SEO vs SEM – friends or foes? - Showtime Digital

SEO vs SEM – friends or foes?

07 November 2018 Read 1069 times

In the world of digital marketing, acronyms like SEO and SEM get thrown around a lot. In some cases, the mention is tokenistic - they’re seen as one in the same, in others it’s more intentional.

They are similar in the way that they both are based on keywords. This comes down to how search engines operate. Generally, someone types something into search and the algorithm runs in the background to serve up options according to what it deems as the best fit.

Due to this fundamental concept, many people are persuaded into thinking one is better than the other.

The argument for SEO is that it is generally cheaper depending on what industry you are in, the types of keywords you value and your current website state. The argument against is that it can be a slow burn. The algorithm or ‘machine’ takes a while to catch up with SEO progress and therefore SEO is seen as more of a vehicle for gaining traffic, than a lead generation tool.

The argument for SEM is that it is a quicker win. You can jump ahead of the organic results on keywords which relate to your business. However, competing in the SEM game comes at a cost for every click. If you can’t convert clicks, justifying the returns can be difficult.

Because the two share the same playing space on search and the compelling arguments for and against each, it often feels like it’s an either, or decision.

Let me break down these two terms in the simplest way and finally answer the question – ‘Are SEO and SEM really friends or foes?’

What is SEO?

SEO is not CEO, SOE or any other combination of letters. It stands for Search Engine Optimisation. SEO came to light in the late ‘90’s, early 2000’s, when web developers began tweaking websites for search engines. Back then we were using what I like to call the ‘library search’, a collation of key terms familiar to our first experiences in using a library catalogue – ‘Restaurant Italian Melbourne’. As our use of search engines has matured, so has SEO.

The point of SEO is to make your website more visible via organic search. When someone types a search, a search engine ‘crawls’ websites to find those which are the most relevant. In determining which websites gain priority (ranking), search engines will assess a number of indicators in a website (such as keywords, tags, and link titles).

In essence, a website with good SEO will attract more traffic.

With the plethora of information available on the net, anyone can learn the basics of SEO and incorporate it into a digital marketing strategy. But knowing how to do it well, is another thing. Understanding the ins and outs takes time and technical knowledge. There is also the reliance on the latest search engine algorithms and how they are impacting SEO, which can drastically impact the tactics at hand – to the point where websites can be penalised for using outdated tactics.

What are the main components of SEO?

Depending on who you talk to there are a range of components to consider when optimising websites for search. They are commonly split into two – off-page and on-page. At Showtime Digital, we like to add a third - technical.

The top 3 off-page SEO tricks

Off-page SEO is sometimes referred to as Off-site SEO. It typically relates to the ways you can assist SEO ranking, outside of your own website.

  • Creating website authority via backlinks, which means having other sites link back to your site via their content.
  • Increasing traffic to a website via social channels. Things like linking your socials to your website, making sure your Google My Business is set up correctly etc.
  • Whether it’s organic word-of-mouth or intentional influencer marketing, having individuals share your products and web links is another way of building authority.

The top 3 on-page SEO tricks

On-page SEO is sometimes referred to as On-site SEO. It refers to the content and source code of your web pages and their optimisation for search.

  • Choosing a list of keywords which are highly relevant to your audience, and ones which you think you can win on.
  • Creating page content which has good keyword density but is still written well for the consumer. Due to the way we search, search engines like to consider a keyword within context as well as its standalone presence.
  • Using metadescriptions to improve page summaries in search results. These should include keywords but be humanistic, filled with enough to make people want to click through to read more, saving the full story for when they take a further action.

The top 3 technical SEO tricks

Remember when I said anyone can learn SEO but doing it well required technical understanding? Well here’s where that comes into play. Technical SEO involves the way your site is built and intricacies within the setup which can help or hinder searchability.

  • Improving page speed helps usability, which is a key factor in SEO ranking. David Pagotto from SIXGUN believes, "pagespeed is one of the most important factors that influences both conversation rates and SEO performance".
  • Assessing and improving how mobile-friendly a site is, considering the volume of mobile traffic and mobile search.
  • Checking site vulnerabilities which could lead to penalties and potentially be a result of previous site hacking.


What is SEM?

SEM is not to be confused with SME. SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and can be categorised within PPC (pay-per-click). SEM strictly involves earning search visibility through paid advertisements on search engines. It became popular after Google began to preference paid placements over organic placements on search. Over the past 5 years this has been a prevalent feature of the search experience. Many users don’t know they are clicking on ads (especially on mobile), due to the streamlined look and feel of ads against organic placements.

SEM is a paid form of ranking for keywords which are relevant to your audience. It’s one way to take a shortcut to the top (at a price). A real-time auction determines who sits where in the allocated ad space. This is what we term ad rank and it is made up of a few factors, one of which is how much you are willing to pay for the click (or maximum bid).

SEM will drive paid traffic to your website, good SEM will focus on achieving KPIs as proof of the return on investment.

With the rise of Google’s AI, the barriers to setup and manage your own ad account are getting lower. However, there is ‘slapping a few ads up on Google’, compared to understanding the best way to setup the account and draw on insights to optimise and drive outcomes.

Typical SEM account structure

SEM is based on keywords. Keywords are categorised into groups, which sit under campaigns.

  • Campaigns should be structured like your website – key product areas.
  • Ad groups sit underneath campaigns to capture the specifics of each product i.e. runners vs boots. Ads are also assigned to ad groups, with the intention of being product-specific.
  • Keywords sit underneath ad groups as a long list, intended to help people find what they are searching for.

SEM structure

With anything there are always exceptions to this rule. The reasons why an account may be structured differently comes down to business structure, account strategy and KPIs.


Are they friends or foes?

Although people like to pit them against each other, SEO and SEM work wonderfully together. Digital marketing approaches which combine SEO with SEM are in a better position to achieve prime position in search results, while being considerate of how the two feed into the consumer journey.

For instance, SEO can help warm up a prospect by offering well-optimized content to answer those longer how to questions, the kind which don’t come up in SEM very often. Meanwhile, SEM helps people who are being more specific with their search get where they need to fast.

As they both rely on keywords, they can actually feed each other. Through SEM reports, new keywords and opportunities can be found for SEO and likewise, reporting for SEO may find opportunities across SEM which competitors are yet to tap into.

Better yet, if you are showing ads for a keyword which you rank well on organically, Google will improve your ad rank without having to pay maximum bid for the click.

There are many other advantages to using the pair in tandem, however, doing this effectively relies on team collaboration. SEM and SEO teams must have shared reporting capabilities, good lines of communication and good processes to reinforce the strategic opportunities.


How does your SEO & SEM stack up?

Wondering if you’re SEO or SEM strategy is up to scratch? We’re offering free audits across both for accounts spending more than $10,000 per month on Google. Contact us to take advantage of this offer and don’t forget to mention ‘free audit’ in the comments field.

Prue Takle

Prue is a creative in a suit. With degrees in both marketing and creative arts she naturally thinks outside the square, coming up with ideas that will engage audiences and promote larger-scale objectives. Prue enjoys creating synergy between branding and communications, especially when it comes to developing marketing strategy.