SEO vs Paid Search: Strategize on SEM instead

SEO vs Paid Search: Strategize on SEM instead

Isaac Hayward

HK Digital Co-Founder · 27 Sep 2021

SEO vs Paid Search: Strategize on SEM instead

Search engine optimization (SEO) and paid search share the same goal: enhancing your search engine marketing (SEM) performance. But wait, isn’t paid search the same thing as SEM?

If SEO is a part of marketing (it is) and directly relates to efforts to take up ideal spots on the search engine results page (SERP), I would say it’s time we stop equating SEM to solely paid search.

While you will come across countless articles stating that SEM is paid search, and quite possibly were taught this throughout your career or studies, I will explain just why it is important that you at least understand why I feel it necessary to change things up.

Why on Earth does this matter?

Simply put, it really doesn’t as long as you understand that both methods are trying to achieve the same goal through different means, which should therefore be seen as a potential for synergy rather than standalone efforts. Plus, English is English and search engine marketing sounds a lot like any marketing efforts geared towards improving one’s standing on any SERPs.

Some highly-experienced marketers still defend the idea that SEM is paid search, putting SEO aside due to its unpaid nature, and yet yield great results. Even though, you will notice that they still concur that there is a clear relationship between the two. So, call it what you want.

But why would we strategize on these marketing efforts separately?

We wouldn’t.

How do SEO and Paid Search differ?

Simply put, both SEO and paid search are methods of making your website a higher priority on any search engine’s SERP. However, people often mentally separate these terms because they truly do have vastly different factors driving their individual performance, which translates to quite different impacts on how one’s company produces results on a particular SERP.

Let’s drive a wedge between the two for a moment, for the sake of understanding how to tie these factors together in a cohesive strategy.

SEO: What you need to know

Search engine optimization refers to all of the efforts that you undertake to make sure that your website organically ranks higher on SERPs. This encompasses anything from creating content based on relevant keywords to ensuring that your website’s format and layout is optimized for a sensible user experience (UX) all the way through.

You are essentially trying to please a search engine’s (SE) bot that crawls through your website to understand how your content and its titles and meta descriptions match up, as well as how your links send users throughout the site. The more coherent your website’s content and hierarchy is to the search engine’s algorithm requirements, the more relevant and easy to use it should be to a user who searches the keywords you target: the higher up you will rank on the SERP.

After all, it is the search engine’s job to make sure that its users are getting the best results for their queries.

The beauty of SEO

It might sound like a lot of very meticulous tuning, but when SEO is done correctly, the benefits can be massive. The more effort you put, the more profitable it becomes While it takes a lot of time, ensuring that your website is optimized for SEs can become very profitable in the long run, as your website will become an organically powerful driver of visibility on the web. The best part: once you have some high-ranking content, it becomes even easier for your website to rank highly for any future content that you put out, assuming that it is relevant to the audience that you are targeting, of course.

Once you have a large cache of high-ranking content, it will continue to pull in new and returning users at nearly no extra effort to you. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and watch the leads organically flood into your pristine pool of content.

It builds trust between your brand and your customers

Just think about how many times you have done a search for some key information on Google and hardly even glanced at the advertisements at the top of the page. You probably thought, “if they had to pay to get there, why should I trust that their information is good?” That’s the result of the search engine’s algorithm at work.

Organically ranking is the best way to show your potential leads that your company knows what it’s talking about and has the best answers to their questions. The more often your brand ranks in the top for the same potential customer, the better they will view your brand.

SERP real estate is…real

While you may be able to end up at the top or the bottom of the first SERP by paying your way up there, organically ranking for a number of related topics is what is likely to get you the most space on that first SERP.

That’s right, it’s not just about being number one on the first page anymore. There are many places that your website can organically show up on the first SERP, so it is worth knowing what exactly that page looks like when one searches your keywords and making an effort to take up as much of the available SE ‘property’ as possible.

The SEO drawbacks

Okay, you might have picked up on where SEO lacks intensity in the previous sections. It really boils down to time and difficulty.

Keyword Competition

How do you know which keywords are worth targeting? By knowing which keywords are most likely to convert. But that is not all. You may find that there are high conversion keywords that are extremely difficult to rank for because of your competition’s stronghold on that SERP real estate.

SE ambiguity

On top of competition, SEs can change their algorithms in order to improve their ability to link content to users and that can make it to where your previous efforts have to be re-optimized for those standards. So, not only does it take some time to produce the content, but there can be many roadblocks to gaining traction on certain keywords, and you can be set back by the SE’s algorithm changes.

If there was a race, SEO would be the tortoise

If you are actually just starting to produce content for your website, I am not trying to scare you off here, but it really does take a lot of time and effort to make sure that your content starts to rank higher in the SERPs.

Jump a little further into the future and you need to expand your keyword cache. You need to make a decision between two keywords that your research shows are very similar in terms of conversion potential. Like everything else in business these days, you will have to test this to see which is the best for your company in particular.

Wait, what? You mean to say I need to rank organically in order to know whether or not it is worth it to rank organically for a certain term?

Of course not. We will cover why in the following sections.

Key Takeaways

SEO is great for…

  • Long term profitability,
  • Increasing trust between your brand and its users,
  • Dominating the SERPs for your keywords.

SEO is a pain because…

  • It takes a ton of time to get it right and build a cache of quality content,
  • You have to continually compete on keywords and monitor a lot of SERP real estate.

Paid Search

Paid search encompasses any paid efforts at getting your company’s website to appear higher on any particular search engine’s results page. This could be directly through the search engine’s advertising scheme (e.g. GoogleAds), or could also be through a third-party, such as Amazon (you must have seen those carousels at the top of the SERPs, featuring products and their prices when your search terms sound like an intent to purchase).

Similar to SEO, a lot of what drives paid search is reliant on selecting keywords to target in combination with those which you do not want to rank for. Once you choose the search terms that you think your target audience are likely using on your search engine of choice, you can then move on to setting up your pay-per-click (PPC) advertisement.

What’s good with paid search?

This is where you are going to start to see what the whole point of this article is. Paid search, just like SEO, has some fantastic benefits and some limiting factors. Here are some of the positive sides of paid search.

Speed, speed, speed

What do you know? Quite the contrary from the discussion on SEO, paid search is a really fast way to get your company’s website to the top of the SERP. As long as you have your landing pages ready to convert, you can start bidding to get your advertisements up and running for certain keywords. All you have to do is pay and you can start getting a decent flow of traffic through your SE of choice.

Targeting and retargeting

Instead of just waiting for people to click on your organically positioned links on the SERP, you are able to start targeting any keywords that you like (yes, this also has to do with the speed factor), but can also choose to retarget those who have already visited your website.

Immediate results and data

Remember how we mentioned testing while talking about SEO? Sounded pretty ridiculous when it comes to testing organically-driven results that take forever to achieve, right? Well lo and behold, enter paid search. If you want to know which of your keywords are most likely to convert, this is the quickest way to get the data you need to rule out any underperformers.

So why wouldn’t I just use paid search?

Just like everything else in the universe, there’s a flip side to paid search as well.

Scaling and your wallet have a negative relationship

Much unlike SEO, the more you get out of paid search, the more money you are putting into it. Of course, you can narrow down your efforts and optimize within your paid search strategy, but the reality is that it won’t scale itself the way that your organic ranking will. You pay per-click, so no matter how shiny your landing pages are, you are going to have to pay more if you really want to scale up your efforts with paid search.

Oh, it’s just an ad

Maybe at the dawn of paid search people were more inclined to blindly click on the advertised positions at the top, but these days they can be blind to the very ad banners that we rely on for paid search. This is because we have evolved, which is a good thing, but it definitely presents a challenge to advertisers to remain enticing and relevant with that visual stigma of the “Ad” denotation next to the links at the top of the SERP.

Key Takeaways

Paid search rules because…

  • It is the fastest route to the top of a SERP for a particular keyword,
  • It is easy to retarget your site’s traffic after they have visited one of your pages,
  • You can test keywords for their convertibility, with immediate results.

It’s a drag because…

  • Scaling is basically just spending more,
  • Consumers are trained to ignore advertisement banners.

What’s to gain from a cohesive strategy?

Well if you haven’t put the pieces of the puzzle together yet, here is where your mind gets ‘blown:’ having a cohesive strategy between your paid search efforts and SEO allows you to harness the respective strengths of each where one has its weakness.

Sure, when it comes to putting your strategy into action, the efforts should be divided in the sense that you will be keeping track of the performance and productivity with slightly different metrics, but the point of a strategy is to give you and your team a dynamic plan that sets you up to respond to some of the issues that may arise as you try to fulfill your targets for both paid search and SEO; to set your team up for the most optimum use of the SERPs.

So what might that look like?

While we won’t dive too deeply into how to construct the perfect SEO-paid search combo strategy in this article, your strategy will really have to depend on what your overall goals for the SERP are, and where you are starting from.

In the beginning…

Imagine that you have just completed your website and are eager to get started on both SEO and paid search. One of the first things that you will have to do is, of course, get those keywords.

Presumably, you are not going to be able to rank very high organically, so in this case you would use the paid search to get your first bits of traffic going through your website. Meanwhile, you can also use the paid search to test some of the titles and meta descriptions for the content that you are creating. While you might already know which keywords you have to go after by this point, you can still test the finer details in order to know how to set up your content for the best organic search results.

It’s literally that simple. You have some situational context, your goal, and how to use both SEO and paid search to get from point A to point B.

Let’s run through another scenario, just to be sure we are on the same page.

Now that you are established…

Assume now that you now have a decent amount of high-ranking content and are looking to expand your reach to your potential audience. You have just come up with a list of keywords that are potentially important for your website, but you are not entirely certain that they will convert well.

At the same time, you know that there are certain keywords that have immensely increased your conversions the higher you organically ranked for them on the SERP.

Ideally, you would want to use your paid search as a SERP real estate ‘agent’ for the keywords that have increased in conversion as they moved up the SERP, as this is how you will end up getting the most out of those strong keywords. However, you would also want to use paid search as a method for testing some of the new keywords that you are considering for organic ranking.

The big picture

Really what I am describing here is the point that I was trying to make at the beginning of this article: when you set out to use SEO or paid search to increase conversions, what you are really doing is trying to find a way to use the SERP to convert new customers.

SEM is a war over the SERP and keywords are the areas that you and your competitors are looking to occupy. SEO is your kingdom; the higher you rank, the higher your kingdom’s walls are and the better organized your kingdom’s hierarchy is. Paid search efforts can be equated to your army; they help control the areas where your kingdom is strong and also help to search for and claim new ground that you might want to build your kingdom on.

If you continue to strategize your SEM efforts like this, you are surely guaranteed to continue getting more and more out of your future campaigns.

If you want to hear more about how to effectively end up the king or queen of the SERPs, follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, or even Instagram.

Thank you for reading, your highness.

(Bows, exits)

SEO vs Paid Search: Strategize on SEM instead


Isaac Hayward
HK Digital Co-Founder

Entrepreneur and business strategist with experience developing small businesses.