A question that gets asked a lot, especially by businesses just starting out (or just beginning to explore the digital space) is whether they should use SEO or SEM as a means of getting their business found on search engines like Google. When it comes to digital, this is a huge topic – and one that doesn’t have a definite answer.
The question though shouldn’t be either/or; it heavily depends on the company and goals, and for best effect, both methods should be considered and tested out. But if you only can focus on one at a time, we’ve broken down both methods so you understand what each platform can do for your business, and both their pros and cons.
SEO (search engine optimisation) is the process of ranking your website high on Google search results. Everyone knows that very few people look beyond the first page of Google results, so for business who feel a lot of their customers will come to them via Google, ranking highly on the first page of Google results is often a high priority.
SEO is beneficial for any kind of company, and, if you’ve worked out the right long-tail keywords to rank for, provide ongoing, cheap (if not, free) results – in other words, high Google rankings is the gift that keeps on giving.
However, to rank well in SEO is usually playing the long-term game, especially if your website is new. Dozens of factors come into play when it comes to determining ranking factors, and making sure all those boxes are ticked takes time. It’s also not something you have a lot of control over. It is Google who will primarily define where you sit, and because Google keeps exact factors that go into determining rankings a secret, it’s usually a matter of working at it until you get there.
Also, contrary to popular belief, SEO is not really for free. Especially in highly competitive industries, or where there’s no SEO specialist in the team, businesses will most likely have to invest in software and/or various services to make a difference.
Lastly, another thing to bear in mind about SEO is that once you’re up there, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see a return, and this is something you won’t be able to test out or control. We’ve seen companies spend thousands of dollars on SEO under the misguided belief that this will give them a positive ROI but it never happened – maybe the number one position is somehow not the highest performing position (maybe in this industry, searchers like to do some scrolling?) or maybe people just aren’t looking for those keywords the company focused on in the first place.
One thing to keep in mind though is that Google is extremely user centric. When it comes to determining rankings, Google will consider your website’s relevance, user friendliness and industry authority. Even if SEO isn’t a main focus of your business’s, it’s important to at least work through some optimisation basics, such as making sure you don’t have broken links, or that the site is mobile responsive, or that the entire site is easy to navigate, fast to load and all the pages are easy to find. Although just doing these basic optimisations might not significantly bump up your rankings (it might though, you never know), it will definitely be beneficial for your business none-the-less.
SEM (search engine marketing) is placing ads on Google. You’ll have seen them right at the top with the yellow background, or running down the right hand side bar. SEM, unlike SEO, can net you instant results. Once you place an ad, you can almost see your business on Google straight away. For businesses who aren’t ranking very highly organically, SEM is a boon for getting noticed straight away – position 1 and 2 in ads rank above any position organically, so strategically made ads can boost you right to the top, higher than any organic means.
Arguably, you also have far better control than SEO. You can tell Google exactly what keywords you want your ad to appear for, what keywords you don’t want your ad to show for, and you can even bulk out your ad with extra bits like site link extensions (things that Google will determine for itself organically). You can also test which heading and text work best for you, and if you really know what you’re doing, you can even control where exactly you rank. You can also put a small budget in SEM just to see if it works for you, and if it doesn’t, you can just turn them off, unlike SEO, where it’s often a ‘spend big’ approach.
Of course, there is that definite cost for SEM, and in competitive markets, this cost can be quite steep. Additionally, for inexperienced users, SEM can be a very good way to burn through a lot of money with little or no return.
The good thing is SEM is easy to track and easily scalable – through your dashboard, it’s quite easy to measure your cost-per-acquisition and even cost-per-conversion, and from there you can work out whether it’s working out for you. If it is working, then it’s simply about upping your budget to see even more traffic.
It’s important however, to keep in mind that both platforms work hand-in-hand. Using Google’s Analytics tools, you can check out where your traffic comes from, the digital path they take before buying, and the most cost-efficient, valuable funnel there is. You can also use Google’s Keyword analysis tool to do your research before going into either SEO or SEM to figure out which keywords you want to focus on. We’ve found that sometimes a company might rank really high organically, but people who click come to their website via ads tend to be more valuable customers, or vice-versa. As a result, these two platforms should definitely not be mutually exclusive – even if you’re doing really well via SEM, you shouldn’t discount SEO, just as if you’re ranking really highly in SEO, you shouldn’t ignore the extra value SEM can provide your business.