Michael O'Neill

Do you want to pay a recurring, potentially volatile price for guaranteed traffic to your site, or do you want to make a one-time investment to generate that same — though not guaranteed — amount of traffic?

It’s a tough question.

But it’s the difference between paid and organic traffic. While the end goals are presumably the same, the means for achieving them differ greatly.

How do these seemingly diametrically opposed methodologies work in reality? And before you read any further, know that both types have a role to play in your marketing strategy.

It doesn’t have to be either/or.

We’ll break down each tactic, its benefits (and drawbacks) and its relevance to search engine optimization (SEO) today.

What Is Organic Traffic?

Organic traffic connotes visitors who arrive at your site via search engines — without you directly paying for this pathway. By clicking on organic listings that appear in search engine results pages (SERPs), users are trafficked to your website through their own natural initiatives. Consistent organic marketing efforts can help you establish a reputation for being transparent, trustworthy and reliable — which may attract long-term customers who value authenticity and are more likely to remain loyal to your brand.

Why would someone click on one search result over another?

For a number of reasons:

  • It appeared to be the most relevant and useful piece of information available on the page.
  • It appeared to be from a trusted, knowledgeable source.
  • It appeared to match their distinct search intent at that moment.

Organic search traffic is just that: organic. It empowers searchers to find information online that best suits their needs without being coerced or manipulated into clicking on paid search ads. Ad space is purchased by brands at a predetermined rate, granting them, essentially, first dibs on searchers’ attention when they land on a SERP.

organic vs paid traffic

You can think of paid ads as the artificial “1%,” living at the top of SERPs for no other reason than they could afford to purchase their way into mindshare.

Organic, on the other hand, relies on a more elemental business-searcher relationship without weighted scales: just the opportunity to meaningfully engage for mutually beneficial purposes. I (the searcher) want information, and you (the business) seem to have it.

Which Types of Content Are Best for Organic Traffic?

Organic traffic is generated through search engine optimization. You write search-friendly content, it appears in SERPs, users find your page and they click on it.

The practice of SEO is to produce the most comprehensive, practical and useful page so that it ranks high in SERPs and organic users are able to find it as seamlessly as possible. And while this pathway represents organic traffic as a metric, SEO is not a fixed, static tactic that guarantees that 1,000 website visitors today equals another 1,000 website visitors tomorrow.

At any given moment a competitor can produce a more effective piece of content and siphon away traffic from your site to theirs. So the primary focus of content marketing for SEO should be outranking competitor pages and keeping your pages updated.

This is typically accomplished through:

  • Blog articles, often evergreen.
  • Landing pages, product- or service-focused.
  • Videos.
  • Infographics.

Evidently, organic traffic is often top of the funnel, and searcher intent is informational. The key is to draw traffic to pages that will live on your site for a long time (or forever), that is optimized around a single seed keyword and that provide information in a UX-adapted environment.

organic vs paid traffic

What Is Paid Traffic?

Paid traffic from search engines arrives to websites when a user clicks on an advertisement placed on a SERP for a given search term. This ad is created and paid for by a company — with the aid of an ad platform – seeking to appear first in search engines.

As you can see, the goal of both organic and paid traffic campaigns is the same: increase website traffic by being clicked on more often than anyone else competing for the same search term.

Paid search advertising exists inside an automated open-auction bidding platform such as Google Ads. Google sets a price for a keyword and companies bid on that keyword. Google then:

  • Evaluates your maximum bid (often measured as pay-per-click, or PPC).
  • Assesses the relevance of your proposed ad as it relates to the term being bid on.
  • Assigns a Quality Score, a measurement of click-through rate, landing page quality and ad relevance.

As you look at SERPs, you’ll note that there are often several ads at both the top and the bottom.

Organic vs paid traffic google search
Organic vs paid traffic google search

So how does Google decide where to rank your ad?

As we’ve discussed in great detail before, Google SERP features are often incredibly targeted and commercialized for paid ads.

When there are a lot of bids for the same queries, in this case, “content marketing software” and “st pattys day gifts,” Google assigns an Ad Rank to your ad, which determines the position within SERPs in which the ad will be featured.

The quick formula is: Max Bid X Quality Score = Ad Rank = Search Position.

It’s also important to note that, in general, the higher your Quality Score the lower your cost-per-click (CPC). So you can actually decrease your ad spend by making your search ads as creative, targeted and relevant as possible.

Which Types of Content Are Best for Paid Traffic?

Because paid advertising requires consistent bidding adjustments and marketing expenditures, companies tend to use it more so for commercial-intent keywords.

Logically, if you’re going to pay for ad space, you’d ideally want that traffic to convert into customers as well. That way, you’re bringing your website traffic directly to your services and sales pages, shortening the buyer journey and, hopefully, closing a deal. Here’s the SERP for the query “blog post”:

Organic vs paid traffic google search blog
Search query for “blog post.”

There’s only two ads, accompanied by informational images in the Featured Snippet. That’s because “blog post” as a query is a mixed-intent term; it’s unclear whether someone just wants to learn basic information about blog posts or may be in the market to purchase blog post writing services.

Queries that have transactional intent are more likely to feature ads. Look what happens when I tweak the query to “blog post services”:

Organic vs paid traffic google search blog
Search query for “blog post content.”

The top 4 results in the search are all paid ads. That’s because it’s evident that the searcher is looking to hire a firm to write their blog content for a fee.

Thus, it follows that content formats that are sales-focused are most conducive to paid traffic.

Those assets might be:

  • Product landing pages.
  • Service offering landing pages.
  • Form fills.
  • Checkout pages.
  • Web demos.

A Quick Comparison

Proponents of the organic model often use this analogy:

Paid advertising is like renting a home. You pay recurring, monthly costs that may arise due to factors outside of your control.

SEO is like purchasing a home. You take out a mortgage (an upfront investment) but have long-term value (equity) and full ownership to show for it.

The validity of that statement is up to each marketer to determine, as there are definite benefits and downsides to each approach. Below is a chart detailing common questions and their answers:

Organic vs paid: Organic Paid Which is more measurable? SEO and surface-level metrics are hard to correlate to actual ROI, though possible with advanced GA knowledge. Ad metrics are automated, easily understood and easily tracked upfront. Which is more sustainable? Organic marketing is, by definition, an evergreen discipline. Once a web page is created, it exists forever, drawing traffic ad infinitum. Paid ads run only when they are funded. As soon as budgets deplete or CPCs get too high, it’s no longer as easy to justify ad spend. Which produces more ROI? SEO produces three times as many leads as paid search, over the long term. Because organic marketing typically takes six months to show ROI, paid marketing is actually more lucrative in the near term. ROI is, for the most part, estimated up front. Which is more cost-effective? Depending on budgets, tactics, time of year and industry, cost-effectiveness varies. However, SEO provides long-term ROI for a fraction of the cost as paid ads. For strategic, enterprise marketing programs, SEO is the best bang for your buck. Paid ads are more commercial, and also heavily dependent on seasonality and competition. Should a new business enter your market, or your peak season become more competitive, your ad spend can skyrocket exponentially just to return the same ROI - but with smaller margins. Which is easier to start right away? Organic is a perennial game, but choices made today can have windfall benefits tomorrow and every day beyond. As such, it requires more planning, talent and adaptability to potential search-algorithm changes. There is some level of technical know-how required, but a paid ad campaign is generally easier to get running. It often requires fewer people to be involved and less long-term planning.

The truth is that together, these strategies can create a well-rounded digital marketing plan that maximizes the chances of success.

Merging the Benefits of Both Traffic Sources

We often recommend a marketing duality. There’s a time and place for both organic and paid.

As seen above, if the opportunity exists for your company to own a high-value commercial-intent keyword, particularly around peak season, then you’d be foolish to not do so, even if that requires paid ad spend. While it’s always a balance between dollars in and dollars out, amenable CPCs that are within your budget should nudge you toward a paid ad model.

Conversely, if you’re looking to increase overall sitewide traffic, create shareable content for social media and distribute relevant materials to leads over email, then organic marketing is your surefire bet. You might want to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are your core goals?
  •  What is your budget?
  •  What is your timeline?

Now, work backward to determine your tactics, be they paid or organic.

We’ve seen success with this agile approach to digital marketing, as evidenced by a recent case study from a very niche client. Utilizing what we termed “balanced marketing,” we conjoined PPC and organic content to deliver a 63% lower cost per lead.

About 60% of the leads generated from this campaign originated from organic traffic, while 40% came from paid marketing.

We were able to achieve a cost-effective equilibrium between both models. Qualified leads exist across the entire spectrum of marketing; you just need to know how to target them.

Editor’s Note: Updated February 2023.