In web marketing, two terms come up frequently: SEO and SEA. Their meaning is often blurry to neophytes but in reality, the differences between these two acquisition levers are numerous. They are often put in competition, but is it really right? SEO vs SEA we tell you everything!


SEO or organic search: what is it?

SEO stands for "Search Engine Optimization". This leverage is too often mistakenly referred to as "free search" because you don't have to pay Google or any other search engine to appear in the SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). However, while organic ranking ultimately turns out to be more profitable than SEA, it’s nonetheless a real investment from all points of view, financial as well as human resources.

The benefits of SEO

Regular traffic

Being positioned on organic results guarantees regular and qualified traffic . . After all, you don't have to rely on a bidding system that can knock you down in minutes if a competitor outbids you. In SEO, once a position has been acquired and consolidated, you can breathe, and appreciate this gain in visibility. However, this is not a panacea (universal remedy). To get and maintain good positions, SEO requires a long-term investment.

A long-term strategy

Setting up a SEO strategy means seeing far, very far! Unlike SEA, the results are not instantaneous, but they are lasting. It's a bit like buying a house: you spend a little more at the beginning, but you end up getting a return on your investment.

The cost

It would be wrong to say that SEO is inexpensive. Indeed, unless you are in a niche industry, the cost of an SEO strategy can climb quickly. Sometimes even when you combine the costs of development, content writing and consulting, it may seem like it costs more than SEA. As said before, it’s a much more profitable investment than SEA. Unlike SEA whose prices fluctuate, in SEO, the evolution depends only on you. With some elbow grease and the right tools, it‘s possible to gain good visibility.

Have better branding and an authority website

One of the other benefits of SEO is that it’s an "inbound" marketingstrategy. In other words, consumers come to you naturally. This lever is much less aggressive than traditional methods like paid ads, banner ads on blogs, or within video ads. Improving your SEO therefore means improving your brand image and notoriety without hasty advertising. By benefiting from better authority, your website will enter SEO’s SEO virtuous circle: you are appreciated by internet users, you are talked about and receive organic backlinks, so Google put you on the first page.

The disadvantages of SEO

Need time to get results

SEO’s first disadvantage is the time it takes to get results. Several months are needed to have sufficient hindsight to assess performance. At SmartKeyword, we regularly get very good results from our clients in 6 months, thanks to our method and expertise. Typically, results are measured after a year. This latency is due to the fact that the analysis of a website’s relevance (technical, popularity, content...) takes time for robots. Google's algorithm is based on more than 200 criteria, and websites are in constant motion. That’s why it’s difficult for robots to quickly establish a ranking.

Time spent

When you start SEO, you have to be prepared to put preconceived ideas in the closet, and spend a lot of time behind a computer. If no website perfectly meets the 200 criteria of Google's algorithm, you have to aim high if you want to stand out. This investment in human resources depends mainly on the level of competition in your market, your brand image, and website’s popularity . Some advertisers need to spend an enormous amount of time, while others only need to make a few edits to see results. It’s unfair but it’s the hard law of SEO!

Results that are difficult to measure

While it's easy to observe a traffic curve on Google Analytics and the evolution of target keyword positions, it's much more difficult to know exactly what action brought these results. And for good reason, good SEO results depend on many factors. Therefore, it’s very difficult to associate an action with a result. For example, if you invest $1,000 in optimizing the website’s performance, you will never be able to know how much it has actually generated. SEO is quite nebulous, and therefore creates some reluctance among ROI focussed advertisers. At SmartKeyword, we calculate each keyword’s revenue using data collected from both Google Search Console and Google Analytics, and hence can gage ROI per keyword.

SEA or paid search: what is it?

Faced with SEO’s drawbacks and the need to quickly make their website’s creation profitable, a large majority of advertisers and publishers embark (often in parallel with SEO) in an SEA strategy . SEA brings together all activities aimed at displaying advertisements in search engine results and on affiliate websites, through the purchase of advertising space.

The advantages of SEA

Immediate increase in traffic

SEA is mechanical. The more you invest, the more important the traffic will be. The principle is simple: you buy your spot on the first search results. So, unlike SEO, you do not have to wait for bots to analyze your website, compare it with that of competitors, and gradually push you up on the SERP. 

Quick and measurable results

Once again, unlike SEO, SEA is a very precise measure of your return on investment. Your campaigns’ statistics help you measure your ROI very easily: you have spent $1, you have made $3, so the campaign is profitable! However, be careful: not all campaigns are profitable. SEA requires specific skills to maximize campaigns ROI (ads optimization, landing pages definition, target keywords, etc.).

An infinity of tests

With SEA, you quickly know what works and what does not. In just a few days, you can get reliable and accurate results with which you can adjust your bids. Therefore, this is a very reassuring lever when you start on the web, provided of course that you get advice from an expert or get very good documentation (for example through a Google Ads certification).

The disadvantages of SEA

No acquisition lever is perfect, and SEA is no exception. It may seem very tempting to bet an entire web marketing strategy on it, but we will see that this is not necessarily a good idea. 

Costly campaigns

A Google Ads campaign can cost a real fortune in the most competitive circles. Some keywords cost several dozens of $ per click! In 2021, the estimated average CPC (Cost Per Click) in Google Ads is between $1 and $2 on search, and less than $1 on the Google display network. So, imagine the cost of acquiring a single keyword that generates several thousand searches. That’s why it’s thus important to think carefully about your SEA strategy before diving into it.

More money, more traffic

In SEA, you are only a “tenant” of your rental. In other words, if you stop paying, you become invisible again, which is not the case with SEO. So, betting everything on SEA is not a sustainable strategy because it would make you totally dependent on Google Ads. Keep in mind that a business can always have a hard time, and if it becomes unable to pay for its ads, it will get stuck in a downward spiral. That’s why it’s therefore better to have several tricks up your sleeve.

Should you choose between SEO and SEA?

Some sectors of activity are lucky enough to be able to rely solely on SEO, without suffering from the often unfair competition of SEA. This is the case for adult sites, gaming sites, e-cigarette sites etc. The others are faced with this dilemma. In reality, in the vast majority of cases, it is not necessary to choose between SEO and SEA, but to exploit the strengths of both channels. SEA helps to generate turnover quickly and to become known, while SEO allows you to position yourself in a sustainable way. SEA can also compensate for certain SEO weaknesses while you carry out your various optimisations. Generally speaking, each site should adopt a multi-channel strategy to improve its online visibility in a ROI-oriented way. 


There you have it! Now you know the differences between these two types of strategies. Rather than opposing them, you should seek to make them complementary. It’s essential to be positioned on the first page of Google results to generate traffic. From one project to another, goals differ, which is why there is no one-size-fits-all method. It's up to you to find the right mix!

   Article written by Louis Chevant

Further reading

The complete guide on the referencing of e-commerce sites

The 6 key steps to follow to correctly optimize your e-commerce site with a good natural referencing.