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SEO Vs. SEM: Are You Investing, or Just Paying Rent?

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SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM (Search Engine Marketing) are two of the most successful forms of online marketing. But while many companies have embraced SEM campaigns such as Google’s Adwords program, SEO remains shrouded in mystery for most. The main benefits of SEO and SEM are well-known:

  • Increased Website traffic
  • Increased Brand Awareness
  • Increased Sales

But SEO offers unique benefits in addition to those offered by SEM. In this article I’ll describe the unique benefits of SEO, compare them to SEM, and make the case for why SEO is more valuable, profitable, and sustainable.

Are you building up equity, or just paying rent?

A Website is a lot like real estate, and SEO is a lot like building equity in your property. In fact, I like to call SEO “Google Equity” because it really is the process of building up your value & trust in the eyes of Google (and other search engines, too). For every dollar you spend on SEO, you build up long-term value, just like paying a mortgage when you buy real-estate.

In contrast, SEM is a lot like renting a house. You pay to rent ad space in order to get traffic NOW, delivering short-term benefits only, with no long-term benefits. It’s like paying rent for the short-term benefit of living there now, but those dollars are not building you any sort of long-term equity in the house.

SEO Benefit #1: The gift that keeps on giving

Perhaps the biggest unique benefit of SEO is the fact that your efforts in the past never stop providing benefits in the future. A good SEO campaign focuses on building links to your Website, because one factor of SEO is your Website’s inbound link profile, which is the comprehensive picture of all the places on the Web that link to your Website, along with various factors related to those links, such as anchor text, link source, etc. When a search engine calculates your rankings in the SERPs, it looks at your inbound link profile as part of the determining algorithm. It considers many details of this profile, one of which is the age of the links contained within. Are there links that have been “live” for a long time? How long? The more, the better. So, dollars spent on SEO result in short-term as well as long-term benefits.

This differs greatly from SEM because SEM does not build any links to your Website. If you’re running a Google Adwords campaign, your Website will have links that appear in the sidebar of Google’s search results page, as well as contextual links appearing across Google’s opt-in advertiser network (Google’s Adsense program), but these links are advertiser links, and aren’t counted in your inbound link profile. When you turn off your SEM campaign, all the links disappear, and no benefits remain.

SEO Benefit #2: By strengthening yourself, you weaken the competition

The second unique benefit of SEO is that it can actually decrease sales for your competitors at the same time as it increases your sales. Consider, for example, that you’re trying to rank well for a keyword, but your main competitor ranks #1 for it in the SERPs. You initiate an SEO campaign, and within several months, you overtake your competitor for the #1 spot. You reap the benefits of a flood of new, targeted traffic coming in to your Website, but do you realize that you have also significantly decreased your competitor’s traffic for that keyword?

We know from a Cornell University study that the #1 search result in Google gets about 56.36% of the total clicks. The #2 search result gets about 13.45%. So by overtaking your competitor and pushing them down in the rankings, you significantly decrease their traffic for your target keyword. You effectively siphon their traffic (read: revenue) stream away from them and give it to your own business. By strengthening yourself, you weaken the competition.

This contrasts from SEM because SEM doesn’t harm your competitors. With SEM, you simply share ad space with your competitors.

SEO Benefit #3: Non-search engine traffic adds up

The third unique benefit of SEO is the incremental traffic gains you’ll see as a result of your SEO linkbuilding campaign. Popular, highly-trafficked websites such as EzineArticles.com and Buzzle.com are often used for linkbuilding in an SEO campaign. Each of these Websites get millions of visitors per year, and many of these visitors will click through to your Website (via the link from the linkbuilding campaign) without ever touching the search engines, and you won’t pay a dime for it.

This differs from SEM because all visitors to your Website will come from commercial ad placements in either the search engines or opt-in advertisers on the advertising network, and you’ll be charged for each click on your ad. There is no residual, free traffic.

SEO and SEM are both highly effective online marketing strategies. But once the shroud of mystery is removed from SEO and its benefits become clear, it’s easy to see why I believe SEO is the king of online marketing strategies. SEM has its place in the world of online marketing, but SEO should be every company’s top internet marketing priority.

Invest in your property. If you’re not doing SEO, you’re only paying rent.

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Jayson DeMers

Jayson DeMers is the Founder & CEO of AudienceBloom. You can contact him on LinkedIn, Google+, or Twitter.

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