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Are you being seen or sunk?: SEO vs PPC for Start-ups

27 Jun 2023
10 mins

‘Which is better: SEO vs PPC?’ – this is a question many digital marketers are faced with on the regular and in truth, there is no correct answer. As such, the choice to opt for Organic Search Strategy (SEO) or Paid Search (PPC) or a blend of both, is subject to analysis of your organisation’s resources, industry and audiences.

Andrew Chen explored the deadly dangers of paid ads addiction to early-stage companies in his article ‘How startups die from their addiction to paid marketing’.

In this article, we build on his thesis and explore the value of PPC and SEO for startups and how they can be leveraged effectively, when controlled. We also include quotes from our experts and our paid search partner, Clear Click

Which stages of the start-up journey and growth cycle could you use PPC (or Ads) effectively and how important is it for an early-stage company to consider and plan organic ‘SEO Strategy’?

General advantages of SEO vs Paid


As a general rule, SEO is a longer-term strategy, aimed at building topical and technical authority for your website and ultimately improving your popularity with Google and positioning in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). In contrast, PPC is more of a short-term, quick-win method to drive sales and conversions through paying to instantly appear in the top results of SERPs for chosen keywords or search queries. In SEO, you pay for consultants to advise and implement website changes, this can be ongoing and iterative and results are lasting and any traffic/click is free. In PPC, you pay for each click on your adverts and traffic stops when payment stops.


The key differences across important categories are summarised in our table below…



Let’s break down some of the more substantial differences to consider…


Short-term vs Long-term Results

Is it all in the timing? Despite its immediacy in attaining Marketing Qualified Leads (MQL’s), PPC doesn’t have SEO’s long-term acquisition potential. SEO is a key consideration for early-stage startups as well as established businesses, it can not only build a sustainable marketing funnel but can increase awareness in established markets through High Traffic Informational content and aligned product messaging, Learn more on SEJ. SEO has legs which can go the distance and deliver lasting ROI. Though it takes longer for results (sometimes 6-12 months), the leads are easier to grow at scale than that of PPC, which can deliver quick, but short-lived results dependent on external market forces. Get creative with viral strategies/ possible network effects of unique product features and referral marketing and don’t be afraid to put time into SEO as suggested by Andrew Chen

“...empower your creative team to attack the problem from all angles- new viral product features, really investing in your referral program, building out your content/SEO strategy even though it’ll take years. It’s worth the investment!”

Andrew Chen, ‘How startups die from their addiction to paid marketing’

Investment requirements

As mentioned above, SEO costs more when it comes to time-input and there are costs associated with carrying the work out (e.g. Freelancer or Agency fees as well as SEO tool subscriptions), however given its scalability and sustainability as a strategy, it is cheaper in the long-run.

"When marketing spend is squeezed and online demand stays the same, SEO should win even when there are no further investments being made in SEO. This could ultimately change many businesses’ perception of SEO – it is a long-term game that works well without requiring any paid marketing efforts."

Marcus Tober, Semrush.


Discover more expert predictions for Search and SEO developments in 2023.

PPC can be expensive, however this is subject to the industry and competitive landscape. PPC can be an excellent way to drive sales on a specific product or campaign in the short-term, and spend can be calculated smartly if investing in a specialist agency who can ensure ads are good quality and targeted to correct audiences with purchase intent.

Resource wise, SEO could require a large team of expert specialists as well as content writers and creators, depending on the size of your operation. PPC has one-time set up for Google Ads and requires a smaller team of specialists to run analyses and set up campaigns.



Again, largely at the mercy of market dynamics, user behaviour and other factors such as the quality of your product/service to date…it’s hard to know what sort of results to expect from PPC and SEO. On the whole, SEO results tend to be more favourable, for example a study from Hubspot concluded that SEO generates more leads than any other marketing initiative for 57% of B2B marketers. Further, market analyses into the best investment in 2023 also push SEO as a more successful option, ‘on the first page alone, the #1 organic result is 10x more likely to receive a click and has an average CTR of 27.6%.’

Placements on the first page of google are said to drive the majority of clicks and engagement for any given search query, with only 0.63% of searchers clicking on something on the second page, in this regard PPC is strong as it guarantees a position on page 1 and in the first few results. However, studies show that in order to fully capitalise on clicks and traffic, an organic position needs to be held over time and not just in the short-term. 

"With PPC, start-ups have the ability to target specific audiences with precision and pay only for the clicks they receive. This level of control allows for more efficient use of marketing budgets, and can quickly generate leads and sales. Additionally, PPC offers a wealth of data and analytics that can be used to fine-tune campaigns and optimise for maximum ROI. While SEO can be an important long-term strategy, it often requires significant time and effort to see results. For start-ups with limited resources, this can be a major obstacle. By contrast, PPC can generate immediate results and provide a clear path to growth and success."

Alistair Mains, Director & Founder, Clear Click.


Startup growth models – which stages of the cycle are PPC and SEO most effective?


SEO – a critical channel for any GTM (Go-To-Market) strategy  

Any startup needs a clear idea of their go-to-market strategy. This involves a step-by-step strategy to help underpins successful product/service launch in its chosen marketplace. GTM should effectively identify and diagnose the market problem(s) and position the start-ups product as a solution and often includes target audience analysis, marketing plan and sales strategy. Still asking yourself – what’s a GTM and why does marketing have so many acronyms?! Learn more over on Hubspot.

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) is a critical part of GTM, something that can help your business build long-term acquisition funnels and brand visibility. When building customer personas and user journeys, content marketing and keyword research can come in very handy. Having an initial understanding of the type of content and messaging that will speak to your customers sets you up for lasting success. Launching investment straight into paid from a content and user trust perspective can have its downfalls, the danger of lacking authenticity and coming across ‘salesy’ is often not the best way to gain sustainable leads which are aligned to business goals. 


Don’t discount ads completely 

Search ads can be used for some advantages such as validating a start-up idea, with immediate results which can inform further product development and audience targeting. Facebook or Google ads allow instant targeting of specific and niche audiences, ensuring your content is at the top of their searches. This could form a solid experiment, monitoring the behaviour of target customers such as pre-sales, click-through-rates or downloads of initial content on a landing page set up as a starter for the micro-campaign. 

Four key startup phases are DiscoveryValidationEfficiency, and Growth. Paid ads come in at the validation and growth phases;

  1.  To run experiments and ensure your offering reaches the correct target market and to help boost organic launch campaigns.
  2. To start running marketing campaigns on a bigger scale in wider markets (this is often in line with acquiring growth capital to fund some of these efforts).

Although PPC campaigns can be integral in justifying your marketing or product decisions in trial interactions with customers (e.g. Google Responsive Search Ads (RSAs) ads targeted to a specific string of search queries for a few weeks)… The first order of business is to ensure you have product-market fit underpinned by strong messaging and content positioning (where the SEO GTM comes in), without this PPC will be a waste of resources, as it can only help to boost your growth not start it.

Although requiring some investment and input, organic traffic is free and scalable in the long-run. In order to grow sustainably as a startup, ongoing content creation and optimisation is essential. This is evidenced by ahrefs, 1.1M visits to their site come from search engines alone, if bought with PPC, that traffic would cost an estimated $2Million a month, read more in their article about how to grow and invest in SEO on a startup budget.

"The most important thing to understand about paid ads is that they are growth amplifiers, rather than growth drivers. And you cannot amplify zero."

Abdo Riani, Forbes


Below is a diagram of the lean startup growth and development cycle (base diagram sourced from Neil Patel Digital). It displays the stages where SEO and PPC are both most useful, SEO at earlier experimental stages, during finding product-market fit and later when continuing to enhance the product/offering. PPC, is most useful during exploratory phases, where things are being tested and feedback is being implemented as well as when tapping in to high growth channels when the product is more advanced.


Overall, building out a content and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) strategy has long-term benefits and isn’t as volatile and subject to external forces as Pay-Per-Click Advertising (PPC). But which should you opt for when entering a highly competitive and crowded market where your product/service needs a short-term awareness boost? 

Search is a crucial driver of early-stage business growth and understanding how to leverage organic and paid search is essential. If you have a lower budget to allocate to marketing, but want to maximize long-term SEO growth as opposed to quick results to validate a more seasonal or short-term product boost, SEO is your channel. Conversely, if you find yourself with a need to drive traffic and sales to a specific landing page instead of at all stages of the funnel and have a more novel product, Paid search is preferable. Compare your objectives with the checklist below to get an idea of which engine of growth should be driving your organisation. 



For a more specific and tailored plan, get in touch with our experts on how to grow your digital presence. 


For more information on paid search optimisation, we work closely with our partner Clear Click. We offer specialist services on all aspects of Search Engine Optimisation (technical, content, domain and link management etc). Additionally, we offer various Strategy and consulting services, for example product messaging and Go-To-Market consultancy. 

Tagged in SEO and Start-ups

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