Google Organic Search vs Paid Search: What’s right for your business?

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Joshua Barr

With so many opportunities and platforms within the online space, it can be difficult to understand which ones are right for your business and how to exploit them effectively.

One of the most powerful tools are of course search engines, with Google processing 40,000 searches every second and around 90% of all online journeys beginning with a search query. However, a lot of marketers and business owners are dazzled by the complexities of search engines and how to turn the opportunities they hold, into achievable results.

Before we elaborate on search engine strategies and what tactics could be appropriate for your business goals, it’s important you understand the basics of how their complex algorithms work and what you (or prospects) are seeing on those search engine results pages (SERPs). There are lots of search engine options but by far, the most sophisticated and well established one is Google, taking an 88% share of all online searches. For this reason (and the fact we’re an official Google partner), we’re going to focus on their platform. 

What is Organic Search?  

Organic search results are generated when a user types a query into Google. In most cases these results are accompanied by other formats such as paid ads and product listings. However, what makes organic search results different to these other results is that they have appeared because the linking page is highly relevant to the search query (not because they have paid to be there), combined with a good level of website user experience (UX).

Google also ranks organic search results by relevance, so if you click on the top organic result for any given search query, that is the most relevant and qualifying webpage on Google’s database.

By “qualifying”, we mean according to the 1000’s of signals Google uses to rank pages to a given query. Without going into too much detail, following content relevance, Google also ranks sites on aspects such as mobile responsiveness.

If you perform a search on a mobile device but the most relevant webpage (in terms of content) is not mobile responsive, Google will prioritise the next highly relevant webpage.

This is because the user is far less likely to stick around on a page which has poor formatting and UX, so the content of that page is almost irrelevant as a result.

Essentially Google’s priority is ensuring that the user finds the most relevant information, in the quickest time, and with the best user experience. Of course, that’s easier said than done. – What if you operate within a competitive industry and your competition are really savvy at keeping up with the Google algorithm? There are only so many opportunities to appear on the first page, so if there’s lots of competition, you’re going to need to continually optimise your website in line with Google’s latest best practices. This process is known as Search Engine Optimisation, often abbreviated to SEO.

SEO is usually the umbrella term used for Organic Search, when in reality SEO is the process of achieving an organic search position. It’s a common misconception that an organic search result is free and has not been paid for. Yes, it doesn’t cost the organisation for an impression or click on their organic link. However, most organic results appear because the organisation has spent a lot of time ensuring their relevancy to the search query and compliance with Google’s algorithm.  That time is spent by their internal team, or in most cases outsourced to an agency like ourselves, and none of that time comes for free. Obviously in cases where there is minimal competition, there are less hoops to jump through and it is far easier and less time consuming to achieve the top spot.

What is Paid Search?  

Paid Search is another method of achieving a position on Google’s SERPS, however this type of result is classed as an Ad, because the result is displayed due to the advertiser paying Google to display it. The benefit of this type of search engine result is that it’s one of the only methods which allows advertisers to achieve the top spot on Google, if they are savvy enough to beat the competition.

Whilst this type of advert is essentially auction based, there’s much more to gaining a position than simply having a competitive bid.

Just like organic search, Google uses lots of signals to decide whether an ad should rank, and at what position, including but not limited to website mobile responsiveness, ad and landing page relevancy to the query and user experience.

All of these factors are summarised by a metric called ‘Quality Score’, which works by way of a rating system, categorising each advertiser’s ad quality from 1 to 10.

How does Google rank advertisers?

So how does Google use all of this info to rank advertisers? Here’s an explanation from Google’s chief economist Hal Varian:

To summarise, Google uses the advertiser’s bid, multiplied by their quality score, which then gives an overall ad ranking figure. The advertiser with the highest ad rank then achieves the top spot, the second highest achieving the next available position and so on. Once all advertising positions are used up on the results page (this number varies), the advertisers with the lowest ad rank are dropped from appearing at all. Unlike a traditional auction, advertisers also don’t pay the value of their bid when a user clicks on an ad, they pay the minimum amount to beat the next most competitive advertiser. This method of bidding means that the advertiser in position one doesn’t always pay more than those in lower positions, because Google favours relevancy and user experience.

Every time someone searches for a query on Google, a new ad auction begins. This means that ranking of ads can change minute by minute, for the same phrase on the same day. For instance, an advertiser may bid more competitively at certain times of the day, or even for certain locations, genders and/or age groups.

This means that if a 45-year-old female in Huddersfield searches for ‘black leather handbag’, they’ll get a very different set of results to a 25-year-old male in Wakefield, searching the same query on the same day.

An advertiser has full control of what they spend in a given day, as they tell Google their daily limit (e.g. £10 per-day), so once they’ve received a number of clicks which equate to £10, Google will stop showing their ads for that day. Sometimes Google may spend £12 on a day with more expected traffic and reduce it to £8 on another day, however the advertiser will never spend more than their daily budget x 30.4 (average days in a month), in a given month.  For example, a budget of £10 per day equates to £304 over any given month.

Every advertiser has different budgets and aspirations, so an advertiser who is competitive on a morning, may not have enough budget to continue being competitive into the evening, or they simply may not want to show at that time of day – this might be particularly relevant to an advertiser who has a physical store location with standard opening hours, rather than an e-commerce offering available 24/7. An adequate budget would be considered as allowing ads to show for all qualifying searches in a given day, based on the custom targeting the advertiser has set.

Which one should you use?

We’ve covered the basics of both organic and paid search, so now you’re probably thinking about which one is likely to work for your business. You’ll find when speaking to other companies, agencies or individuals, that they’ll tend to advocate one or the other, based on their experience or indeed their competencies from an agency perspective. However, there’s no one size fits all strategy and what might work for one company, may not work for another. Bespoke tactics are the key to success online and ultimately, to generate maximum results (profitably, of course), it’s likely a holistic strategy of both organic and paid search is the only way to gain maximum results and efficiency.

Let’s take a look at the features and benefits side-by-side:

There are clearly some similarities between organic and paid search, but it is their differences that allows for superior results when used in combination. Users who click on ads are generally different to those who click on organic results. Someone who typically uses organic results is unlikely to click on an ad, however that’s not to say that if an ad is in the right place at the right time with the right message, they won’t click on it – they are highly likely to!

Google have conducted research based on 1000s of results, clicks and split tests to demonstrate the power of a combination strategy:

This graphic clearly demonstrates that an advertiser with a position one spot on both paid and organic, will receive up to 50% more clicks than using just one tactic in isolation. This number increases as we move down the result rankings, so an ad ranking in position two, with an organic position of two to four, will gain 82% more clicks than using one in isolation and so on. When a business chooses just one tactic over the other, whilst profitable results may be gained it’s unlikely to perform and achieve the same level of results as aggregated strategies.

You may decide you still want to pursue organic search as a stand-alone strategy, whether that be from a perceived cost saving, or you perhaps have a better place to focus your limited resources. A lot of businesses choose this method and whilst this conflicts with the very advice this article gives, we can fully understand the perception and choice behind this. However, it’s definitely worth noting that if you want to adopt this method, in the short term you should definitely be considering paid search. Any efforts focused towards organic positions won’t take effect instantly, in fact you’ll be lucky to see any results until around 8 to 18 months down the line. Paid search on the other hand can be instantaneous, so you could launch a campaign today and gain new enquiries and customers tomorrow.

In instances where businesses have a name that contains generic products or services within their industry, it’s highly recommended to have a brand-led paid search strategy in place.

A good example of this is our client’s site ‘Flooring Warehouse Direct’ – below shows search results on their own brand name, when they don’t use paid search:

As you can see, they don’t appear until their organic search result shows (5th result down). By using paid search, they can ensure the top spot so their customers and prospects can easily identify them:

The benefit of this tactic is that it protects the Flooring Warehouse Direct brand and means that less competitor ads appear, because they’ll never be as relevant as a brand is, for their own name searched as a query. Moreover, the cost of a click on an ad of this type is very minimal, as the brand is so relevant, competitiveness is based on the query, rather than the bid.


We’ve now covered the basics, the fundamental similarities and differences, and more importantly why and when it is best to use both paid and organic search in combination or indeed in isolation (rarely!). So now it’s time to think about how you should use these tactics and apply them to your own business. If you’ve used one or both of these channels before and had little success, it could be worth reflecting on why, based on your newly found knowledge.

We’ve found with most clients who have had negative experiences with organic and / or paid search in the past, it is often because of poor implementation and execution, not because the channel simply doesn’t work for their business model. There are 100s of ways to target customers effectively through both paid and organic channels, so working with an agency or internal team member who understands your business model inside and out is key.

There’s far more to organic search than simply making sure you are appearing. If you are appearing for a given term, is it the best term that page could rank for? Even if it is a high-volume search keyword, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one. Keywords with very low search volumes don’t hold enough opportunity, whereas high volume searches bring a lot of competition with them and are often too generic. In most cases (especially for SMEs), there will be a happy medium which will deliver optimum results for your business. However, understanding the process of selecting the right term is complex, so it’s always worth getting a professional opinion.

You might be thinking that Google ads has become more automated and as a result, easier to use as a DIY option. However, the world of automation is a dangerous one for marketing budgets, especially in an SME B2B setting, where products and services are often niche and markets and customers are complex.

This means human logic prevails for businesses like these, i.e. low(ish) volumes of traffic and searches, with massive cross-over for consumer led markets, which the business does not serve. This means ensuring constant optimisation to stop appearing for irrelevant terms, users and demographics is key. It’s difficult for Google to determine these factors because unlike a person, it can’t understand the intrinsic detail of your business model and customers. For businesses like this, whilst organic will work for them, it will generate a lot of wasted traffic, whereas with paid search there is far more control on when, where and how an ad appears.

If you’re still unsure as to how paid or organic search may work for your business, or you don’t feel that you are using them effectively – please get in touch for a free Google strategy appraisal.

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