SEO vs SEM think co-existence, not competition

SEO vs. SEM: Think Co-existence, Not Competition

By Friday October 28th, 2016

The classic debate of SEO vs. SEM shouldn’t be a debate at all.

Business are always debating SEO vs SEM, as if one or the other is better as part of a digital marketing strategy. I assumed we had put the topic to bed years ago, but it seems that there are still plenty of people trying to understand if the answer is investing in SEO, SEM or both.

This was even more glaring as I sat in a Google Summit for small agency owners recently. The topic was selling SEM to SEO clients. As I was sitting there listening to the Google AdWords business team present their slides, a few things grabbed my attention.

  1. We’re still referring to clients as “SEO clients” as if SEO is an exclusive and all-encompassing strategy.
  2. We’re still talking about SEO and SEM as a choice between two polar alternatives.

If you only have one takeaway from this article, this is it… it’s not an either/or conversation.

SEM and SEO need to co-exist and work together within your digital marketing strategy.

We’re still referring to clients as “SEO clients”

Even if you are getting paid to do SEO, and you are an SEO agency, you’re doing more than SEO. You’re likely involved in market research, strategic planning, UX design, copywriting and website optimization, even social media marketing – and if you are doing it right – you’re doing SEO as part of a more comprehensive digital strategy.

This speaks to the challenge that brands deal with when it comes to having many specialized agencies. If you are just an “SEO client” to one agency and a “PR client” to another, are you benefiting from a cohesive and connected marketing program or trying to wrangle a potpourri of services and service providers? If the separate channels and marketing initiatives are siloed in your approach, you’re missing out on a whole world of opportunities.

We’re still talking about SEO and SEM as a choice between two polar alternatives.

SEM insights should guide your SEO and content strategy. Think of SEM as the guinea pig to test out new keywords before spending the time building them into your content strategy and editorial calendar. Once you’ve done some keyword research and you have a short list of keywords you want to target, spend a few thousand dollars on each and track the results for a few months. Are the clicks driving the right people to your website? Based on a 1-2 month SEM experiment, you should know whether it’s worth developing content around these keywords and investing the efforts to rank for them organically.

Even when you make the transition to developing content, that doesn’t mean you should stop your SEM campaigns. You want to own as much of the search real estate as possible, so continue both SEO and SEM efforts. If you need more proof, check out Seer Interactive’s study that shows combined CTR going from 6% to 56% when a brand owns both first paid and first organic result in the SERP.

Another benefit of SEM is the increased traffic that it brings. Increasing your traffic 50-100% daily through SEM will help your overall authority in the eyes of Google. This is especially true for keywords that you don’t rank high for organically. Pay to play as you build up your organic rankings.

One of the stats from the Google summit stuck with me. The stat comes from this Google research study).

Stat: Paid ads drive 89% incremental traffic.

In other words (on average) 89% of the traffic generated by paid ads is not replaced by organic clicks when paid ads are paused.

Let’s put this into context.

You are a roofer. You are showing up for both paid and organic results for the term “Roofing Repair Philadelphia.” One day you realize you have moved up to the first organic spot in the SERP when people search for “Roofing Repair Philadelphia.”


So you think to yourself, “why pay for ads when I’m sitting pretty atop the organic results?”

You decide to stop running paid ads.

It turns out this assumption is dead wrong. You’re now losing 89% of incremental traffic to your website after shutting down paid ads.

If you are in the 4th or 5th organic spot, you could be losing closer to 100% of incremental traffic.


Whether you are a small business worried that your customers don’t click on paid ads, or you are a national brand that owns organic results, remember that you don’t need to choose between SEO and SEM. They should co-exist, and furthermore, support each other.

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About the Author

Jason is co-founder and CEO of Brolik, a digital agency in Philadelphia. As an entrepreneur, Jason is passionate about helping other business owners navigate the complicated journey of owning a business and developing marketing strategies to grow their brand.
Follow @jaybrew on Twitter or connect with Jason on LinkedIn or Google+