SEM (search engine marketing) refers to paid advertisements on SERPs (search engine results page). The most widely used platform for SEM is Google Adwords, and it works by website owners paying Google directly to have the ad for their website placed higher on the SERPs for search terms. SEO (search engine optimization) refers to the work that is done to a website directly (to the code), as well as indirectly (through creating or negating affiliation and links with other websites) in order to naturally rank higher on SERPs, without paying the search engine.
There was an interesting blog post last week on FastCompany that highlighted the internal question that often arises among digital marketers: which is better? In his blog last week, David argued, quite boldly and plainly, that SEM in better than SEO. This blog post is a response to that blog post.
First, to outline the argument, David Scott points out that SEO is unpredictable; that it isn’t clear if your visitors found you as a result of your SEO efforts; that with SEM you may end up with the 2nd or 3rd spot on the SERP, and that is actually ideal; and finally he argues that you have more control over your display in the SERP with SEM than with SEO.
Before tackling this beast I’d like to point out that my argument is not that SEO is better than SEM, but rather, that both should be employed in conjunction. So let’s go through why that is.
First, it’s true that Google does not reveal its full algorithm, giving pieces and hints to the public about how webpages end up where they do on SERPs. However, this is no excuse for not optimizing your website at all. Having an algorithm that eliminates irrelevant websites, and provides the best known results for the user’s search term is a good thing. Does anyone remember the days of searching for car reviews and getting dozens of porn sites?
Second, you can see the search terms that triggered your ad on Google Adwords, but you can just as well see the search terms that triggered your display that results from SEO efforts in Analytics. So leads from SEO efforts are as clear as leads from SEM efforts thanks to the data you can generate from Analytics. No one, as far as I know, can know why someone searched for a term.
Third, you may end up with the 2nd or 3rd spot through SEM, but you may just as well have that spot with SEO. In fact I often see ads on SERPs with a yellow box around them, and the word “Ad” next to it. Placing on the first page naturally for keyword gives your webpage credibility with business decision-makers who are often looking for real answers, not just ads.
And lastly, it is true that you have more control with Adwords as far as ad copy and keyword terms, but that’s why this blog post is not an argument against SEM, but rather in argument for having both SEM and SEO working side by side.
My colleague, Dan brought up a good point about this topic last week at lunch. In some instances, paid advertising is absolutely necessary. For example, if you’re in an industry with big competitors, and you stand no chance of ranking for the keywords you want to rank for then supplementing your SEO with SEM is necessary. On the other hand, if you do have a limited budget then that’s even more reason to employ SEO because it’s simply cheaper than only employing ads. Remember, as soon as you stop paying for ads your presence on Google search disappears.
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