Balancing SEO and Paid Search

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can be confusing, even for experienced marketers. For one thing, the rules are always changing. Search engines like Google and Bing frequently update the algorithms used to determine webpage rankings. Managing both your paid search and organic search strategies can be a balancing act, leaving many retailers wondering whether they have their priorities (and budgets) straight.

By comparing two retailers - one who devotes their marketing budget to SEO, paid search for the other - you will be able to see the benefits and differences of each strategy, and how far an investment will take them. You will also see why putting all your eggs in either the SEO or paid search basket leaves you at risk for missing good digital marketing opportunities. Luckily, most companies are savvy enough to invest in more than one digital marketing channel.

Retailer Comparison

To help break things down, let's look at two completely opposite (and completely fictional) retailer examples. To make things fair, both are new companies with a monthly $10,000 digital marketing budget. Neither had previously spent any budget on SEO or paid search.

Retailer Sally's SportsPeter's Pens
$10,000 Strategy SEOPaid Search
Reason for Strategy? They want to optimize their web properties while they're still new, rather than retroactively update them down the road.Because they need to repay their startup costs soon, they're looking for a channel that will generate profits quickly. They don't want to wait 3-6 months for an SEO investment to pay off.
Getting Started

Sally's Sports creates tags for their webpages and builds out their link strategy. Their in-house team starts a sports-focused blog to build visibility and keywords. Through this optimization work:

  • They attract around 5,000 low-impression keywords to their site.
  • They experience a small (1.5:1) ROI in the first three months.
Their initial SEO efforts take almost 30 hours/week - leaving them less time to spend on other marketing priorities.

Peter's Pens buys 500 keywords using Google AdWords and bids on several variations of high-impression keywords. Through their efforts:

  • They immediately see ROI of 2:1.
  • Within the first three months, they see campaign profitability of $10,000.
They're only spending 10 hours/week managing their campaigns. They decide to invest 25% of that back into their AdWords campaigns, and now have 750 keywords and $12,500 in spend that generates $12,500 in profit.
The Midpoint
(End of Second Quarter)
The company's SEO efforts begin to bear fruit, and they spend only ten hours a week on SEO. With their strategy in place, their keywords grow to 30,000, which leads to increased traffic and conversions on their website. So far, their SEO has generated $40,000 in profits. Given this success, Sally's Sports decides to reduce SEO spending to $2,000 per month.Peter's Pens is spending more and more time on paid search, especially as they add more keywords. They check their campaigns at least once a day - to adjust bids, search for keywords, and monitor competitors. With so much energy spend on paid search, there is less time for other business priorities.
One Year Later

Sally's Sports is pleased with their SEO progress. However, they notice that their website's organic listing is always pushed below the top two paid search ads, especially on mobile devices. On the other hand, by refining their tags and website architecture, their product pages now include all the data they'd need for listing on Amazon, so it could be a relatively easy move to start selling on that marketplace soon.

But just when they think their strategy is moving along fairly well, they wake up to find that one of the search engines has updated their search algorithm. Their organic traffic fluctuates downward, and their keyword dominance shifts. They regret cutting their SEO spend - SEO just seemed less expensive when visibility and reach were growing.

Every time Peter's Pens thinks they're getting ahead, their cost per click (CPC) increases. Their paid search strategies are becoming more complex and harder to manage. New competitors show up every day, and the company's not sure their efforts are differentiating them from their competitors.  They could hire a new employee to help out, but that would double their AdWords reinvestment cost.

They feel like they're borrowing from tomorrow to pay for today.


If only Sally's Sports and Peter's Pens could consult with each other, they could each understand the merits of the other retailer's preferred strategy. Sally's Sports could see that paid search could buffer her company from changes in search engine algorithms. Peter's Pens could realize that an SEO strategy could reduce the time and money his company spends on paid search. It would be the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.

Takeaways: What You Need to Know

Though the examples above aren't exactly realistic, they highlight a few basic best practices for balancing your SEO and paid search efforts - and budgets:

  • Save for a rainy day. Leave some extra slack in your SEO budget for algorithm changes, which could dramatically alter your strategy. Keep in mind that for every new keyword you add to your paid search campaign, you also add another bid. 
  • Look up, look ahead. Recognize when the demands of managing your PPC campaigns are encroaching on your ability to make other business choices. A warning sign is being so focused on your campaigns that you can't look beyond the next 30 days. 
  • Diversify. Both SEO and paid search have their benefits, but focusing too much on one without the other can lead you to overlook other key components of your business. Think of SEO and paid search as two foundational pillars of a larger digital marketing strategy - they both have to be present to support additional efforts.

Help keep the balance - visit our Paid Search Strategy at ChannelAdvisor section on the Strategy & Support Center to learn more.

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