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Two Minute Tips

SEO or SEM: Which is better for business?

Every business knows the power of appearing on the first page of Google search results. LAURA DAWSON explores which method is best for improving page rank and converting sales.

When looking to grow, businesses will almost always invest money into some kind of online marketing. This often involves improving a business’ position in Google searches, which can be done with either SEO or SEM.

Search-engine optimisation (SEO) is a process to improve a page’s rank on Google’s search results by tweaking the page itself.

SEO may include improving a page’s loading speed, enhancing the content, working with images and ensuring it is optimised for mobile browsing.

SEO is not a paid service per se but, depending on the competitiveness of one’s market, a professional company may be enlisted to get the best results. This approach is often referred to as organic search.

Search-engine marketing (SEM), is a form of advertising and also known as pay per click marketing, or ‘PPC’. SEM is usually conducted through Google AdWords and is the number-one way to immediately rank first on Google.

SEM requires a strong strategy and ongoing attention to achieve success without wasting one’s advertising budget.

Which is better? Well, as with so many things, it depends. By learning the key differences between the two, businesses can make up their own minds and allocate resources accordingly.

The benefits of SEO

Increases website traffic – Think about the way people conduct online searches ; when they see a business on the front page, they probably click on it, right? If one navigates to the third or fourth page of results, for example, they might not feel as confident about the quality of the businesses there.

The point is that when businesses rank higher on Google, they get more trust from visitors. This increases business credibility. A long-term SEO strategy is going to do a lot more than provide leads; it’ll also improve a business’ reputation.

"When businesses rank higher on Google, they get more trust from visitors – a long-term SEO strategy is going to do a lot more than provide leads; it’ll also improve a business’ reputation"

Improves your website – When using an SEO strategy, a business is attempting to make a website the best it possibly can be so that when Google’s automated search bots crawl the site and the backlinks, they find the content to be genuine and useful for searchers.

If all of the content on a page is keyword-rich, which involves including terms that people are likely to use when searching, then Google will rank a page higher in the results.

Great ROI – when an SEO campaign is successful and a business occupies that hallowed first, second or third position on Google’s search results, there’s no requirement to pay extra money (advertise) to maintain that rank. That business will need to keep up SEO efforts and content creation but won’t have to pay for every click to the website.

Broad reach – All the customer research in the world still won’t predict all of the things that users will type into a search engine to find a business or product. Google gets more than six billion searches a day and SEO helps pages to rank higher for a broader range of topics.

Less expensive – A focused SEO strategy is an ongoing monthly investment but the costs are far cheaper than an ongoing SEM strategy. Not to say that SEM doesn’t have a place in an online strategy as well, but SEO is cheaper in the long run and provides lasting results.

The drawbacks of SEO

Slow to see results – While it would be lovely if SEO were effective overnight, the fact is that it takes time – and effort. Businesses need to improve their websites, write content, create valuable backlinks and develop the kind of web pages that really perform. Then they have to wait for Google to recognise this, which can take weeks or even months.

Very competitive space – Depending on the industry, there may be many other companies that are looking for higher page rankings. Businesses need to be aware of this and make sure they are adjusting keywords and maintaining their websites, or at least employing professionals to assess their SEO strengths and weaknesses.

Needs a content strategy – One of the largest elements of successful SEO is content. Publish regularly and ensure content is well-written and targeted to a particular topic. This can be challenging for smaller businesses but it is not impossible.

Needs regular backlinks – It used to be possible to go and backlink any old page to get better SEO results. Google got wise to that and now requires pages to have trusted backlinks. Quality is everything.

The positives of SEM

Top Google instantly – The great thing about paid ads is that they sit above the organic search results. SEM ads appear right at the top of the page, and this is achievable simply by bidding in the PPC auctions for chosen keywords. When users search for these keywords, they’ll see the winning business first.

Next is a map from Google called a ‘Local Pack’. This is an unpaid section and businesses can appear here if they are strong in SEO.

Lots of control – SEM means businesses must create their own ads, which then go on to appear in Google’s search results. This gives them a chance to test, tweak and adjust every detail to get the best results before launching.

Businesses can also easily adjust the total amount they want to spend on Google AdWords and set budgets and limits for daily spends. They can then cancel at any time.

"Sure, investing in SEM is a no-brainer when getting good results but sometimes it can feel like non-stop expenditure – that’s why campaign management is vital"

Show off your goods – Appearing organically on page one of Google’s search results is an advantage but the listing is still restricted to just text and a page link. An SEM listing allows businesses to use Google’s visual product-listing ads to show off products and services. People are drawn to colours and imagery, which means SEM may lead to better results and more conversions.

Increase your visibility online – New businesses and those trying to compete in an established market with new products or services will need to build awareness quickly. While an SEO strategy will broadcast your message over time, SEM can ensure that people see a business right now. SEM brings results much faster.

Target like never before – Businesses that have done their research and, for example, analysed that their target market is online mostly between the hours of 7.30pm and 9pm, based in Townsville and searching in French, on mobile phones, are in luck.

SEM allows marketers to target many elements via AdWords, including the location, time, language and demographic of a preferred audience. Any business with marketing that is relevant to a particular time or location will love this element of SEM.

Split testing for the best ROI – Businesses can monitor and manage every element of a campaign with split testing to quickly and easily find out which ad is more successful. A PPC campaign will give great results within a matter of weeks using this testing.

Low-cost leads – The cost of leads always depends on a range of factors but SEM provides high quality and low cost leads to businesses that have organised their campaigns and honed their messages.

The case against SEM

Can be very expensive – Businesses that are not investing sufficient effort into ads may find that, over time, their AdWords spend creeps up and up. Also, if they’re not prudent with keywords – and negative keywords – costs can escalate with very little to show for it.

Ongoing investment required – SEM requires businesses to keep feeding the beast. Sure, investing in SEM is a no-brainer when getting good results but sometimes it can feel like non-stop expenditure. That’s why campaign management is vital.

Competition can review your campaign – A final downside of SEM is that any competitor at any time can reproduce or steal ad copy from a business, reaping the benefits of that hard work.

It won’t take much for any cunning competitor to work out what a business is doing to fill its sales funnel, especially when ads are so publicly displayed online.

When both are best

The simple answer to the question of whether SEO or SEM is best, is that any successful online marketing strategy should use both. However, if there is only budget for one, then SEM can be a great choice to begin a campaign – with a view to investing in SEO after a business has grown some initial awareness.

SEM is great for giving businesses quick results and leads. SEO, on the other hand, is great for building long-term credibility and for sustaining a business in the online landscape.

Perhaps the best way to consider these two important strategies is to think of SEO as a marathon and SEM as a sprint.

Laura Dawson

Laura Dawson is a digital marketer specialising in search engine optimisation. Visit: kymodo.com.au

SAMS Group Australia

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