SEO Versus SEM – What’s Better for My Brand?

SEO-vs-SEM-tug-of-war-300x238 SEO Versus SEM – What’s Better for My Brand? Over the years, I have heard arguments that a marketing team should focus its effort on SEO versus SEM, and vice versa. Here, I’ll share the benefits of each. And, how you can leverage the power of one or both to influence your branding and overall search rankings.

What is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the organic way in which people find website content, whether that’s blogging, whitepapers, video, imagery, etc. The key to remember is this effort is organic and not purchased, per se.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) leverages an online marketing budget to buy ad space. This could be done on a variety of social media and online platforms, such as Google, Yahoo!, Bing, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.


In either case, you must define the overall goal. For example, with an SEO goal, it may be to be on the front page of a major search engine for a specific phase or keyword. In and SEM campaign, it may to increase subscriptions to your newsletter or online registrations for a conference.

Both methods use a heavy emphasis on keywords. The difference is, with SEO you do not pay for the keywords. With SEM, you do pay for keywords. In both cases, you may use the same keywords to help drive traffic to landing pages, key product pages, or brand-related pages, such as services, products, or whitepapers.

Another similarity is the quality of the content. In either case, you want to drive your target market toward good content that sits on your site. The better the content, and the more likely your audience is to share it, the more influence it will have over your brand’s organic search results and quality, click-thru rates on paid advertising.


An SEO approach is more of a long-term strategy, which could take months or years to determine the return on investment (ROI). Create really good content that is written for the target market. Consistent social media posts and efforts toward driving your target audience to your content are required. It could take months and possibly years to create a solid, lead-magnet flow using this method. Understanding the keywords your target market is using is crucial to the success of this effort.

An SEM approach could be a much quicker return on investment. However, you pay for speed. What’s needed here is a solid understanding of the search terms and website’s you want to feature your content on. Also, doing research to know what the budget amount should be to get your content on the top search pages is very important. Lastly, the landing page is crucial. You must develop a well-thought out strategy to ensure the user experience is good, because the experience impacts the price you pay and placement for ads.

In either case, you must think about the overall strategy.

SEO Strategy Tips

For an SEO strategy, conduct a keyword audit either on your own or with someone that specializes in keyword audits. You may know some of the keywords your audience may look for, but you may not know the best ones or some of the more, well-known terms that are currently being used.

Further, developing quality content can be time consuming. Do you have the in-house staff to create the content needed to attract the audience you want? If not, consider the budget to get the content you need.

Additionally, take a consistent, meticulous approach to sharing that content. It’s about demonstrating your expertise among your audience that helps to drive engagement, including commenting, sharing, and liking. This is not a set-it-and-forget-it approach, using the assumption if you create it, they will come. You must plan, at least, a few hours each month to share, comment on, and create content.

Plus, you now need to think of the call to action you want people to take when they consume the content. Should they share it, like it, download it, subscribe to it, post it, etc.? Giving your audience content direction will help them know what they should do with it. If you don’t provide this element, they may simply read it and close the page.

Finally, revisiting your keywords at least annually is an often, overlooked element of this strategy. Take for example the word “pretzel.” It was pretty innocuous before the food industry put a spotlight on it. If you had any type of product or service you could leverage that word, it was important to update your SEO to reflect the new term.

SEM Strategy Tips

For an SEM strategy, a similar approach is taken, with a keen look toward keywords. The difference is knowing how much to spend; where to spend it (geographically, demographically, or behaviorally); and creating the landing page the visitor will land on.

Let’s start with how much to spend. You can certainly conduct an online campaign for $50, but that campaign won’t last long in most cases. If you are planning to take the leap into this water, be serious about it, as well as strategic. A fifty-dollar effort could be spent in a matter of hours, or it could last a whole month depending on a variety of factors. My advice is to spend at least $100 or more on each SEM campaign.

Before creating any sort of campaign, first look at how your target market uses the Internet. Are they mostly using desktops, tablets, or mobile devices for search, shopping, and surfing? You can find a portion of the answer on your website analytics tool. You can also find this by doing a little research.

Once you’re better informed, use a combination of text and graphical ads, such as banners, to reach your audience. There are dozens of ways to do this trough targeted keywords, negative keywords, ad placement, and managed buys. It takes quite a bit of skill to make this effective. It also takes a great deal of monitoring to know when to up the bids, to change they landing page content and keywords, and to update the creative.

When you take on this effort, know that the overall experience is ultimately important to your budget, results, and conversions. All search engines put a great deal of emphasis on the user experience. So, if your ads take people to generic pages, causing them to search around for the content they seek, the search engines will make you pay more for your ads, and downgrade your search ranking. Be very conscientious about the overall experience.

In the end, both SEO and SEM are worth the time, budget, and effort. Remember, that doing either, or a combination of both, requires strategy, monitoring, and care. If you’re willing to put in the effort yourself or to hire someone to do it for you, and its done well, an uptick in traffic to your website, online store, or video channel, sales conversions, or brand awareness should increase – significantly.

Be realistic about the time, budget, and energy you are willing to put into the effort. The less you put in, the less you’ll get out.

Are you ready to engage in SEO and SEM efforts for your brand?


  1. Great article. I ran SEM campaigns with Customericare at the beginning to try and get first clients but didn’t have much success with it. The best keywords just costed a lot of money and in the end it didn’t make much sense for us to keep running the campaigns.

    We’re now focusing on improving our SEO reach starting with long tail keywords where it’s easier to rank.

    I think putting constant effort into building a presence through SEO is a must for every business looking to build a customer base on the long term. SEM can be amazing to gather quick leads (if you have a more short term goal).

    • Aurelie, you are so right! Putting forth a solid SEO effort doesn’t hurt. Combining it with either monthly or stratetic SEM campaigns for targeted keywords also aids in overall rankings.

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