Demystifying SEO and SEM: Part 1

Elaine Lai Wright

January 11, 2021

Let’s demystify SEO and SEM

Nowadays, marketers are overwhelmed by a myriad of digital marketing platforms, technologies, and channels - while trying to keep up with trends. But the essence of marketing has never changed: delivering the right message, to the right audience, at the right time is as important as ever. This primary marketing goal pivots on reaching the RIGHT audience to maximize conversions through more sophisticated marketing funnels. But how? And when? 

The simple answer is to leverage search engine optimization (SEO) with search engine marketing (SEM) to benefit your business. But what exactly do those terms mean? 

What are SEO and SEM?

In a nutshell, SEO or organically gained web traffic, stands for optimizing search engines, such as Google or Bing, to drive keyword-related brand exposure and purchase intent exploration. SEM or earning paid traffic from search engines (paid search), on the other hand, utilizes Google, Bing, or Amazon ads (e-commerce only) to list advertised keywords, products, or content on the search results. In short, SEM is paid traffic that is targeted while SEO is organic traffic based on content and domain health. 

Can SEO and SEM generate better marketing qualified leads? 

Yes! Different digital marketing tactics serve different purposes. For example, email campaigns often generate optimal lead nurturing and conversions, whereas social media marketing can exponentially lift brand awareness if done correctly. Similarly, SEO & SEM are vital exchange points to meet your target users at their moment of intent. 

The bottom line is how soon can marketing generate marketing qualified leads (MQL) and at what cost? This is the vital question marketers and business owners want to understand before prioritizing marketing budget and finite resources. Both SEO and SEM allow marketers to reach the purchase intent bearing audience, i.e., people who are actively searching for specific terms, products, or answers, therefore generating leads more effectively. When someone “googles it” and your business comes up for the right reasons, whether through SEO or SEM, your business is succeeding online.

When should I use SEO versus SEM and vice versa?

Simply put, SEO is a long-tail strategy. It encompasses strategic planning of keywords and website content followed by meticulous on-page and off-page diagnosis and troubleshooting. Doing this properly in the beginning is very important, given that these changes take 4-6 months to truly reflect in your search engine results! 

SEO is the foundation of website healthiness and digital marketing. It is time-consuming but highly rewarding if you have a competent SEO specialist or agency execute it. However, it is noteworthy that SEO is a continuous process rather than a one-off project or a campaign. SEO maintains the website healthiness and the balance of search engine and user-friendliness in the long run, ultimately boosting the organic ranking of a website or page in search engines. 

On the other hand, SEM can run periodically based on seasonality, product promotions, or any specific short-term marketing goals. SEM works best for increasing web traffic to a promoted web page of a new website within a set period. The caveat is the cost-per-click (CPC) of ads across major platforms above mentioned is becoming exorbitant for budget-conscious advertisers. In short, SEM is fast and expensive but can be extremely effective for boosting traffic, brand lift, and enhanced conversions. 

Ideally, SEO should start at the website development stage for time and cost efficiency. However, you can kick off SEO anytime for a developed website. SEM can run at any time and intermittently as well. Regardless of the stage of your business journey, investing time in SEO related content will pay off in the long run while SEM can bridge the gap between content and organic keyword leads in the short term. 

Which tools are best for SEO and SEM?

There are a myriad of SEO and SEM tools to diagnose, monitor, and evaluate SEO and SEM effectiveness. Among the more popular free ones, Ubersuggest ranks high while SEMRush is a leader among paid tools. Other tools like Ahrefs (paid) target the middle market who are in need of traditional technical SEO skills and understand the need of such a pipeline. Enterprise client tools like BrightEdge provide enhanced data reporting, SEO automation and health dashboards. 

Usually, you will have an in-house SEO specialist or outsource this function to an agency. However, on-demand marketing platforms that offer real-time problem solving and execution, such as Hopps are emerging. 

In summary, both SEO and SEM are effective lead-gen tools for building modern marketing funnels across your buyer journey. However, it's important to understand their strengths and differences and to leverage them effectively in your marketing plan. For SEO or SEM, it is vital to 1) set them up correctly and 2) focus on ongoing optimization for best results. Whether you are just launching your business or a seasoned business looking to grow, an unbiased SEO/ SEM specialist along with a consistent advertising budget are essential for most effective use of your marketing budget.

I hope you enjoyed this initial piece on demystifying SEO and SEM. Stay tuned for the next one!

Marketing 101