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SEO vs SEM: Which Is Better For Your Brand?

The higher the rank on search engines is higher the chances to generate leads and drive traffic to your website or certain web pages. Search Marketing helps brands to appear on top of search engine result pages and grow their business.


The image compares SEO vs SEM


SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) both fall under Search marketing tactics to get a higher rank on Search Engine Result Pages. People often use SEO and SEM terms interchangeably, but when we compare SEO vs SEM, we see that there are both similarities and differences between them.


Either SEO or SEM works for many brands to attract attention and drive traffic otherwise, some brands mix both tactics to rank higher on search engines.


Must read: Simplified SEO for Successful Digital Marketing


So, SEO vs SEM, which is best for your business?


To find your answer go through this article in which I have compared, SEO vs SEM so that you can decide which one is best for you. Before diving into the comparison let’s see what exactly SEO and SEM mean.


What is SEO?


SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. SEO is a search optimization strategy to get a high rank on search engines like google to drive organic traffic to your website or specific web pages.


For SEO, we use organic strategies to optimize the site and landing pages to increase visibility and traffic. Three main SEO strategies are used to optimize the site to appear in search engines, On-Page SEO, Off-page SEO, and Technical SEO.

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SEO Strategies


On-page SEO optimizes the webpage using target keywords. Target keywords are the words we write in search engines. For example, You want to search for a furniture store in your area, you will search “Furniture stores in Dwarka, Delhi”. Here the target keyword for the store’s website can be “Best Furniture stores in Dwarka”. Using keywords in your content shows the relevancy of your content.


On-page SEO techniques include:

  • Meta description &Title–Incorporate target keywords in meta description and title so your audience knows what your content is about.
  • URL–include keywords in URL to appear on search engines.
  • Improve Page Speed


Off-page SEO is where you establish your authority by connecting with other high-quality websites in your industry. Authority is an important factor to appear on search engines, having a good authority shows that your site is trustworthy and content is reliable.


Off-page SEO techniques include:

  • Linking Building–Backlinks from high-quality sites in your industry can increase your visibility and conversion rates as it shows that your site is reliable and trustworthy.
  • Local SEO–Manage local listings to attract local customers.
  • Social Media–Social Media sharing can drive more organic traffic to your website.


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Technical SEO is about improving the back-end structure to ensure a good user- experience.


Technical SEO includes:

  • Site indexing–Make sure that Google can index all your pages
  • Site architecture, security, and speed
  • Mobile-friendliness


Also read, A Guide to Become an SEO Expert


Content – To drive organic traffic from SEO, you should create high-quality SEO-friendly content using the above three strategies. Your content must be relevant, use facts and stats to show the relevancy of your content. The relevant and high-quality content helps you establish authority and visibility in search engines and increase organic traffic.


To rank higher on the search engines, only one tactic is not enough. Focus on all the above three strategies together to increase the visibility of your brand.


What is SEM?


SEM stands for Serch Engine Marketing, which is a search marketing strategy that uses paid strategies to increase the visibility on search engines and drive traffic. To get results with Paid strategy, you also have to use SEO strategies like keyword optimization.   SEM includes SEO and PPC strategies to get a higher rank on Search Engine Result Pages.


The most common paid strategy used for SEM is PPC (Pay per click) strategy. PPC is a strategy where you bid for a specific keyword and when that keyword is put into search engines your Ad shows up. Every time user clicks your ad you have to pay for that click.


For example, you must have seen that when you put your query in search engines, some top results have the designation Ad, It means that the brand has paid for that ad to appear at the top on search engines for that specific keyword.


The ad from the highest bidder is shown at the top of the other ads on search engines.


Quality Score: Quality score is a Google Ads metric, Google uses to measure the relevance of your content. It is an important metric that depends on various factors such as quality of landing page, click-through rate, and relevance of keyword with ad copy. Google offers a discount on each click if you have a high-Quality Score, which can give you a higher rank on search engine result pages.


To get a higher ranking using  Ads, you must create compelling ad copy that shows relevance to what people are searching for. It will increase click-through rates which help to increase quality scores.


Benefits of SEM


  • Reach your target audience instantly: SEM allows you to reach your target audience instantly. You can use strategies like Search ads, shopping ads, display ads, and Gmail ads to increase the visibility of your products and service almost instantly.
  • Increase Brand Awareness: Increase your brand awareness using Ads as these appear on top positions on Search Engine Result Pages. SEM is an effective way to expose your brand to your target audience.
  • Target Right Audience: Use SEM to target the right audience using demographics. SEM gives you the advantage to use filters in your ads. Your ads show up for a specific audience, you can use filters like gender and age which help you target specific customers.
  • Create Geo-Targeted Ads: You can create GEO-targeted search ads to target customers based on their location which helps you to establish your brand in a particular location. You can increase brand awareness for local customers using GEO-targeted ads.
  • Control over when to show Ads: You have full control over when and who to show Ads. You can analyze the conversions and traffic from specific Ads and can stop showing them when they do not show conversions or traffic.
  • Test your Performance: You can use ads to test your performance, analyze the traffic from specific keywords and you can stop paying if a particular ad is not meeting your desired goals. SEM allows you to test new strategies.


SEO vs SEM: Similarities


Aim:  SEO and SEM strategies both aim to help brands appear on top in the search results to increase the visibility of the brand.

Drive Traffic: SEO and SEM strategies are used to drive more traffic to the website of the brand by organic or paid strategies.

Target Audience: Both strategies can bring positive results when used for the right audience. Knowing the ideal audience help brands to know about what their audience is searching for. So that they can create useful content for them.

Keyword Research: The primary step for SEO and SEM is keyword research, to find keywords related to the industry of the brand. Keyword Research is the necessary step for both strategies to know target popular keywords for which their audience is searching.

Target Specific Keyword: The brands target a specific keyword related to their industry to optimize their content accordingly. The goal of targeting a specific keyword is to appear in the top position in search results when people search for that specific keyword.

SEO vs SEM:  Differences


  • Strategies: The main difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO uses organic strategies to appear on search engines while SEM includes paid strategies along with SEO.
  • Target audience: In SEM, you can control who can see your Ad by applying filters such as age, location, and gender which makes it easier to reach your target audience.

On the other hand, when you use SEO strategies you cannot control who sees your site.

  • Search Results: SEM search results show Ad designation while SEO results do not.
  • Cost: You pay for a click on SEM search results while for clicks on SEO search results you pay nothing.


SEO vs SEM: Which one shows the immediate result?


Another difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEM shows immediate results while SEO takes time. SEO takes time to show results especially if your site is new but it does not mean that it will take years. You might see results in few months, if you incorporate the best SEO strategies you can see results in less time.


SEO takes time over SEM, You might see more traffic in the afternoon from the ad that you placed in the morning. SEM is good for testing, You can stop showing the ads when you don’t see results and stop paying for them. When you remove your ads, the traffic from that ad goes to zero.


SEO shows value over time. SEO surely takes time, a lot of time but the traffic from the SEO does not go anywhere. Some of your old SEO content might appear in the top search results after years for a specific keyword.


While PPC strategies can drive traffic immediately does not mean, you will get an ROI immediately. It can take time of testing to get ROI from Pay Per Click(PPC) strategy.


So, when we compare SEO vs SEM on basis of time, SEM shows results more quickly than SEO.


SEO vs SEM: Cost


Many people think that SEO is free as it brings free web traffic. You do not have to pay for a click on your website but that does not mean that SEO is free. SEO is not free; it takes a lot of money. To get organic traffic from SEO content, you have to invest your money in various other activities than PPC.


For example, For Keyword research you might pay for a paid keyword research tool. To promote your website you can use email marketing tools and for graphic designing, you could hire a graphic designer or a web developer for developing webpages.


Apparently, these things can cost you a fortune. Even after spending a lot of money, you are not sure if you will get any results. But, In the case of PPC, you have to pay for every click on your ad but you can get results in a short period or a few days and can stop paying for it if it is not getting you results.


As and when you stop paying, your traffic plummets to zero. When you use SEO and start getting ranked, it does not goes anywhere. Both SEO and SEM have their advantages and disadvantages that’s why many brands prefer to invest in both strategies to increase their visibility and grow their business.

When should you focus on Just SEO?


You can focus only on SEO strategies when

  • You have a Limited Budget: If you are a start-up or a small business, you might want to focus on SEO to manage your marketing budget. SEO can take time to show results but it is better than running ads only for a week due to the limited marketing budget. Once, you see good ROI you can include PPC to grow.
  • You can target informational keywords: Targeting Informational keywords such as How to Guides can be a good SEO strategy as they have high search volumes. If you can write great content using informational keywords, you should probably focus on SEO.
  • You have time: Since you know SEO adds value over time and you can wait for 6-12 months to see legit traffic.SEO is the right choice as it gives long-term results.
  • Good at Link Building: To get results from SEO you should be Good at link Building as backlinks help you to build authority in your industry and increase the visibility of your website.


When should you focus on SEM / PPC?


You can focus on just PPC when your brand has Good Budget PPC marketing strategies can cost you a lot of money. To do PPC marketing you must have a good budget. To meet your goals with PPC you should set a strict budget that way you won’t spend more money on a specific ad.


To use PPC you should be aware of what you are doing and what are your goals so you don’t run out of your budget.


You can test landing pages and ads PPC requires a lot of testing and tweaking. Sometimes your ads do not drive traffic as per your expectations and you have to stop paying for that which can bring your traffic back to zero. So, if you can launch and test ads, PPC can work for you.


When to focus on both SEO and SEM


SEO vs SEM both have their pros and cons but when both are implemented together, it can bring you to get results. So when to focus on both SEO and SEM. You can combine SEO and SEM if your budget allows it and you have enough staff to manage both because it is not easy for one person to manage both SEO and SEM.


When you combine both SEO and SEM it can help you increase the visibility of your website and grow your business.


Benefits of combining SEO and SEM

  • Use insights from SEM strategy to improve SEO. You can measure keyword performance and optimize your content accordingly. Track conversion rates and analyze traffic. Use SEM as testing to improve SEO.
  • Remarket campaigns. Using SEM strategy, you can remarket your content that didn’t get many conversions. You can use search ads, display ads, and more. This can help you get more traffic and conversions.
  • When you combine both the tactics your site can be visible in organic results along with ad space. Combining these two strategies can be beneficial for the growth of your business.


SEO vs SEM: Which one is better for your brand


As you have seen that SEO and SEM both can help increase traffic and grow your business. Before you choose your marketing strategy you should consider the following factors:


What are your Goals: You should be clear about your specific goals. SEM gives you short-term results, once you stop paying for a particular campaign or ad the traffic from that ad goes to zero. SEO takes time but gives you long-term results.


If you want to drive traffic quickly then SEM is your option as it gives you in a short time but if you want long-term growth for your brand, go for SEO. Your existent performance: If you already have good organic traffic and visibility, Investing in SEM could be a great strategy to drive more traffic.


Your Product margin: Sometimes PPC can cost you more than your product margin. In such cases, SEM does not make sense.


Implement SEO strategies and estimate CPC for keywords using keyword research tools and determine the conversion rate your brand would need to make a profit.


Customer Buying Cycle: If you have a short customer buyer cycle, means your customer sees your ad and buys your product immediately them SEM is worth it.


If your product has a long customer buyer cycle, they take time to compare your products or services in that case, SEM does not make sense. You cannot keep running the ad when it does not convert. So, if you have a long customer buyer cycle you may prefer SEO.


Average Cost Per Click in your niche: The cost per click for every keyword is different. Before deciding your marketing strategy research and consider how much would SEM cost, if the cost per click for a keyword is low, SEM is the right choice otherwise, you should focus on SEO.


Consider your Competition in the industry: To compete with your competitor, research what search marketing strategies they use. Analyze the traffic of your competitor’s website.


There are various tools, you can use to see what keywords your competitors use to drive traffic. Look for the gaps in the competitor’s strategy that you can fill, build your strategies as per the competition in your industry.


How old is your business: Your search marketing strategy depends on the age of your business. If your business is old and you already have strong organic traffic then SEM could be an effective strategy to grow your business.


If you are a new brand, it will take time to drive traffic from SEO. If you have a good marketing budget you can use SEM while building your SEO. You can use SEM to test what works for your brand.


Summary: SEO vs SEM


VisibilityIncreasing the visibility of your brand using SEO can take time.You can get traffic using the SEM strategy almost immediately or in a short time.
Search ResultsThe search results from SEO are organic and do not contain ad designation.The results from  PPC  have designated Ads in search results on SERPs.
TestingSEO takes time, SEO is not worth it if you want to test something.You can use SEM to test a keyword. You can stop paying for a specific ad and traffic from that ad goes to zero.
Provide value over timeSEO takes time but gives long-term growth for your business.SEM gives you results in a short time
CostYou do not have to pay when the user click on your search resultYou have to pay for every click on your Ad according to the cost per click.


Now that you know the differences and similarities between SEO vs SEM, you can decide which search marketing strategy is best for your brand. Consider the goals of your business and decide what suits you best. You can also implement both strategies to grow your business.

An Electronics & Telecommunication engineer who is passionate about reading and writing. She loves to blog and research about various topics to improve her knowledge. Currently, an intern at IIM SKILLS.

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