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SEO vs. SEM – Which should you use?



If you’ve ever had a website or are looking to build a new one, you’ve probably heard the acronyms SEO and SEM thrown around. It can be confusing trying to differentiate the two. Each provide distinct benefits in the promotion of your website.

Understanding the differences between the two is vital to determining how to allocate your marketing budget and resources.

In this post, we’ll help clear up the confusion with some frequently asked questions we hear all the time.

What is SEO?

SEO or “Search Engine Optimisation” is the process of optimising your website for the sole purpose of getting exposure and traffic through search engines such as Google.

Google is an ever-evolving search engine that is constantly changing. There are two key pillars of SEO that marketers focus on, ‘On-Page’ and ‘Off-Page’ optimisation.

What’s the difference between ‘On-Page’ and ‘Off-Page’?

On-Page SEO relates to how well your website’s content is presented to search engines and includes:

  • Friendly URL’s – Making sure your page URLs are short and keyword rich.
  • Engaging your visitors with images, videos and diagrams to reduce bounce rates and increase time on your site.
  • Ensuring your website is responsive (adapts to the screen size) and is optimised for a range of different devices such as mobiles, tablets and desktops.
  • The use of social sharing buttons throughout your website. It doesn’t play a vital role in ranking your website but more people sharing your content means more people viewing your website.
  • Long and engaging content – Google prefers rich and engaging content and a good rule of thumb is around 1000 words per blog article – This also helps keep your visitors on your website.

Off-Page SEO refers to activities that you can do OFF your website to help you rank higher in Google and includes:

  • Inbound links – Other websites that have a link to your website is a ‘thumbs-up’ to Google that your website has content that is relevant to your market.
  • Social media engagement – A strong social media engagement with your customers can influence how search engines perceive your business and what value your content brings.
  • Online reviews – Customer reviews on websites like Google, Yelp & Facebook shows to search engines that your business is well established and your customers have good things to say about you.

What is SEM?

SEM or “Search Engine Marketing” is paid advertising used to increase your presence in search engines. With millions of businesses looking to get noticed online, it is one of the most effective ways to grow your business in such a competitive landscape.

Think of SEM the same way you would a newspaper – ‘Businesses will pay to place an advertisement in your local newspaper to promote a particular product or service.’ The same principle is used with online paid advertising (Search Engine Marketing) to help increase the chance of people seeing your website.

Search Engine Marketing involves using several different methods for promoting your business online.

Pay Per Click is by far the most popular way of advertising and is an effective way to get your business noticed instantly, using specific keywords targeted towards your business. This advertising appears in search results when your visitors search for a particular product or service that match those keywords.

What will work best for my website?

There’s a lot of debate in the online marketing world in regards to whether one is better than the other.

SEO and SEM are both critical parts of any digital marketing strategy if you want to maximise your potential leads and sales. A balance of the two will generally give you the best outcome for your website.

Here’s a quick guide to identify what marketing strategies will give you the best value for your business:

  • If you are just getting started in the digital space, focus on building your website with the fundamental elements of SEO then move your efforts to SEM. SEO takes a bit of time to kick into gear.
  • If your website is established and converting (getting you customers) but you just don’t have enough traffic coming in, a SEM campaign would give you instant results. You should still allocate some resources to SEO as a long term investment.
  • If you have a good amount of incoming traffic coming to your website but those visitors are not converting into sales, focus on SEO. In particular, optimising for more specific phrases that will attract the precise customer you want.

Why does any of this matter?

Understanding how the two complement each other is the key to figuring out how your business can adapt and grow in the digital space.

There’s no one size fit’s all approach to growing your business online, and a planned approach that utilises both a mix of SEO and SEM strategies will give you the best chance of converting your traffic into sales.

There are pros and cons to both SEO and SEM but at the end of the day all you really want is to get your website noticed and clicked on, whether that’s through higher page rankings or paid advertising.

Now that you have a clearer understanding of the two, you’ll be able to make smarter decisions about what may work best for your business to help produce the results you want.