It’s pretty common to look at both SEO and SEM or the broader digital advertising landscape as your first ports of call when you start dipping your toes into the digital marketing waters. They have the ability to drive big, fast results and can be deployed without a huge (at least initially) content investment that you need to plough into social media or marketing automation, but often the question arises – SEO vs SEM – what is going to work best for me if I have to choose just one.

Our answer?

It depends. (cop out, right?)

Where digital advertising will work

Digital advertising – Adwords, Display, Facebook ads, Instagram ads, Twitter ads, Linkedin ads, Snapchat ads, Pinterest ads, Youtube ads and private exchanges amongst others – all have different benefits and different reasons why you may consider them for your marketing mix.

Without a doubt the best thing about digital ads is the speed at which you can see results.

It’s not uncommon to form up a brief on a Monday and be seeing results trickling in by the Friday that same week – you can move that quickly, and you can adjust your strategies – ad buys, targeting, budgeting and the like – much more efficiently than you can with SEO.

The downside to digital advertising?


Circa 2002 – 2005 you could buy hyper-competitive keywords for a matter of cents. While inventory was dramatically underpriced at this time, the current pricing of most digital advertising is considered fairly fully weighted. It’s pretty rare that you’ll get bargain basement leads with digital advertising as the major platforms know what their inventory is worth and businesses have built their entire P&L around buying those ads. It’s safe to say every ad auction is now pretty competitive.
There are ways around this – strategies to drive your cost per customer acquisition down – that mean digital ads are still a great way to go if you’re in need of sales or leads, but you’ll need to be prepared to work for those results.

Granular campaign optimisations, AB testing, well thought-out creative, detailed, audited tracking, and a range of other initiatives will have you cutting through the rest in no-time, but your team will need significant expertise and resources to drive the best possible ROI for your marketing budget when it comes to digital ads.

Where SEO will work

SEO is a little more complicated to work out from a project plan and executional perspective, but the silver lining is that when you do manage to nail your strategy, you’ll see results for literally cents on the dollar when benchmarking against digital ads. You don’t have to pay for advertising, just SEO and content labour, and you can book a lot of SEO hours for the high costs of ads (see above).

One of the hurdles you’re going to face with SEO is the time to result. While you can turn digital ads on and off, up and down, SEO needs a slow burn, build and climb type approach.

Typically the first two to three months of a quality SEO strategy will define keyword priorities (internal and external keyword research needed here), and then optimise all of your on-page SEO elements as much as possible – load speeds, content gaps, sitemaps, image optimisation, user journeys, so on and so forth.

Once the on-page work is complete, you’ll need to move to content marketing and off-page work. Acquiring high quality, digital PR links is key, as is producing quality, long form and video content for distribution across multiple channels. This process essentially engages users across platforms and builds authority in your digital brand. Google recognises this, boosting the authority, and therefore ranking, of your website.

Most businesses don’t see a dramatic positive result from SEO in under five months. While this isn’t an issue for some, it can be a deal-breaker for others, so it’s worth keeping in mind.

Where SEO really comes into its own is in the 6 – 12 month bracket. Each month results become compounding, and you’ll start to see a larger and larger stream of growth in your business from this channel while the resources it consumes should stabilise at a minimum, or even decrease in some cases.

The benefits and detractors of engaging in both strategies
If you’re looking to take a more holistic approach to your digital efforts it can be worth encapsulating both SEO and SEM in your strategy.
The key here is to leverage one into the other. There’s no point in pursuing identical keyword priorities for both organic and paid search over the mid to long term – you essentially end up bidding your time (SEO) against your money (SEM).

And no-one enjoys doing that!

We have seen SEM negatively affect SEO, but it’s fairly minor in overall affect. As long as your strategy takes SEO priorities into account when bidding for digital ad inventory, you shouldn’t see too much negative affect.

The other element to consider in measuring a combined SEO / SEM strategy is the value of aggregate lifts. There are an ever-increasing number of users that simply search rather than entering a URL. This means both branded and non branded search terms (Toyota ute v. ute) need to be prioritised in your SEO strategy.

(PRO TIP: consider competitor terms to influence purchase decision. Ford could work up their strategy around ranking for Hilux ahead of a new model release for their Ranger ute, for example).

This places additional importance on SEO for all of your other marketing efforts. Digital ads, SEM, social, email, radio, TV, press, tradeshows – whatever your mediums, 90% of users are searching when they’re in their highest state of intent to purchase. Placing your site at their top of their search will bump the ROI on all of your marketing efforts – not just your digital or your SEO.

As you can see this subject is very much evolving and it doesn’t look to be cementing itself with a definitive answer anytime soon.

Rather than focussing on the SEO vs SEM discussion to set your marketing agenda, focus first on the outcomes you’re looking to achieve. Does your sales pipeline need filling immediately? Or are you looking for a slower burn scenario that builds your business month-on-month. Are you looking for sugar hit results or are you looking to squeeze every possible piece of ROI gain out of your strategy even if it means waiting for your strategy to really set in.

Once you’ve got clear visibility on these issues, you’ll be able to make a call on SEO and SEM with ease.