow your business faster than you would by working with organic traffic exclusively.
While this example may seem too good to be true, studies have shown that businesses make an average of $3 in revenue for every $1.60 they spend in Google Ads. As long as you can keep your costs intact, growing your business with paid traffic is a viable strategy.
Pros and cons of paid traffic
Paid traffic’s main benefit is that it’s fast. Creating an ad campaign takes a few minutes, and with the right training, anyone can do it. If you are willing to make the financial investment, paid traffic can be a great traffic acquisition channel.
Paid traffic is generally easier to scale than its organic counterpart. It might take a while and a lot of A/B testing, craft the right message and get the targeting right, and set up a working lead generation funnel. However, once you have that ready, the only thing you need to do to scale your PPC campaign is to increase the budget.
Once you start to see results with a paid traffic channel, like Google Ads and Facebook Ads, you can replicate the process in dozens of alternate paid traffic channels like:
- Instagram Ads
- Pinterest Ads
- Twitter Ads
- Google Display Network
- Native ads (e.g., Taboola)
Paid traffic has two main disadvantages. The first one is that it costs money. Only companies with the strategy and financial backup can use paid traffic successfully.
The second one is as important as the first one, and that is online users don’t like paid results. One study found that almost 80% of Google users ignore paid ads. A similar study discovered 44% of Facebook users avoid clicking on ads.
To run a successful paid ads campaign, your ads have to overcome the unfavorable outlook users have with quality content and interesting ads.
Let summarize the pros and cons of paid traffic:
Organic vs. paid traffic: Which one is better for you?
Despite its similarities and differences, organic and paid traffic aren’t antagonists but complements of each other.
When you start advertising on Google, it’s better to invest in paid ads to fast-track your results while working on your long-term SEO strategy. You can then fold your paid advertisement and focus exclusively on organic traffic, or work with both simultaneously.
A Databox survey found that 86% of marketers run PPC campaigns to support their SEO strategy. By mixing the two, you can:
- Create retargeting campaigns for your organic search visitors.
- Find the search terms your visitors used to find your website.
- Discover title and meta description tags that have the highest CTR.
Which traffic converts better
There’s no straightforward way to determine each type of traffic’s conversions, as it depends on your specific website and advertising methods.
The closest we can get to a real answer is to use the data we find. Since users don’t seem to like ads, it would be easy to conclude that organic traffic converts better. This is an idea that Databox’s survey confirms, which showed 70% of marketers found SEO a more effective way to drive sales than PPC.
When to focus on organic traffic
Organic traffic is ideal when you have no budget for your marketing. The only caveat is that it takes time, and time has an implicit cost associated with it.
Acquiring organic traffic on Google requires mastering SEO and content marketing. If you have these skills, or if you are willing to acquire them, organic traffic is the most obvious option to take.
Finally, organic traffic works when you are willing to do the upfront work and play the long-term. SEO can be painful and tiring due to Google’s secretive and erratic algorithm, but you can benefit greatly if you are ready to deal with it.
When to focus on paid traffic
Paid traffic is the ideal choice for companies with budget. You have to be willing to invest money to acquire the data needed to optimize your campaigns. You will even lose some of your early investments to acquire data to optimize your campaigns for.
Paid traffic is also ideal when you need to “shortcut” your results, even if it’s temporary. Given that SEO takes time, investing in Google Ads is worth it, especially if you use the data to optimize your SEO campaigns, as shown previously.
Finally, paid traffic is a fantastic channel to retarget visitors who already shown interest in your products or services.
The question of organic vs. paid traffic isn’t an easy one. There will always be pros and cons to each one; the only solution is to test them both and see how they work for your unique needs.
Now that you know how each one works and when you should use them, you can make the right decision and avoid any issues.
Ivan Kreimer is a freelance content writer for hire who creates educational content for SaaS businesses like Leadfeeder and Campaign Monitor. In his pastime, he likes to help people become freelance writers. Besides writing for smart people who read sites like Point Visible, Ivan has also written for sites like Entrepreneur, MarketingProfs, TheNextWeb, and many other influential websites.