by Ana Gotter May 13, 2019

Is Paid Search Better Than Paid Social? The Answers You Need

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is one of the most effective, direct, and speedy ways to expand your reach, connect with your audience, and start selling quickly. The ad systems have continued to expand and offer new features, and each one has continually improved so that marketers and businesses can run better campaigns than ever before.

Before you dive in, though, you need to sort through all the PPC platforms out there and decide which ones you want to use. Each campaign, after all, will slowly (or rapidly) chip away at your ad spend, so it’s important to choose the platforms that will give you the most results at the lowest cost.

The debate often trickles down to one question: is paid search better than paid social? Search campaigns and social campaigns offer different benefits and even function in unique ways, so they require different strategies and even investments.

In this post, we’re going to answer that question of which out of the two is best and help you decide where you should be running your campaigns.

Paid Search vs. Paid Social: The Difference in Function

Before we look at whether paid social is better than paid search (or vice versa), we need to acknowledge that they function and work completely different. This is an essential consideration to make.

Paid search—like Google Ads, Bing Ads, and even Pinterest’s search ads—work by letting you show an ad in relevant search results that your audience is making. If you’re selling wedding bouquets and someone searches for “wedding bouquets,” you could show them an ad detailing your services, get the click, and hopefully get the sale.

These ads are great at harvesting demand—people are high-intent customers because they’re in the research stage and they’re looking for something specific. If you don’t get the sale, someone else will at this point.

Social ads (which include platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest’s browsing feeds, Twitter Ads, YouTube Ads, and Reddit Ads) work by showing an ad campaign to people that you’ve targeted. This can happen regardless of any relationship with your brand or if they have any immediate need for your product.

A great example of this is the Eucalyptus Farms ads that have been all over my Facebook recently. I never would have searched for “fresh eucalyptus” for my house because it wasn’t something I knew I could buy, but I saw on the ads on Facebook even though I had no true need, and after a few weeks I ended up converting.

If you don’t get the sale on social, it’s entirely possible that no one else might either, because your product or service may not have been on anyone’s radar until you let them know you existed. Social is great for demand generation, meaning that you get to intrude on people’s feeds, hopefully capture their attention and convince them to purchase.

The Breakdown: Is Paid Search Better Than Paid Social?

If you’re wondering whether you should be using paid social or paid search, we’ll break each one down by how each one is most effective.

Because paid search and paid social have different uses, I want to stress here that they aren’t automatically on equal ground and can be difficult to accurately compare at face value. If Google Ads costs more but they yield more direct conversions on the first click, that balances out, for example. It’s important to keep this in mind while going through the comparison and contrast in the next sections.

Best in Speed: Search

If you have an in-demand service or product, search PPC options like Google Ads or Bing Ads are typically going to be the fastest way to start seeing sales. You’re capturing a high-intent audience while they do their buying research, and a well-timed ad with a list of relevant services and maybe even a promotion extension can be a game changer. You can get sales you never would have otherwise, and snag them right from your competition.

Social ads, on the other hand, can deliver quick conversions, particularly in retargeting campaigns where you’re following up with a warm audience.

In many cases, though, social is going to be more slow going, and typically involve more complex funnels. You may need a brand awareness campaign, a lead generation campaign, and an offer campaign, all designed to push users closer to converting. And if you have a new product that people may not be searching for—like eucalyptus or subscription meal plans for toddlers, apparently—using Facebook to create demand could actually speed things up a bit.

Search wins this battle, and you’ll typically get the sale much sooner and after only one click, instead of needing to set up a series of ads.

Best in Cost Overall: It Depends

There isn’t an easy answer to “what platform costs more.” We know that Google Ads clicks cost more than Bing, for example, but even if you limit yourself to Google Ads, a keyword like “ice cream shop” might be $3.00 where a term like “personal injury lawyer” costs somewhere in the $80 for a single click. There’s enormous variation even on a single platform, typically with an increase in clicks as there’s a correlating increase in purchase value.

Social ads are, on average, going to be more affordable for clicks than their search counterparts. The average CPC for Facebook (which is the leading social platform) hovers somewhere around $1, though it can easily go up to $3.  There is still variation here, too, but instead of by industry or purchase value, you’ll see costs increase with competition for your target audience. This can be hard to predict, so you’ll need to determine your own benchmarks.

It’s also important to acknowledge that while search costs more, it may also be more direct. Someone may only need to click once on a Google Ad, paying $6 for that click, before you get the sale. On Facebook, however, you may need to pay $.10 for a video view, then $4 for a lead gen ad, and then another $4 for a click and then conversion. This adds up, and conversion rates per impressions are typically lower on social than search.

Best for Brand Awareness: Social

Overall, social is going to take the cake when it comes to building brand awareness, because you don’t need people to be looking for you in order to start to build a relationship with them. You get to step into their feeds and show them images, dynamic copy, and even videos. Social ads are often more involved on storytelling, while search ads focus more on listing out the best benefits, features, or services of a business as sufficiently as possible.

Social can give you bigger reach faster, and all those benefits have helped some brands legitimately build and scale their businesses with strong targeting in place. Your best bet for this will be to set up funnels on social media so that you keep reminding users of who you are while offering new content.

If you want to make sure you’re standing out during the research process on search, run a search ad, and then use social and display retargeting ads to follow up and increase the likelihood of conversion afterwards.

Conclusion: So Which Is Best?

Like so much of marketing, whether paid search or paid social is best will depend heavily on your business, your audience, and your goals. Both have distinct advantages and unique strengths that the other might lack.

While we believe that paid search is going to benefit more businesses faster than paid social, there’s also plenty of evidence that a combination of paid social and paid search campaigns can work to help you accomplish all of your goals, connect with more of your audience, and even create more complex funnels.

You can use search ads, for example, to bring users into your funnel, and then use display and social ads to follow up and increase the likelihood of conversion. You can also use paid social campaigns to establish brand awareness, and then have search ads running to capture people when they go looking for you when they’re ready to buy.

Think about your audience, what platforms you’re using, and your current relationship with them when deciding which platforms you want to use. When in doubt, testing is always a great choice and it can help you determine what’s most effective for you.

Want to ramp up your PPC campaigns—either social, search, or both? Get in touch with us so we can leverage data-driven strategies to get you the most out of every dollar of ad spend.

What do you think? Which has worked best for your business—paid search or paid social? How do you divide up your ad campaigns? Share our thoughts and questions in the comments below! 

  • AdWords

  • PPC

  • Social Media

Ana Gotter

Ana Gotter is a freelance writer specializing in social media and content marketing, though she writes on a variety of other niches and subjects. She can be contacted at

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