SEO vs SEM (PPC): Which Is Better?

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Don’t you hate it when someone answers a question with “It depends”? I promise I won’t do that to you in this post, which addresses the classic question of which side of the Google Search behemoth to tackle – organic or paid.

The question is actually quite similar to another age-old question around home ownership: is it better to rent or buy? But before I explain how, let’s just define our terms. SEO is the art of getting a website to appear at the top of the organic, or natural search results. SEM (aka PPC) is participation in a paid advertising program that places your website alongside the natural search results. The most popular advertising program for SEM is Google Adwords.

If you participate in an SEM program like Google Adwords, you’ll typically pay a set amount ($1 – $200) every time a searcher clicks on your ad. With SEO, there is no cost when searchers click on your website; the entire cost is in building up good content and links in order to rank highly in the natural results.

Now back to our analogy. SEM is like renting a house and SEO is like buying one. I’ll save you the suspense and tell you that I’m a believer in home ownership and therefore I prefer SEO to SEM. But I promise not to let my preference for SEO over SEM influence my objectivity in this post.

The reason SEM is like renting a house is that, when you rent, the place where you live is only yours for as long as you pay the landlord. The moment you lose the desire or ability to do so, you lose your home. In other words, you’re always at the mercy of the owner, who is motivated by getting paid the most they can get. SEM is exactly the same way. Google owns the world’s most popular search engine and, if you participate in Google Adwords, you are renting prime space around those search results.

On the other hand, if you invest in SEO, you are investing in yourself, much like buying a house. By building up your website’s content, brand, and visibility and therefore making your website exceptionally valuable to visitors, you’ll be earning your way to the top of the natural search results. Ranking well in the natural search results is crucial because many people skip the ads and go right to the natural results. For that reason, SEO seems like the obvious better choice for a long term investment. Build a sturdy house and it will stand strong (albeit with the need for repairs every now and then), reaping you economic rewards for years to come.

So, why do people rent? I would know – my wife and I rented in San Francisco for years. The reason we rented is because we were new to the city and wanted to try living in different neighborhoods before committing to one. Similarly, SEM allows you to experiment with ranking for many different keywords without having to commit to any of them.

Let’s look at an example. Say you’re a candy wholesaler and you have a hunch that your best keyword is simply “candy wholesaler.” Seems logical, but how do you know for sure? Maybe a better keyword would be “buy candy in bulk” or “wholesale candy.” With SEM, you can try them all. Within an hour, you can see what it feels like to rank at the top of the Google results (above or alongside the natural results) for all three keywords. Based on how much business you get from each one, you can decide which one to invest in more heavily in the future. You can also try out longer tail keywords like “wholesale swirl lollipops” and “wholesale caramel chews.”

Once you have a good understanding of the keywords that bring in the most revenue, it makes sense to invest in an SEO-optimized website, thought leadership content, and link outreach that will earn you a permanent spot at the top of the results for those keywords. But there will always be some keywords your site doesn’t rank for, no matter how good your SEO program is. That’s why SEM can be valuable as a supplement to your SEO program even over the long term. In the same way that vacation rentals are convenient because you can experience the feeling of living somewhere else just for a weekend, SEM is convenient because you can experience getting traffic for new long tail keywords just for a day, week, or more.

And so, my personal conclusion in the battle between SEO and PPC is that SEO is the better long term investment; but for experimentation, short term marketing plays, or if you simply aren’t sure how to do SEO effectively, SEM is a good bet.

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