SEO, SEM or both? Which will provide the best results?


Although both SEO (search engine optimisation) and SEM (search engine marketing) are techniques that involve using search engine algorithms to ensure your content gets in front of your audience, there are a number of differences between the two. Here we consider what SEO and SEM are, as well as take a look at the pros and cons of each form of marketing. Armed with this information, you'll be able to decide which form of marketing is going to work best to meet your goals.

What are SEO and SEM?

SEO is all about optimising organic content so that it attracts the attention of search engine algorithms. The more appealing your content is to the search engines, the higher it's going to return in organic search results. SEM involves "queue jumping" organic search results by paying for an ad to appear above the organic results in a SERP (search engine results page). Working on the basis that the majority of customers don't look beyond the first page of search results, SEM positions a business's profile where it's most likely to be seen by the target audience.

What characterises SEO?

SEO isn't necessarily better or worse than SEM, but it is different. We've summarised the key characteristics of SEO marketing below:

  • SEO is a long-term strategy: SEO involves delivering regularly updated content that's consistently excellent. It can take weeks (or months) to gather enough momentum with search engine algorithms to begin moving up the rankings.
  • SEO involves using a wide variety of keywords (including long-tail keywords), as well as reaching out to other websites in order to establish successful backlinks. This may mean writing guest blogs, contributing to a technical website, providing products for review, and similar strategies. Done correctly, SEO takes a considerable amount of on-going work.
  • SEO delivers organic search results: the good news for SEO is that research shows around 75% of Google users click through on one of the top three organic search results on SERPs. Note the top three don't include paid for ads (SEM). Customer trust remains focused on organic search results, rather than paid-for results.
  • Although, if done correctly, SEO will yield a place on one of the coveted top three organic search results spots, achieving that goal is very difficult. Particularly for common keywords, bigger brands will already have sophisticated strategies in place to ensure they dominate on any search return. However, it is possible to return highly on more targeted searches. For example, bigger players will have stitched up "Plumbers in Brisbane" as a search term, but "emergency plumbers in Kangaroo Point" is the more focused type of search term which could return a smaller plumbing company a top-three result.

What characterises SEM?

  • In comparison to SEO, SEM has the potential to deliver an almost instant ROI, but does present issues in terms of sustainability and reach. Obviously putting your ad directly in front of your target audience is an excellent way to increase awareness of your brand. Once a potential customer is aware that you exist, they might pick up your name elsewhere (for example on social media), even if they don't click through on a sponsored ad.
  • Sponsored ads can be very tightly targeted to your audience. Creators can exert a huge amount of control over the size, shape and format of their ad, resulting in ads that are aimed to give optimal appeal.
  • Ads can include images of relevant products: studies show that 80% of people remember what they see, as opposed to 20% who remember what they read. If you want to make an impression, an ad with pictures is the way to do it.
  • Ads can be split-tested against one another, in a way that's just not possible with organic content. Two different ads will yield different volumes of traffic, conversions etc. This makes it easy to quickly discover which one works best, enabling resources to be tightly targeted towards the ads which bring the greatest ROI.
  • Ads can be shown at specific times of day, or on specific dates, depending on audience viewing habits and traffic figures from previous weeks. For example, if your stats show that interest was highest at 5 pm on a Friday, it's clear that's the period when your ads need to be running.

Should you opt for SEO vs SEM?

The reality is that neither is "better" than the other. Each has a place in a marketing strategy, and the need for each technique may vary over time. For example, SEM is a fantastic option for gathering fast information on user engagement - such as whether a particular product generates considerable interest, or whether you're reaching your audience at the right time. In comparison, a strong SEO strategy is likely to yield the long-term, sustainable results needed to ensure your business's online presence continues to consolidate.

We recommend using both techniques, according to the needs of your marketing strategy. By adopting a long-term strategy of using SEO, in order to enhance your organic search results, you're building high-quality user engagement. SEM brings an immediate hit: it may not gather the overall increase in traffic that you'll find with SEO, but it will get a fast reaction, and also increase the visibility of your brand to your target audience. Particularly if used alongside a broader strategy of audience engagement (for example through social media, or through a magazine campaign), SEM can provide the rapid feedback you need to tweak your marketing so that it delivers the most effective results.

If you want to know more about SEM and SEO, including how best to utilise these techniques follow our blog.

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