Every industry it seems has their own collection of go-to buzzwords, and the worlds of web design and search engines are no different. Understanding the difference between paid traffic and organic traffic will help you to filter out some of the nonsense that amateur web designers and marketers might feed you about how to achieve success online.
Both organic and paid traffic have their uses and both play an important role in the overall success of your website. Organic and paid traffic can both be sought after to acquire new customers and to re-engage existing customers. There is an order to all things, and marketing a new business is no different. You will likely focus on marketing organically to existing customers and paid marketing towards potential new customers when first starting out, and if not you should. I will go into greater detail on this in a later article (see "The Four Channels of Website Traffic You Need to Master for Website Success", here), but for now let's just assume that organic traffic is more important than paid traffic, and that your existing customers need to be able to find you online organically.
To understand organic traffic, first let’s talk about paid traffic. As the term suggests, paid traffic refers to any web traffic that is the direct result of money being spent to promote your website. This may include (but is not necessarily limited to) CPC (Cost-Per-Click) and CPM (Cost-Per-Impression) ads, promoting or “boosting” a social media post, or in some cases, getting a social media influencer to talk about your product or service and plugging your website. Generally speaking, the distinguishing factor that differentiates paid and organic traffic concerns whether you have paid a “gatekeeper” to gain access to potential viewers.
On the other hand, organic traffic essentially refers to web traffic that you didn’t create or pay for. This is not to say that you haven’t worked hard for it, or haven't invested any sweat equity in it, as we’ll discuss a bit later.
As your business continues to gain momentum, people will inevitably become more and more interested in learning about your business. Whether they might order one of your sandwiches, book a dental appointment with your office, or apply for a job, some users might already know your brand and some might not know your brand but seek the products or services you offer. Getting users to your website who are looking for you online should be relatively painless if they are already familiar with your brand, (if it is still painless, let’s talk!) but what if they are not familiar with your brand? This is where Search Engine Optimization (SEO) plays a prominent role in helping your business to gain much-needed web traffic.
Organic vs Paid: Why SEO Matters
The short and sweet explanation of why SEO is so important is this: if search engines can not understand what your business does, what your web content is, or why someone might be interested in it, you are simply not going to rank very high in Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs). For example, if your business is “Extreme Sandwiches”, and none of the pages on your website mention either of the words “Extreme” or “Sandwiches”, then when a potential customer enters “Extreme Sandwiches” into Google, you might as well not even have an online presence, because your website isn’t going to show up in Google SERPs.
Search Engines like Google, Bing, and Yahoo “index” the internet. That is to say that they “crawl” the internet in search of new web pages, and use an algorithm to analyze the web page to determine what the subject matter of the web page is, and attempt to categorize it by how users might want to find this information, or by what users (by the search keywords they use) might find the information helpful.
The most important thing to remember about search engines, is that their decisions are run by algorithms - computer logic, not human beings - and while the human brain has a seemingly infinite capacity to comprehend complex visual stimuli, computers can only interpret the words on a web page. What this means for us is that if we understand how search engines index websites and how they classify them, we can use this knowledge to make sure our website has the greatest possible chance at being returned at the top of search results for a given topic.
As long as your website is formatted correctly, and contains the necessary components to make it easily indexed by search engines, you should have no problem gaining user traffic to your website. Essentially, SEO is the fundamental first step for businesses to create a cost-efficient website. SEO does cost money (no, the best things in life are not free), however, the nice thing about SEO is that if done properly, it does not require a lot of capital to maintain, which makes the benefits largely outweigh the costs.