sem vs seo, the eternal digital marketing question

November 22, 2016

A question we are often asked by those looking to gain traction with their digital marketing;
“which is better? SEM or SEO?”

Now this is not an easy question to answer, because in all fairness, it is not comparing apples with apples. Both SEM (search engine marketing) and SEO (search engine optimisation) have their own pros and cons when compared to each other.

Generally, we would recommend BOTH!

SEM and SEO can in fact complement each other. For some more reading on this, check out our blog post on Why SEM & social media are important for SEO.

Back to the question at hand though, which is better? Below we discuss the advantages of each to help you make your own assessment.

best for quick results: sem

Due to the nature of paid search traffic, an SEM campaign can begin delivering high volumes of targeted traffic virtually as soon as you flick the switch. Once your ads have been created and uploaded, your keywords/targeting selected, and an appropriate landing page on your website in place, you’re ready to go!

best for branding: sem

The ability to target relevant search terms, including competitors’ brand names, means you can get your brand in front of the right people, whether or not they have heard of you before. While SEO also has this ability, it relies heavily on having great content that not only ranks well but also provides value to visitors.

Advertising through Google AdWords also allows for display campaigns through which you can get your branded image ads appearing in the right places, as well as the option of remarketing, with your ads ‘following’ users who have visited your website. 

best for becoming an authority in your industry: seo

While SEM has the ability to get your website in front of a relevant audience, a well-planned SEO campaign can turn your website into a resource for your potential clients and people within your industry. SEM campaigns are typically limited to search terms which drive conversions however, successful SEO activity should feature content that is useful and interesting, demonstrating your knowledge and authority. If it’s good enough, readers may want to share it on social media or link to it from their website, once again increasing your exposure and reputation. As SEO campaigns should also include guest posting on other websites, as well as content marketing in the form of guides and infographics etc. this again helps grow your reputation as an industry leader.

best for highly competitive search terms: sem

An observed shift in the way Google displays search results has shown a trend towards reducing the exposure of organic results, while giving paid ads a more prominent presence. It’s not uncommon to see search results displaying just a small handful of organic positions, while paid ads, shopping ads, and map listings take up the top of the page. SEM will also give you an even playing field, as highly competitive keywords can be bid on by both small and large businesses/websites alike. While the larger competitors will inevitably have more budget, even a small business with a comparatively lower spend can still target these terms, with the budget limiting the number of clicks and visitors to the site.

best for roi: ???

Now this is a tricky question, and in all fairness, one without a definitive answer. It really depends on your industry and your resources at hand. For businesses with a team of writers and marketers ready to create content and reach out for links, SEO may work out a better option. Of course, this should also factor in the cost of your staff, however when staff are already employed and have some extra capacity, SEO is a great option. For businesses outsourcing their digital marketing, SEM will deliver better results at first, with the immediate traffic allowing for leads and conversions from day one. SEO on the other hand will take longer.

In the long term, SEO has the potential to deliver much better ROI, as the effects of SEO can last for a significant amount of time without as much ongoing spend as SEM.

Want to talk about digital marketing for your business?

Contact us to discuss how we can help grow your customers. 

Categories: Digital Marketing, SEM, SEO
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