SEM vs SEO: Friend or Foe?

By: Emily Williams


SEM and SEO are two common tactics for increasing your website’s visibility online. The most common question we get about the two are “Can I just pick one tool? Can I just pay to increase my visibility through SEM and ignore SEO?”

The answer?


They aren’t foes.

SEM and SEO have to work together for the tools to be successful.

Here are 5 reasons why:

Before we get started, remember that Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is paid advertising that enables listings to appear at the top of a results page. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) are enhancements made to websites that allow sites to show in the organic listings below the paid ads.


  1. Some people hate ads.

Plenty of people click on ads in Google. But some people won’t click on a paid ad. Ever. They know it’s paid, so they skip straight to organic results. Do you really want to miss all of these users? We both know the answer to that.

  1. Why pay if you don’t have to?

SEM is a great tool for paying to increase visibility of a website if you aren’t ranking on the first page organically. However, do you really want to pay for this visibility forever if you don’t have to? Let’s say there are no competitors bidding on paid space in your region, but your organic listing is on page 2 or 3… or even below the scroll on page 1… Start enhancing your SEO now and only pay for SEM until your site hits the top organically. With no competition in the paid space, your organic listing will be the first thing people see. For free.

  1. If your SEO stinks, your SEM might stink too.

If your SEO is poor, SEM may not help. For example, an underlying reason for why a page may rank low organically is if Google deems the content of your page to be irrelevant to the user. Well, guess what? There is an SEM auction that determines whether or not your ad will appear – and just as important as the amount you are willing to pay is the relevancy to the consumer. If Google thinks your landing page is irrelevant, your ad won’t appear. You can’t just pay for visibility. You need the content to back it up.

(Pro Tip: One way that Google will deem an SEM ad as irrelevant is if people in the target area keep searching for your keywords but don’t click on the ad. This is why we recommend that you never search your own keywords just to see if your ad shows up! This actually hurts your campaign if you don’t click through. And if you do click through… you pay for that click! Your SEM account manager can help you understand the visibility of your ads without having to perform searches yourself.)

  1. SEO takes time. SEM is instant gratification.

Once you optimize a webpage organically, Google can take up to three months to re-crawl your site to register the new enhancements. An SEM campaign can begin immediately! Of course, well-run SEM campaigns take time and energy to optimize over the life of the campaign, but ads can start showing the minute you start paying.

  1. More data. More results.

The data you will gain from both SEM and SEO will help you optimize the other. For example, if you notice a high click-through rate on a specific keyword in your SEM campaign, you can use that word in your SEO tactics to optimize things like page titles, meta descriptions and overall content. The more data you have regarding your online activity, the greater the potential you have to optimize your overall digital marketing strategy.

SEM and SEO aren’t replacements. Or foes. Or enemies.

They work together. Use them as complements to help increase your visibility online.

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