4 Reasons Why SEM Is Better Than SEO

Is SEO relevant for next-gen marketing? Consider the alternative.

What SEO is justifiably famous for is its ability to convince the search engines--the algorithms that index your website--that your webpage is the most relevant one for the keywords being searched. For years, strong SEO has been every marketer's go-to tactic. But even while you've grown more adept, search engines have grown increasingly complex. These days, you can't just optimize and sit back.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)--placing ads that appear above search results--should already be in your bag of tricks. It's is more accountable, because sites like Google offer in-depth data about the performance of your ads. If you aren't already using SEM, consider making it a part of future marketing campaigns. Here’s why:

1. SEO is unpredictable.

The reason SEO isn't ideal for lead generation is because its primary function is to increase your site’s ranking in “natural search” results. That means it's unreliable--the placement of your website is largely out of your control. You can work on SEO for months, and your site may still not get the “natural search” traffic you want. Search engines such as Google one-up you by constantly changing their algorithms to ensure that search results aren't being fixed or manipulated by savvy marketers. Which makes SEO a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. But SEM is firmly within your control. Because you choose the key words and pay for the ads.

2. Leads via SEO aren't clear-cut.

It’s difficult to quantify SEO as a lead-generation tool because you can’t be sure how many leads actually came from your SEO efforts. For example, suppose someone visits your website and signs up as a lead. How do you tell whether that person found you cold on a search engine, or if he or she searched for your site after hearing about your company from a friend? Perhaps a combination of these factors led the person to visit your site. Measuring the number of leads you get from SEM, on the other hand, is much more straightforward.

3. Finishing second place is fine with SEM.

SEM is one of the few areas where finishing second place or even third place can be just as beneficial as finishing first. For example, say you have an ad on Google. After a week, your ad is consistently showing up in search results in second or third position when using the keywords you’ve chosen. If so, you may be compelled to bid extra money just to gain that top spot. The fact is, search engine users will often consider clicking on the second- or third-position ads in search results just as seriously as they would consider the first-position ads.

4. With SEM, the best ad wins.

An SEM ad hinges, more or less, on how well it's written. Other factors include how good the offer or call-to-action is to the customer looking for that product or service. You can tweak all of those things to fit the customer you want, and then vary it up depending on the leads you get. You get more control, and more options, than you do with traditional SEO.

--David T. Scott has served as CMO and Head of Marketing for startups, Fortune 500 companies and billion-dollar organizations, including GE, AT & T Wireless, PeopleSoft, Foresee, and Intermec. He is the founder and former CEO of Marketfish, Inc. and a graduate of the Wharton School of Business. He is the author of The New Rules Of Lead Generation.

[Image: Flickr user Nic McPhee]

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25 Comments

  • Organic results are predictable if you invest in white hat SEO. If you try to "game" the engines, then yes I agree SEO is unpredictable because you will eventually get a hefty slap on the wrist. The solution is easy. Do not take shortcuts and try to undermine the engines goals.

  • David missed some of the beauty of smart SEO implementation. Ranking on a transactional keyword phrase has value in several ways: first, 95% of business decision makers will not click on an ad. They are looking for solid information first. Being at the top of the results implies that you have the best answer, or have the best solution. You can't get that authority from paid search.

    Second, by proving relevance to the search engines by creating quality content around high-value keyword phrases, the site can pick up traffic on dozens of related phrases. We had a client who wanted to rank on "track hurdles." Once we had done the work on optimizing, we saw that they were getting traffic on over 150 different "hurdle" phrases. In order to get organic traffic, you need first-page rankings, so this demonstrates a lot of related ranking wins on "long tail" search terms which were a bonus.

    Paid search does have its place; SEO is just better because it adds real value, and it lasts.

  • Jessica Bostwick

    Investment in both SEO and paid search is necessary for companies to be competitive in the digital space. The goal should be to fully dominate the Google results page for keywords that are relevant and important to your business. If you are strategic in the keywords you are optimizing your site for you can definitely drive quality traffic with SEO. And, in alignment with many of the comments below, it is very much possible to tell how an organic visitor came to your site. This is achieved by simply assessing the keyword report in analytics for percent of visits from branded vs. non-branded terms.

    Furthermore, if you want to be really successful in paid search you have to invest in optimizing your site for SEO. Landing page relevance is a factor in quality score, which is a prominent factor in the cost of a click. How do you think Google assesses that? Same way they do for SEO.

    Bottom line: companies have to invest in both SEO & paid search to be successful.

  • Sara Cagno

    What's the percentage of people who click on paid ads v. click on organic search results?

    That's a clear vote in favor of SEO.

  • Ashvin Ujhoodha

    I agree with Points 1, 3 and 4.

    However, Point 2 is inaccurate. Google Analytics will tell you straight away what keyword was used to search when someone came to your site. This way you know exactly how well your SEO work - and I have to say, it really works.

    Because these leads cannot be called 'cold' simply because they are already interested. The conversion rate for leads obtained via SEO is usually higher.

  • Jay Davis

    Not really. Have you looked at your Google Analytics for organic traffic lately? 50% or more is "not provided".

  • Mary Jefferson

    I think it depends totally on the company. SEM is very important, but I always considered SEM as search engine marketing - not search engine advertising. I think SEM is quite different. It's marketing your business with the right titles and tags and content. It's using key words on the right pages and making sure your content is relative and current. And it's measuring your traffic and making changes to existing content. I DO think SEM is the most important part of the mix. SEO is next in line - at least for my clients. Making sure the site is submitted to directories is important. And then checking those hyperlinks and comparing the site to competitor benchmarks is recommended. Search Engine advertising, on the other hand, can be quite expensive for a small to mid-size business. Maybe the big dogs can spend that much money, but for most smaller businesses, purchasing key words and advertising on Google is just too expensive. And if SEM and SEO is done properly, businesses succeed.

  • "How do you tell whether that person found you cold on a search engine, or if he or she searched for your site after hearing about your company from a friend? "

    Why does this "argument" apply only for SEO and not for paid search? Your example is not holding any water. I would agree with Elena here.

  • I would argue that Google Adwords can simply be a money drain though for many businesses. It's certainly more relevant for consumer based products and services than certain niche target audiences. For example, the quality of traffic that Google ads drew to our site for a business conference was pretty substandard. Over an 8 month cycle the average cost per click was just under a dollar and the average time they spent on our site was under a minute with low engagement in terms of page views and visits to our registration page. We optimized constantly using the Google search network and display network and in the end found neither to be of much value. We tried placements, keywords etc. etc. but what helped most in the end was picking targeted partners and sites that were bringing quality traffic rather than quantity. I guess it depends on the goals of your online strategy and marketing, i.e. if you are trying to raise awareness SEM ads might work.

  • James McCarthy

    I don't agree with you I'm afraid. SEM may be fine if you have money to burn but for a long term strategy SEO is the way to go. Patience and hard work ,like in many other fields pays off over time. I see for many companies where the cost of an SEM campaign for a month would cover their SEO bill for a year.Like Ben , a previous commentator said it might be fine starting off to use it for leads but after that your SEO should be well able to supply your leads.

  • Sarinis Chu

    David,

    This is such a helpful article. SEO is changing all the time, which makes it so hard to keep track of what strategies need to be implemented to get high search rankings. I have been searching the Internet for helpful articles about SEO and what strategies I can use to combat new search engine algorithms. This is one of the best articles I've found about it, along with one from an Advertising Agency titled, "The Future of SEO" which can be found at http://royalladv.com/blog/2014/03/14/the-future-of-seo-2014-guide/

    Thank you for sharing this great information!

  • Paul Worlton

    One reason SEM is a waste of time is that a lot of firewalls are configured to block SEM-based links. If I click any Google link that says "Ad", my firewall kicks in and says, "Not allowed". I can't even click them at home because I had my I.T. guy set me up with a freeware firewall for my cable modem. Stick with SEO.

  • Robert Marousseev

    Nice article. Correct me if i'm wrong, but isn't SEO ( Search engine optimization ) and SEA ( Search Engine Advertising ) a part of SEM (Search engine marketing ) as a total picture. The way you describe SEM is a bit confusing.