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SEO vs. SEM: This is a Silly Fight. They Are Both Amazing

SEO is amazing.

SEM is also… amazing. 

But which one is more amazing? And what are they? Are they the same? What can they help you achieve with your marketing? 

Is this too many questions to start off a blog post? Let’s find out.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEO includes anything done to a website for the sake of search rankings, which might include researching keywords and placing them strategically within a page, optimizing a page’s structure, or using certain redirects in a site’s url hierarchy. The ultimate goal of search engine optimization is to create a consistent flow of traffic from searchers to the pages that address their queries. 

What are the pros of SEO?

  • If you answer queries through your site and provide a great content experience, you are rewarded with traffic. Each search engine makes its own determination as to whether a site provides great content and great user experience.
  • If your team includes copywriters, they can create content for key pages to help boost traffic and increase revenue. 
  • SEO can create brand affinity. If you’re there for your customers when they need you they may be more likely to continue to interact with your brand.
  • SEO data gives you an idea of the voice of your customer and can help you improve your product or processes. 

What are the cons of SEO?

  • You need resources to make it work. Content does not create itself. Optimized content needs to be created, and an optimized website needs a developer. You’ll need time for both creation and implementation.
  • There’s no guarantee of rankings. You can’t be certain your content will rank, even if you follow every best practice in the book.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. Search engine marketing is the full umbrella of search marketing. SEM includes paid search and organic search. Traditionally, an SEM team may include experts in both paid search and SEO However, SEM is more heavily associated with paid search, and many SEM services only cover paid search. With that in mind…

What are the pros of paid search?

  • Paid search is nimble. If you want to rank for any keyword on the internet (with some exceptions) tomorrow, you could buy the keyword from your favorite search engine’s advertising arm, and rank within minutes.
  • Paid search is controlled. With paid search, you can control the messaging if you are willing to pay for the query. While there is a standard for quality, it is much lower than the standard for SEO. As a brand, this gives you a lot more freedom to control the landing page experience.
  • Search term level conversion data. With paid search, there is opportunity to explore buying broad or broad modified keywords. Broad or broad modified means you are buying a keyword and all of the queries linked to it. Therefore, you’ll get a lot of data about which long-tail queries actually drive conversions. This is data that you cannot easily obtain through SEO, but it can be used for SEO.

What are the cons of paid search?

  • Money. Paid search is paid — it’s a recurring expense that you will have to continually pay for if you wish to get results. It also can be very expensive depending on your industry.
  • Clicks. Paid SERP space generally generates far fewer total clicks despite getting premium placement on the SERP. A #1 organic result will outperform a #1 paid result in CTR in almost every situation.

Does SEO help SEM? Does SEM help SEO?

Yes and yes. SEO helps SEM create efficiencies, and SEM helps SEO determine which high-intent terms should be their focus. The key to whether or not your SEO or SEM strategies help each other is communication. Your strategists for paid and organic search should be sharing insights on a cadence that works for them. The real value is in the actions you take based on these insights.

What happens if you have a product that is $100 CPC but the product itself is only $90 (to use an extreme example)? If you spend on paid search indefinitely, you’ll be operating at a loss. But taking all of the search term level insights from your paid campaign may help you better understand the long tail queries that drive your conversions. You can have your paid search specialist pass that data along to your SEO or content marketer to create an SEO strategy around ranking for those terms. This can help you achieve long term success.

So which is better, SEO or SEM?

There’s no objective answer — SEO and SEM should be evaluated based on your business’s needs. What resources do you have available? Time? Money? Headcount? Assign a monetary value to each and do a cost-benefit analysis. Choose one over the other if you need to from a resourcing standpoint, but they work much better together as the yin and yang of search engine marketing. 

Paid and Organic Synergy

Learn more about paid and organic synergy at Conductor Academy, Conductor’s hub for free organic marketing courses.

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