December 1, 2022
Trying to figure out which marketing strategy is best for your business? Check out this breakdown of SEO and SEM and see which one will work better for you.
So, you want your business to achieve strong digital results, gain market share from your competitors, and deliver the strongest growth for the lowest cost? Then you want to dominate search engines, which in Australia means Google.
Whilst there are other search engines (i.e. Bing), Google search is by far the dominant medium customers use when actively looking for the product or service a business provides in Australia. The question is what is the best way to generate traffic through search engines?
There are two common pathways: search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).
In this guide, we will cover the key areas, including;
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Search marketing is the process of driving targeted traffic to your business's website through search engines. Ultimately, you have two ways to do this: through search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM). The main difference is that SEO is focused on organic (unpaid) traffic, while SEM focuses on results through paid ads.
According to research, search engines dominate website traffic with 68% of all website traffic being sourced from organic traffic and paid ads, vastly exceeding all other channels, including display and social media.
Search marketing through SEO and SEM can achieve many things for your business performance including;
For these reasons, it is unsurprising that according to research, search marketing generates 72.2% of new business revenue generated through digital channels.
Because of the enormous search volume generated through search results, the opportunity for growth in many industries is virtually limitless. As an example, in our own Cleanawater case study, in which we bought and ran a business for 5 years to demonstrate the power of digital, we achieved the following business results because of the power of search engines;
Ultimately, the difficult choice for many businesses is choosing the best path to take. Should I choose one over the other, or do both simultaneously? Well, that depends on your business goals. Both SEO and SEM deliver big returns for businesses but in different ways.
So let's take a look at SEO vs SEM, how they differ from each other, their pros and cons, and how you should use them to achieve your business goals.
SEO is the process of improving the visibility and ranking of your website in search engine result pages (SERPs), with the aim being to increase traffic to your website from natural, or organic results.
The volume of traffic you generate through organic search queries is dependent on many factors, including;
Search engines understand what users are looking for. This is why Google makes thousands of updates to their algorithm every year, all in an endeavour to drive more traffic to websites that provide a better experience for their users.
A business’s SEO efforts can be broken into three main categories:
Each of the three categories is important to the overall performance of your SEO program.
On-page SEO primarily refers to the quality, user relevancy and depth of the content on your website. It also includes strategies like keyword research and the optimisation of critical elements like title tags, meta descriptions, header tags, image alt text and featured snippets.
On-Page SEO is considered to be the most important factor in achieving performance from organic search traffic, and in most situations, is where the greatest percentage of a business’s SEO efforts is focussed.
Off-page SEO relates to the popularity and trustworthiness of your website and is determined by factors like the quantity and quality of backlinks pointing to your website from other websites, which is often derived from active link-building initiatives, social media signals and brand mentions.
Technical SEO has more to do with the architecture of your website and making sure it is easy for search engine crawlers (bots) to index your website pages. Technical SEO includes things like site speed, mobile friendliness, site indexation, proper use of robots.txt and sitemaps, and having a clean and error-free website code.
Your SEO efforts should include your business's performance in local search results, which includes the maps section in search engine results pages.
Local SEO is a branch of search engine optimization that specifically deals with optimising your business's online presence to rank higher in local search results, which is important for businesses that rely on customers searching for local businesses.
SEM, otherwise known in Australia as Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords), or PPC ads (pay-per-click), is the process of driving traffic to your web pages through paid search platforms. This means paying for your website to appear in search results.
A business’s SEM efforts that impact the performance of your Google Ads program include;
Search Engine Marketing can be broken into three main categories:
Each of the three categories has the ability, if applicable, to drive business growth.
Search engine marketing ads are the most common type of SEM. These are the text ads that appear at the top and bottom of a search engine results page (SERPs), targeting specific keywords that businesses are bidding on.
Google Shopping is a form of SEM that promotes product listings and are typically used by eCommerce businesses. These ads appear in search engine results pages with a product image, price and other relevant information, and can be a great way to increase sales from your target audience.
Local search ads are a form of paid search results that targets customers in a specific geographical location. These ads typically appear in SERPs when users search for businesses or services in their area and can be a great way to capture audiences looking for a local business.
When comparing SEO vs SEM there are important factors to consider including cost, which method generates the most traffic, how long until you'll see results, and which one delivers the best value.
The cost of SEM / SEO depends on the competitiveness of your industry, the quality of your program, and the volume of traffic you are seeking to drive to your business. Here’s how the costs break down for each.
With paid search your costs include a cost per click (CPC) each time your advert is clicked on, and a management fee if you have a professional managing and optimising your program.
With SEO, there is no cost from Google to appear in organic search results, as the traffic is generated through the "natural", or unpaid section of Google’s search results. Instead, the cost is in paying a professional to develop your SEO strategy, and create the necessary content to ensure that your website ranks for relevant keywords in organic search results.
The simple answer is SEO by far. Of course, there are variations to this based on the search intent of the user, however, across the board, organic search receives the majority of the audience from search engines.
However, your business’s organic results depend on two main factors;
In our Cleanawater Case Study, over a 5 year period, we generated clicks from 36,738 different search terms through Google Ads, which it should be noted is a significantly smaller audience when compared to organic search results.
As you can see from the below graph, the majority of these search terms generated only 1 or 2 clicks each over the entire 5-year-period. This is why in-depth keyword research is so critical to drive traffic in any successful SEO and SEM strategy.
The position of your website ranking has a significant impact on your SEO performance, as recent research covering 4 million search engine results demonstrated.
The answer to this question will again depend on the competitiveness of your industry, as well as the quality and effectiveness of your SEO or SEM program. However, in general, the following is applicable;
Well, that all depends on timing. Both SEO and SEM can be extremely effective in enabling your business to drive traffic and leads to your business, however, in most cases the following applies;
As per the below graph, the business experienced lower SEO growth in the first period, followed by a rapid acceleration in the back few months, with leads increasing by 1,177% over a 12-month period.
As a result of this progress, the business now generates leads at a 76% lower price point vs SEM ($101 vs $24 per lead), thus delivering a significant commercial advantage.
In search marketing, ‘Accounting’ is a highly competitive industry, and hence it took longer to reach the cost per lead crossover point between SEO and SEM. However, as per the below graph you can now see that SEO is delivering leads at a cost that is 62.9% below that of the SEM campaign ($44 vs $116), which represents a very significant commercial advantage for any business.
There are many reasons why SEO delivers greater long-term value when compared to SEM, but generally speaking, it is for the following reasons;
Both SEO and paid advertising can be extremely effective at driving traffic to your website and increasing sales. However, there are some key differences between the two that you should be aware of before deciding which is the best solution for your business.
While SEO and SEM are two separate strategies, they can be quite complementary of one another for numerous reasons including;
The other benefit of utilising SEO and SEM together is that for high-converting keywords, you can capture the largest percentage of the market, which any business with high growth goals would want.
SEO and SEM can both be extremely effective at driving traffic to your website and increasing sales. The reality is that they can both deliver high ROI for your business, just in different ways, and they both complement each other very effectively.
In relation to which option is best for your business, that depends on your business model, industry and goals. However, in general, the following advice would apply;
Ultimately I believe that the decision comes down to growth for your business. If both SEO and SEM are delivering your business profitable growth, then it makes sense to incorporate both digital marketing strategies into your business plan.
We specialise in helping businesses improve their digital presence and can help you with any aspect of your search marketing strategy.
Book your free 90-minute strategy session with one of our digital advisors to get a clear plan for growth.
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Founder & Managing Director
Adam’s passion is using digital to grow businesses. He has has successfully used digital to grow multiple businesses.