Paid vs Organic Traffic: Which Is Your Best Investment?

Christy Walters


February 24, 2023 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

pictures of cars driving down an eight lane road to represent paid vs organic traffic

When you’re starting a new marketing campaign, where should you begin? Should your focus be on paying for quick traffic or should you focus on an organic strategy that pulls in people over time? Today, we’re looking at paid vs organic traffic and discussing the benefits of engaging in each one to help you decide which option is your best investment for a new campaign:

What Is Paid Traffic?

Paid traffic is any channel or website visit referred to your brand from paid campaigns, like search marketing or social media ads. You earn most of your paid traffic through automated, open-auction bidding campaigns. Tools like Google or Facebook Ads exist to help marketers navigate that landscape. They allow you to find ad placement and positioning slots and keywords up for sale.

Then they let you choose your maximum bid and the content you share for each one in the hopes of attracting more traffic. Finally, you can use special targeting features, such as reaching your audience by demographics or behaviors, to make sure your content only appears in front of the right people to increase your traffic flow.

Related: What Is Paid Traffic and How Can You Attract It? 

What Is Organic Traffic?

Organic traffic is any website or channel visit referred to your brand by unpaid marketing campaigns. Users who click organic links in search, click your website link from your social media profile, or find your content through an organic link on another website all count as organic traffic. Pulling in consistent organic traffic from a variety of sources shows that your brand has a good reputation in its industry. To keep up an organic traffic volume, your content has to be helpful and your audience has to trust your brand to provide good information, advice, or products and services.

Related: How To Get Free Organic Traffic to Your Website

Similarities Between Paid vs Organic Traffic

pictures of cars driving down an eight lane road to represent paid vs organic traffic

Image via Unsplash by @chuttersnap

Organic and paid traffic have a few things in common, like:

Advertising Channels

You use most of the same advertising channels to attract both paid and organic traffic. But you use them in different ways over different periods to snag your audience. Search engines, social media platforms, and marketing partnerships are just a few of the shared channels you can use to grab both paid and organic traffic.

Take search engines, for example. To grab organic traffic from this channel, you work hard to perfect your web and content SEO. This allows your pages to rise through the ranks and appear at the top of search results for specific keywords. That can attract organic traffic to your channels when people search those keywords. You can also attract paid traffic from search engines by paying to have your links and ads appear above, below, or next to organic search content for specific keywords.

Brand Awareness

You can collect brand awareness from both types of traffic. You just do so in different ways. Organic traffic campaigns, like content marketing, rely on addressing customer pain points. They also provide knowledge to help your audience solve problems. When you do this, you build thought leadership in your industry and trust with your audience. They come to know your brand as a good source when they need more information.

Paid traffic campaigns help people become aware of your brand through repeat exposure. The more times your search ads show up at the top of their search engine results pages (SERPs) or in their social media feeds, the more likely they are to take notice. This leads to more clicks on your content. In either case, your audience learns your brand exists and generates traffic by clicking on your content and visiting your website or other channels.

Lead Quality

You can receive traffic from your most qualified leads from both paid and organic campaigns. The difference is how fast you appeal to them and draw them in. Paid marketing campaigns often let you bring in your most qualified traffic more quickly, but for a shorter amount of time than organic campaigns. This is because you’re targeting them specifically through placement, demographics, and other metrics. But when the campaigns end, you lose those targeting tools.

It typically takes longer to attract your most qualified leads through organic marketing campaigns. You have to focus on audience research, optimization, and other long-term factors. But once you find the right balance to pull in your qualified leads, you can do so for as long as your content or website stays live online.

Differences Between Paid vs Organic Traffic

Despite their similarities, paid and organic traffic have many differences, including:


The biggest difference between paid and organic traffic is the cost it takes to reach each group. Organic traffic comes from unpaid sources. Your search engine optimization (SEO) efforts, social media posts, and similar content efforts all generate organic traffic. Paid traffic comes from paid marketing sources. Search engine marketing influencer partnerships, and boosted social posts are examples of paid marketing options.

Earning paid traffic doesn’t have to break the bank. But you do have to put out money first to earn the viewership. With organic traffic, your efforts are free, in terms of where and how you display the content. Organic traffic may have fees that come from working with a content marketing agency to write the copy or buying a subscription to a program that helps you optimize your content.

Content Types

The types of content you use to attract organic and paid traffic differ, slightly. While there can be some crossover between the two, you most often use text and banner ads for paid marketing. These appear on SERPs and across other websites. They encourage your audience to click and visit your website or channels. Organic traffic often comes from content marketing. Articlesblog posts, and visual content like infographics or videos are the most common organic traffic attractions.

Search Engine Positioning

The search engine positioning for paid and organic traffic is slightly different. Paid marketing campaigns have designated spots within a SERP. They appear before the first organic result at the top of a SERP or at the bottom of a SERP under that page of organic results. Some paid results may also appear in pseudo-featured snippets, such as a shopping carousel that shows up at the top or along the right side of the SERP.

screenshot of a paid marketing search shopping carousel for women's high heels

Organic content can appear anywhere within a SERP on any page of results for a keyword or phrase. The higher your content ranks for that particular term, the better chance you have of grabbing more traffic. Organic content also appears in featured snippets throughout a SERP. When your organic content appears in a featured snippet, you often have a better chance of pulling in traffic. It’s a better bet than even if your content appears in position one at the top of a SERP.

Related: What Is Search Engine Positioning and Why Does It Matter?


Before you can pull in paid traffic, you often have to slap a disclaimer on your content. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has specific rules about endorsements, paid reviews, and influencer marketing among other types of paid marketing campaigns. These rules require your company or your marketing partners to disclose when they’re showing an audience paid or sponsored content. Even search engines put an “Ad” or “Sponsored” label on text ads to show that they aren’t organic.

The addition of a disclaimer could affect your traffic flow. Some searchers refuse to click on disclaimer content. They find it less honest or helpful than organic content. Other leads and audience members don’t care one way or another. While there’s no way to get out of marketing your paid content with a disclaimer, if you’re worried about losing traffic, you can opt for organic content instead. It doesn’t require any sort of warning or message for the audience.

Result Speed

Your brand often grabs more traffic faster from paid marketing campaigns than organic campaigns. That is, after all, why you’re paying for placement. You want to put your ads and content in prime positions where your most qualified leads see and engage with them. Organic marketing campaigns can take between six months and a year to even see your first set of positive results.

This is because content search engine bots and crawlers have to find and index your content. Then it has to start appearing in search and real users have to interact with it. From there, you can earn backlinks and shares, which increase your authority and ranking potential.

You don’t have to go through all those steps, and all that waiting around, to see traffic pour in when you use a paid campaign. Most brands often see an uptick in traffic just minutes or hours after they launch a paid campaign. If you’re looking to pull in an audience for a time-sensitive campaign or event, paid marketing can help you get that traffic quickly.

Flow Consistency

Though it takes longer to get initial traffic from organic campaigns, the audience engagement you get from them is often more consistent and reliable than that of paid traffic. Paid marketing campaigns only benefit your brand during their duration. You might see a lot of engagement and traffic while the campaign is live and you have that targeted placement around the internet. But once the campaign is over, you lose most of that traffic as quickly as you grabbed it. You won’t be able to count on consistent paid traffic again until you put out money for another campaign.

While it takes longer to find and attract an organic audience, once you do, it’s easier to keep them coming back consistently. Most organic marketing campaigns, like content marketing, can stay online forever unless you decide to take them down. This type of evergreen content, when optimized and updated regularly, could bring in a steady stream of free traffic forever.

ROI Potential

Your return on investment (ROI) potential is actually better with organic traffic than paid traffic, especially in the long term. It’s often hard to wait to see the ROI from your organic content marketing because it takes time to track that growth. But once you do, organic strategies typically outperform paid marketing strategies.

The ROI of your organic and paid marketing campaigns relate back to their cost. When you run an organic campaign, you could potentially plan and run the campaign entirely cost-free. In that situation, any money you make from the campaign is a return on your investment because you didn’t put any money into it upfront.

Compare that with a paid campaign. You have to put at least a little bit of money in every time. Before you make any returns on that campaign, you have to earn back what you spend and break even. Then you can turn a profit.

Related: How To Measure the ROI of Content Marketing

Campaign Tracking

While you can track metrics for both paid and organic traffic, it’s often easier to track engagement for paid campaigns. Earning paid traffic is pretty cut and dry when it comes to traffic and measurement. Most paid ad platforms have analytics programs built right in. They give you data like:

  • The amount of money you’re spending per click, impression, or action for each keyword or placement
  • The estimated traffic volume for each keyword or placement
  • Your competitors’ paid marketing behaviors for the same keywords or placements

When you have all this information, it’s easier to predict your ROI for any campaign. You can also determine if paid marketing is a beneficial strategy for your company. And you can access all these metrics before you even spend a dime on a campaign.

Tracking organic traffic isn’t impossible, but it’s tricky. SEO is a less straightforward marketing strategy. Many of Google’s rules and influencing factors aren’t public knowledge and they change slightly with every algorithm update. While you can use tools like Google Analytics or Ahrefs to predict keyword rankings and estimate incoming traffic from all sources, it’s not as easy and clear as tracking your paid traffic.

Learning Curve

And speaking of SEO being less straightforward than paid marketing, it also comes with a bigger learning curve. Again, this is because we don’t know all the rules of SEO and we don’t know when they’re going to change. That means you have to constantly read, research, and learn about what Google and your competitors are doing in the SEO space.

Engaging in paid marketing does have a bit of a technical and mathematical learning curve to plan your campaigns just right. But the rules of paid marketing change less often. Once you learn the basics, it’s pretty easy to get a paid campaign up and running and repeat it again and again.

Funnel Stages

Most of your paid traffic comes from leads who are at the bottom of the marketing funnel. these audience members are ready to make a conversion, whether it be buying a product or service or signing up for an event. They know what solution they need and they want it now. That’s why paid marketing works better for time-sensitive and short-term campaigns.

In contrast, organic traffic comes from any stage of the marketing funnel. Whether people need information, comparison content, or are ready for that conversion, you can attract them with organic content. Plus, you can tailor your organic marketing strategies for different phases of the funnel so you’re pulling in the most qualified and relevant traffic from each stage.

Related: How To Target Search Intent in the Marketing Funnel

Should You Try To Attract Paid or Organic Traffic?

Though there are many differences between these two types of traffic, your marketing and sales efforts work best when you try to attract both. Engaging in both paid and organic marketing together instead of paid vs organic traffic campaigns can help increase your reach and meet your audience where they spend time.

Organic marketing helps you reach your audience consistently by targeting specific problems, pain points, and questions. They can access this information 24/7 when they need it. Paid marketing helps promote special initiatives like sales, events, or time-sensitive materials. When you find a balance in attracting both types of traffic, you can get the most out of your marketing materials. You can also attract the most qualified leads to your brand.

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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