Which is Cheaper: Free Traffic or Paid Traffic?
Before we get into the nitty gritty, let’s just clarify exactly what traffic is. (Clue: It’s not cars piled up on the M6)
In the digital marketing world, traffic is the term used to describe the number of visitors that view your website, and how many pages they visit. Sometimes called ‘hits’.
Once you have your website built and looking kick-ass beautiful, the next thing that you’re going to want to turn your attention to is traffic.
After all, what is the point of having a website if no-one comes to visit it?
More importantly, if your website sells some form of product/service or makes money from affiliated content and adverts, then there’s more of a reason for you to get traffic. Because that is the first step you need to take in order to get paid!
We can break new traffic down into two categories – free traffic or paid traffic.
Would you prefer free traffic or paid traffic?
Almost every time I ask people, ‘which traffic would you prefer, free or paid?’, they always answer free. And when I ask them why the answer is obvious – ‘because it’s free!’
But in some cases, free traffic can be more expensive than paid traffic.
I know that sentence above might have just smacked you in the face with wet fish and left you feeling a bit perplexed, so please allow me to explain.
But first, let’s look at the difference between free and paid traffic.
Examples of free traffic
- SEO (search engine optimisation) – Getting your website to rank higher in Google, and other search engines, so that more people click through to your website.
- Social media – Creating a page on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc. and building a following that will click through to your website.
- Guest blogging – Writing posts for other websites that will supply a link back to your website.
NOTE: It’s very important to understand that there is no such thing as free traffic.
Let me repeat that sentence and put it in bold.
There is no such thing as free traffic.
It has a cost somewhere. Maybe not in dollars and cents, but certainly in time. Someone has had to sit and invest the time into keyword research, creating content, making sure the website ticks all of Google’s boxes, building a social media following etc.
You might not have had to pay for adverts and clicks, but you certainly had to invest the time – or pay for someone else to invest their time.
I’m glad we cleared that up.
Now, let’s continue with some pros and cons of free traffic.
Pros of free traffic
- It doesn’t have a monetary cost – As long as you are willing to put the time, effort and research in, you can obtain a sea of traffic to your website without having to spend a penny.
- It has a bit of longevity – If you get a page of your website to the top of Google, you can be assured of traffic even after you have stopped the campaign, as long as that page can maintain its ranking.
Cons of free traffic
- Organic traffic can take a long time to build up and requires a lot of effort – You don’t get to the top of Google overnight. It can take 6-12 months before you even start to get the slightest bit of traction from a new website.
- It is all outside of your control – You are unable to control who is clicking through to your site, how much traffic you get and what pages they land on. If a page ranks really well and you start to get more orders than you can manage, you cannot turn that traffic on and off instantaneously.
- You are at the mercy of the search engines – You could be flying high for 6 months with thousands of hits from organic traffic, but then Google could change its algorithms, and almost overnight, your traffic could disappear.
Examples of paid traffic
- PPC (pay-per-click) – Placing targeted ads on Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc. and being charged each time someone clicks through to your website.
- Affiliates and joint ventures – You can partner up with someone who will drive traffic to your website from their website, from their email list, podcast and social media pages. They usually receive a percentage of the sales that are created from that traffic.
- Influencer marketing – You can work with influencers in your market that have a high number of followers. You can pay them to create videos, blog posts and other content around your product or service and promote it to their followers. This is usually completed for an agreed flat fee.
Pros of paid traffic
- It’s scalable – You can control the flow of traffic, similar to running water through a tap. If you need more traffic, you can turn it up. If you are getting too much traffic, or if it’s not converting well, you can turn the traffic down/off.
- You can control who visits your site – You can specify your exact target market. Age, gender, location, income, marital status, desire plus more. You can almost pinpoint the exact type of person you require.
- You can control where you want the traffic to go – You can specify which pages of your website you want your traffic to land on.
Cons of paid traffic
- ‘Stupidity tax’ – If you do not take the time to learn how the PPC platforms work, then they can end up being very expensive. You can easily lose a few hundred quid in an hour.
The aim of the game…
…is NOT about getting as much traffic as you possibly can.
It is ultimately about conversions – converting a visitor into a subscriber, or a customer.
So, the aim of the game is COST PER CONVERSION or CPC. In other words, how much does it cost you for each conversion?
You obviously want this cost to be as low as possible.
It’s all about ‘who’, not ‘how much’
You need the right traffic.
For example, would you rather have…
- a website that gets 10,000 hits a day and converts 5%
- a website that gets 5,000 hits a day and converts 20%
If you do the math, you will see that the first website is converting 500 people, whilst the second website is converting 1000 people – that’s twice as many conversions, with only half the number of visitors.
Providing all other variables are the same (web design, product, price etc) then the second website can convert more visitors because the traffic is more targeted.
If your starter traffic is more targeted, you will find that you will get higher front-end conversions that cost less per conversion (CPC).
What do you do with the traffic when it reaches your site?
Most people will drive traffic to their website and then do nothing with it as soon as it gets there. In which case, some visitors will just land on their website, have a look around, and then leave – never to be seen again.
Whether you paid for that traffic or not, you still worked hard to get it. You need to do your best to retain as much of it as possible.
Here are three things that you should be doing:
- Capturing data – Your main goal is to capture the email address of those that visit your site. This is usually done by a value exchange – you give them something of value (like an ebook or a free download) in exchange for their email address. This allows you to remain in contact with that person, remind them that you’re still there, give them more value and build their trust.
- Tracking pixels – These are simple pieces of code that are inserted onto the pages of your website. They allow you to track your visitors and the actions that they take whilst on your website. This is very similar to capturing data as it allows you to build an ‘invisible list’ of potential customers.
- Remarketing – This works with the tracking pixels. For example, you can show adverts through third-party sites, such as Google and Facebook, to all the people who have visited your site in the past 30 days for example (those that have been picked up by the tracking pixel). This is a great way to stay at the front of your customer’s mind, and to remind them to come back to your site.
By getting highly targeted traffic to your website, this also means that the data that has been captured for your email list, the tracking pixels and remarketing campaigns should also be more target. Therefore, they should perform better and cost less per conversion also.
Here is where it gets interesting…
When using free traffic, you cannot control who is visiting your website. You’ve just got to hope that whoever found you on the internet, found you for the right reasons and is a member of your target market.
This is where getting the wrong traffic can be quite costly.
Say, for example, my target market of customers are females between the ages of 25-40 years. If I set up a PPC (pay-per-click) campaign in Facebook (a source of paid traffic), I can make sure that Facebook was only showing my ads to those that matched my target demographic.
If I relied on SEO (search engine optimisation) and my website was at the top of Google (a source of free traffic), a person could click through to my website who was a 60-year-old male. Not my target demographic or potential customer.
Both people will get picked up by the tracking pixels, and put into my invisible list ready for me to remarket to later.
Obviously, if my invisible list contains a high percentage of my target demographic (in other words, has a lot of females aged between 25-40 years), then it is going to convert well and cost less per conversion.
If it does not have a high percentage of my target demographic, then it is not going to convert as well, and will probably cost more per conversion.
What I am trying to point out is that free is not always better. Don’t deter away from using paid traffic just because it is ‘paid for’. In the long run, you can have more conversions that cost less. Which is the whole reason why we drive traffic to a website anyway!
And we’re not taking just front-end conversions. With the above remarketing strategies, you can have back-end conversions that cost less to convert also.
So, which is cheaper – free traffic or paid traffic?
Honestly, I can’t tell you that.
I know…annoying, right?
The truth is that it will depend on your website and what you are offering.
The best way to work out which source of traffic is cheaper is to look at your costs per conversions (CPC).
Don’t just look at how much it cost you to get 1000 page views. That can be a very false analytic. Remember that it’s about the ‘who’ and not about ‘how much’.
A website with less, but more targeted traffic, can perform better and convert customers at a lower cost than a website with hundreds of visits that are highly untargeted.
I recommend that you look at the CPC for email subscribers, customer conversions as well as any other desired action taken.
First, take a section of data from a paid traffic source and calculate how much it cost for you to get a subscription or an order.
Then, put a value on your time ($10 per hour, $20 per hour or whatever your time is worth). Calculate how much time you invest in SEO activities (such as content creation etc) and then calculate how much it cost for you to get a subscription or an order.
Lastly, compare the results to see which traffic source performs best for you.
More often than not…
Through my experience, if I am selling a product or a service, more often than not my paid for traffic has the lowest CPC.
SEO and content marketing is such a long game to play. It’s not easy to get traction and it takes a lot of time and expertise to get it right.
PPC and paid for traffic you can turn on and off at the press of a button. You have full control over who you are targeting and you can test and test until your heart’s content.
Continue to invest in both paid-for and free traffic. But do your calculations first and concentrate most of your efforts on the traffic source that brings you the lowest CPC.
If you have any questions, queries or concerns over this article, please post below. I love to talk digital marketing and I’m excited to hear your views.