SEO Traffic vs. Paid Traffic vs. Organic Social Media Traffic

2 semi trucks squaring off

These days I’m chasing traffic like nobody’s business.

Pre-Penguin I focused on organic search traffic.

For a couple of years after Penguin, I focused on free social media traffic (Facebook page traffic primarily).

18 months ago or so I started focusing on paid traffic (Facebook ads and native ads).

These days I’m chasing all three to the absolute best of my ability.

It’s great having 3 decent sources of traffic (although free social traffic is the lowest in terms of traffic volume of the three).

My Traffic History

To date I have the following experience with all 3 types of traffic with my largest B2C niche site:

  • Spent nearly $1 million on Facebook ads and native advertising
  • Pulled in 3,200,000 organic search visitors
  • Managed to get 180,000 visits from Pinterest
  • Attracted approximately 500,000 visits from a Facebook fan page (this is a big guess because I can’t decipher paid vs. organic Facebook traffic in Analytics… if you know how, please leave a comment).

Given the above figures, it’s time to share the pros and cons of each type of traffic.

Why is it important to explain the pros and cons of different traffic sources?

I get a lot of readers asking about what’s the best source of traffic when starting out.

After all, it’s not easy focusing on all 3 traffic sources soon after a website launch.

When I launched, I focused on paid, followed by organic social followed by organic search.

Why that order?  Because I wanted results fast.  Paid is the fastest, followed by organic social followed by organic search.

Let’s break down the pros and cons of paid vs. organic social vs. organic search traffic:

Pros of Paid Traffic

It’s fast:

This is a no-brainer. If you want traffic in 30 minutes, pay for it.

I’m not a patient person.  I want results fast.  I can set up paid campaigns in minutes and get traffic.  You can too.

Okay, it’s not that easy because while you can get traffic instantly, it won’t necessarily be profitable out of the gates.  You’ll need to test a lot, and I mean a lot to make money from paid traffic but once you have a winning campaign, cranking up profits is easier.

Chances are, and assuming you’re in a niche that works and are well monetized, you can generate profits faster with paid traffic than with organic SEO.

Easily scalable into massive profits:

Once you have a positive return on investment (ROI) from a paid campaign, making more money is a matter of increasing the ad budget.  Now, this can be tricky on Facebook because adjusting budgets can impact ad performance.  I wish it weren’t so, but it’s been my experience.

If you prefer not messing with an existing winning ad campaign on Facebook, you can launch an identical ad but start it with a higher budget.  This doesn’t guarantee similar results, but it’s worked for me.

Generally, the key with low cost Facebook traffic is punching out a lot, and I mean a lot of adsets.  Wait 3 days and pause the losers.  Hopefully you have a handful of winners.  Do this every day for a month and hopefully at the end of that month you have dozens of winning campaigns.

If you us Bing Ads and/or Adwords, scaling up is super easy and adjusting budgets doesn’t impact results nearly as much as it does on Facebook.  I use PPC primarily for my local marketing gigs and it’s awesome.  That said scaling is limited due to geographic restraints.

It’s the best way to turbo charge a new website:

If you want to get the word out about your site, buy targeted traffic.  It’s that simple.  Even if you break even on the front end, depending how you monetize on the backend, it’s worth buying that traffic.

People will sign up to your email list.  People will share your content.  People will discover your website.  You may even get a few links.  These are all positive results of traffic.

Email subscribers:

If you attract email subscribers, paid traffic is the fastest way to build up a large list fast.

Social fans:

If you use Facebook ads, you’ll attract fans with the ads.  Once you have fans, you can get organic social traffic.  That’s a really nice collateral benefit of Facebook ads.

I’m not talking about Like campaigns.  You will still attract fans with “click to website” Facebook campaigns.

Generate fast profits to reinvest into growth:

I’m not saying every website will profit with paid traffic.  Sadly it’s simply not possible in every niche.  That said, profiting is largely dependent on several factors including ability to come up with highly engaging ads and of course awesome monetization.

If you can make paid traffic profitable, you can generate a lot of capital to reinvest into your site.  I plow most of my profits back into content to grow the organic search traffic.

Possible SEO benefits:

I have a hunch paid traffic helps organic search.  I can’t prove it, but I think it helps.

Cons of Paid Traffic:

May lose money:

I’ve launched many ad campaigns that lost money.  Fortunately the winners put me in the black overall.

It only takes one or a few winning campaigns to generate some great profits.

However, if you never do get profitable with paid traffic, you’re left with a net loss.  That’s no fun, not to mention all the time wasted on testing.

Therefore, while the allure of paid traffic is strong, and I love using it, please keep in mind losing money is a realistic outcome.

Labor intensive:

This is the biggest reason I’m investing more time and money in organic search traffic and less in paid campaigns.  My organic search revenue is climbing really nicely.  I’m thrilled about it.

Frankly, managing hundreds of paid ad campaigns is tedious work.  It’s boring.  I like testing, but managing them is labor intensive.

The worst aspect is it cannot be outsourced.  I’m not at the point where I can hire a crackerjack media buyer.  I’m not a Fortune 500 company.

Therefore, if I want to publish more massive niche sites, I need to outsource more of it.

Nevertheless I still buy traffic regularly.  The profits are awesome.  I just don’t depend on it like I used to… it’s a complimentary instead of primary traffic source.

Many variables to juggle:

Ad prices go up, profits go down or disappear.

Ad revenue or product conversion goes down, profits go down or disappear.

Unless your margins are huge, the variables with buying traffic can make it difficult to profit.  Profits fluctuate.

Therefore, when you’re enjoying a positive ROI, milk it for all it’s worth.

Overall though, while ad prices and revenue fluctuate, I’ve been fairly profitable with paid traffic more often than not.

Works better in some niches than others:

I wish paid traffic worked in every niche.  I’m sure it could, but it will depend largely on monetization strategy and conversion as well as the ability to create ads that are highly engaging so the cost per click is low.

Caution regarding paid traffic:  If you start paid campaigns, start with very small budgets.  Be prepared to test a lot, and I mean a lot.  Do not use borrowed money.  Track results carefully in the beginning.  While it sounds easy, it isn’t… but it’s possible to make it work.

It’s boring:

Setting up 100 Facebook ad sets, Adwords campaigns and/or native ad campaigns is boring, tedious work.  Managing it all is also boring.  It’s a lot of number crunching (which I don’t mind too much), but then one must go through hundreds of campaigns, ad groups and/or adsets making adjustments.  This work must be done several times per week or once a day.

I prefer keyword research and coming up with content ideas.

The trouble with paid is I’m not prepared to outsource it.  I’m not in a position to pay a skilled media buyer big bucks to manage campaigns, let alone hand over the keys to the ad budgets.  I would need a much more profitable operation for this to make sense.

That said, it’s hard to complain about some boring work throughout the week if it’s spitting out tremendous profits.  The profits, when they materialize are worth the boring nature of managing paid campaigns.

Organic Social Media Traffic

Pros of Organic Social Media Traffic:

It’s free traffic:

You gotta love spending 30 seconds posting to Facebook and then watch 500 to 1,000 or more visitors hit your site.  That’s awesome and it’s free.

The ROI is 100% (less the cost of content and the 30 seconds it takes to post).

Generate traffic in seconds (sometimes a lot of traffic):

It’s fast traffic.  If you have engaged social media channels, the traffic is instant.  The actual posting to social media channels doesn’t take long.  If the response is going to be good, it will be good instantly.

Reasonably good control:

Once you have a decent understanding what fans like, it’s not hard to replicate that kind of content over and over and over.

Possibly good for SEO:

Some SEO experts say social media signals have no bearing on search rankings.  Other SEO experts say they do.

My guess, and it’s a guess by an amateur at best is that social signals help.

Easily outsourced:

Because posting to social media is pretty easy, it’s easily outsourced.  Mistakes aren’t that bad because results are so temporary. Training doesn’t take long.  It’s definitely one of those tasks you want to outsource.  Once the system is in place, you can generate a nice daily flow of traffic without getting involved.

Cons of Organic Social Media Traffic:

Delay in results:  

It usually takes a while to generate any serious traffic because you need to build up your social media channels.  Yes, you can get viral action early on, but generally you’ll need more fans for more engagement and traffic.

Labor intensive:  

Posting across 5 social media channels once per day isn’t a big deal.  Posting 14 times per day across 5 social media channels takes well over an hour.  While you may think an hour isn’t bad, it gets mighty boring when you do it 5 days a week… plus schedule for the weekend.

Moreover, this model is less effective than it was in 2013 because organic Facebook reach is lower than it was.  That’s not to say you can’t drive serious traffic from Facebook posts, Tweets, Pins, etc.  Some publishers still focus on this as their primary source of traffic.  While I do plenty of social media posting, it’s my 3rd favorite source of traffic (behind paid and organic search).

Mixed results:

One day you can hit a grand slam with social posts, the next day you have a bunch of duds.  While it doesn’t take long to figure out what will work best, you just never know.

This results in mixed traffic volumes, meaning fluctuating profits.

While I love the free nature of it (less the cost in time to post), it’s too varied for me to want to focus on it to the exclusion of other traffic sources.

Lack of control:

Every traffic source lacks control to some degree.  Some more than others.  Social media performance can vary because they’re platforms you don’t own.  Anything could happen including losing your account.

Works better in some niches than others:

Yes, you can come up with linkbait topics in any niche.  But, the key is can you post daily in the niche that will consistently generate engagement and traffic?  There’s no question that some niches are better than others… especially on Facebook and Pinterest.

In fact, Twitter often works better in niches that aren’t so hot on Facebook and Pinterest.  Twitter can be great for B2B niches which aren’t nearly as engagement focused on Facebook and Pinterest.

It’s short term:

Wouldn’t it be great if a Facebook post could generate traffic month after month after month?  Sadly it doesn’t unless you boost it.

While traffic can spike, it’s short term.

It’s boring:

Posting 10 to 14 times per day to social media accounts is boring, tedious work.  While it can be fun dreaming up creative posts, the act of actually posting many times each day to many social media accounts is boring and time consuming.

Fortunately outsourcing social media posting is easy to do.  There isn’t much downside.  Mistakes aren’t a big deal (unlike paid traffic mistakes which can cost a lot of money).

Organic Search Traffic (a.k.a. SEO for Google SERPs):

Pros of organic search traffic:

Best Passive Traffic:

After spending a lot on paid traffic and building up some decently sized social media channels, I can say without a doubt that when organic search traffic is flowing well, it’s by far the most passive source of traffic available.

In fact, all that needs doing is continuing with content production which is one of the easiest aspects of being a website publisher to outsource.  There are many great writers for reasonable rates that can pump out content like crazy.

Yes, it’s still a good idea to promote across social media channels and promote the site, but this gets easier once a site has authority and fans.

Easily outsourced:

I already alluded to this, but I’ll say it again.  Outsourcing content production is very easy.  Since organic SEO largely relies on excellent content being published, all you need to do is come up with article topics that target keywords with some okay search volume.

The goal is to get to the point where you can trust your writers to publish the content themselves (along with formatting the posts).  Once you hit this stage, it’s just a matter of emailing writers topics.

Note, just because it’s easily outsourced doesn’t mean you’ll rank a new site faster.  It still takes time, but once a site has authority and there’s loads of content, chances of ranking for more search phrases is much higher.

Best way to increase value of a website:

Buyers of websites live organic search traffic above all other traffic.

I know if I were to buy a site, I’d be most interested in the organic search traffic.  After all, I could figure out buying traffic on my own.

If you’re looking to build an asset, build up an organic search sucking hog of a website.  Yes, big social media properties can be valuable, but they aren’t as valuable as a website pulling in serious organic search traffic consistently.

Best traffic source for affiliate offers (except perhaps email newsletter traffic – see below):

Because search is intent-based, if you wish to make serious money as an affiliate, you’ll need organic search traffic.  There are 2 exceptions to this:

First, if you can profit from paid traffic to affiliate offers, the profit potential is astronomical.  That’s not something I’ve been able to achieve consistently.  I sure wish I could, but alas, I haven’t.

Second, in some niches, specifically B2B niches, email marketing will usually outperform organic search traffic for generating sales as an affiliate.  This is assuming your email readers hold you in reasonably good esteem by reading the emails and buying through the links.

Massive Traffic Potential:

If you end ranking for some high search volume keywords, the traffic potential is massive.  I love this about SEO… but it does take time.

While paid traffic volume can also be massive, organic social traffic is generally lower unless you’re fortunate to have a very engaged page with millions of fans.

It’s fun (mostly):

There’s a reason SEO was my first main traffic source with online ventures.  I liked it.  I still do like a lot of aspects of SEO.  Specifically, I enjoy keyword research and coming up with topics.  I even enjoy writing each day.

I’m actually not minding my current website restructuring process.  It’s fun coming up with the silo structures and then executing it.  A bit tedious, but it’s something I don’t mind.

That said, link building and promotion are boring.  It’s my least favorite aspect of SEO.  Frankly, I don’t do all that much link building because I’m gunshy and it’s boring work.

Cons of organic search traffic:

Slow going:

It takes 6 months to get meaningful organic search traffic unless you really know what you’re doing.  From there it’s a slow going trajectory.  If you stick with it, you’ll enjoy some nice bumps as rankings for keywords reach the top, but overall, it’s a slow going process.

No control:  

The lack of control can be frustrating.  There’s no guarantee you’ll rank for any intended keyword.  There’s no guarantee you’ll sustain rankings. There’s no guarantee your site won’t be punished and you go from lots of traffic to no traffic overnight.  In a nutshell, you have no control.

Therefore, enjoy it while you have it.

Scaling takes time and effort or money:

Scaling is a matter of more content ranking higher in the SERPs.  This takes time, effort and money.  However, as a website gains in authority, this become easier.  But, building authority takes time, effort and money.  SEO requires patience.

Once you have funds to reinvest and you have a very good sense of what’s working ranking-wise, it’s pretty easy to really crank up the content production dial by outsourcing it and publishing content daily.  Once you hit this stage and assuming you don’t do anything stupid, organic traffic should continue growing and growing without too much of your time.

What about traffic from an email list?

Traffic from your email list is obviously great traffic.  What’s not to love about writing an email in 20 minutes, pushing send and getting hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands of visitors to a website.

However, email traffic isn’t necessarily the best and I certainly wouldn’t ignore other sources in most niches.  I say most niches because email marketing is definitely king in some niches, such as B2B niches.  But for B2C niches, generally, email traffic isn’t the be-all and end-all.

For me, email traffic in B2C niches is another source of traffic.  I don’t focus too much on it, but I don’t ignore it either.

What traffic source should you choose?

Obviously choose the traffic source(s) that work for you.

However, beyond that, choose traffic sources you enjoy pursuing.  Chances are you’ll become good at it.

Some people are brilliant with social media posting.  They enjoy huge payoffs.

Some people love the analytical nature of paid traffic.

Some people love the work involved with SEO.

While I believe pursuing multiple traffic sources is smartest, chances are you’ll prefer the activities involved with one more than others.  Focus on that because you’ll likely get the best results.

If all sources work for your business and you don’t enjoy it, do everything you can to get to a point where you can outsource the work you don’t like.

Niche Matters

I operate 3 distinct online businesses.  They are:

  1. Large, high traffic B2C sites (only one is a really a big hit right now).
  2. B2B niche blogs
  3. Local lead generation

Generally, social media (paid and organic) aren’t that great for B2B and local lead gen.  Sure I could make it work, but the payoff for the effort isn’t great.

When it comes to local lead gen, nothing beats PPC (Adwords and Bing Ads) and SEO.

But, when it comes to B2C niche sites, it all works.  I don’t use Adwords because my site is heavily monetized with Adsense, but I do occasionally use Bing Ads and of course Facebook ads and native ads.

Therefore, when choosing, do consider you niche and type of website you’re operating and how it’s monetized.

If I had to choose just one source of traffic, which would I choose?

24 months ago I’d say organic social.

12 months ago I’d say paid.

Today I say organic search.

I know it’s a flip flop, but after investing so much time and money managing social media pages and paid campaigns, there’s no doubt that organic search traffic is the most passive.  The only hard part with organic search is waiting for it to come.  Once you have it, it’s pretty easy to build on it.

Passive traffic means passive income leaving me more time for fun and/or other projects.

I guess too, it’s easy now for me to say organic search since I have plenty of it.  If I had no traffic, I’d have to say paid is best because it’s fastest… assuming it’s profitable.

Therefore, the best traffic source is contextual.  If you’re starting out, you likely want traffic now and the only way to do that is to pay for it.  Of course, keep in mind you just may lose money, in which case being patient for free traffic are the better options.

Fortunately I don’t have to choose just one so I chase all three because the best traffic source is traffic diversity.  You never know when one source will dry up.

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14 Comments

  1. Philip says

    I have been using organic traffic for long and it rewards very well after a long time. I own a website which I only post content twice a month and it’s income is good

  2. Chetan says

    I am a Paid Marketer since 2005. I completely agree with your continous optimization aspect for Paid Search and Paid Social Media ads on FB. But I would also suggest you to look at more of facebook mobile post feeds. We have generated some awesome traffic for one of my friend’s website. We always calculate CPC to EPC. The game is like high frequency trading in stocks. In the end EPC>CPC. It only needs to be optimized every few hours. For facebook, we mainly use the power editor to generate effective results.
    For Adwords we use Adwords Scripts – http://searchengineland.com/adwords-bidding-thats-4-times-responsive-google-marin-kenshoo-207877. We also optimize bids in bulk. We have setup event tracking, where in if the user is clicking on an add, we call it and event and then we record it as a transaction or a conversion in analytics. Based on that analytics data we go ahead and optimize bids. Again we dont look at the avg position. We have seen good EPC’s even in the 4-5 position on adwords.
    Facebook, agreed a different beast, but yet we plan to optimize it every 3 hours to decrease CPC’s.

    You can give it a try. Sorry, dont know Organic search and dont want to get into it. Its a different beast altogether. My friend was a SEO specialist and after all the animal updates on SEO, his earnings fell by about 70% in the last 6 months. I invested my own money for a share of 30% in his revenues to prove to him that paid marketing does work and is profitable. We saw a 725% increase in traffic (after starting paid marketing from June 2015) compared to the traffic of April-May. I dont contradict your point of SEO, but I dont know it and find it difficult to understand as its very complicated.

    1. Jon says

      Hey Chetan, awesome comment. Thanks. Yes, I too have likened this model to high frequency trading in stocks.

      Can you clarify what you mean by “Facebook mobile post feeds”?

      Also, for your Adwords ads, is the traffic going to web pages monetized with Adsense? I’ve not done this since it’s my understanding Adwords does not like to send traffic to web pages monetized extensively with Adsense.

      Thanks again for your great comment.

  3. Pav says

    Hey Jon, interesting breakdown.

    What methods would you suggest for someone who is just starting to do this?

    Paid isn’t the best option because nothing is set up to make the money back.
    The whole purpose is to get an audience that just comes back and reads the content again and again until the blog has a way to make money.

    1. Jon says

      Hi Pav,

      The best traffic source depends on the site/niche. Some niches do great with organic social while others will only ever do really well with organic search. Some, such as local marketing, can do spectacularly well with PPC. It really boils down to the niche, how well it’s monetized, budget and what you like doing.

      If you’d like to get repeat visitors, you definitely want to run an email newsletter because that’s the most efficient way to get people back to your site. In this case you want to optimize your site for attracting people to sign up to your email newsletter. If the email newsletter is well monetized, you could pay for traffic to your various email sign up pages.

  4. Jordan Graham says

    Jon AKA “Mr. White” thanks for honoring the sale price for me even though I purchased it yesterday a day before the sale. Speaks volumes to your integrity. Can’t wait to dive in and learn from you. Also looking forward to earning some commissions promoting your programs as an affiliate on my website. Your a first class mentor! Jordan

  5. Jordan Graham says

    Jon, really enjoying the courses and love the fact you include absolutely everything (less of course your actual niches but that is totally understandable). I have some niche ideas myself that I wondered if they would work and kept second guessing myself on whether to do them or not but starting to go through your course it gave me the confidence to realize they would be great niches. Anyone on the fence about taking Jon’s courses I would highly recommend them both. Jon is the mentor I’ve been looking for for years as many of them give you just enough so that you buy their course where as Jon literally lays out his entire blueprint. Thanks again. Jordan

    1. Jon says

      Thanks Jordan. Glad you like Niche Tycoon. While Niche Tycoon doesn’t work with every niche, it works with a lot… fortunately a lot of the big, popular niches which are perfect for building out large, high-traffic sites.

  6. Delwar Jahan says

    So, at the end of the day everyone loves the organic traffic. great analysis by you. I am not a fan of social traffic from facebook really. I saw entertainment niches works well on facebook ads. My other ads on niche sites haven’t got the boost as I expected. Niche matters and where you market does too.

  7. Vern says

    If you use https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033867 to tag your Facebook campaigns and use cpc as the Campaign Medium and Facebook as the Campaign Source it will put all that paid traffic under Paid Search instead of Social. And then the traffic that shows up under Social -> Facebook is now your organic Facebook traffic.

    1. Jon says

      Thanks for the tip Vern. That’s awesome.

  8. Imer Imran says

    Hi Jon
    This post was has helped me so much! As always nice content you got here. From the tips above, I would choose to focus on organic search, followed by organic social followed by paid. I love the work involved with SEO and like you said, being patient for free traffic are the better options.

    Imer

  9. Milena Brokaw says

    After having delivered this research, I wondered whether someone has ever faced a situation in which a site that is performing pretty well in Google and receiving a solid amount of organic traffic also has about the same number of visitors from SMM profiles. In order to get this traffic, does this site have a huge number of followers and a solid engagement rate?

  10. Jade says

    Hi Jon,

    LIke yourself I honestly love SEO and I have spent a long time learning how to rank a local web design site. Now I am working on repositioning my side-biz doing web design into more digital marketing, however it is really SEO that I want to pursue. In your experience does a SEO company need to offer web design/ads as well or are there niches where clients are happy to pay for only SEO?

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