“Where should I spend my money?” is a question we often hear from clients looking to maximise their online marketing budget; it’s also a popular discussion at search conferences and one that we fiercely debate in the office. It isn’t, however, a question with a straightforward answer.

Search for ‘SEO vs PPC’ and you’ll see numerous articles comparing the advantages of each, though they typically conclude that the services can and should be used collaboratively. As much as we’d agree with this, there is a certain level of fence-sitting going on. It’s easy to say that both provide value, but the fact that businesses are still asking which provides better value to them suggests that the finer details of this debate are still unanswered. And therein lies the next level to this discussion – how are businesses quantifying whether either SEO or PPC are deemed “best”; there are many factors that could be the focus here, from return on investment and the level of conversion to the quality of traffic and time taken to gain visibility.

Now, to bring a hand grenade to this exchange and with my SEO colours firmly nailed to the mast I’ll simply open with some cold hard stats; interest in PPC is waning. 1-0 to SEO.

OK, this obviously this doesn’t paint the whole picture. This represent the worldwide trend; the pattern in the UK is similar but with a slightly reduced gap, whilst product-specific searches (notably ‘adwords’) show an overall higher level of interest with a curve more similar to the blue SEO line above. Monthly UK searches for SEO paint a similar picture to the trend with 33,000 for SEO compared to fewer than 10,000 for PPC. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting graph; the point of change appears to be early 2009 and the only significant search change at this time was Google’s Vince update – an update that was said to benefit bigger brands for generic organic results. It’s unlikely that this one update led to a general move away from PPC. In any case, at the point that the two lines crossed SEO as a search term was already on an upward trend with PPC beginning to decline.

Rather than debating the growth and decline of either, or the individual pros and cons of each channel, we’ve taken a look at data across specific industries to explore paid and organic performance and look for any more relevant trends. We’ve also balanced the discussion out with some intersecting thoughts from our Paid Search manager Andy Darnell.

One of the first patterns we noticed across all of the accounts we reviewed was the split between B2B and B2C websites. Over the last 12 months 100% of B2C sites ran paid search campaigns in addition to paying for organic search, this compared to just 67% of B2B sites. Whilst we cannot fully comment as to whether paid search presented a worthwhile opportunity for each of the B2B sites who do not have live PPC campaigns (factors such as high competition and costs are likely to have been a factor), there is clear reason to suggest that this channel is seen as less valuable by these firms. Looking at the average of each traffic channel as a percentage of the site traffic in B2B, organic made up 48.34% whereas paid (for sites where PPC ads were running) only made up 17.04%. In comparison, for B2C sites, organic and paid traffic percentages were much closer at 39.96% and 32.04% respectively. We’ve provided this data in a table below for easier comparison.

This data would suggest that PPC simply isn’t the priority for B2B sites. Even for those who have paid campaigns running, the average split shows that organic is currently much more important in driving traffic. This doesn’t mean that these B2B sites aren’t investing at all in search; all of them are actively spending to improve their organic visibility. What this doesn’t yet show us is the quality of the traffic that each channel provides. For the most straightforward comparison we’ve compared the conversion rate for both organic and paid; this includes the ecommerce rate where relevant or the key goal conversions on the site (made up of contact enquiries through forms or call tracking where available). What was interesting was that despite paid search appearing to be a low priority for B2B sites, this traffic converted the highest at 7.41%. Paid search also provided the best conversion rate for B2C sites at the somewhat lower 5.42%. Organic brought lower conversion rates with 5.98% in B2B and 4.59% in B2C. It’s no surprise that PPC actually brings a higher level of conversion, with much more control over the landing pages that appear in results as well as a general focus on optimising converting terms. So why are many B2B sites seemingly putting less focus on this channel?

Table 1: Breakdown of organic and paid performance by sector.

“And herein we hit the proverbial nail right on the head! The differing behaviour of the traffic shows a definite and clear trend around the B2B conversion rates.

What this would appear to imply is that more of the searches coming through the organic channel are for research, whereas the data suggests that the paid clicks are focused more around the converting end of the funnel.

Admittedly the process of actually generating a conversion (whatever one might be classed as) is likely to be longer and less of an impulse purchase than you might find in a traditional B2C ecommerce scenario. So this is why it is no surprise to see such a large proportion of B2B traffic coming in from the organic channel which is clearly a much more content focused approach to answering a particular question posed in a search.

However as with all PPCers our natural position is to always refer back to the numbers and the number I’m seeing is a higher conversion rate than SEO!”

Andy Darnell, Paid Search Manager

Boy, that escalated quickly. After a bit of a warm up into this SEO vs PPC contest all we’ve really managed to do is redefine our opening question (slightly) to “Is there a PPC opportunity for my business?” – that appears to be the area that some businesses in B2B are currently missing out on, despite the stats showing the value of this traffic. We’ve accused existing articles of sitting on the fence, but making a decision between PPC and SEO is never going to be so straightforward, it’s about assessing the value in each individual business case. As we mentioned earlier, this comes down to what a business is looking to gain from a search campaign. In our study we’ve used the level of conversion as the measure but we alluded to other metrics that may be a business focus.

This is a topic we’d like to look at in more detail as there are a lot more questions, such as those raised by Andy, which need answering. As in Anchorman 2 we know that these kinds of fights only get bigger and better, often with celebrity cameos. We’ll try to bring as much of this as possible in our next chapter!