August 10, 2022

SEO, SEM, or Both?

By: Mary Hiers

SEO? SEM? You may not care what they are or how they differ. You just want to get more clients or sell more products. 

But SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are the techniques you use to set your website up for success. Knowing how to use them helps you reach your goals.

The answer to the headline question is, “Both,” by the way. Different businesses use different ratios of the two, but nobody uses one to the exclusion of the other. 

Here’s what you need to know about SEO and SEM and how to make them work hard for you.

SEO: Long-Term Gains, Sweat Equity

Think of SEO as a strong foundation for your website’s success. You don’t have to optimize your website for search engines, but if you forego SEO altogether you could doom its chances for success. 

Like the foundation of a building needs to be level, correctly measured, and capable of supporting the rest of the structure, SEO prepares your website for fulfilling its mission. It helps ensure that visitors show up and benefit from visiting. 

The three pillars of search engine optimization are

  • Technical SEO
  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO

All three begin the same way: with keyword research. Keywords indicate what visitors can expect to find on your website. You will most likely make a list of both traditional and long-tail keywords to incorporate into the contents of your web pages. Assuming you have done your keyword research, here is what you should know about each pillar of SEO.

Technical SEO

The person who designs, builds and maintains your website must incorporate keywords into various elements of your website. Tags attached to images and other elements should include keywords, for example. 

Unless you’re building your own website DIY style, you probably don’t need to worry much about technical SEO. Do make sure that your website builder understands it and uses it, though.

On-Page SEO

If you have someone on staff or hire a contractor to write the content for your web pages, make sure they are conversant in on-page SEO.

This type of SEO involves knowing how to skillfully weave keywords into the text they write, including titles and image captions. 

Including keywords is not the same thing as cramming keywords into every possible place they will go. Search engines penalize keyword stuffing, so there is no point in trying it.

A good SEO content writer will know how to use keywords without overusing them.

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO works its magic on web properties other than your website. Mentions of your business in social media represent one type of off-page SEO.

The best off-page SEO consists of links from respected websites to your website. If you know website owners for important players in your industry, you can ask for a link or two. 

Ideally, as your website gains more followers, more websites will link to your website without your having to ask. In the meantime, asking for links can do wonders for off-page SEO.

There is one caveat. Companies exist that will sell you backlinks from their websites to yours. These links can do more harm than good. 

Search engines are quick to discover cases of purchased links, and they penalize sites that use them. Don’t be tempted to buy backlinks. 

SEM: Quick Gains, Monetary Cost

Search engine marketing is placing ads that show up in search results. You have undoubtedly seen them. They look like this.

Notice the word “Ad” next to the first two entries. 

How do businesses get their ads up at the top of the search results? They buy those positions. That is SEM.

The cost of having a prominent search engine ad depends on how much competition exists for ad keywords. When an ad uses more popular keywords, it costs more. When an ad uses less popular keywords, it costs less. 

A Pie Analogy

Imagine you are hungry for pie. You could make your own pie, which would involve ensuring you have the ingredients, then putting them all together and baking the pie. Or you could just go out and buy a pie. 

SEO is more like baking your own pie. You’ll put in work and then wait, but you could end up with an amazing end product. SEM is more like buying a pie. You’ll have it right now while you’re hungry, with no wait, even if it’s not quite the same as homemade. 

The following table summarizes the main differences between SEO and SEM.

Powered byEffort and timeMoney
Speed of resultsSlowFast
Better forEstablished websitesNewer websites

Which Should I Focus on First? 

Before any of this will work, your technical SEO must be in order. Your website builder or user experience (UX) leader must make sure that search engines can

  1. Find your website
  2. Index your website

If search engines can’t find or index your website, you won’t get search engine traffic.

Assuming your technical aspects are correct, basic website SEO is your best starting point. This will at least ensure that what’s on your website corresponds to the keywords people use when they search for your product or service. 

You don’t have to get it perfect before you use SEM. But jumping right into SEM without doing basic SEO is similar to building a house on an unstable foundation. 

The search engine ads you buy for your SEM strategy can get fast results. That’s why it’s important that your website is in decent shape and ready for customers before advertising it. 

How Do I Amplify Success? 

You amplify success by paying attention to how well both work. At first, you may depend largely on SEM until your site becomes more established. 

As your site gains traction and your SEO efforts pay off more, you may be able to spend less on SEM. You will probably never be able to dispense with SEM altogether, though.

Good SEO boosts your SEM efforts and vice versa. Neither can be put on autopilot.

Monitor Your Website Analytics

Search engines modify their algorithms all the time, and keyword costs fluctuate in the ad market. Therefore, you have to monitor both SEO and SEM to get the best performance from your website and ads.

Your website analytics tell you where your website traffic is coming from. You can learn how many people find you through your ads, how many find you through search engines, and how many find you through social media, for example.

Analytics tell the story of how your efforts are paying off. Understanding your analytics and how they trend over time can help you allocate resources accordingly.

Fine-Tuning the SEO: SEM Ratio

New brick-and-mortar businesses tend to do a big marketing push when they’re new in town. Otherwise, how will anyone know they exist?

The same is true in the digital world. Newer businesses tend to rely more heavily on SEM at first. 

Successful long-term SEO is the digital equivalent of local buzz about “fixture” businesses in the town. Everyone “knows” about the business, so big advertising pushes are less necessary.

As your online reputation grows, you may be able to spend less on SEM. There’s no fixed timeline for this, and that’s why monitoring your traffic is so important.

Why Not Just Rely on SEM?

If SEM gets results quickly, why not just focus on SEM? If you have an infinite ad budget, then go right ahead.

Most businesses, however, don’t have an infinite pot of money to spend on ads. SEO has your back when your ad budget runs out or gets slashed. 

Just as rare as the company with the infinite ad budget is the company whose reputation alone brings in sufficient business. Even household names like Apple and Nike advertise. 

The key is always finding the proper balance between SEO and SEM. It will be unique to your business and may take some trial and error to define. 

Once you strike that balance, you’ll spend your ad dollars more confidently. You will also be reassured that SEO and SEM are working together to produce maximum results.

Need Help Navigating SEO vs. SEM?

If you’re thinking, “That’s nice, but I just want more carpet cleaning customers,” maybe we can help. Every website built by Best Websites comes with SEO-enriched content. And our digital marketing specialists have extensive experience in creating and placing search engine ads.

Why not schedule a call with us? We know how to build websites that get results, and we know how to make your digital marketing budget work its hardest for you.


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