SEO vs SEM in 2020

Two Professional Boxers
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Is this the year your website finally makes it to the first page of Google?

After all, that’s where 71% of search traffic lands, while Page 2 gets a miserable 6% of all clicks.

In the quest to earn a coveted top spot, there are many search engine strategies you can apply. Two of those are Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

Both concepts focus on helping your content stand out among a sea of competitors and earn Google’s highly-sought-after approval. Yet, is there one that you should focus on above the rest? Does one deliver a higher ROI than the other?

Understanding Google Search Results

When a user searches for a keyword or phrase on Google, there are two kinds of results that appear. These include:

  • Paid Results
  • Organic results

As their name implies, paid results are clicks that a company pays Google to receive. They fall into the category of SEM or Pay-Per-Click (PPM) marketing. Conversely, organic results are those that Google deems to be the most relevant to the search query. A company can earn these results by developing a strong SEO strategy that naturally leads users to their page.

To visually distinguish between the two, Google places paid ads at the top of the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs), while organic results appear below. Business owners can use both SEO and SEM to improve their chances of making it to the top. Let’s take a closer look at how each one works.

What is SEO?

In short, SEO is the process of optimizing the online content you produce to appear as high as possible organically on SERPs. You can’t pay for SEO to work. Instead, you have to learn the process, apply the rules and make it work yourself.

SEO VS SEM ?Google and other search engines analyze many different factors when deciding which pages they should rank for queries. A few of the ones they prioritize include:

  • Compelling, share-worthy content
  • Keyword optimization
  • Title, URL and description
  • UX design
  • Crawl accessibility
  • Snippet/schema markup

While this is a high-level list, SEO can break down even further into three sub-categories. Knowing how each one functions can help you make the most of your SEO approach.

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is everything you do to an individual web page to help it rank as high as possible. In addition to content creation, it also encompasses all of the behind-the-scenes tactics you use to tweak your material and help users find it.

This process starts before you even begin typing the first word. It requires brainstorming your target audience, analyzing their search intent, and deciding which keywords to optimize. Then, once the page is finished, it includes post-edit adjustments such as adding URL descriptions, title tags, meta descriptions, and descriptive alt tags for images.

Technical SEO

While on-page SEO does include a degree of technical adjustment, there are even more advanced changes that users can make to help Google bots crawl and rank their page more effectively.

From optimizing your loading speeds and using canonical tags to optimizing robots.txt files when appropriate, these edits are often too technical or complicated for a content creation team to handle alone. Usually, a third-party consulting firm or web design expert will take the reins when it’s time to make these optimizations.

Off-Page SEO

Once you click “Publish” and your page is officially live, off-page SEO takes over. This includes everything you do to help bring visibility to your content and drive up its SERP ranking.

The main goal here is to get relevant, authoritative websites to appreciate and link back to your content from their own webpages. This is the most effective way to build your readership, along with your Google credibility.

Along with organic backlinks, other off-page SEO tactics include completing and optimizing your online business profiles (e.g. Google My Business), earning brand mentions and racking up positive reviews.

What is SEM?

In years past, SEM was used as an umbrella term to cover organic SEO as well as PPC marketing and other paid activities. Now, however, the acronym is understood within the industry to refer to paid search only. When referring that groups organic and paid search strategies together, the more general “search marketing” term is appropriate.

The activities included under SEM center around paid listings, which business owners can purchase to bolster them to the top of Google. A few of the most common SEM activities include:

  • Paid search advertising
  • Paid search ads
  • PPC marketing
  • Cost-Per-Click (CPC) marketing

In terms of paid search platforms, most marketers utilize Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) to help them reach the right customers and expand their business. While the platform has myriad features and options, the short explanation is that marketers can bid on specific keywords relevant to their target audience, paying for their clickable ads to appear in Google SERPs.

Google AdsIn addition to Google Ads, there are also second-tier PPC platforms. Marketers can also access PPC advertising programs on the major social media networks, including:

  • Facebook Ads
  • Twitter Ads
  • Instagram Ads
  • LinkedIn Ads
  • Snapchat Ads for Business

Social Media Icons

SEO vs SEM: Which Should You Use?

Now that we’ve covered what each term entails, we’re left with the all-important question. Should you use SEO or SEM in your digital marketing efforts?

At the start, SEO emerges as the clear winner. After all, it’s free, passive and can be incredibly useful when done well. However, there are times when SEM can be more productive. Then, there are times when a company can benefit the most from a strategy that combines both SEO and SEM.

Let’s take a look at a few of the different scenarios you may encounter as you fine-tune your strategy.

Ultra-Competitive Keywords: SEM

Take ultra-competitive keywords, for instance.

If you’re opening a new organic dog treat store and want to rank for “buy dog treats,” it could take years to reach your goal organically. Pedigree and Purina already have that market cornered.

This is where it can pay to run a PPC campaign, which would allow you to display paid ads above organic search results. Still, this doesn’t mean abandoning SEO altogether.

Informational Keywords: SEO

Most people head to Google to learn the answer to a question, not necessarily to make a purchase. For instance, if they search “How to wash a car,” they likely just want to learn the technique, not buy a new wash mitt.

For that reason, most companies won’t spend the money to bid on that long-tail keyword. That means if you make it an effort to rank organically for this keyword, you could reap all of the rewards. Paying for that same amount of traffic could be cost-prohibitive, so it’s easier and more economical to take this approach.

Next, let’s take a look at a few instances where SEO and SEM can be mutually beneficial.

Profitable Keywords: SEO and SEM

As expected, hot-ticket keywords attract a flock of paid advertisers. As a result, organic clicks get pushed further down the page. Knowing this SEM seems like the ideal strategy, right?

Canadian KeyboardIn reality, top-ranking pages for ad-heavy keywords are sites that also have a high number of monthly organic visits. To maximize your traffic, it’s wise to keep your SEO efforts running in the background, even while you strategically employ SEM for specific keywords.

SERP Features: SEO and SEM

In addition to ads, other SERP features push organic results down the page. These include featured snippets, video carousels, and the “People Also Ask” box.

The kicker? They all rely on SEO, not SEM.

Google determines which pages are relevant, informative and helpful enough to be designated in any of these sections. You can’t buy your way into them. If you’re one of the lucky few that make it to the top, that’s instant visibility you didn’t have to spend a dime to earn.

Now, consider the impact if you appeared in one (or all) of the SERP features as well as the paid search results above the organic listings. You could monopolize the first page of Google for the price of one SEM campaign. By running ads for keywords you already rank for, you help cement your place as an industry standout.

Leveraging SEO and SEM to Your Advantage

Standing out online requires a thoughtful strategy, and both organic and paid search approaches can get you there. In the great debate between SEO vs SEM, the real answer is that both can be advantageous when applied to the right effort.

The key is to understand how the two techniques work and the unique benefits that each one delivers. From there, you can take a look at your online traffic, analyze trends and determine which approach offers the most robust way forward. In 2020 and beyond, successful companies will be those who take advantage of both tools, harnessing the power of each to deliver the results they deserve.

Shiela Delos Santos

Shiela Delos Santos

Shiela Delos Santos works as an SEO for Code Web and holds a BSIE from the University of the Philippines. In her spare time, Shiela enjoys spending time with her family as well as educating herself further with video editing.


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SEO vs SEM in 2020

by Shiela Delos Santos time to read: 6 min
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