Organic vs paid search explained: what’s the difference?

April 19, 2024



Organic and paid search are two of the most commonly used digital marketing channels, seen every day on some of our favourite search engines, like Google and Amazon. Often referred to as SEO and Biddable/PPC, they are both legitimate ways to market your business to your customers on search engine results pages (SERPs).

Paid results (adverts) are purchased by the marketer, generally via a biddable model. Whereas organic results are completely free and based on a variety of ‘ranking’ factors. Generally speaking, if the search engine sells advertising space or ranks content chronologically based on a query – there’s a place for both.

In this blog, we’re going to teach you the distinctions between the two channels and enlighten you on how they can be used in harmony with each other.

  1. Organic search
  2. Paid search
  3. How can organic and paid search work together efficiently?

Organic search

Also referred to as SEO or non-paid search, these are rankings achieved based on a web page’s relevance to a search term. Organic results appear below the paid results, with ‘sponsored’ links taking up most of the initial page, particularly for the most competitive commercial search terms.

Organic listings are displayed chronologically below this, with the top positions occupied by the ‘most relevant’ results. The whole process is centred around a search engine’s algorithm, and the popularity, quality or technical performance of your page. In Google’s case, there are hundreds of potential ranking factors that could contribute to your site’s position on a SERP.

Some of these factors include:

  • The quality of your page’s content
  • The reputation of your website (Domain Authority)
  • Your website’s backlink profile
  • Page speed
  • User experience on the page
  • Technical proficiency of the page
  • Mobile friendliness
  • Keyword (search term) Optimisation

How ranking organically works

There are a number of distinct ranking factors that have been confirmed by Google but that list is likely much longer and growing as the platform evolves. There are also believed to be factors that haven’t been publicly disclosed that might also contribute to your website’s search visibility. By ‘optimising’ your site around these elements, it gives you the best opportunity to achieve a strong ranking position for any given search term.

Types of listings and appearance of organic results

Search engines now display many variations of organic listings. Gone are the days where your options were limited to 10 solitary blue links. Every year, Google’s SERP evolves to incorporate an increasing variety of ‘SERP features’ including:

  • Featured Snippets: Concise answers pulled from websites, displayed above organic results
  • Shopping Results: E-commerce products or services pulled directly from a site and displayed prominently
  • Video Carousels: Rotating or swipeable collections of video results relevant to your search
  • Images: Pulled from webpages and displayed for specific queries
  • Local Pack: Map and listings for local businesses relevant to the search query
  • And many more…

While a ‘tick-box’ approach to optimising your site, for instance, by inserting a target keyword into your page’s title, is a legitimate tactic. Google has been moving further and further towards a user-first approach in relation to how it ‘rewards’ content. In other words, creating web pages for people, not search engine algorithms. The quality, usefulness and relevance of what’s on the page now ultimately reigns supreme.

The elephant in the room, as far as organic marketing is concerned, is the length of time it can take to be rewarded for your efforts. Technical changes made to your website in the name of SEO can take weeks or even months to convert into traffic and revenue. That’s where paid search comes into play.

Paid search

Sometimes referred to as biddable or even PPC, this is a strategy in which you pay to have your ads (links to your preferred page) displayed prominently on search results pages, when users enter specific keywords or phrases. They look similar to their organic counterparts, except they feature a ‘sponsored’ tag and appear prominently at the top of the SERP. They are also blended tactfully at different points throughout.

Needless to say, there is a financial implication attached to paid search that enables your content to rank in the top positions for any length of time. The main benefit of this approach is prime visibility at the top of a search page, quickly. Enabling you to attract users to your products and services more hastily.

Which paid search platforms can you use?

Google Ads is the largest paid search marketing platform but there are others that you can leverage to get your website out to your audience. Just to name a few:

No two ad platforms are completely alike and as a marketer deciding which to leverage can depend on several factors including:

  • Budget
  • Advertising space
  • Creative opportunity
  • Platform user base

Which Paid Search Payment models are there?

Similarly, different platforms operate with different pricing models. Some platforms, like Google Ads, offer several. Here are some of the main ones you’re likely to encounter.

  • Cost-per-click (CPC) – a fee paid by the advertiser every time a user clicks their ad
  • Cost-per-mille (CPM) – a fee paid for every 1,000 impressions of their ad
  • Cost-per-acquisition (CPA) – a fee paid when a specific action is completed, such as a sale, form submission, or app download
  • Cost-per-view (CPV) – a fee paid every time a video ad is viewed
  • Flat Rate – advertisers pay a fixed rate for a placement of an ad for a certain period of time

This list is not exhaustive, there are other models that certain platforms will use, based on specific KPIs or engagement. In the context of Google paid search, cost per click is the payment model that most marketers operate within. But, you can also opt for CPM, CPA, CPV or even smart bidding – a set of bidding strategies that use machine learning to optimise around conversion probability.

Differing models have different benefits and drawbacks. A CPC model might be ideal for a SME looking to scale their business efficiently. On the other hand, a CPA approach could reduce financial risk of digital advertising campaigns and get you closer to a specific growth goal.

How can organic and paid search work together efficiently?

Since both channels usually occupy the same page (the SERP), it stands to reason that they can complement each other . By aligning and optimising your paid and organic marketing strategies, you can gain the edge on your online competitors.

One way you can harness both is by researching where your site currently ranks well, say within the top 3 organic results, and where it doesn’t, position 20 and beyond. If your organic presence is strong for a keyword or you have recently increased in ranking, you can likely save money by pausing PPC on that keyword and reinvesting elsewhere. Your new organic rank will likely convert as well as your advert, as it has achieved that rank through great content relevance.

Equally, for keywords where you are never realistically going to outrank a large competitor, turning on PPC will be the quickest way to get customers to the great products/services you’re selling, and increase traffic to your website.

If you do have the budget to activate both channels at the same time, ultimately it means more SERP real-estate for your brand, with the top of search pages being dominated by more ad-space than ever before. As well as brand awareness, paid search allows for quicker testing of ad-copy and landing pages. Analysing the success of these pages can give you valuable information to apply to the rest of the site, and safeguard future organic ranking.

Some other ways both can work together in harmony:

  • Local SEO and Paid Local Ads (paid ads increasing local search presence)
  • Paid Supporting New Product Launches or Promotions (Extra visibility to increase awareness)
  • SEO Content Amplification (Serving high performing organic content to new audiences)

Hopefully, equipped with these fundamentals, you will have a better idea of how you would like to use search-marketing to sell the wonderful products or services you’re providing.

At Harvest Digital, we’re proud to possess a wealth of experience in both paid and organic search, with dedicated teams that service clients of differing sizes, across verticals. If you want to learn more about paid and organic, or need help scaling your business, get in touch here.

Comments are closed.