Balancing SEO and SEM Can Make You Excel at Search Marketing

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SEO and SEM are two types of marketing in the same communication channel. In search engine results pages, you see ad results and organic results, but they get there through different approaches.

SEO is an acronym for search engine optimization, also known as organic search. SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing, but most people use it to refer to search engine advertising, also known as paid search.

SEO is also a form of marketing in relation to search engines, and organic and paid search could be considered search engine marketing.

Illustration of search marketing terminology.

SEM is short for search engine marketing and is really the general name for organic and paid search, but it is commonly used to refer to search engine advertising. Image source: author

Taking a closer look at these two types of search marketing, they both focus on presenting the content of a website when users enter keywords into search engines.

SEO versus SEM, organic versus paid SEO: These two marketing techniques appear in the same communication channel. But are they friends or foes?

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Search engine optimization is a set of techniques aimed at improving SEO visibility: making your website appear in search engines when users search for specific keywords.

SEO techniques fall into three pillars: architecture, covering aspects of technical SEO; content, covering keywords and written content; and authority, mainly covering link building.

Illustration of the three pillars of SEO: architecture, content and authority.

There are three pillars of SEO: architecture, content and authority. Each requires a different approach and skills. Image source: author

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Search engine marketing is advertising that appears on search engine results pages after users enter search queries. When we talk about SEM, it’s basically the same thing as PPC, pay-per-click advertising.

Search engine advertising is primarily comprised of keyword-targeted text ads. From a marketing perspective, SEO versus SEM is the difference between two business models and two types of placement in search engine results pages.

SEO vs. SEM: what’s the difference?

Organic search and paid search are similar because they appear on the same medium, the search engine’s search results page. Keyword research for SEO can be useful for SEM, and vice versa. Similarly, some SEO tools can be useful for paid search advertising. It also works the other way around, as SEO credentials and value estimates are relevant to paid search data.

Despite sharing the same media and a few techniques and tools, there are many differences between the two types of search marketing.

1. One is advice, the other is advertising

SEO services are mostly offered on a consultancy basis, as there is hardly ever an easy solution to a website challenge. SEM is advertising where you pay for exposure.

2. One is paid by the hour, the other by commission

Most SEOs are paid on an hourly basis as a consulting service. It is common to add a success fee to the mix. SEM is an advertising service that requires a lot of preparation. It’s common to charge a commission on media spend, but setup fees are a common add-on.

3. One can take time, the other can be fast

Getting SEO results fast isn’t impossible, but it’s not the general rule. Most organic search projects start slow, take a long time to finish, and eventually produce results. SEM traffic, on the other hand, can start within hours, although a more common rule is a week or two.

4. One loses real estate, the other gains ground

Search engines are finding more and more ways to advertise their main asset: the search results page. This means there is less space for organic search results and more for advertising. Search engines are making more money, but SEOs are finding it harder to justify their fees than before, despite the same hard work.

5. One can be inexpensive, the other can be bottomless

Sometimes people call free SEO traffic to your website. This ignores any fees an SEO provider may charge you. Still, SEO can be inexpensive, especially if you do most of it yourself, rely on out-of-the-box CMS solutions, and focus on the most essential tasks.

SEM can be a bottomless pit, like most advertising. Typically, search inventory for the keywords you’re interested in is limited, but click prices keep rising, and search engines are constantly finding ways to broaden exposure.

SEO vs SEM: Which Should You Use?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the industry about whether paid search cannibalizes organic traffic. Most studies show that this is indeed the case, but they also show that combining the two generates better results than relying on SEO alone. Let’s look at a few use cases.

When SEO is right for you

SEO results are always good, but it can be difficult to generate tangible results from the extra resources you invest in improving SEO. Here are some optimal times to invest SEO dollars.

  • When you create a new website: SEO is marketing. If you create a new website without thinking about SEO, it will not have optimal visibility in search engines.
  • When launching the site: The technical site launch is the perfect time to do some technical SEO, to ensure that search engines will crawl and index your site properly.
  • If you have never done SEO: Your business is running and you have a website that is driving traffic, but you would like more. Doing an SEO audit can help you identify improvements that can drive more traffic to your website.

When paid search is right for you

Enabling SEM for your website can speed up your business. Here are examples of where you should look to search engine advertising.

  • When your SEO is doing well: If you have created great SEO results, further investments would likely result in diminishing returns. In this case, paid search can be a great source of additional traffic.
  • When you need fast traffic: Traffic from search engines via advertising can start within hours from the time you make the decision. SEO can take months to generate results.
  • When can you monetize traffic: If every new visitor adds to your revenue, and you know the acquisition cost you can afford for every new customer, you’re ready to plug into scalable SEM optimization.

Great alone but even better together

SEO and SEM are essentially two ways to create the same visibility, but the best results usually come from a combination of the two. It makes sense to start with SEO optimization. It’s a long-term traffic source that provides value based on your initial investment. Once you see diminishing returns from your SEO investment, paid search can dramatically increase that same traffic and continue your website traffic growth.