Small Business: SEO or Adwords?

Which is right for you?

by James Mawson, February 2015

So you want to

Be on Page 1 of Google

That's where customers go when they want what you've got.

There's two ways to get there: you can spend money on Adwords to appear in the paid results, or you can get ranked in the organic results.

So which is better? There's no “one size fits all” answer. It depends on who you are.

Be warned

There's So Much Self-Serving “Advice” Out There

It bothers me that so many marketers publish material that tells the whole world that one method is unequivocally better than the other.

By some weird coincidence, the method they're pushing just happens to be the one they sell a service for.

Let me declare my interests here: I sell SEO services. I've also been contracted to write landing pages for Adwords campaigns. I don't manage Adwords accounts for clients, but I have managed them for my own projects.

And I've worked with clients who have made a decent chunk of change from both methods.

Does this mean I'm not biased? That's impossible. My ideas are shaped by my own unique set of experiences, same as everyone else.

But you can be assured that I'm calling this as I see it, without skewing anything to talk up one particular method.

So let's begin

Adwords is Great if You're in a Hurry

Adwords is great if you've got the budget and you're in a hurry. You can test a campaign quickly. If it turns out to be a dead end, you can “fail fast” and move on quickly.

Organic search campaigns work on a longer time scale. Campaigns go for months or years. It takes a few months for results to come, and they don't all come at once; some rankings are very long term projects.

Getting organic traffic fast is especially a long shot if your website is brand new.

This makes sense really: having some history is a good clue that you might be a real business, not some churn-and-burn black hat spammer. Google's a lot kinder once your website has a year on the clock.

Patience is Very Expensive for Some

It's a well-worn saying: time is money.

But it's a lot more money for some.

Fixed costs like rent, salaries, or servicing loans on large capital costs can leave you bleeding cash while you wait for organic traffic to start pouring in.

Here, the cost of relying on SEO could be far more than the cost of implementing the campaign. SEO is an investment in traffic months from now. Adwords will bring clicks in as soon as you have the campaign running.

On the other hand, maybe you run your business from home and have no employees. You'll still have your expenses, because we all need a roof and a meal and that costs money. But it's a lot less money than if you paid rent on a ginormous warehouse/showroom facility and service a loan on seven figures worth of machinery.

You have more freedom to consider a longer term investment in website traffic when your patience is less expensive.


What Gets More Clicks?

0% of clicks are organic



Here's the deal: buying all your clicks from Adwords can win you only so much of the available search traffic

If you're a small fish in a large pond, a slice of the paid traffic might be enough to keep you in work.

But if you're out to dominate your market? Organic search is where the action is.


It's Easy to Dip Your Toe in the Water With Adwords

Adwords is very scalable.

You can test out your offer and landing page with small purchases of traffic, and if you like what you get back, you can buy larger amounts of traffic.

Because of the lead times involved in an organic search campaign, it's a lot harder to test ideas and then make your mind up. By the time you start getting the results back, you will have already committed a lot of resources to the campaign.

On your own

Doing It Yourself

More blessed with time than money? Want to learn new skills? Do your staff have not enough to do when it's quiet?

It's very possible for business owners to learn to do either SEO or Adwords for themselves.

But on the whole, SEO tends to be a bit more forgiving for the DIY type.

Because you pay for Adwords with your credit card, beginner mistakes can be very expensive.

It's hard to throw yourself in headfirst if you're time rich but money poor.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's very possible to step in some dog poo as an SEO newbie. If you start playing with black hat SEO tactics, Google penalties can be very expensive.

But if your SEO campaign is based around developing the best content you're capable of, and then promoting it to a genuine audience of real people - as it should be - then you don't have to worry so much about making expensive mistakes.

It's also very possible to do much of your SEO in-house and hire a freelancer for the tricky bits.

We can all get along

Adwords and SEO Can Be Friends

There's a lot to be said for doing SEO and Adwords together.

Adwords data can inform your SEO campaign. If you have any concern about whether or not an organic keyword is going to bring you any buyers, bid on it. You will learn soon enough whether these people buy your stuff. If the keyword's a dud, this is a much cheaper and quicker way of finding out than going to all the trouble of ranking for it.

Adwords is also great for A/B testing. Send 100 clicks to one piece of long form copy, and 100 clicks to another, and see which converts better. Use what you've learnt to better sell to your organic search visitors.

Using either traffic source well is much bigger than just bringing in clicks. It's about refining your pitch. It's about getting into the head of your customers. It's about keeping them onside so you can sell to them not just the first time but again and again. Use either traffic source to get good at these things and you can apply what you've learnt to the other one - and to other online and offline lead generation tools.


Which is More Stable?

Google's search algorithm has had no end of upheavals.

Entire business models have been wiped out by changes to Adwords too.

Let's call this one a tie.

In either case, these changes have been aimed at clearing out low quality results.

If you're not clogging the internet up with rubbish, this should be less of a worry.

Taking your eye off the ball

SEO is More “Set and Forget”

Adwords campaigns require constant monitoring.

You'll either need to do that yourself, or pay someone else to.

An SEO campaign is also never really finished. If you rest on your laurels too long, someone will outrank you.

But you can leave an SEO campaign alone for a few weeks at a time without much worry. You can walk away from it in your busy period then return to it when it's quiet.

Leaving an Adwords campaign to run unmonitored for the same length of time can be very expensive.

Metrics Matter

What Are Your Competitors Doing?

Adwords and SEO are both inherently competitive enterprises.

The cost of Adwords clicks depends on how aggressively your competitors bid for them.

And the difficulty of an SEO campaign depends on how strong the other websites are on page 1.

For this reason, you shouldn't make this decision based solely on general remarks you read in an article - even if it's a very good article, like this one.

Do some research and look at some data about what's happening in your market. That's always a better move than trying to put the whole strategy together in your head.

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