If you have S$100, should you invest in SEM or SEO?


Any marketer and business owner should understand how Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) differs, and which one to choose to better achieve your marketing objectives.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) can be a tricky concept to grasp. Both terms are often used interchangeably, which makes it even easier for people to make the mistake of mixing them up. Although they work hand in hand, they are actually quite different. Understanding this difference is key to any successful digital marketing plan.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

In general, SEO is about optimising your website to get better rankings in the search results—with the results often referred to as “organic” or “natural”. There are 2 main pillars of SEO, called On-Site SEO and Off-Site SEO.

In reality, any optimization for the search engine traditionally fell under the scope of SEM. This includes enhancing contents with organic keywords, making sure your landing page meets Google Webmaster guidelines, and getting other websites to link back to your website.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

SEM is the marketing process with a goal of getting more visibility in search engines, either by getting more free traffic via SEO, or paid traffic via Paid Search Advertising.

Paid Search is also known as PPC (pay-per-click) or CPC (cost-per-click). This is because through Paid Search Advertising, you essentially buy an advertising space in the search engine results and you pay only for the clicks on your ads. So instead of trying to rank higher organically, you pay to appear in front of the searches.

Over time, SEM has come to mean something much more specific. Popular usage now refers to paid search exclusively, with the SEO aspect being separated. For the sake of clarity, we’ll replace SEM with Paid Search for the rest of this post.

How Do These Tactics Differ?

SEO focuses on organic search results, or the results generated by search engines (e.g. Google, Bing, Yahoo!) that aren’t marked as ads. SEO is technically free, but it takes persistence to see the results.

Paid Search, on the other hand, focuses on a bidding system where the highest-paying advertiser gets the most prominent ad placement and is charged a fee every time a user clicks on the ad. You get the audience you want, but you pay for that convenience.

Now that you understand how SEM and SEO methods differ, you should also know the kind of results each one produces. And of course, getting good results is also dependent on hiring a specialist in SEO or SEM to outdo your competitors.

So, Should I Invest My S$100 in SEM or SEO?

Well, it depends on the nature of your marketing objective. If you are doing a sale or other special offer with a specific expiration date, Paid Search would be ideal. For any long-term goal such as building your brand or expanding your business, SEO is what you should invest in.

Although SEO takes longer to show the results, the end result will be more economical and you can establish an extremely strong and long-term search credibility. When employed correctly, SEO and Paid Search will fill in each other’s gaps and complement each other with their strengths.

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