SEO vs SEM: Who's the Search King?


Chris Young

SEO vs SEM: Who's the Search King?

Unpack the differences between two top search marketing tactics to understand and leverage both for the best business results.

All businesses are driven by the need to attract, retain and increase the value of their prospects and clients. However, the ways to do this are as numerous as the potential customers yet the exact methodology to use rarely presents itself as such. Frequently finding the right marketing strategy can look more like a forgetful person trying to find his car keys while blindfolded and handcuffed–it takes time to get there, and it often isn’t pretty.

That being said, there are a few tried-and-true playbooks that can be relied on regardless of the business. Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two such strategies that, while nuanced, more or less have an established road to success. How do you know which one is right for your company? We invite you to find out…

What is SEO?

SEO is a dynamic and strategic process that enhances a website or web page's visibility in a search engine's unpaid or "organic" results. SEO is based on search engine algorithms, which are constantly updated and refined but have well-established norms. The goal of SEO is to optimize your website or page so that it ranks highly in search engine results pages (SERPs) for relevant search queries, thus increasing the quantity and quality of traffic.

Two fundamental components of SEO are keywords and human-generated content. Keywords are the terms or phrases that users type into search engines when they're searching for information, products, or services. To optimize your website, you need to identify the relevant keywords in your industry or niche and incorporate them appropriately into your site's content, meta tags, URLs, and other elements. However, keyword usage needs to be strategic and natural rather than awkward and shoe-horned. We’ve all seen the websites (especially local ones) whose author apparently had an overwrought fixation with a certain keyword. This used to work, but it doesn’t anymore! Website copy and content must be high quality and written primarily for humans. Search engines reward websites that provide valuable, relevant, and fresh content to users. This content should be informative, engaging, and shareable, and it should incorporate your targeted keywords in a natural and readable way.

The last fundamental component of SEO is link building. Search engines view backlinks (links from other websites to your own) as a sign of credibility and authority. The more high-quality backlinks you have, the better your site will rank in search results. However, similar to keywords, it's the quality of backlinks that matters, not just quantity. Links from reputable, high-authority sites are more beneficial than numerous links from low-quality sources.

What is SEM

SEM is a form of Internet marketing that involves promoting websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising. While SEO focuses on earning traffic through unpaid or free listings, SEM uses paid search - such as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) campaigns and Cost-Per-Click (CPC) advertising.

One of the most popular forms of SEM is PPC advertising, which literally means you pay a fee each time someone clicks on your ad. These ads are typically displayed at the top of SERPs, above the organic listings influenced by SEO. Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) is one of the most common platforms for PPC advertising and allows businesses to create ads that appear on Google's search engine and other Google properties. To deploy a PPC campaign, advertisers bid on the keywords that users of services such as Google might enter when looking for certain products or services. This gives the advertiser the opportunity for their ads to appear alongside results for those search queries, thereby increasing visibility.  A significant advantage of SEM is that it can provide immediate visibility on SERPs. While SEO is a long-term strategy that takes time to yield results, SEM can offer almost instant results. However, this attention is purchased rather than earned.

SEO and SEM: Advantages and Shortcomings

SEO's primary advantage is its ability to deliver long-term, sustainable results. Unlike paid advertising, the results from SEO are not tied to an ongoing budget. Once a website has been properly optimized and starts ranking high on SERPs, it can maintain that position for an extended period, leading to continuous organic traffic. This makes SEO a highly cost-effective strategy, as the return on investment can be measured over several months, if not years. However, SEO isn't without its challenges. For one, it can be time-consuming and the results are not immediate. Additionally, search engine algorithms are continuously updated, meaning SEO strategies must adapt and evolve to stay current.

On the other hand, SEM offers several distinct advantages. The most obvious is the potential for immediate results. Once a campaign is launched, ads can begin appearing in search results almost instantly, providing high visibility for targeted keywords. This is particularly useful for new businesses or websites that haven't yet established an organic presence. Additionally, SEM platforms offer advanced performance tracking capabilities, allowing advertisers to measure and optimize their campaigns in real-time.

However, SEM also comes with some drawbacks. Firstly, it requires a continuous budget. Depending on how long your sales cycle is or how long it takes to realize ROI, this continuous budget could take time to regenerate itself. Furthermore, once you stop paying for ads, your visibility diminishes; the results, while immediate, are also temporary. This means that SEM can be more of a short-term strategy for boosting visibility, while SEO provides longer-lasting results. Managing an SEM campaign can also be complex, especially for newcomers. Keyword bidding, ad creation, and performance tracking all require a significant understanding of the platform and strategy, making SEM potentially daunting for beginners. Lastly, budget limitations can restrict the reach of your campaigns, especially when bidding for highly competitive keywords.

When to use SEO or SEM: Specific instances and cases

Knowing when to use SEO versus SEM (or vice versa) requires a knowledge of what tool to apply at which moment. Using SEO for an SEM goal often feels like trying to nail a screw–you’ll make a lot of noise, damage a screw or two, and ultimately end up frustrated. SEO is an excellent tool for building brand authority and trust, enhancing the user experience, and driving long-term, organic traffic. SEO, and content marketing more generally, is often seen as the foundation of a company's online presence. 

Wikipedia is a prime example of consistently used SEO to maintain its authority and high rankings on countless topics. They focus on providing high-quality, relevant, and in-depth content that keeps users on the page longer and enhances the user experience. While Wikipedia isn’t a for-profit enterprise, they’re still sitting atop reserve funds that have in excess of $200 million of liquid or near-liquid assets. Mayo Clinic is another great example of excellent SEO usage. This famous clinic has used SEO to ensure that their medical information ranks highly which in turn helps their readers seek treatment through them. By focusing on generating detailed, high-quality content and using keywords strategically, they've established themselves as a reliable and trustworthy source of medical information.

SEM, on the other hand, is ideal for companies launching time-sensitive promotions, testing market response to new products, or quickly reaching a specific target audience. If a company is releasing a new product and wants to get immediate exposure, SEM can be an effective way to achieve visibility and gather initial customer feedback. SEM is also effective for seasonal promotions and sales such as Black Friday. 

Airbnb has effectively used SEM to target people looking for vacation rentals or unique accommodation experiences in specific locations. They've created highly targeted ads and used precise keyword bidding to appear for relevant searches, thereby reaching their desired audience and driving bookings. Similarly, the tech company, Lenovo, has been known to implement SEM strategies to test new product launches in select markets. By targeting specific regions with paid search ads, Lenovo is able to gauge market response, adjust their marketing strategies based on immediate feedback, and maximize the product's overall success.

Combining SEO and SEM: A holistic approach

Using SEO and SEM in tandem can be a powerful way to optimize a company's marketing efforts and maximize their online visibility. This combination allows businesses to dominate both the organic and paid search results, which can significantly increase their visibility and likelihood of attracting clicks. While SEO drives long-term, sustainable traffic, SEM can provide immediate visibility and quick wins, especially for new product launches or promotional campaigns. This combination of short-term revenue while building a long-term repeatable revenue stream solves immediate-term and long-term revenue problems.

In addition to faster results, utilizing both strategies also allows businesses to capture a larger audience. Some users prefer clicking on organic search results, while others are more inclined to click on paid ads. By leveraging both SEO and SEM, businesses can appeal to both types of users. This strategy also enables businesses to target different keywords with varying levels of competition, helping to ensure that they're reaching the most relevant audience across the full search landscape. The data insights from SEO and SEM efforts can also provide valuable data insights that can be leveraged to improve both strategies. For example, the keyword data from PPC campaigns can inform SEO keyword strategy, and organic traffic data can help refine PPC targeting.

Case studies of successful SEO and SEM integration

Amazon provides an excellent example of a business that effectively uses both SEO and SEM in tandem to dominate search engine results and increase its visibility. The e-commerce giant employs SEO to rank organically for a multitude of keywords. They utilize a complex system of categories and subcategories to help search engines understand their enormous variety of products, thus improving their organic rankings. Simultaneously, Amazon runs extensive SEM campaigns, particularly around high-traffic events like Prime Day or Black Friday, to reach customers who are ready to purchase immediately. By doing so, Amazon manages to have a commanding presence in both organic and paid results, allowing it to maximize its visibility and capture a large segment of the online shopping market.

Another example is Zillow, a leading real estate and rental marketplace. Zillow leverages SEO by creating high-quality, localized content that ranks organically for real estate-related search terms. They have a robust blog and learning center filled with resources that cater to various user intents, from buying and selling homes to understanding mortgage rates. This strategy helps them drive consistent, long-term organic traffic. Simultaneously, Zillow uses SEM to promote specific listings and services, targeting keywords that potential home buyers or sellers might use. This combination of SEO and SEM allows Zillow to capture a wide array of real estate-related search traffic, whether users are just researching or ready to take action.

Embracing an integrated marketing strategy

Companies can embrace a hybrid SEO/SEM marketing strategy by developing a comprehensive plan that leverages the unique strengths and mitigates the challenges of both methods. This starts by setting clear goals for each part of the strategy, identifying target audiences, and conducting thorough keyword research. This groundwork informs both SEO and SEM efforts, helping to ensure they work together effectively.

A hybrid approach often involves using SEO as a foundation for sustained, long-term visibility and traffic growth. Through continuous optimization of website design, user experience, and content strategy, SEO can improve a website's organic rankings over time. This can increase the site's credibility and trustworthiness, which is particularly valuable in competitive industries. However, as SEO takes time to produce results and requires ongoing maintenance due to changing algorithms, it requires commitment and patience.

In contrast, during the building phase of an SEO campaign, SEM can be used to generate immediate visibility and conversions. This makes it ideal for time-sensitive promotions, product launches, or to quickly capture market share in new areas while an SEO-base is being built. It also provides opportunities for precise targeting and easy performance tracking in a way that SEO cannot. However, the results of SEM are tied to the advertising budget and may be temporary, making SEM more of a short-term strategy compared to SEO.

By combining SEO and SEM, businesses can optimize their visibility on search engines in both the short and long term. This approach allows them to cover a wider array of keywords, capture a larger audience, and adapt to changing market dynamics. While SEO and SEM are excellent options for most companies, by far the best results are achieved with SEO and SEM experts like Be More Digital. Our experience across dozens of different companies helps us pinpoint what will make your campaign work while maximizing revenue across the shortest amount of time. Get in touch with the expert team at Be More Digital for a proposal or let us know if you simply have a question about the right strategy for your company. Our Customer Experience team is standing by waiting to hear from you!

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