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SEO or SEM: Choosing the Best Strategy

For many, the terms SEO and SEM have become synonymous. On the surface, it’s understandable – search engine optimization and search engine marketing indeed sound like similar strategies. As it turns out, they’re only loosely connected.

Surprised? Join the club. There’s so little talk about how different these two tactics are that businesses have neglected critical nuances and procedures that each highlight. And not every business needs to focus on both disciplines to see significant results. Yet the smartest ones have discovered that smart usage of both, in different doses, can produce the most impressive results.

SEO and SEM: Detailed Definitions

It’s obvious both SEO and SEM deal with generating the highest rankings possible for your company’s website. The differences, however, are numerous.

SEO is what most traditionally refer to as the tried and trusted content, site creation, and link building procedures that, over time, help generate higher and higher rankings for your business. SEO is complex, requires almost constant effort and attention, and lives within the very dynamic world of search engine algorithms.

SEM centers solely around paid search. These algorithms are completely separate from those that determine organic listings. And here we find the fundamental difference.

SEO techniques work for all non-paid, or organic, search engine results. SEM, on the other hand, works in tandem with your Google AdWords profile, and displays highlighted results for businesses who have purchased keyword buys. These two algorithms are completely unconnected. This means that on the surface, they are, in fact, unrelated. Yet there are subtle similarities, and a deeper understanding of these will help you yield the most effective results.

How SEO and SEM are Connected

There is one fundamental way in which SEO and SEM are intertwined together, but it only goes one way. SEO can be directly (positively) influenced by SEM, but never the other way around. It works like this: SEM efforts can generate higher levels of traffic and conversions for your website. Higher traffic can therefore start to positively impact your non-paid rankings, boosting SEO status.

SEM, on the other hand, can never be affected by any non-paid SEO efforts. Either you’ve purchased rankings for specific keywords, or you haven’t. No other factors directly influence SEM.

Which Should You Choose for Your Marketing Focus?

Search engine marketing efforts should always begin and end with SEO techniques. SEO is for the long haul; because search engine algorithms require content to be fresh and current, you can never sit back and assume your work is done. The algorithms themselves are ever-changing and unpredictable, so as you map out your strategies, SEO should top the priority list.

SEM, however, is an incredibly viable method to employ as well. If you’re after fast results – increased traffic, higher rankings, etc. – on a super short time scale, SEM can deliver where SEO will not. SEM obviously requires at least some semblance of a budget, and depending on the competitiveness of your keywords, that can be significant. But if you’re looking to move the needle at light speed, you can’t do it without SEM.

If you do set out to conquer SEM, it’s imperative you have an expert on your side that knows the Google AdWords system intimately. A poorly optimized profile could result in less than stellar responses, and it’s a complex enough tool that someone well-versed in the features can literally make or break your campaign’s success. If you do launch with a handicapped profile, your AdWord buys could turn out to only be expensive lessons in what not to do.

Creating a Hybrid of SEO and SEM: Playing to Both Strengths

There is a crafty way of using both SEO and SEM to support each other, and if your company has the budget and resources to execute this properly, it can be a goldmine.

SEM can help you determine which keywords most effectively propel your business forward; with SEM, this is information you can find out extremely quickly. Once you have awareness of the top keywords, you can then directly integrate those into your SEO strategies. This is like paying for an extensive research study that will benefit your business long-term. It will cost you, but it truly does work.

Ideally, this model works best if you intend to slowly scale back your SEM efforts and push deeper into SEO. SEM will show you where your assumptions are correct and incorrect, which then allows you to intelligently tweak your SEO campaigns. Once you see your natural search results starting to prominently spell success, that’s a good time to stop the AdWords spending and start focusing solely on SEO instead.

It’s perfectly feasible and even downright smart to pay for traffic and knowledge, but relying on SEM as your long-term search engine ranking focus is expensive and unnecessary. Leverage the benefits of SEM coupled with a highly optimized AdWords profile, and you’ll learn volumes about what works for your business. Then take that knowledge, apply it to your non-paid results, and you have a fiscally responsible recipe for high search engine rankings.

Which do you rely on more – SEO or SEM? Why have you chosen either to be your focus?

Digital producer, game designer, Internet marketer and staff writer for SiteProNews, one of the Web’s foremost webmaster and tech news blogs, Tina Courtney-Brown has been shaping online businesses since 1996.  She’s produced and marketed innovative content for major players like Disney, as well as boutique startups galore, with fortes including social media, SEO, massively multiplayer games, social networks and project management. Tina is also a certified Reiki practitioner, herbalist, nonprofit director and true cooking diva.  Learn more at her personal website, or find her on Facebook and Google+.

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