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SEO vs. SEM: Which Strategy is Right for Your Business?

Jun 9, 2023 | Digital

Home > SEO vs. SEM: Which Strategy is Right for Your Business?
Search Engine Optimization (or SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (or SEM) are popular topics when discussing marketing strategies, but what is right for your business? The answer, more likely than not, is both of them together. Utilizing SEM and SEO in tandem allows you to create the best reach and improves your chances of appearing at the top of the page of search results. Simply put, the main distinction between these two strategies is that one is an organic approach while one is a paid approach. To truly understand its importance you need to start at the basics, so let’s back up.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

Search Engine Optimization focuses on streamlining a website to improve its visibility to web crawlers and is what helps you to rank higher organically on Search Engine Page Results (SERPS). SEO contains three main components: Technical SEO, On-Page SEO, and Off-Page SEO.

1. Technical SEO

This refers to the activities completed on the website that are designed to improve SEO but are not related to your content. These factors increase the crawl-ability of your website and tell search engines your site is a safe place for their users. From the technical standpoint, the ranking factors include the following:

  • Site Speed

    Websites should load in less than 2 seconds in order to be optimized. If it takes longer than that to load, users will grow weary and leave to try another website.

  • Mobile Friendliness

    Nearly 60% of all online searches are carried out on mobile devices. In addition, Google index is mobile first, which means it is more critical than in the past to ensure your website is mobile compatible.


    The S represents ‘secure’ and has the associated security certificate. This is currently a small ranking factor but is worth making the move as it future-proofs your website against increased ranking emphasis for page security.

2. On-Page SEO

This is the process of ensuring that content is relevant and provides a great user experience. This can be divided into two main types of optimizations:

    • Pre-click on-page optimizations

      This includes anything that is visible to the user before they click on the Search Engine Result. The following are the specific areas that the optimizations fall under:

      • Title Tag

        This is the first part a user will see and what search engines pay close attention to. It is essential to add the primary keyword of your content into the title tag.

      • URL

        This builds trust over time, therefore, it MUST redirect properly if any website changes are made. It’s important to keep this concise and to stick to certain conventions. For example, if you decide to replace the spaces in the titles with a dash continue to do so going forward, do not switch between a dash and an underscore.If possible, add a keyword into the URL.

      • Meta Description

        This is only visible in the SERP and source code. This text is not on the website anywhere but it should describe what you will see. It must remain short as on mobile you only have 115 characters of length to use and it should be effective as it plays a key part in users clicking on the search result.

      • Post-click on-page optimizations

        These optimizations are visible to the user after they click on the listing or land on the webpage.

        • Main Heading / Subheading

          Describes what the page is about. For the main heading it is important to make it clear to the user what the topic of the page is and it’s ideal to incorporate the priority keyword into it if possible. Subheaders are a great opportunity to place secondary and tertiary keywords if it flows with how the user would read the page.

        • Main Copy

          The main copy is a vital piece of SEO, as it is the reason why people search on Search Engines to start, they are looking for useful content. It is critical to not only understand your reader but focus on a particular problem or search query to answer. You should pair SEO with copywriting. It is more important that your content makes sense to your reader and answers their questions rather than keyword stuffing as Google and other search engines catch on to that. Simply put, the best approach is to write content that addresses keyword intent.

        • Hyperlinks

          Hyperlinks are an effective way to guide your reader through website navigation or to further helpful information either on your own site (internal linking) or on another website (external linking).  Another best SEO practice in regards to hyperlinks is to use effective anchor text (the clickable text you see in a hyperlink). These send signals to your users and search engines as they help them navigate your website, therefore making this relevant is a good practice.

        • Images

          Optimizing your images for SEO includes alt text, file dimensions and more. For the purposes of this blog we will highlight three main aspects of optimizing images for SEO purposes. So let’s dive in.

          • Alt text: helps crawlers index your website more effectively while also describing the image to a visually impaired reader. Finally, alt text assists if the reader cannot load or see the image correctly on their devices.
          • File dimensions: compressing images is critical for website optimization as it helps your website load faster and improves user experience. Typically less than 75 KB is ideal for a good file size, however, you should still remember to not sacrifice quality.
          • File Names: Naming your files adequately prior to uploading them is an easy way to ensure crawlers interpret your image. An easy way to do this is to rename images prior to uploading them. Good practice is to use relevant keywords to describe what is in the image and to keep it similar to your alt text.

3. Off-Page SEO

This is the process of enhancing the website search engine ranking through activities that happen outside of the website. This type of SEO practice focuses mainly on backlinking.

    • Backlinks

      Backlinks are incoming hyperlinks from external websites which pass some reputation to your website. Google’s page rank system will calculate how much reputation is actually passed. There are three types of backlinks to consider:

      • Topical Backlinks – these are relevant to your industry
      • High Authority – these are from reputable websites that increase trust
      • Authentic backlinks – these are earned on merit

Phew! That was a lot! SEO can be complicated but these are all small things you can do progressively over time to make a big impact. An easy way to think about it is that SEO is the unpaid way of increasing your ranking on search engines. Just like organic traffic to your website in general, it takes longer to build but it is more sustainable over time once you’ve created the basis. SEO is a long term investment that takes more man hours and consistency. Which brings us to its counterpart, Search Engine Marketing, or the paid way to increase your ranking on search engines.

What is Search Engine Marketing (or SEM)?

Search Engine Marketing refers to the paid advertising efforts to increase a website’s visibility on SERPs. SEM is also often known as Pay-per-click advertising or PPC. These ads are targeted for user intent and involve more set up and optimization/management on an ongoing basis to increase conversions and returns. Typically, SEM begins with comprehensive keyword research as well as competitor insights to target campaigns in front of the target audience. While SEO can take months to see a real result, SEM has a very short turnaround time to see results.

How does SEM work?

Similar to SEO, SEM also focuses heavily on keywords as these are what advertisers bid on. In addition to selecting keywords, with SEM you can tailor specifics on the search result that entice users to click on the advertisement. These ads appear above the organic search results providing immediate visibility to high-intent users. This marketing strategy requires continuous investment to maintain the visibility while SEO requires more time investment but results in long-term visibility with sustainable organic traffic. SEAM is also a much more targeted approach as you can select not only the keywords, but the geography, device and times of the day to target.

So you may be asking, is SEO or SEM better for my business?

Which one to use really depends on several important factors of your business, for example:

    • Goals: If your company wants to drive traffic to a specific website page quickly, or if the goal is to kickstart a slow month into gear, then SEM would be a better fit. However, if you’re just looking to drive long-term growth, SEO is a great opportunity.
    • Existing Performance: If you already have strong organic visibility, a great supplemental option would be to utilize SEM. However, if you do not have good organic traffic, SEO would be a good long-term solution to increase visibility.

Companies will frequently pair both SEM and SEO marketing strategies together in order to maximize reach, visibility and ultimately conversions.

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