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4 Reasons SEO is Better than SEM: Brent David Scott vs. David T. Scott

Insights June 23, 2014

Recently, I read an article by a man whose credentials are far more impressive than mine, on a publication far more respected than one I’m ever likely to write on. The author of this article has served as CMO and Head of Marketing for Fortune 500 companies and billion-dollar organizations, and founded a successful marketing company of his own. It’s clear that he’s an experienced and knowledgeable professional in the marketing field, so it surprised me how much I found myself disagreeing with almost everything he had to say, and it occurred to me how tragically misunderstood SEO continues to be even in our modern, optimized world.

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), 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. Two different means to the same end: getting more visitors to your website. So, which approach is better? That Mr. Scott argues SEM is the more effective option, while this Mr. Scott stands by SEO. So, in this response to the aforementioned article, I’ll address each of the points made and offer four more of my own. Ding ding.

4 Reasons SEM is Better than SEO

  1. SEO is unpredictable

Mr. Scott argues that due to the volatile nature of organic search, with frequent and game-changing algorithm updates and the underlying uncertainty that the work you put in will even one day be rewarded, SEO is an unpredictable and unreliable method when compared with the relative straightforwardness of SEM. While his point about the volatility of organic search is true, I would argue that SEO isn’t altogether unpredictable. While it may be difficult or even impossible to anticipate many of Google’s “next moves,” it is easy to predict their motives: to provide the best search results possible. So, while Google has consistently improved their methods for determining the quality of a potential search result, SEOs have improved their tactics for influencing this process. Bad SEO is about tricking search engines into thinking a page is the best result. Good SEO is about creating a page that is the best result, and helping search engines understand why.

  1. Leads via SEO aren’t clear-cut

Mr. Scott uses the example that even if you manage to rank your site well enough that a user clicks through from a search result page, it’s difficult to quantify whether or not that lead originated from search or perhaps from a recommendation from a friend, or even from an ad that prompted them to search for the company online. What he’s getting at is “not provided,” Google’s successful attempt to obscure virtually all keyword data from organic search, meaning that even though we can see that a visitor came through to the site from organic search, we don’t necessarily know how they got there. Did they Google “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, because consulting additional resources like Webmaster tools allows us to access some additional query data.  Furthermore, we can also see where the visitor entered the site, which gives us tremendous insight into how they got there. For example, did the above searcher enter here?

Or here?

A user searching for the brand will almost always land on the homepage, while a user searching for a product or service will land on a more targeted page. And if it’s the page you’re actively trying to influence in the SERPS via an SEO strategy, than you know your efforts are working.

  1. 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. A very important point that is left out, however, is that the search landscape is far from an even playing field. According to one 2012 study, about 94% of search traffic occurs from the organic results, while 6% occurs in the paid results. That means that every paid ad is fighting for a slice of 6% of the potential traffic to be had for a given keyword. Conversely, on average, the 5th organic result will also capture about 6% of the search traffic for a given keyword. That means that you could rank as low as number 5 in the organic results and still capture more traffic than every single paid ad combined.

  1. With SEM, the best ad wins

Sorry, but with SEM, the best ad settles for the largest slice of 6% of potential search traffic.  According to a representative from Google quoted in this article on Search Engine Roundtable, while the distribution of clicks to the paid search results as a whole hovers around 6%, the average click-through rate of a single ad in particular is more like 2%, while a particularly great ad might achieve double digits.  With SEO, the best site truly wins, garnering on average between 30 and 40 percent of search traffic, consistently well into the double digits. There are brands out there that will settle for a slice of 6%, 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.

4 Reasons SEO is Better than SEM

  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.

  1. 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, 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.

  1. Trust

It’s 2014. Users are smart, and they know which results have been earned and which ones have been purchased. There’s a reason 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 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.

  1. Ancillary Benefits

There’s a lot that goes into earning trust, but luckily the work that it requires provides benefits of its own. On page improvements result in a better user experience for visitors who come to your site. Outreach campaigns for the purpose of building links amplify a brand’s voice and allow it to connect with its target audience on a personal level. The relationships built between the brand and the influencers in a target community result in brand advocates singing the praises of your products and services. Links built as a result of these campaigns send referral traffic to your site. Social reach extends exponentially when campaigns are shared via Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Your brand becomes recognizable and approachable. There is no end to the intangible benefits that a well-designed SEO strategy can provide.

There’s no doubt that SEM and SEO both have a place in a healthy digital marketing strategy. Both have their own sets of strengths and challenges. But when you pit them against each other, there’s a clear winner in the humble opinion of this Mr. Scott.

  • Joseph Torrillo

    ROI: ROI has the potential to continuously improve when visibility is residually earned across extended search queries at no extra cost. The same improvement in ROI is not possible with paid campaigns that inevitably cost more to expand or include additional keyword variations in an effort to reach a larger target audience and earn greater click volume/distribution.

    Uncertainty: Uncertainty is inherent in paid ads, whereas users that opt to leverage the “display network” don’t really have any way of knowing exactly when/where their ad will show or why it got clicked.

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