What's best for my brand: SEO or SEM?

By Manuela Vulpescu

Search Marketing enables you to get noticed by appearing on top of the search engine results. The higher your search rankings, the better the chances to attract more people to your site. This will eventually lead to more sales and the growth of your business in the end.

You can put two major tactics to work to get results in search marketing: SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing). Both deal with keywords and respond to intention targeting. The main difference between them is that the first one focuses on generating organic traffic while the second one uses paid strategies to gain visibility.

SEM is paid

SEM is usually defined as the part of search marketing that buys attention on Google to increase website traffic. We usually call it PPC (or pay-per-click marketing). With SEM, you target people based on keywords related to your business and use Google Ads to develop and optimize campaigns in order to drive traffic to your web pages, generate leads, or sell your products and services.

SEO is organic

SEO, on the other side, focuses on generating organic visibility. With SEO, you don’t pay for placement on SERP . Instead, you use a set of techniques to prove that your content is valuable and relevant and deserves to be selected and displayed on top.

SEO is not only about convincing Google that you are good. It is also about improving the users' experience and your website’s overall usability because, in the end, you’re doing business with people, and you want them to be happy in the first place.

Why is SEO so important? Because if two web pages sell the same product, the search engine optimized one is more likely to get visitors and sales.

How does SEO work

The SEO ecosystem consists of three main players: the users, the search engines, and the search engine optimizers.

As long as people want information conveniently and look for it online, the search engines will focus on gaining as many users as possible by serving them relevant content and paid ads. The better your website’s quality and the more relevant your content, the higher your chances to stay first in line.

Still, between Search Engine Optimizers and Search Engines, there tends to be some tension. While SEO consultants can help businesses make better sites and rank higher, there are also cases when they utilize debatable techniques disapproved by Google. As the rules of the game are constantly changing, the best way to avoid costly mistakes is to select your partners wisely and eventually cooperate with certified experts.

When properly done, SEO is comparatively less expensive than any other advertising tactic. Moreover, it has lasting effects as the SEO techniques you use today will continue to provide results in the long run.

SEO Best practices

The SEO golden rule is to create valuable content for people that can be used by search engines and not the other way around. Many bloggers are a great example of how to be successful online. Even if lots of them are not SEO specialists, they usually rank higher than others in search engine results simply by creating great user-oriented materials.

Opt for White Hat SEO techniques

These are all the tactics that are compliant with Google’s Webmaster Guidelines. Exclusively focusing on them will ensure your site’s security, allowing you to avoid penalties while building credibility in front of your audience.

Say NO to Black Hat SEO

The Black Hat SEO covers all malicious tactics that are not following Google’s Webmasters Guidelines. It uses various illegitimate ways to create false relevance for increasing your website ranking in a short period of time. Such techniques include:

  • cloaking (delivering content to the search engines that is different from what you deliver to users)
  • false redirects
  • hidden text or links
  • doorway pages (hidden pages with keywords text)
  • scraped content (taking content from other places on the web and publishing it on your own site)
  • abuse of rich snippets.

All these methods are unethical, usually leading to the search engine algorithm updates penalizing your site.

Other similar tactics from the same “grey area” involve:

  • keyword stuffing (using large amounts of keywords on the site and metadata)
  • posting duplicate or thin content
  • blog comment spam
  • buying positive reviews
  • selling links
  • opting for negative SEO to sabotage the search engine rankings of your competitors.
  • SEO squatting (buying domains relevant to your keywords and adding content that links to your page)
  • Google Bombing (ranking higher for irrelevant, unrelated keywords by linking heavily)
  • Cybersquatting (trafficking or using an Internet domain name with bad faith intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else)
  • automating Google queries
  • creating private blog networks (or the extensive use of microsites)

Even if all these methods can help you obtain faster results, we strongly recommend avoiding their implementation not only because they involve unnecessary extra costs but mainly because there is a higher threat of penalty and even exclusion of your site from the search engine.

Keep this list with you when organizing the selection of your SEO specialists, as you will need to check how “moral” and up-to-date they are before inviting them to work on your project.

On-page optimization, off-page optimization, and technical SEO

On-Page Optimization is the practice of optimizing web pages to rank higher and get traffic based on relevancy. The main focus here is on keyword research and content creation. Still, it’s not enough to develop your content. It would be best if you also optimized it for the search engines to be able to understand it and serve it accordingly to the right audience at the right moment.

On the other hand, technical SEO focuses on all aspects that are not content-related but are absolutely mandatory for creating a pleasant user (and search crawler) experience. They usually refer to site speed, mobile-friendliness, site architecture, indexing, crawling, and security.

Off-page optimization considers your site’s reputation and focuses on linking it to influential, relevant domains. How old your domain is and how accessible it became, along with the social buzz around it, the online brand searches, your direct website visits, the number of pages per session, and other similar factors, are all playing important roles in deciding your final ranking.

How to mix SEO and SEM

The bad news is that SEO takes longer periods of time (from 6 months to 2 years) to bring results. Therefore you’ll need to initially focus on PPC campaigns to generate relevant traffic to your website.

The good news is that both SEO and SEM have lots in common, spearing the double work in some significant areas:

  • They both use keywords to gain visibility.
  • They both imply knowing your audience and working with buyer personas to create relevant content and landing pages for all steps of the customer journey,
  • And they both need testing and constant optimization.

SEM will help you get visible even if your website’s authoritativeness level has not been established yet. Investing in pay-per-click campaigns allows you to reach out to relevant people looking for your products. With SEM, you can select whom you want to target with your ads, and you have a great opportunity to test different variations and see what works before making any further investments in content and complementary techniques. SEM brings immediate results, but the results don’t last. You show up on top as long as you pay.

What to expect from SEM?

If the customer journey, in your case, is a short one, and the buying decision is usually spontaneous, it’s worth considering investing in PPC as it may help you drive sales right on the spot. On the other hand, if the buying cycle is longer and needs lots of considerations and analysis, SEM may not perform ideally. You will probably have to opt instead for other channels to build your credibility and drive sales. Still, we suggest keeping it on the list, especially if your site is new and needs collecting data for you to understand your market better and approach it authentically in the long run.

PPC basically allows you to efficiently use the time and get immediate benefits while working on a parallel basis to build up your SEO.

With SEO, you will aim for long-lasting results, and you will not have to pay for clicks. Even if SEO does not allow you to control your targeting fully and your site may show up in results in areas or for people who are not necessarily part of your target audience, it still remains one of the most efficient techniques to generate a relevant ROI.


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