First of all, SEO means Search Engine Optimization and SEM means Search Engine Marketing. Both types of digital marketing are related to the use of search engines (such as Google, Bing, Yahoo) to improve the visibility of a website relative to the other websites out there.
One major difference is that SEM is something that needs to be paid for upfront for instance to Google Adwords. One has to bid for the customised ads (display or search) to appear on page 1 (right on top or below the organic search results). If the demand for the chosen keywords is high, naturally the bid rate will increase and the cost per click will increase for the advertiser. Advertiser will need to pay for each time the target audience clicks on the ad. It does not matter if the target customer eventually leaves a lead or make a purchase or not, the click on the ad is chargeable.
As you can imagine, the cost of advertising on Adwords can be significant if one does not know how to optimise the leads conversion rate , the ad copy or the bidding process. So since there is an upfront outlay of expenses, why does one pay for SEM ?
Well, if you compare traditional medium likes newspaper, TV or radio ads, there is certainly no guarantee of results either. And the costs of using such media is even more prohibitive than online marketing services like SEO and SEM. Furthermore, it is hard to capture the right customer at the right decision journey (i.e. intent to purchase) using traditional media.
Hence, given the customer behaviour to google everything online in the early research process and also just right before making the final purchase to compare prices, it is important that a business's website appears at the top of the search results.
This can happen organically over time if one were to invest a lot of time to write many relevant articles on the website with the right target keywords , work to earn many backlinks or do guest postings of articles, maintain good SEO technical site structure amongst many other factors. This can easily take 3-6 months to bear fruit.
Alternatively, one can use Google Adwords to bid for the target keywords and get to page 1 on day 1 by using the "sponsored ads" . In the long run, this may cost more than SEO since this is a perpetual race and auction against other competitors.
As such, to save money in the long run, it is ideal to have a good SEO strategy in addition to SEM strategy so as to win visibility on page 1 and to be top of mind for your target customers.
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