SEO vs SEM: Which Is the Right Approach for Your Marketing Strategy?


Topics: Web Marketing

Chances are, if you’re a digital marketer, one of your primary focuses is driving traffic to your website. But what’s the best way to achieve this? Should you implement an SEO or an SEM strategy? Or should you maybe implement both? By working to understand SEO vs. SEM and taking a look at the way each strategy operates, you can make an informed decision on which direction to choose.


SEO, short for search engine optimization, is the process of adjusting your website to attract web traffic from the free and organic results of search engine queries. This is often the strategy that you’ll want to start with, since it could pay off in the long run in terms of organic, paid traffic, and conversions.

Some in the digital marketing industry have used the analogy of selling your house. If you were to put your house on the market, you’d first fix the leaky pipe, patch the ceiling, and repaint the fence. Small improvements may take time and investment on the front-end, but will eventually earn you more in the long run.

Likewise, the same is true for your website. By making useful changes to your website, you can make it easier for search engines to properly index your site and present it as a result when individuals make search queries that are relevant to your site and business. There are many changes you can execute, including cleaning up the copy on your site and cleaning up your pages’ title tags, meta descriptions, and headline (h) tags. You’ll also want to ensure your copy incorporates keywords that are relevant to the products or services your organization offers, ensure simple and well-formatted URLs, and integrate social sharing within your content.

These simple tune-ups can help search engines better understand and categorize your website, bump pages from your site higher in search engine results pages (SERPs), increase clicks onto your site, and ultimately save you potentially hundreds to thousands of dollars on your overall paid search costs.

After making your initial improvements, you’ll want to continually create valuable, quality content. Blog articles, news updates, and copy improvements can do wonders to increase your visibility because these items offer more useful content to visitors of your site and help you establish more authority on topics and keywords related to your business. If your target market finds these updates useful, you’ll drive more traffic to your site and increase opportunities for inbound links from other websites.

Remember, good SEO takes time. Don’t get fooled into taking shortcuts like black hat strategies, keyword stuffing, or private blog networks. These strategies could ultimately hurt your website or even get you kicked off SERPs.


Search engine marketing or SEM differs from SEO in that it involves paying a platform in order to expand your presence and attract website traffic through search engine ads. Paid ads can help your website show up for terms that are extremely competitive that would cost far more to achieve using SEO practices, but can be purchased for a relatively small price-per-click.

In many ways this levels the playing field for competing businesses. Some very specific terms have likely been targeted by companies using SEO for 10+ years. Identifying the most profitable keywords for your business and using paid ads instantly gets you into the marketplace as a valid choice for consumers.

Another benefit of SEM is its speed and efficiency. Once SEM is turned on, profits can be seen in just a matter of days. On the other hand, SEO can take anywhere from six months to a year to actualize traffic increases. However, this increase is generally at a much higher rate of return. So in many ways, it’s a matter of considering smaller profits now versus larger profits later.

SEM can also be used to make your site appear at the top of SERPs when a competitor’s keywords are searched. This strategy can be useful in attracting more traffic, but it can also backfire. Before implementing a strategy like this, be aware that bidding on competitors’ names may not be the best strategy for everyone.

However, it’s important to consider that your competitors are likely already using this technique with your branded terms, which is why you’ll want to add your own key terms to your SEM campaign. Not only does this help prevent competitors from stealing traffic, but it also adds credibility to your brand. When you show up in the SERP both organically and as an ad, consumers are far more likely to click on your brand.

Lastly, running an effective SEM strategy requires that you have a relevant landing page associated with each of your ad groups. If you’ve already taken the time in your SEO strategy to build out a number of quality pages that include rich content, that may help you create more segmented ad groups which in turn may help you deliver more relevant ads, increase click-through rates, and decrease costs-per-click. But if you’re just sending people to your homepage for a large assortment of keywords, you’re not going to drive a lot of actions or conversions and your KPIs will suffer.

To drive a steady stream of traffic to your website, a hybrid of SEO and SEM strategies is a must. At Axis41, a Merkle Company, we pride ourselves in our ability to help brands do just this. By implementing our unique take on SEO and SEM campaign strategies, we can help your brand see more traffic than ever before.