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Navigating the digital marketing landscape: 3 Tips when deciding on SEO vs. SEM

If you've been researching ways to generate traffic and enhance your online presence on search engine results pages (SERPs), you've likely encountered the essential debate of SEO vs. SEM.  But, in a world dominated by search engines like Google and Bing, it's easy to get overwhelmed by various marketing techniques. Determining the differences between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) and understanding which strategy aligns with your goals and marketing budget can be challenging. 

This blog explores 3 tips to consider when deciding between SEO and SEM.

What is SEO?

SEO, which stands for Search Engine Optimisation, is all about improving organic search rankings on search engines like Google and Bing. It includes various tactics, from crafting high-quality content to conducting thorough keyword research, implementing on-page and off-page SEO best practices, and addressing technical SEO aspects like site speed and mobile optimisation. The primary aim of SEO is to increase organic traffic, which means traffic that comes from unpaid sources. 

Over time, SEO efforts compound. So the time and resources you invest today can lead to longer-lasting visibility on search engines, creating a snowball effect and ensuring consistent organic traffic.

What is SEM?

SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, is about paid search strategies. This approach uses paid ads -like PPC ads (pay-per-click), shopping ads, and more - mainly through platforms such as Google AdWords (now called Google Ads) and Bing Ads, all aimed at increasing a website's visibility on search engines.

The main objective of SEM is to drive paid traffic to a website. This approach is especially advantageous when you're aiming for immediate visibility. Additionally, SEM's adaptive nature allows for quick adjustments to the strategy based on real-time results, ensuring optimal performance efficient ad spend, and a tangible return on investment.

Google Ads generated $146.92 billion in ad revenue in 2020, highlighting the significance of SEM in digital advertising (source: Statista).

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1. Pinpoint and Understand Your Goals

When you're deep into digital strategy planning, and deciding between SEO and SEM, the first thing to understand is your goals. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want to improve brand awareness, drive sales, or both?

Identifying your specific objectives can help narrow down your marketing strategy and help you determine if search engine optimisation or search engine marketing is the most effective approach for you.

SEO: If long-term online presence and authority are what you're after, SEO is the answer. 

It's all about getting your web pages and content organically recognized on the SERPs, particularly on Google's search results. Yes, SEO can be a waiting game, but think of it as building a lasting digital legacy and establishing yourself as an authority within your industry.

Data shows 85% of search engine users trust organic search results more than paid advertisements, underlining the credibility of SEO-generated traffic. (source: unbouce)

SEM: If your goal is more focused on a ‘quick win’ i.e. to promote a new product or service, boost traffic for a limited-time sale or anything similar, then SEM is usually the way to go. With PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns and keyword bidding, you're essentially buying your way to the top of the SERPs. However, it’s not just about throwing money; factors like ad relevance, quality score, backlinks and authority come into play. It is not as simple as the highest bid wins. (This is a whole blog post on it’s own!)

Overall SEM is a great way to appear at the top of the search engine results page quickly and will typically give you an immediate boost in very targeted traffic, although it will cost you to do so.

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2. Assess Your Budget and Resources

Digital marketing costs can vary. So, after you’ve decided what your goals are, the next thing is to assess your budget and resources. 

This is another very important point to consider when choosing between SEO vs SEM, as they both require different amounts of time and monetary investment. It is important to understand from the start if you have the time or budget available to invest in one of these strategies. Not only does this allow you to allocate funds effectively, but it also ensures that your strategy is sustainable in the long run.

SEO: While SEO is a cost-effective way to improve your website's visibility (it’s technically free), it requires a consistent investment of your time and resources. Achieving higher rankings in search engines requires a lot of hands-on work. You will need to conduct thorough keyword research, produce fresh content for your website, build quality links and perform other on-page optimizations. All of these tasks can consume a significant amount of your time and resources. If you are already overwhelmed with other work and do not have the necessary manpower to carry out these activities, then SEO may not be the most suitable strategy for you.

SEM: If you have the budget and are looking for immediate results, then SEM is the way to go. It can provide faster results compared to SEO, and you can see an increase in traffic almost instantly. (However, it is important to remember that monitoring and tweaking your PPC campaigns is crucial for optimal results). The downside is SEM requires a financial investment, which may not be sustainable over a longer period of time. If you stop using SEM or your budget runs out, you will see your traffic drop off again.

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3. Consider your Short-Term or Long-Term Strategy

The third point to consider when deciding between SEO and SEM is your short-term and long-term marketing strategies. Are you looking for an immediate result or are you looking to build a foundation for long-term success? 

It is vital to understand where your focus is and what your overall marketing strategy is to decide between SEO and SEM. Knowing where you want your brand or business to be in the next year or even five years can influence your decision.

SEO: If you are looking to build for long-term success, then SEO is the better choice. It focuses on optimizing your website and creating high-quality and relevant content, which helps establish your website as a trustworthy and credible source of information in your area of expertise. This method not only improves visibility but also leads to consistent organic traffic, making it a highly sustainable route to go down. Although, it requires patience and effort to achieve this.

According to a study by BrightEdge, organic search drives 53.3% of all website traffic, highlighting the strength of organic search results. This reinforces the value of a solid SEO campaign built around relevant keywords and driven by a deep understanding of search intent for long-term success.

SEM: If you are looking for an immediate result, search ads might be the perfect tool to achieve this. They can quickly drive highly targeted traffic to your site, making them ideal for short-term campaigns like limited-time offers, events, and new product launches. However, as mentioned above, SEM can be expensive and may not be sustainable for a long period of time, especially if you are bidding for keywords with a lot of competition.

Bonus Tip: It doesn’t have to be SEO vs. SEM. It can be both SEO and SEM

Many people think it’s either SEO or SEM, but the real results happen when you use them both! 

  • Balancing Immediate and Long-Term Goals: Think about launching a brand-new product or service. You could consider using SEM campaigns for quick visibility and to gain immediate paid traffic. While also simultaneously building high-quality SEO-focused content to support the campaign. With SEM, you're on the front line immediately, while your SEO efforts pick up steam. You can then look to reduce your ad spend while the SEO content ensures you remain relevant and at the top of search queries in the long run.
  • Overlapping Strengths: Picture SEO as the backbone of your online presence, sturdy and consistent. On the other hand, SEM can be likened to targeted boosts. When SEO encounters challenges (like algorithm changes), SEM can provide a temporary solution, ensuring you don't lose momentum.
  • Efficient Budget Allocation: Spreading your marketing budget across SEO and SEM means you're investing in long-term growth while reserving budget for immediate opportunities or to address short-term challenges.
  • Data-Driven Improvements: One of the more technical yet invaluable aspects is that insights from SEM can enhance your SEO strategy. The data from your paid campaigns can provide actionable feedback on keywords or content themes that resonate with your audience. Only making your long-term SEO strategy stronger.

In conclusion, when deciding between SEO and SEM consider your goals, your budget and resources and your short/long-term strategy. These 3 points will help you to decide the best route to go down when deciding between SEO and SEM.

Don’t forget though, it does not have to be one or the other. There are times when you may want an immediate boost to traffic and want to reach a very specific target audience, so you use SEM, whilst also using SEO tactics to build your website up for long-term success. Combining the two tends to be a highly effective strategy and gives you the best of both worlds. However, if you only have the time or budget for one strategy, keep in mind these 3 tips to help you choose which is right for you.

We hope that clears things up for you, but if you’re still unsure or have any questions, just get in touch!

You may also be interested in our blog ‘Clicks That Count: 3 Tips to Get Started with PPC Marketing’ or our acronym buster ‘Decoding PPC Marketing: An Acronym Guide for Beginners’ 

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SEO Case Study.

Essentra Components: Compelling content to drive organic search results
Essentra aimed to maintain its industry expert position by prioritising SEO and Share of Search to drive traffic to its online knowledge centre. From detailed keyword analysis and a defined technical and product content calendar, we develop new, SEO-rich, monthly articles and guides to help drive traffic to their website. The results +37% improvement in organic keyword ranking and +58% of all organic keywords in Essentra's UK & US sites come from these articles.

Read the full case study here.