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

February 22, 2023
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Since 2012, over 90% of users have been regularly using search engines to track down answers to their burning questions, with Google alone handling over 40,000 searches every second.1,2 And in this seemingly endless sea of queries, search engines present users with two types of results: paid and organic

From a business standpoint, potential customers can support a company by clicking on either. But each has its associated pros and cons, and knowing the difference is crucial for brands seeking to hit a new stage in their growth.

No need to Google any further. Businesses looking for answers on how paid and organic fit into a successful digital marketing plan will find the full breakdown below.

Organic and paid search, defined

When a user types “why is my cat so painfully unloving towards me?” into a search bar, they’ll be whisked off to a page full of all the grumpy cat-related content they can hope for. Along with answers that closely meet their query, they’ll also be met with some advertisements.

The first few results will display an ad tag hidden somewhere inconspicuously near their metadata. These are paid ad results and differ from the organic search results  beneath them. But what separates them, and how do they receive their respective spots?

  • Organic – So, what is organic search? Organic searches operate solely by comparing the content of the user query with the information available on the searchable internet. Search engines like Google use complex algorithms to determine the best matches between what the user is looking for and the quality content available online.3
  • Paid – Paid searches connect companies that invest in organic SEO (search engine optimized) advertising with users who look for similar products or services. These results will generally pop up due to specific keywords the company has targeted for its advertising, even if they aren’t as closely matched to user queries as the organic results.4

In practice, that user who typed “why is my cat so painfully unloving towards me?” may first see semi-related cat-centered advertisements, like paid spots for wet pet food brands. This would likely occur due to a company choosing “cat” as a target keyword for advertising. After scrolling past the paid results, they may see something more obviously relevant, like how-to pages outlining how to convince a cat to like you.


Paid media agency

How do paid and organic search compare for brands?

There are countless reasons for companies to invest in paid and organic advertising online, but let’s take a look at the unique benefits of each and why it matters for businesses.

The benefits of organic search

Whether they intend to or not, every website that standard web crawlers access participates in formulating organic search results. If their content is publicly visible, Google and other search engines take them into consideration when assembling results—even if they end up on the third (or twentieth) page. 

Optimizing organic searches presents a myriad of benefits to businesses, including:

  • Cost-effectiveness – It can cost exactly $0 for a company’s page to show up as the first organic option on a search engine results page (SERP). You read that right: there are no inherent costs associated with Google selecting a company’s page as the top result. That said, brands who keep up with SEO trends and invest in SEO marketing services are best poised to earn that coveted position (but more on that later).
  • Earning user trust – Put simply, most people do not like being advertised to, with a whopping 96% of consumers reporting believing ads to be untruthful.5 That means, when they see that tiny sponsored tag next to a result, they’re highly likely to scroll past it. The numbers don’t lie, either: 94% of SERP click-throughs occur on organic links, even if users have to venture past the top results to get to them.6
  • Perpetual returns – Paid search can be useful, but when a company stops paying for Google’s top spot its pages will quickly fall to wherever their place in the organic order is. An organic result that ranks highly on SERPs, though, can drive traffic for the entirety of its lifespan on a website.

Even more impressive? Highly-ranked organic results can have a snowball effect on website traffic, as the vast majority of users click on one of the top few results.6 

How does organic search work?

The higher a business’s page appears on SERPs, the more website traffic will come its way. Maximizing organic traffic flow is a strategic method of driving curious customers to a company. Users who come across a page organically means that they are sincerely invested in their query and, correspondingly, will probably be more interested in whatever the business is offering. 

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the name given to the game of trying to appear at the top of searches. Both organic and paid searches employ SEO tactics. SEO refers to a field of consistently changing, complex techniques that can help a page rank higher on SERPs. 

Writing posts and pages to outrank others is a complicated task, and that’s why many businesses opt to hire an SEO company to get the most out of their search results.

The benefits of paid search

Google and most other search engines offer paid options for companies to promote their pages via sponsored search results. The prices each engine offers vary, but the benefits hold true across different platforms:

  • Skip the line – When a company pays to have their search promoted to users, it appears as the first (or one of the first) results on the SERPs. Browsers who crave quick results are likely to click the first link that pops up on their screen. Ergo, paid searches can be a method for driving traffic to a company’s site. A study from Google itself noted an 80% increase in brand awareness for companies that used paid search advertising.7 
  • Matching user queries – Paid searches generally return results based on specific keywords typed into the search bar. Promoting relevant language centered around a company’s products and services means that customers will see ads that are more likely to align with their interests or the problem they want to solve. 
  • In-depth analytics – Google will give you a basic breakdown of the traffic driven to a company’s page through organic searches. But if a business is after a richer, more nuanced analysis of how often their ads are being viewed, who’s seeing them and what keywords are prompting users to click through, a paid search package is how they’ll get that data.8

How does paid search work?

One of the primary ways businesses can purchase ad space on SERPs is through Pay Per Click (PPC) auctions. 

PPC auctions function similarly to other auctions, but with a few twists (also, no auctioneers). To begin:9

  1. Advertisers create accounts and campaigns with search engines detailing specific keywords, markets, and demographics they want to target in paid results. 
  2. Companies decide how much they’re willing to pay to reach their target audience and set the rate on their profile.
  3. When a user searches, the engine determines how well their keywords and profile match the requisites of different companies with similar targets.
  4. The displayed paid searches are those of the companies willing to pay for that particular customer, and they get billed for the click if the user decides to navigate to their site.

Determining how much to bid on ads and which keywords and demographics to target are the primary tasks of advertisers considering paid searches. When these queries become too complex for in-house staff, consulting a digital marketing agency or content marketing agency can help businesses steer their campaigns. 

Find your SEO spotlight with Power Digital

Whether you’re paying to be the top search engine result on Google or anxiously waiting for your page to explode organically, customers will be quick to click away from your company’s site if they find the content drab, boring, and uninspired.

If you want to revitalize your brand’s online presence with click-worthy ads and electrifying content, join our roster of clients who’ve seen over 700% increases in traffic to their sites. At Power Digital, we specialize in the full suite of digital marketing services, from Search engine optimization to the creative that’ll earn you new traffic and captivate your current followers.

Want more info on what we offer (paid and organic)? Schedule a consultation to hone your online presence and start getting cozy in those top SERP spots.



  1. Pew Research Center. Search Engine Use 2012. https://www.pewresearch.org/
  2. Internet Live Stats Google Search Statistics. https://www.internetlivestats.com/
  3. Search Engine Journal. What is Organic Search?. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/
  4. Search Engine Journal. What Is PPC & How Paid Search Marketing Works. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/
  5. Forbes. 7 Reasons People Hate Your Ads And What To Do About It. https://www.forbes.com/
  6. Search Engine Watch. Organic vs. Paid Search Results: Organic Wins 94% of Time. https://www.searchenginewatch.com/
  7. Think With Google. New research shows search ads drive brand awareness. https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/
  8. Google. About measuring paid and organic searches. https://support.google.com/
  9. Search Engine Journal. What Is PPC & How Paid Search Marketing Works. https://www.searchenginejournal.com/

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