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SEO vs PPC - Why travel brands shouldn't rely on Pay-Per-Click marketing

Published on By Ben Thornton Harwood

Navigating digital marketing can sometimes feel like deciphering a secret code. The world of acronyms, from SEO to PPC, often feel shrouded in mystery, leaving many travel businesses wondering what the right pathway is for them to achieve online visibility.

In digital marketing, SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and PPC (Pay-Per-Click) stand out as stalwarts, each needing their own unique strategies. Our clients often express concerns about relying too heavily on PPC, recognising its limitations as a long-term strategy. Therefore, we've crafted this guide to provide a comprehensive understanding of when to leverage PPC strategically and when to explore alternative marketing avenues. As a team deeply entrenched in the digital landscape, we're here to shed light on the key players – SEO and PPC, and how to decipher which is the best option for you.

Welcome to the digital age

Not too long ago, planning a holiday meant dialling up your local travel agent, but in today's digital era, everything from destination research to securing your booking is happening online. No need for phone calls; you can discover the best destinations, flights, accommodations, activities, and dining spots—all from the palm of your hand. So much so that Google recently revealed that over 80% of holiday plans kick off online, predominantly on mobile devices.

In the wake of this digital revolution, Google has transformed into a fiercely competitive arena where brands vie for visibility and user attention. The shift towards an online-centric world has elevated the importance of strategic digital marketing, particularly in the realm of organic SEO.

With the landscape becoming increasingly saturated, achieving success in organic search results is no longer a matter of chance—it demands a meticulously planned and executed strategy. As a result, there's a perception that PPC offers a way to 'beat the system.' In the face of heightened competition and evolving algorithms, travel businesses are turning to PPC as a tool to secure a prominent position in the digital marketplace and connect with their audience quickly.

Let's hit the pause button for a moment and delve into the fundamental building blocks of digital success— what exactly is PPC and SEO?

What is PPC?

PPC, or pay-per-click, involves advertisers paying a fee each time their ad is clicked. It's like renting space in the digital marketplace, and the cost is directly linked to user engagement. On the flip side, SEO, or search engine optimisation, is the art of enhancing your online content to rank higher in search results organically. It's about proving to search engines that your content is valuable, relevant, and deserves a prime spot on the results page. So, in essence, PPC is about immediate visibility through paid advertising, while SEO is the long-term strategy of earning your spot at the top organically.

Each time a user clicks on your ad and explores your site, a portion of your ad budget is expended. This ensures you're not paying for your ad to be displayed to individuals who have no need for your services.

PPC proves exceptionally effective for the travel industry in particular, primarily due to its unparalleled ability to enhance reputation and raise awareness. Travel brands can strategically position themselves at the forefront of search engine results, ensuring that potential customers not only see them but also associate them with credibility and relevance.

A great example of this is's destination-specific PPC Campaigns. For instance, if a user searches for “hotels in Paris,”'s PPC ads will display hotel options in Paris and appear at the top of the Google list. By adeptly utilising defined keywords, and pairing that with captivating ad copy, and a distinct call to action they promptly deliver sought-after information or deals, significantly enhancing the chances of click-throughs and conversions.

The travel industry thrives on inspiration. PPC allows brands to showcase enticing destinations, exclusive deals, and unique experiences directly to users actively searching for travel-related information. Plus, PPC allows you a high degree of control, data and testing (something we love here at Lemongrass!). You can immediately get results on what is working and what isn't and often utilise this on your other campaigns.

For example, maybe you assumed your customers are all about ‘off-the-beaten-track adventure’, and you’ve created a PPC campaign showcasing your most rugged camping experiences, but this isn't converting into clicks. You will see this in the data much quicker than you would with organic SEO content, and be able to adapt your campaign to focus on how comfy the camping facilities are, or how your sites have hot water.

Travel brands are investing more in PPC marketing than ever. The cumulative expenditure by advertisers on AdWords (the platform that houses PPC campaigns) surpasses a whopping 100 million dollars each day. Notably, the travel and tourism sector ranks as the third-highest spending industry on AdWords, illustrating its intense competitiveness, and reliance upon it within the industry.

What are the downsides to using PPC as a travel brand?

Whilst there are many upsides to PPC - it is not without its flaws. Before investing heavily in PPC, consider the following:

1. Cost quandary:

PPC can be pricey, especially for those competitive commercial terms, and even more so within the travel industry. Brace yourself for potential budget strains for top keywords.

2. Battling for the top:

In the realm of PPC, it's a fierce competition for visibility. The best terms (think of the previous example of ‘hotels in Paris’) often lead to bidding wars, escalating costs and requiring strategic mastery. PPC is not an easy way to cheat Google, appearing at the top of the search results will cost you both time and money.

3. Investment dependency:

PPC demands continuous investment. Halt the spending, and watch your traffic take a nosedive. It's a constant financial commitment. This is where a lot of our clients get unstuck - you need to always consider PPC alongside your organic SEO strategy to ensure you don’t get left behind.

4. It’s not quite Jet, Set, Go:

Yes, PPC is easy to kick off, but mastering its intricacies is a different ball game. Effective PPC demands more than just a quick start; it requires ongoing expertise. We always refer our clients to PPC experts, and PPC *travel* experts. Which is another consideration towards your overall budget for PPC. We often work with PPC experts to ensure both organic SEO and paid-for terms are working together and are formed from our clients’ strategy - a great rule of thumb for any travel brand.

5. Set it and forget it?

PPC success isn't a set-it-and-forget-it scenario. It demands skilled management, and constant monitoring of bids, Quality Scores, positions, and click-through rates. Scripts can assist, but having a PPC expert on board ensures top-notch account performance. Plus, you need someone with skill to be monitoring and checking the campaign, which adds another cost implication.

6. You still need good content:

Launching a PPC campaign without a stellar landing page is like sending a carrier pigeon in the age of instant messaging – it's bound to be a bit lost and confused.

In the PPC world, your landing page is the handshake, the first impression, the pick-up line – you get the drift, so it needs to be a good one. A PPC campaign might get eyeballs onto your website, but to get conversions, bookings, and money in your pocket, you still need great content.

PPC stands tall, but its power demands precise optimisation across all facets to strike the right balance between results and costs. Plus, one fundamental is absolutely essential to ensuring PPC actually works - you have to properly know your audience. If you don’t know your audience, you won’t know what they’re searching for, and why. And without that critical piece of the puzzle, you’ll be learning as you go, wasting a large portion of your PPC budget. You can read our full blog on knowing your audience here.

What is SEO?

Before you ponder the choice between paying for clicks or waiting for them to arrive organically, it's essential to grasp that SEO operates as a gradual, long-term strategy.

SEO, an abbreviation for search engine optimisation, entails the systematic optimisation, organisation, and composition of your website and content to be search engine-friendly, particularly for platforms like Google and Bing. Websites designed with SEO in mind are poised to achieve higher rankings on search engines, resulting in increased organic search traffic. Organic search traffic incurs no cost – there's no charge when a user clicks a link to visit your website. SEO encompasses both on-site factors such as content, site speed, and information architecture, as well as off-site elements like social media presence and backlinks (another term for digital PR and link-building, you can read more about this on our blog here.)

SEO for travel brands hinges on the principles of quality and relevance in content marketing. Crafting content that genuinely resonates with your audience is paramount. Much like the strategy employed in effective PPC, a deep understanding of your customers and their search behaviours is essential. By knowing the needs and preferences of your target audience, you can tailor your content to not only meet their expectations but also appeal to their interests, which in turn, will push your content up on Google search, keep them on your website longer, visit more pages - the list goes on. And these are all factors to SEO more generally, it's cyclical. Knowing your audience is really good for business.

What is the downside to SEO as a travel brand?

Focusing your strategy of SEO brings with it a set of challenges and considerations. While the benefits are significant, it's crucial to navigate the downsides with awareness and strategic planning:

1. Battleground of giants:

SEO is a highly competitive arena, where travel brands contend fiercely for visibility in search results. Navigating search results proves challenging as various result types clutter the scene, demanding strategic manoeuvres for prominence.

2. Ad domination dilemma:

At the summit of search results, ads assert dominance, making organic visibility an uphill battle amid paid promotions. However, research shows we tend to ‘trust’ adverts on the top of Google less than those who have earnt their place organically.

3. Content crafting conundrum:

For smaller brands, developing impactful content can take a long time and involve a lengthy learning process about what content works and why. Smaller brands often don’t have an in-house team, or confident SEO-lead copy-writers or content experts, which is a factor with budgets.

4. Algorithmic turbulence:

SEO is not immune to the winds of change; algorithmic shifts can create turbulence, bringing unexpected fluctuations to search rankings. This is something we contend with regularly as SEO and link-building professionals, and does require a dedicated team member to monitor changes and react accordingly.

An inherent challenge in SEO lies in the potential to invest considerable time and effort into tasks that yield minimal impact.

Creating blog posts that never secure a ranking, crafting meta descriptions that bear little significance, delving into the intricacies of technical SEO – the pitfalls seem endless.

Complicating matters are the SEO tools designed to assist; they often exacerbate the situation by generating extensive task lists, inundating users with seemingly perpetual busywork. The utility of these tools is undeniable, yet discerning which tasks demand attention and which can be overlooked requires seasoned experience.

And finally, you need to undertake an SEO audit before you really get going. You have to truly understand what is working for you online and what isn’t - what is getting your rankings? Is it your explainer blog content, or is it your packages? What can you learn from this? For example, a client of ours discovered that their glossary terms were doing exceptionally well in terms of Google rankings, but in terms of conversions, lead to very little warm leads. On the face of it, you’d think they should build out more glossary pages, but actually, this misses the point entirely. Their well-performing SEO content was pulling in entirely the *wrong* audience.

Start with strategy

Before dissecting PPC and SEO, it's important we mention strategy. A robust content strategy is the linchpin that fortifies both SEO and PPC. Gone are the days of guesswork; a carefully crafted content plan is essential to optimise visibility and engagement. At Lemongrass, we pride ourselves on being experts in content marketing, offering a strategic approach to create and disseminate valuable, relevant content, way before we even introduce the idea of PPC or SEO to our clients.

Having a solid strategy is like the secret sauce that makes SEO, PPC, and content marketing click. Picture this as a team huddle where SEO, PPC, and content marketing come together, ensuring everyone's playing for the same win, whether you're launching a new hotel or managing a centuries-old gem in Italy.

Think of strategy as your budgeting guru. It helps decide where to put your time, money, and people power, finding the right keywords and choosing the best PPC channels to ensure you're investing where it matters most.

Ever noticed how your favourite brands always sound like themselves? That's the magic of a strategy. It keeps the messaging smooth across SEO, PPC, and content marketing, creating a brand vibe that sticks. It's the secret sauce for PR and Digital PR too!

Imagine your digital space as a well-designed hotel lobby. A strategy plans out every step of the visitor's journey – from cool content to spot-on ads. It's like giving your users a VIP treatment, ensuring they not only enjoy the stay but also book that suite.

A strategy isn’t just a plan; it's your results tracker. It shows how close you are to your goals, and the cool part? It's not just a one-time thing. You keep tweaking and upgrading, making each move better than the last.

So, in a nutshell, strategy is like the behind-the-scenes director making sure SEO, PPC, and content marketing put on a show that steals the spotlight in the digital arena.

PPC or SEO: Which holds the crown?

The response is one we know our clients might not relish…! Yet, acknowledging that not everyone can allocate budget to both strategies simultaneously, we're here to simplify the decision-making process. Let's dissect a few scenarios that might guide your choice.

Problem: I need an immediate uptick in bookings:

  • Solution: Opt for a PPC campaign. The swift results of a well-executed PPC strategy can drive immediate bookings, ensuring a rapid impact on your reservations in the short-term. Plus, you might learn something about what content works in the process for next time.
  • Downside: This isn't a long-term solution, you will likely have a downturn in bookings again if you don’t have an honest look at why this is, and that is likely to do with your organic SEO strategy and findability (PR).

Problem: I need to be found more by my target audience but I don’t have much budget:

  • Solution: For a cost-effective, SEO is your ally. While it may take time to see results, the sustainable impact and lower long-term costs make it an efficient choice. If you have time, but not necessarily budget, look into training courses and upskill your team.
  • Downside: This is a long-term approach, you won’t see results for weeks, if not months. And this new approach needs consistency, so ensure you’ve got the manpower to keep this as a priority for your travel brand.

Problem: My competitors show up on Google, even when my customers search for my brand's name:

  • Solution: In the face of aggressive competitors dominating Google's rankings for your brand name, prioritise PPC. Securing a prominent position through paid advertising helps reclaim visibility and outshine competitors.
  • Downside: This will only work for as long as you’re funding it - a truly permanent shift can only be achieved through SEO tactics, alongside PR more generally, to ensure your audience thinks of you when they think ‘Spa Break in Scotland’, not your competition.

Problem: I just need consistent, sustainable traffic to my website:

  • Solution: Opt for SEO to ensure sustained, consistent traffic. SEO's focus on organic rankings establishes a reliable flow of visitors, free from the fluctuations associated with ad budgets and campaigns.
  • Downside: Time. This isn’t an overnight success story.

Problem: I want a high level of control and precision for one campaign:

  • Solution: When control over messaging is paramount, PPC takes the lead. It offers direct control over what users see in your ads, allowing precise alignment with your messaging goals.
  • Downside: Much like before, this is only effective while it's being funded. If you’re looking at PPC for one campaign, this works extremely well. But beware of falling into the trap of needing PPC for every campaign and building your brand around reliance on it as a channel. Paid PPC campaigns need to sit within a larger organic SEO strategy.

Problem: I want to change how my potential guests view my brand:

  • Solution: PR allows you to actively shape public opinion. By consistently delivering key messages that align with your desired brand image, you can influence how your audience perceives and responds to your brand. This is not as easily achievable with either SEO or PPC. These digital marketing tactics are much better suited to promoting your brand more generally, or to push specific products, packages, offers or destinations. It can be used for changing hearts-and-minds, but this is much more easily done through PR.
  • Downside: You might not have any idea where to start - feel free to get in touch if you want to change how your guests view your brand, we can help.

Problem: I want to attract a new audience to our website / hotel / destination:

  • Solution: Use a combination of PPC and SEO. PPC offers you immediate visibility to the right kinds of audience (providing you know what they’d be searching for, and how that's different to your existing audience). Whereas SEO offers a long term credibility building for your new audience. SEO offers the chance for this new group to get to know you and what you’re about. Think of it like speed-dating - the first date is only the beginning, and wedding bells are a while off.
  • Downside: You need someone in your team who understands both SEO and PPC, and how they’re used differently. Don’t attempt the same strategy across both mediums.

Combining tactics: The power of using both SEO and PPC

So what is our take? Ultimately, you need both.

Strategically combining both paid and organic approaches acts as a safeguard against investing all your resources in one avenue. In times of business austerity (such as recent global pandemics...) having both strategies concurrently allows flexibility. You can trim your ad budget or temporarily halt ads, empowering SEO to uphold your website's visibility and bolster its ranking. However, without a well-optimised website for organic search, pausing ads might leave your business in the shadows.

On the flip side, envision your website optimised and securing top positions for crucial keywords. What if you aim to roll out a special offer, launch a new project, or diversify into different verticals? Executing such initiatives with SEO demands substantial time. In contrast, paid ads offer rapid, targeted results. Craft a compelling ad, develop a stellar landing page, bid competitively, and witness your name and link topping the results on the very same day. No waiting for indexing or the gradual build-up of links, as required by SEO for new keyword rankings.

The true magic happens when SEO and PPC efforts are strategically aligned, working in tandem to produce results that surpass their individual impacts.

What does combining both offer your travel brand?

  1. Unveiling the magic of data: Ever wondered how the magical world of PPC data can sprinkle insights into your organic search strategy? Well, it’s like having a treasure map to guide you through the vast digital terrain.
  2. Closing the gaps: Think of PPC as the superhero cape that swoops in to cover those regions where your SEO may be taking a nap. Say you’re a tour operator with destinations all round the globe, and you’re finding that your Africa experiences aren’t organically performing on Google, but your Asia tours are – PPC is a perfect plug to fill the gap.
  3. Traffic boost: Imagine PPC and organic search join forces, targeting clicks like a dynamic duo. It’s like turning up the volume on a chart-topping hit – more clicks, more vibes.
  4. Money talks, efficiency walks: Are your high-cost keywords demanding the spotlight in your PPC campaign? Well, let them shine on the organic stage instead. By doing so, you not only save valuable budget but also ensure top-notch performance without any compromises.
  5. Evolving perfection: Have you ever activated an A/B test in PPC and thought, "This is gold!"? Well, take that golden nugget and sprinkle it on your organic listings and landing pages.
  6. Keyword rehearsals: Before committing to a long-term SEO plan, PPC offers the stage for a keyword dress rehearsal. Test those keywords, see if they hit the right notes, and then let them take centre stage in your SEO performance.

Based on our substantial experience working with various travel businesses, we recommend an integrated search strategy that incorporates both SEO and PPC, one which starts with knowing your audience, and ends with the strategy. The approach may vary, with PPC driving initial traction as organic efforts gain momentum or serving as the final boost for sales from SEO traffic. The most effective approach depends on the context. If you’re still not sure - get in touch and we can help guide you to the right choice for your travel brand.