SEO vs SEM: 4 Reasons Why SEO is Better

Brent Scott Director of Influencer Marketing

I recently read an article about SEO vs SEM on a respected industry publication by a man with impressive credentials. The author has served as CMO for Fortune 500 companies and billion-dollar organizations. He also founded a successful marketing company of his own.

Although he’s an experienced professional in the marketing field, I still disagreed with almost everything he wrote. After I read his article, it occurred to me that SEO is tragically misunderstood within the broader marketing community.

In his article 4 Reasons Why SEM is Better than SEO, my fellow Mr. Scott juxtaposes the two approaches to marketing through online search.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) — also known as PPC — involves the placement of paid ads above or beside organic search results for targeted keywords. While Search Engine Optimization (SEO) involves deliberately influencing organic search results in the attempt to improve the rankings of your own site for targeted keywords. These are two different means to the same end: more visitors to your website.

So when comparing SEO vs SEM, which is better? That Mr. Scott argues SEM is the more effective option, while this Mr. Scott stands by SEO. So, in response to the aforementioned article, I’ll address each of the points made and offer four counterarguments of my own. Ding ding.

Check out our other article about the marketing ROI of integrating SEO and PPC.

My Rebuttal to Mr. Scott’s Argument

1. SEO is Unpredictable

The other Mr. Scott argues that organic search is volatile and unpredictable. He claims that SEM is more straightforward and reliable than SEO due to frequent game-changing algorithm updates.

Although his point about organic search volatility is true, SEO isn’t altogether unpredictable. Admittedly, it’s impossible to anticipate what Google will do next. However, it’s easy to predict their motives: to provide the best search results possible. So, while Google continues to refine their ability to deliver quality search results, SEOs have improved their tactics to influence that process.

Enterprise SEO diminishes unpredictability because it combines content, technical, off-page SEO and UX improvements to deliver a better user experience. As a result, your site is less susceptible to algorithmic fluctuations.

2. SEO Leads aren’t Clear-cut

Mr. Scott also claims that it’s hard to know whether organic leads actually originated from search. For example, he states that a recommendation or even an ad could have prompted a user to search for the company online.

What he’s referencing is “keyword not provided,” Google’s successful attempt to obscure virtually all keyword data. As a result, even though we can see that a visitor originated from organic search in Google Analytics, we don’t necessarily know how they got there. Did they search “Starbucks,” or “coffee?” It’s an important difference, because one could argue that a user searching for the brand isn’t a lead that originated from search, which is Mr. Scott’s point.

However, we’re not left totally blind. We can still access valuable query data through resources like Search Console. Furthermore, the landing page gives us tremendous insight into long-tail keywords.

For example, did the above searcher enter through the homepage (starbucks.com), or an ecommerce product page (starbucks.com/coffee)?

A user searching for the brand will almost always land on the homepage. Conversely, if a user lands on a more targeted page then they likely searched for a product or service. And if it’s the page you’re targeting with an SEO strategy, then you know your efforts are working.

3. Finishing Second Place is Fine with SEM

The point here is that you don’t necessarily have to be the highest bidder to place an ad. There is plenty of ad space in the search landscape, so even if you’re the second or third highest bidder on a given keyword, you can still buy a little visibility.

But here’s the problem with that reasoning:

The search landscape is far from an even playing field. Organic listings drive 94% of the clicks on the first page of search results. On the other hand, users click on paid ads fewer than 6% of the time. That means that every paid ad is fighting for a slice of 6% of potential traffic to be had for a given keyword.

Even the fourth organic search result captures more than 6% of the search traffic for a given keyword.

4. With SEM, the Best Ad Wins

Sorry, but with SEM, the best ad settles for the largest slice of that 6% pie. According to a representative from Google, the average click-through rate of a single ad in hovers around 2%. With SEO, the best listing truly wins, garnering on up to 37 percent of search traffic depending upon the industry.

There are plenty of brands out there that will settle for a sliver of traffic, but the brands with grander ambitions set their eyes on a much bigger slice of the pie.

Okay, so I’ve rebutted each of the points made in Mr. Scott’s original article. Now, I have a few points of my own to add to the mix.

SEO vs SEM: Why SEO is Better

1. Sustainable results

SEM is a quick win, sure. You buy an ad, the ad goes up, you see ROI. SEO is a different ballgame altogether. It takes hard work and a lot of time, but the time and effort you put into it is reflected in the return you get out of it. If you rank a term organically, those results often last months, even after you stop actively working on it. With SEM, the moment you stop paying for that ad, your ROI disappears. Instantly.

2. Unlimited Opportunity

As I mentioned earlier, the opportunity presented by organic rankings vastly outweighs the opportunity available with paid search. According to another study conducted by Compete.com, distribution of clicks to paid results only creeps as high as 15%. With SEO, the opportunity available is limited only by the amount of traffic that there is to be had for a given search term.

3. Trust

Users are smart. They know which results have been earned and which ones have been purchased. In fact, banner blindness causes 9 out of 10 users scroll right past the ads without so much as a glance. Organic search results are trusted sources, quality pages that have earned their rankings and sit proudly in their respective positions in the Google SERPs. They’ve fought hard to be there, and earned the right to appear on the first page of a search result by being one of the best. Do you want your visitors to trust what you have to say? You have to earn it.

4. Ancillary Benefits

The benefits of SEO go far beyond rankings. Here are just a few reasons to invest:

  • Technical SEO delivers a better user experience for website visitors.
  • Linkbuilding outreach campaigns amplify a brand’s voice and allow it to connect with its target audience on a personal level.
  • Strategic partnerships result in brand advocates singing the praises of your products and services.
  • Backlinks can result in valuable referral traffic and conversions.
  • Social reach extends exponentially when campaigns are shared via Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
  • Your brand becomes recognizable and approachable.

There’s no end to the intangible benefits that a well-designed SEO strategy can provide.

SEM and SEO both have a place in a healthy digital marketing strategy. But when you pit them against each other, there’s a clear winner in the humble opinion of this Mr. Scott.