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SEO vs SEM Which Is Better

SEO vs. SEM: What’s The Difference and Which Is Better 4 Me?

SEO vs SEM: The difference between SEO and SEM is simple.

SEO vs SEM, lets’s take a closer look to see what will be better for your business. SEO or search engine optimization is the practice of optimizing content to be discovered through a search engine’s organic results. SEM or search engine marketing is traditionally SEO plus pay-per-click advertising, but some people just look at it as PPC today.

Now you might be thinking that SEO is the way to go since organic traffic is free, consistent, and passive but it would be short-sighted to think that it’s the only way to grow your business through search.

So today we’re going to be talking about some search engine marketing strategies and when and where you should be using SEO, PPC, or both.

Search engines are in my opinion, the best traffic source. Around five billion searches happen on Google every single day. It’s also been reported that search engines drive 10 times more traffic to shopping sites and social media. And for you, local business owners, 72% of consumers who did a local search visited a store within five miles. Now to explain why SEO and PPC are both important.

SEO vs SEM: Let's play a game of “Would You Rather”

SEO vs SEM Which is Right for My Business

The Question:

Would you rather be able to instantly rank number one for any keyword or have an unlimited PPC budget to pay for ads?

SEO of course!

No bro PCC!

Now I certainly don’t have an answer to this but let’s unpack both sides.

From a pure SEO perspective, you need to remember that search engines are businesses. They need to make money to operate, as a result, most if not all platforms will give premium placements to paying customers. For example, commercial keywords like insurance have a ton of value and therefore a ton of competition. So, the entire fold is pretty much covered in ads making organic results near invisible.

SEO SEM High Competition

So, assuming you ranked organically for this keyword, a search would have to scroll down for a while before even entertaining the thought of going to your page.

Now let’s make a case for PPC. Sure, if you had an infinite budget, you’d be ranking number one at the top of every page, right? Nope, Google doesn’t show ads on every page for every search. There needs to be some sort of commercial intent for ads to appear. For example, key in something with clear commercial intent like “red sox tickets” and you’ll see ads galore. Type in an informational quarry like “what to do in Boston” and you won’t see any ads.

SEO SEM PPC Competition

So, if you were to opt-in for an infinite adds budget but no SEO. You’d be missing out on a ton of opportunities to get traffic in. Another thing to note is that commercial keywords generally have less search volume than informational ones. Which would even further limit your pool of relevant traffic.

As you can see here in Ahrefs keyword explorer, the informational query gets searched nearly 27 times more than the commercial one.

SEO SEM Ahrefs

So now I’m guessing that your answer to unlimited SEO traffic versus PPC traffic is probably tougher than you might have initially thought. But this is why we have yet another acronym “SEM” where we can combine the two strategies and truly take our search engine marketing to another level. Let’s go through a few strategies that should give you a good idea of when and why to implement SEO, PPC, or both.

SEO vs SEM: How Do They Work Together?

First, try running ads for keywords that are too competitive to rank for at least now. There are likely keywords in your industry that you won’t be able to rank for years. For example, if you are creating a brand-new supplement store and you wanted to rank for things like “buy protein powder”, then your chances of a top-three ranking are slim. You’d be competing against the likes of Amazon, GNC, and Walmart to name a few.

Now, it doesn’t mean that you should abandon SEO altogether and just run ads. But since ranking for competitive terms will likely be a long play, PPC can help get the ball rolling immediately. And there are three massive benefits to using PPC while you’re working to rank your pages.

First, you can immediately start generating revenue since you’re paying for traffic. This will hopefully get some cash flow coming in. But do note that just because you advertise, it doesn’t mean you’ll have a positive return. Oftentimes it can take months and a lot of lost dollars to find a campaign that works for you.

Second, you get an opportunity to test and optimize for conversions. Most ad platforms have conversion tracking features. After all, if publishers can see that their ad spend is returning positive ROI, they’ll keep spending. So, use this as an opportunity to get insights on things like the average cost per conversion. Run controlled tests to improve your conversion rate and as you start producing profit from your ads, scale-out to other platforms.

Third, you can get valuable keyword data. Within Google ads, they have a report called search terms. Within this report, you can see keywords that people are bidding on and see conversion numbers with them. This can help you get an understanding of whether the keywords you want to target will produce conversions.

As a hypothetical example, let’s say that you are bidding on protein powder and getting a ton of traffic because it’s a popular query, but in terms of net profit, you weren’t profitable. Within the search terms report, you might find that a keyword like “grass-fed way protein” sends a lot less traffic but converts at a much higher rate.

SEO vs. SEM: What's The Difference and Which Is Better 4 Me? 1

Benefits of PPC while working on SEO

  • Benefit 1 – Immediately generate revenue since you’re paying for traffic. 
  • Benefit 2 – Test and optimize for conversions. 
  • Benefit 3 – Get valuable keyword data.

So, what I recommend you do is export the search terms report from Google ads, then use a keyword research tool like Ahrefs Keywords Explorer where you can paste up to 10,000 keywords at once and get all their metrics.

Now I don’t have an ad campaign on protein powder but to illustrate my point, you’ll see that the keyword difficulty score is much lower for grass-fed way protein. It will be worth investigating and potentially creating a new page for. That way you’ll likely be able to get some traffic from organic search faster.

SEO vs SEM: Should I Use Both?

Now, another reason you might use both SEO and PPC is if the search results pages are covered in ads. As you already saw in the insurance example, competitive keywords generally have a lot of people willing to pay top dollar to appear at the top. And even if your ranking number one through SEO.

The organic results are so far down that they may not even get clicked. Now to put this into perspective, you’ll see that on average we’ve ranked in the number one position for the keyword “local business SEO“. But if you look at our click-through rate, the search console tells us that people only click our result 0.5% of the time. And if we look at the search results, you’ll see that there is a bunch of ads making it look like our number one organic result is number four. As you can see, the majority of ads are for local SEO Services.

If we had an agency offering services like this, I consider putting some money into ads to get more clicks to our pages and hopefully more customers.

SEO vs SEM: Finally...

is to own as much real estate as possible. And this is like the strategy that we just went through but for a different reason. These days, a typical search will have some ads at the top, some SERP elements like features snippets, people also ask boxes, and then the organic search results.

Now while this might feel annoying for SEOs in particular, I want you to look at this as an opportunity to rank in service with monopolization in mind, for example, you’ll see that the Blog Starter is paying for ads, owns the featured snippet, and has the number one ranking position.

And to me, this makes a lot of sense for him to put his time and effort into since he’s likely making a lot of his money from this page. At SEO Ignite are fully committed to providing the best educational resources on SEO.

The way I like to look at the topic of SEO versus PPC is not so much. which one should you use? It’s more about looking at the differences in seeing how they complement each other to create a dominant search engine marketing strategy, aka SEM.

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