SEO vs. SEM: Mastering Digital Marketing Strategies for Business Growth

Over the past 20 years, the internet has become increasingly central to the world and people’s daily lives. In more recent years, this has only accelerated and become more true.

The internet is how people talk, shop and find information. It’s also how people will find and choose your business, how they’ll learn about you and how they’ll contact you. To be in the best position to draw in new customers, it’s essential to take a proactive approach with a digital marketing strategy to present your business to customers searching for services and products like yours.

Digital Marketing Strategies

Digital marketing is any marketing that takes place across the internet. While this encompasses several strategies, the two best and easiest strategies to start with are search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

What is SEO?

Imagine you have a library full of books, but there's no catalog or system to find them. If you're looking for a book on gardening, you'd have to search through every shelf and book until you find what you need. This would be time-consuming and frustrating, right?

Now, think of the internet as that huge library and the books are different websites. When you want to find something, you use a search engine like Google, which is like a super-efficient librarian. SEO is making your website or web page more noticeable and appealing to this "librarian" so that when someone searches for something related to your website, the search engine will show your website as one of the top results.

Ultimately, SEO is about making your website easy to find and easy to use.

Leading SEO Tactics

You can employ a litany of tactics to get your website ranking highly on search engines, but a few steps are essential for any business:

  1. Keyword Research
    • Identify the important and popular search terms that potential customers are using when searching for services like yours.
      • These terms will need to be included throughout your website, in the content, titles and meta descriptions.
  2. Content Creation and Optimization
    • Search engines look for high-quality, information-rich content on the pages of your website.
      • Once this content is created, it’s important to update it regularly, keeping it fresh.
  3. User Experience and Site Design
    • Your site must be easy to navigate and visually appealing.
      • This will encourage site visitors to stay longer on the site and make it easier for them to find the information they’re looking for.
  4. On-Page SEO
    • This is focus placed on existing webpages, integrating keywords, updating content and improving visual appeal.
      • This will help each page rank better for the desired keywords.
  5. Local SEO
    • This is key for being found in the exact location that you’re operating and serving.
  6. Mobile Optimization
    • More and more web searches are taking place on mobile devices.
      • Your website should be prepared for that, looking good and operating perfectly on these smaller screens.

What is SEM?

Imagine you're at a busy marketplace where many vendors sell similar products. You want to make sure that potential customers notice your booth first. This is where advertising comes in. Put up a big, eye-catching sign or hand out flyers at the entrance to direct people to your booth.

In the digital world, this marketplace is like a search engine results page (like Google), and the booths are different websites. SEM is like using those signs and flyers in a digital format. It's a way to promote your website by making it more visible on search engine results pages, primarily through paid advertising. It pushes you to the top of these pages, making your website one of the most likely results to be clicked on.

Tactics for Developing a Paid Ads Campaign

There are several different types of online paid advertising you can use. There are display ads along the side of webpages, video ads placed before and during YouTube videos and search ads shown at the top of web searches that appear as "sponsored."

If you’re unsure which version of paid ads to start with, opt for search ads. Search ads are inexpensive and easy to use. They’re also easy to maintain, taking only a few minutes a week.

Here are a few things to consider as you start building your first campaign:

  1. Keyword Bidding
    • Choose keywords related to your business (like "home gardening services" if you're a gardener).
      • These are the terms your ads will appear for and need to be used in the ads you create.
  2. Pay-Per-Click (PPC)
    • You only pay when someone clicks on your ad!
      • This makes it easier to calculate the return you’re getting.
  3. Ad Creation
    • You create ads that will show up in the search results.
      • These ads typically include a headline, a short description and a link to your website. The Google platform makes it easy to create these and even gives a score to each ad you make.
  4. Targeting and Optimization
    • You can choose who sees your ads based on location, the type of device they're using and even the time of day.
    • You can also track your ads' performance and make adjustments to improve them. Google even offers recommendations to help your performance.

Choosing Your Digital Marketing Strategy

While the ideal digital marketing strategy would involve SEO and SEM, that isn’t always realistic for every business. Sometimes, it becomes a matter of choosing, but how do you choose which suits your business goals?

Here are seven factors to consider:

  1. Budget
    • SEO: Generally requires a lower upfront investment. Costs are associated with content creation and optimization, but it yields long-term, sustainable results.
    • SEM: Involves ongoing costs (you pay for each click or impression). It can be expensive, but it offers immediate visibility and results.
  2. Time to Start Seeing Results
    • SEO: It's a long-term strategy. Significant results usually take time (months or even years) as your content climbs the search engine rankings.
    • SEM: Offers immediate results. It is ideal if you need quick visibility for a product launch, event or seasonal promotion.
  3. Target Audience and Goals
    • SEO: Effective for reaching users searching for information, solutions or products. It's about attracting organic traffic with high-quality content.
    • SEM: Allows precise targeting (demographics, location, behavior). It's excellent for reaching a specific audience with clear commercial intent.
  4. Level of Competition
    • SEO: In highly competitive markets, ranking organically can be challenging and time-consuming.
    • SEM: This can be a quicker way to stand out in a competitive market, though costs per click may be higher in these scenarios.
  5. Time To Invest in Strategy and Manpower
    • SEO: This takes longer, as content should be regularly created and updated successfully. It also requires monitoring.
    • SEM: You can be flexible with how much time you want to spend managing your search ads campaign. Spend as little as an hour each month or go into the weeds and spend as much time as you’d like to get the most out of your campaign.
  6. Other Active Marketing Strategies
    • SEO: Requires a strong content strategy focusing on quality, relevance and value to the audience.
    • SEM: While ad copy quality is important, the focus is more on optimizing ads and landing pages for conversion.
  7. Measurability and Adjustability
    • SEO: Offers analytics to measure organic traffic, engagement and conversion, but changes and results can manifest more slowly than paid search ads.
    • SEM: Provides immediate and detailed feedback of campaign performance, allowing for rapid adjustments and A/B testing.

In simple terms, opt to work on SEO if you have a limited marketing budget, have the time to put into it and are willing to make changes to your website. SEO work is also a great place to start for digital marketing as it centers on directly improving your company’s website.

Use search engine marketing if you’re willing to spend some money, are looking for quick results and are willing to take the time to learn how to best use the platforms. You’ll also want to use these tactics if you love data and want to experiment with your specific ads.

Start Designing Your Online Marketing Strategy Today

Start working on your digital marketing strategy today, utilizing SEO or search ads to bring more leads to your website. You now have enough information to get started on your marketing campaign.

If you’re not quite sure where to get started, read our other SEO or Google search ads tips.