You want more traffic from search engines to your website. SEO and SEM are both effective strategies.
There are many similarities between the two. Both use keywords and phrases to target searchers. Both try to get your pages to the top of the search results.
But how do they differ? Which is better for your business? Let’s take a look.
SEO vs SEM: What Is The Difference?
The first step in choosing which is right for your business is to understand the role that each plays.
The two terms are often used to mean everything that companies do to gain traffic. But they have very different functions.
Search engine optimization (SEO) is everything you’re doing with your website to get traffic.
The goal is to make it to the top of the list of results from a search engine query–or search engine results page (SERP).
In other words, when a user types something into a Google, Yahoo, or Bing search box, you want your website to be one of the top choices.
In the example below, you can see that our own agency ranks #1 on search engines for social media marketing company.
If you type “social media marketing company” into Google, right now, our company will be the #1 organic result.
Now, some of the things you might be doing as part of an SEO strategy include:
- Using keywords in titles, descriptions, content, etc.
- Creating high-quality content that is optimized for readers.
- Using formatting options like H1 and H2 tags for headers and subheaders.
- Using well-formatted URLs.
- Including images and videos to keep visitors engaged.
- Making sure your website is fast and mobile-friendly.
The purpose of SEO optimization is to give your website a natural lift on a search engine results page (SERP).
Search engines read every web page to see if it is a good resource for their searchers. If so, search engines are more likely to include them in a SERP.
Search engine marketing (SEM), on the other hand, is using paid ads to get your messages in front of your target audience.
SEM ads are the search results that companies have paid to show up when certain keywords are entered.
They’re usually set apart from the rest of the results at the top or off to the side of the results page.
Increasingly, Google is blending ads with other results making them a bit harder to spot.
You’ll often hear of SEM ads referred to as PPC advertising, or pay-per-click. You are only charged whenever your ad is clicked, not every time it’s displayed.
SEO has traditionally fallen under the umbrella of SEM. As the two practices become more advanced, the divide between them grows.
The paid nature of SEM sets it apart from SEO. The two may work together but they don’t often mix.
How SEO Works
Search engine optimization relies on long-term, cumulative efforts in a slow-moving game.
If you perfectly optimize one page of your website, that one page is not likely to do a whole lot for your visibility.
For one thing, search engines like Google want to be sure that your website is current and up-to-date.
That means it’s looking for fresh pages and updated content on a regular basis.
You also need to establish a bit of authority or credibility before you can reach the top of a SERP. Those are two things that cannot be rushed or purchased.
Other credible websites need to lend a bit of their trustworthiness to you by linking to your pages.
These backlinks show search engines that trustworthy sites find your pages valid so they can do the same.
Plus, good SEO is good for your readers. Everything you do to impress search engines improves the experience for everyone.
Do this with easy navigation, pages that are easy on the eyes, and content-packed with information.
SEO is also extremely cost-effective. There are no ad costs to put on top of development and optimization expenses.
In short, SEO is relatively cheap but it takes a while to get results.
The Case For Organic Traffic
All traffic you receive from your SEO efforts is organic search traffic.
That’s because your pages landed on a SERP on their own merit, and not because you paid for them to be there.
Google, Bing, and other search engines have customers, too. These are the people who perform around 4 billion searches every single day.
Search engines must give relevant and useful results to keep their customers happy.
Below is a screenshot of one of our clients who increased their organic website traffic per month through our Atlanta SEO Company.
When searchers see your pages at the top of the SERPs, they assume that search engines have vetted the pages.
Consumers trust this quality control process and are usually satisfied with the first few listings.
According to a study by Ignite Visibility, more than half of all clicks go to the top 3 results. This number doesn’t plunge on pages with ads.
Most of the clicks are still going to organic listings.
Organic search traffic is sustainable over time. You only have to do the hardest work once to get your pages to the top of the SERPs.
After that, you tend to stay there as long as you keep up the good work. That means a steady supply of fresh eyes to your pages every day.
A solid organic traffic stream is driven by SEO also makes it tougher for the competition.
If your competitors lack an SEO strategy, you’ve got them beat by a longshot. If you’re trying to catch up, your diligence will pay off when you achieve your fair part of the market share.
All these things add up to something that is also valuable: credibility.
If the search engines trust your content enough to push it to the top of the list, your company must be legitimate. And worthy of the trust of searchers.
Organic Traffic and Sales: Tangible Results
Staying ahead of the competition and building credibility are good goals.
Boosting your conversion rate will earn you real dollars–a tangible goal. Here’s how organic traffic will make that happen:
A Huge Audience. 93 percent of online activities start on a search engine. Those are millions of conversions waiting to happen.
- Quality Traffic. People use search engines to solve problems. That means they are already interested in your solutions.
There’s no need to persuade anyone to buy.
Expand Your Market. Break into new markets by targeting new keywords. Expand product lines or roll out new services with ease.
- Offline Sales Boost. Most people research online before visiting a store. That research starts with a search engine. SEO will drive offline sales, too!
In fact, we helped one small business build almost $100,000 worth of SEO results in 5 months.
How? First, we generated 78 first-page Google rankings. Those first-page rankings brought in 77,562 new clicks to the website.
With the new clicks came $96,664.98 in revenue attributed to those clicks. It’s hard to argue with real revenue.
Where SEM Excels
With all this talk about amazing results from organic search traffic, where do ads fit in?
A review of numbers from 2017 shows that paid search only gets somewhere between 6 and 10 percent of all clicks.
Those percentages might seem too low to make SEM worthwhile. But remember that we’re talking about four billion searches per day.
Six percent is a whopping 240 million searches reserved for the paid results. Plus, you only pay for the clicks you get.
Search engine marketing will turbocharge your SEO efforts by backing them with cash.
SEO lets your pages work their way up the SERPs organically. SEM allows you to pay for the privilege of visibility.
SEM gives you the opportunity to directly reach the searchers you want with ads that speak to their needs. The results are fast, too.
If your campaign is set up well, you’ll start getting clicks immediately.
Here are a few other ways that SEM cannot be beaten:
Straight to the Top. PPC advertisements appear above the search results.
Being one of the first options means you are more likely to convert traffic.
More Options. PPC ad formats offer more choices than organic results.
For example, add call tracking, site links, and customer reviews on your PPC ads. By customizing your ads, you will add value for searchers.
Expanded Targeting. Keyword targeting is only one option.
PPC lets you target hundreds of keywords at once. Or, target by online behavior and interests.
Controlled Testing. PPC ads let you test different keywords and ad layouts.
You can even run two ads at the same time to find out which works better. Better testing helps you maximize PPC spending.
User Intent Matters
The percentage of clicks that paid ads get surges when you filter for user intent.
According to Wordstream, when people want to buy something, the top 3 paid advertising spots rake in 65 percent of the clicks.
Below is a screenshot of one of our clients who used PPC advertising to generate over 210 conversions at an average cost of $4.33 per conversion.
Read the full case study on how Google Adwords increase leads sales.
The difference is intent. Consider the entire buying process.
There’s the search for information, evaluation of options, and then the sale. This process applies to both consumer-facing and B2B situations.
So PPC ads are taking the lion’s share of the clicks from the buying stage. The organic traffic is going to people who are still collecting information.
What this means to you is that it’s not always a case of SEO vs SEM, but when to use which method to get the desired results.
When To Deploy SEM
SEM is faster than SEO, but it is also more expensive. It also is more effective for users ready to spend money.
That makes SEM best for short-term, targeted solutions.
For example, a grand opening for a new business or the launch of a new website.
A targeted PPC campaign can help get the digital ball rolling. To make your ads more effective, keep them tied to buying decisions that new consumers will be making.
Or, if you’re debuting a new product line, a paid campaign can give it instant visibility.
The same will work for companies with a seasonal rotation of goods and services.
As time goes by–and your organic traffic increases from SEO–you can spend less on SEM or direct that budget to a new campaign.
PPC ads are also a great way to attract new talent. Job seekers also turn to Google to look for opportunities.
A paid search ad is much cheaper than recruiting fees and typically high acquisition costs.
A Match Made In Heaven?
The good news about SEO vs SEM is that you don’t have to choose one over the other.
Instead, understanding the purpose and benefits of each will help you do more with both.
For example, a well-targeted SEM campaign will only get you clicks.
You need to have a solid website as a destination for that click. Otherwise, visitors will look elsewhere for solutions–or bounce from your site.
Your SEO efforts should provide you with a robust website to receive those clicks.
SEM ads also offer direct and immediate feedback on user activity.
If you want feedback from your SEO efforts, you must give them plenty of time to work first.
What works for SEM might not always translate into your SEO work. Keywords that get clicks from ads might not drive organic search results.
But, you can still use some of the feedback from one to inform your efforts on the other.
Always See the Big Picture
Digital marketing and optimization are big-picture strategies. It’s easy to get lost in the details of SEO vs SEM.
Take a step back from time to time and try to see your business as a consumer would.
What problems does he have that you can solve? What needs does she have that you can meet? Are you credible? Trustworthy?
Instead of SEO vs SEM, think of how you can leverage the strengths of both to make the other stronger.
Create a long-term SEO strategy and stay the course long enough to get results. Add SEM components to jump-start the process, or to meet specific goals.
When you step back to see the big picture, you’ll be able to make the most of both strategies.
That will make both you and your customers happier.