Guide to organic search vs. paid search and when to use them

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 5 July 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Most Internet users use a search engine when they're online, collectively making billions of searches every day. All brands tend to use search optimisation techniques as part of their digital marketing, but they sometimes disagree over whether organic search or paid search is the better investment. For most brands, there are clear cases and occasions to use both approaches, often in a combined strategy for maximum benefits. In this article, we look at organic search vs. paid search, including their key differences and the different ways of using them.

Organic search vs. paid search

If you're new to marketing, understanding the difference between organic search vs. paid search strategies helps you excel in your field. Below is a breakdown of both terms:

Organic search

When people go online, they tend to type a search query into their web browser. The search engine returns a mix of websites and other Internet pages ranked by search relevance, plus other paid and relevant advertising. The organic search results are the non-advertised results. These rank according to the search engine's algorithm, taking into account the search query itself, the domain authority of the websites, the user's location, the user's device and the types of incoming links. Organic search is the most important form of traffic that a business can get to its website.

This traffic is naturally highly targeted and also highly likely to convert. This is because of the high degree of 'user intent', especially when compared to social traffic. When someone uses a search engine to make a query, they're looking for something specific and are highly motivated to find an appropriate answer. The search engine responds with ranked pages of content. The top five positions of these SERP pages are the most important to brands. This is because online users usually prioritise the first five responses. Some of the main advantages of organic search include:

  • more reliable than paid search and representative of genuine consumer interest

  • doesn't cost anything beyond the time spent on resources

  • delivers long-term returns when executed well

  • boosts brand credibility as customers seek organic rankings as a sign of trust and legitimacy

  • attracts only relevant online users

  • provides rich metrics and data to build on in future campaigns

  • works well with other marketing channels as part of a holistic marketing strategy

Related: Digital marketing skills: definition and examples

Paid search

Paid and organic search are both subsections of search engine marketing (SEM), but paid search is a paid-for service. With paid search, brands and organisations pay for search engine results via an auction system. Brands bid for rankings and populate their content within the auction system. The cost of the adverts depends on various factors, particularly based on the other competition for keywords and the maximum amount that competitors wish to pay for their rankings. The advertiser then pays the search engine when a user clicks on their advert and visits their website.

The cost depends on factors such as competition and the desired keywords. Advertisers can set a maximum budget for their paid search campaigns and manage their spending tightly. This contrasts with organic search, where the results are simply decided by the search engine's own ranking algorithms, according to the relevance, value, authenticity and location of the website. Some of the main advantages of organic search include:

  • a faster route to gaining more clicks

  • as soon as the campaign is set to go live, your adverts show in the target search results, and you start to receive traffic to your website or landing page

  • can set your own budget with Pay Per Click campaigns, allowing you to manage your budget tightly

  • gives useful data for SEO strategies, such as keywords aligned to relevant demographics

  • attracts users with a high purchase user intent who are actively looking to buy

  • works for all budgets as even small brands can launch tightly defined paid search campaigns and assess results

  • integrates with other marketing activities, such as digital marketing, email, SEO and social media

Related: How to become an SEO expert

Differences between organic search and paid search

The major difference between organic search and paid search is the cost. Paid search seeks to buy rankings quickly, whereas organic search is a longer-term strategy that builds unpaid search rankings over time. Businesses use SEO to optimise their organic search rankings and visibility in search engine results. With paid search, businesses pay to receive a high-ranking spot in search results. Most businesses blend both approaches to maximise their benefits.

Related: What is PPC management? Everything you need to know

Disadvantages of organic search and paid search

As with all forms of marketing, there are potential disadvantages for brands to consider. These apply to paid search and organic search alike and include:

Disadvantages of organic search

The main disadvantage of organic search is that it takes time, analysis and effort to see a result from SEO work. This makes it an investment strategy that requires marketers to develop the skills to gain and then retain their Internet real estate against competitors. When brands cease organic activity, competitors gain traction and take their top positions in the SERPs for highly targeted and relevant keywords.

Organic search requires experience and insight alongside an investment of time and effort over a longer period. Digital marketers deliver these campaigns and constantly update their own tactics and knowledge in response to changing search engine algorithms. Unless marketers are up to speed with these new algorithms, their efforts may fail to achieve the necessary returns.

Disadvantages of paid search

Paid search requires ongoing maintenance and upkeep for campaigns to be successful. This is because competitors are constantly launching their own campaigns and aiming to attract the same customers. This approach also costs money upfront, which can be challenging for smaller brands and startups with smaller budgets. Paid search also offers short-term results which aren't necessarily self-sustaining. Campaigns tend to be short-lived and need constant refreshing and funding. You also pay the search engine every time a user clicks your advert, even if they don't convert on your website.

For best results, invest in your digital assets before paying to direct traffic to them. Optimise your landing campaign, carefully target and optimise your PPC campaign for the right demographics and campaign parameters and have high-margin products so you can see a profit after your paid search campaign costs. Effective paid search campaigns require the skills of PPC experts with specific knowledge in the field. Without this, it's easy to waste your money without seeing a clear return. Online PPC systems can be complex, and smaller business owners may struggle to set up and manage campaigns without dedicated resources.

Using organic search and paid search together

The best approach for most brands is to combine paid search and organic search as part of a holistic and integrated digital marketing strategy. Paid search is useful for rapidly gaining traffic to a readily optimised website or landing page. When paid search campaigns are tightly crafted and defined with clear demographics and niche keywords, they're a fast and affordable way of generating pre-qualified traffic with ready purchase intent. This may be expensive to maintain over time and it requires constant payment to maintain inbound traffic, with the risk of competitors gaining traction with their own better-funded campaigns.

For this reason, most brands also invest in organic search simultaneously and seek to build up SEO strategies that generate solid Internet real estate and traction. This involves investing in quality and relevant content, backlinking, meta and website optimisation, authority site linking, local search listings and reviews. With time, skill and effort, they can build up the reputation, trust and credibility that persuades search engines to rank their content favourably for users' search queries. This is more reliable over time if done well and with the necessary degree of time, focus and work.

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