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SEO vs SEM? Why You Should Apply Both in Your Inbound Marketing Strategy

Marketing professionals may wonder whether their efforts are best spent with search engine optimization (SEO) or search engine marketing (SEM). What do these acronyms mean? How do they relate to each other? Should I focus on one or the other, or both? Who has time for that?

We’ve seen that SEO and SEM are more similar than they are different. SEO focuses on intentionally organizing the content on your website and online platforms with the keywords and phrases that are top of mind when a customer is looking for your type of product or solution. SEM focuses on strategically investing in paid advertising on certain keywords to elevate your product or service. That way, it appears as close to the top of a search engine results page as possible when consumers are searching for your type of service or solution. In this way, SEO and SEM work together like two sides of a coin!

From our experience, it takes both SEO and SEM to see the best results! If your goal is minimal effort for maximum impact, start with a strong SEO strategy and use that as the foundation for creating a strong SEM strategy.

Here’s an easy way to remember how SEO and SEM go together.

First, remember that your goal here is to ensure that your product or service shows up when your customer is searching for something your business offers.

Think of it this way:

  • The “O” in SEO stands for organic efforts made to achieve this goal.
  • The “M” in SEM stands for monetary investments in advertising to achieve this goal.

Organic + Money = Strategic Results

SEO lays the foundation.

It’s best to start by researching the top keywords that drive organic traffic to your site and those that are trending with customers in your industry. After you do keyword research, incorporate a strategic shortlist of those keywords into your website content so they feel natural, not forced. You can track your SEO performance using free tools like Google Analytics or paid software solutions like  SEMRush, SEOClarity, and SEO Powersuite.

SEM positions you to scale.

Once you’ve identified your top-performing organic and industry keywords, use a mixture of these in your paid ads. The high-quality keywords, coupled with the price you pay to advertise and rank for the keywords, will help search engines position your site above the organic search results for those keywords, and secure your top spot in the minds of your customers that utilize search engines to find products, services, and solutions that you offer.

The bottom line: Start with SEO, then scale with SEM.

We encourage you to explore what you prefer on your own, then identify where an agency can help.

Here are a few simple insights from our team’s experience.

Now that we’ve hopefully helped simplify these concepts, here are some tangible insights we've gathered as an agency working side by side with our clients on their SEO and SEM initiatives. They may not be rocket-science revelations or riveting recommendations, but trust that they come from real industry experiences we’ve had that you might relate with or find helpful.

SEO Insight: Make sure your strategic SEO content lives on your actual web pages and not just in a downloadable pdf format whenever possible.

We’ve had the opportunity to provide SEO support to clients in the financial and banking industries. One of our clients had an amazing online database of resources they created to answer common customer questions and help customers grow their businesses. The challenge was that all of these resources lived online only as PDF downloads that were not optimized for search engine results ranking. This posed a challenge in terms of website traffic performance. We helped them by creating blog-style versions of each PDF downloadable, then optimized the PDF versions by including SEO properties in the PDF, like a strategic file name, meta description, and keywords then offered the PDF as an option to download for offline consumption. Make sure that your key content is uploaded to your site in a way that search engines such as Google and Bing can find you as they scan the internet for the best set of answers to the consumer’s search query.

SEM Insight: Protect your branded keywords by paying for them.

While managing SEM for clients in the senior living industry, we learned that no matter how unique your company/brand name is, your competitors might create search ads that target your customers. They could do this by including your brand name in an attempt to outrank you in consumer searches that mention your brand and solution. The senior living client that we managed had a competitor that did this to them, so we created a set of search ads that intentionally included our client’s brand name and keywords to counteract their competitor’s efforts. Now, our client confidently owns a 93% impression share of their branded keywords and has the peace of mind that competitors cannot easily steal their customers from right under their nose. If this is a concern in your industry, we recommend that you allocate a strategic portion (at least 25%) of your search ad budget to protect your branded keywords from similar competitor attacks. See what 25% of your ad budget can do to mitigate this, then make adjustments accordingly.

When it comes to SEO and SEM, you learn best by doing it.

Similar to how customers find what they need in search, they may not know you, they may not even know what they need, and all they can do is think of something they can ask their search engine of choice. That’s the start. In the same way, your company may not know what customers are looking for (though there are tools we mentioned that can help with that data). However, trust us when we say that as you start implementing SEO and SEM, things will get clearer!

Ready to grow? Give SEO and SEM a try and feel free to reach out to us if you have any questions.

Also, connect with us on social media! We love growing with and contributing to the community of marketing professionals like you. 

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