How to choose between SEM and SEO when trying to build web traffic

How to choose between SEM and SEO when trying to build web traffic

There used to be a lot of squabbling over the relationship between Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO). For instance, many took SEO to be part of SEM since both aimed to drive traffic to websites of the search engines results pages. Many also used SEM and PPC interchangeably since pay-per-click (PPC) is the prevalent type of SEM (amongst display marketing, paid ads on third-party platforms, etc.).

Digging through the world wide web, you might find it confusing; but as the search industry evolved, the SEM-SEO distinction became generally accepted as the difference between paid listings (PPC) and organic (non-paid) listings in the search engine results pages.

For now, we’re going to look at Google and focus our attention on PPC and SEO, the two leading channels of a successful digital marketing campaign on Google’s SERP. It will then be easier to see how their goals blend in SEM.

To this extent, knowing their common and different grounds boils down to mastering how to advertise on Google and how to rank higher on Google to get the best results.

The differences between SEO and SEM

Both SEM and SEO are built to rank websites highest in Google’s SERP but they take different approaches for doing so.

SEM refers to methods of optimising the content plus running a PPC campaign to appear in paid listings, which have premium placements in the SERP. SEO refers to methods of optimising the website to appear in the organic results. The process is threefold:

  • Technical: optimising the website for the crawlability and indexability stage by improving the website’s security connection, crawling, indexing, loading speed, structured data, etc.
  • On-Page: optimising the website for a higher position in the SERP by creating, adjusting, and perfecting meta titles and descriptions, headings, content to meet marketing goals, improving interlinking, etc.
  • Off-Page: focuses on nourishing the expertise, authoritativeness, trustworthiness of a website through link building, influencer outreach, guest blogging, brand mentions, social networking, etc.

Using paid strategies, SEM aims at driving paid traffic to a website, while SEO uses non-paid strategies to drive organic traffic.

While PPC campaigns scale up fast, SEO’s efforts take time. With PPC, the more you invest, the more traffic you get.

PPC listings will instantly show up in SERP, while SEO’s efforts can take months to improve your website’s rankings. Conversely, paid traffic stops when the budget runs out, while organic listings are long-lasting, provided you manage to stay competitive and obey Google’s guidelines.

On the other hand, with PPC, you pay each time a user clicks on the ad and pay nothing when a user clicks on organic listings, so the traffic you get with SEO is free, thanks to your search engine optimisation efforts.

What about the customers’ buying cycle?

There needs to be a commercial intent behind a search query for the paid listings to appear, which is not the case with SEO.

SEO focuses on attracting customers at any stage of the buying process, while PPC focuses on attracting customers when they are ready to buy. PPC allows you to optimise a dedicated landing page for an ad campaign with a persuasive approach to drive conversions, focusing on your products and services by targeting keywords with commercial and transactional intent.

On the other hand, these types of queries usually have less search volume, so you’ll be missing out on a lot of opportunities to get traffic to your website. SEO’s efforts are focused on offering a good user experience, targeting all search query types to get valuable traffic and more chances for increased conversions.

The similarities of SEO and SEM

Both SEM and SEO tactics aim to drive traffic to a website by focusing their paid and non-paid efforts to appear first in the SERP.

SEM combines the efforts you separately put into your SEO and PPC campaigns by:

  • Making sure that your website’s SEO is solid to show up in the SERP organic listings
  • Promoting your website through a targeted and well optimised PPC campaign to show up in SERP paid listings.

SEM is the best strategy to adopt to get as much real estate in Google's SERP as possible and appear in paid results, featured snippets, people-also-ask boxes, and organic results.

How do you know what’s best for you?

Assess your website's performance: if you don’t have a budget to invest in PPC, there is plenty of market potential and room to improve your website, then SEO may be the best option for you.

Consider your customers’ buying cycle: general commercial intent keywords, with a lot of value, are highly competitive, so it is harder to rank for in the organic results. Run a PPC campaign for the keywords that are too competitive for your website to rank in organic SERP and focus your SEO efforts to cover the rest of the search queries.

Run PPC test campaigns to determine which ad version works for you. Engage in reversed engineering to see how visitors became customers so you would know how to attract more. And vice versa: if you are losing customers, you will be able to spot at which stage of the funnel they decide to leave you for your competitors and learn how to get them back and make them convert.

Back in the days, businesses had the comfort to choose one channel over the other without any impact on their sales. Nowadays, in a highly competitive market, you need to take as many approaches and leads as you can get to keep your online presence at competitive standards.