Which is better, paid ads or SEO?
It’s one of the most common questions in the world of marketing.
But while my experience and knowledge come from content marketing, my answer might surprise you.
Should eCommerce startups invest in paid ads or SEO?
Here’s the short answer—paid ads.
Paid ads are the fastest way I’ve seen to prove product-market fit and start turning a profit.
Most eCommerce startups should only think about content-driven SEO until they have consistent and profitable customer acquisition via paid ads.
What follows are my more detailed thoughts on the matter.
Why you should (almost) never start with content
The main reason I recommend ads over SEO for eCommerce startups is the time frame.
Paid ads get results—good or bad—within weeks, days, or even hours. You can iterate fast, which is exactly what a startup needs. You must find product-market fit as soon as possible and start turning a profit.
But SEO results are measured in months, sometimes years. That’s just too long for most eCommerce businesses I know.
eCommerce store owners can’t burn through millions of investor dollars like hotshot Silicon Valley startups. Every day without profits is one day closer to shutting the doors.
I’ve worked with brands without product-market fit before, and the experience was frustrating for them and us.
Without a clear target market, the content was unfocused. Old content had to be deleted or revised every few months when the brand pivoted. And the content budget was paused during tough times, meaning results were inconsistent.
While it sounds counterintuitive, an eCommerce startup must start with a short-term focus if it wants the chance to become a long-term company.
Why you should (almost) always grow into content
Over the long term, content marketing ROI is almost always better than that of paid ads.
An ad stops bringing in new customers when you stop putting money in. Content marketing only gets better—an article delivers most of its value after it’s been online for a year.
Once you have a reliable stream of customers with ads, content is a great investment. And you’ll get even better results since you’ve taken time to understand your customers.
One exception: the SEO everyone should invest in
You might have noticed I’m using terms like “content marketing” or “content-focused SEO” throughout this piece.
But there’s another type of SEO every eCommerce store should invest in from day one—following on-page SEO best practices for product and category pages.
These improvements are (relatively) fast and easy, and product and category pages tend to convert better than anything else. Ranking a category page at the top of Google is worth an afternoon of SEO work.
A basic SEO roadmap for maximum profitability
Here’s my recommended blueprint for eCommerce startups deciding between paid ads and SEO.
Stage 1: If you’re brand new, start by setting up your store without much regard for SEO (it doesn’t matter at this point). Experiment with paid ads to sell products.
Stage 2: Once you see some patterns with who buys using paid ads, update some on-page SEO. Choose keywords, improve product descriptions, and fix major technical issues like duplicate content or slow loading times.
Stage 3: Keep investing in ads. Learn as much as you can about what works. Keep running ads until you have at least one campaign that “works.” Every eCommerce business has a different magic number. But that number is usually a variation on LTV > CAC, where the customer lifetime value is more than the customer acquisition cost.
Stage 4: Once you have at least one ad campaign that works, invest in SEO. Start by improving everything you can on-page since that delivers the best (and fastest) ROI. Then publish evergreen content that will be relevant years from now. Spend a good chunk of your content budget on promotion—I’d recommend at least 50%. Experiment and learn what types of content work best for you.
Stage 5: Once you have ad campaigns and content marketing strategies that work, you’re in the final stage. Put the bulk of your budget toward what you know works, but always experiment with something new.
And there you go. If you’re in stage four and are ready to invest in content marketing—or want some expert advice for what on-page changes would deliver the best results, let’s talk.