SEO or SEM: what should I choose to grow my business?

Pablo Herrera

Pablo Herrera
Head of SEO & Content

When we are about to move forward with our company’s digital strategy, deciding whether to invest in SEO or SEM is one of the most crucial decisions we will face. Or, at least, that’s how we can perceive it.

In reality, we can achieve more or less similar results, with nuances that I will explain, with either of the two options. And, of course, as long as we can afford it and it fits with our business, the best option is to combine them.

Even so, I would like to point out that thinking that SEM brings immediate results, but more expensive, and SEO brings long-term results, is not 100% real.

A SEM strategy that works will require a planning of campaign phases that also requires a journey.

Let me explain. If you want we can start a sales-oriented SEM campaign today. And if you have enough budget you may have sales from day one. However, if you’re looking to optimise your ROI, you can’t just jump right in.

You have to find out where your customer base is, make yourself known, impact them several times, etc… until you finally move to the sales phase. This will greatly reduce your cost per click and will make you sell more for less in the medium term than if you just spend money for the sake of spending money.

With SEO something similar happens, SEO content strategy must also take into account the stages of the conversion funnel. Plus the time it takes for Google to discover you, understand your relevance and index you.

Still, when you reach a person through the organic channel it is someone who is looking for your result. Someone who has taken the initiative and you have come along to help them. However with SEM you are the one taking the initiative (more or less because if you appear in the search results you are also responding to their initiative, not if you use social ads) and that reduces the chances of conversion a bit.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Differences between SEO and SEM


Before deciding whether SEO or SEM, let’s clarify the concepts. We know SEO as organic search engine optimisation. An acronym for Search Engine Optimisation, it refers to our pages appearing in the top positions on search engines, generally Google.

Although when we talk about SEO we automatically think of Google, we cannot forget that there is SEO on Youtube, SEO on Amazon, etc… beyond other search engines with more residual searches in Spain.

This is important because you may find it more interesting to work your SEO on Amazon or YouTube than on Google depending on your type of business.

As for SEM, it stands for Search Engine Marketing, although in practice it is used to talk about ads in search results. When we talk about ads on social networks, we don’t usually talk about SEM but about social ads, as they are not search engine ads.

However, to be more practical, in this article we are going to include social ads within SEM to put online advertising on the one hand and search engine optimisation on the other.

¿Cuándo utilizar SEO?

Herramientas SEO

As an SEO specialist, I may have a weakness for this option. But if I do (and if I have ended up specialising in SEO) it is for a reason. Mainly because it is the natural source of business growth. That’s why we talk about organic SEO.

It’s organic, natural, inherent, logical and even common. It’s the natural process of a company’s growth on the internet. You grow, you become more relevant and you appear more and more in Google results.

The problem? It is not an immediate process. Especially if we start from scratch or from a poorly done job. To start getting results we need, on average, between three and six months. If we start from scratch, we can be delayed up to nine months.

(This will also depend on the budget/time/talent triomial we have, of course).

The advantage? The results are more “permanent”. Good SEO work should be continuous and should never be abandoned, even at a “maintenance” level. But, if you reach a good level of SEO, even if you completely stop the work, you will maintain results (or only slightly decrease) for quite a long time, even years, depending on how competitive your sector is.

We can make the comparison with cleaning your house. If you do a deep clean one day, you may not need to clean again for a week, but you will have to dust or clean the toilets because as long as your site is up and running, there are things that can get dirty.

Basically, the law of entropy. Every system tends to degrade. The difference with online advertising is that the moment you stop paying, you’re not going to get any results. However, in SEO, the degradation process is very slow and can take years to culminate and make us disappear from the SERPs.

SEM: faster results and better control of investment


Following on from the question about SEO or SEM, I will go on to explain what the big advantages are for me. The first is clearly speed. I have already told you that a good SEM strategy is not as fast as you might think, but it is still much faster than an SEO strategy.

It also requires less infrastructure. To do SEO you need your website, maybe a blog, maybe product cards, etc… However, you can do SEM simply with a landing page or if you are going to do social ads with a native form on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc… (In Google Ads there are also native form options, by the way).

At a production level, getting ready to launch the SEM campaign is much simpler. Then you have to complicate it with heat maps, taking into account the UX, etc… but equally these elements must also be considered when doing SEO.

On the other hand, we will have a very easy control of how much we have spent and (we should) what is the investment we have recovered. Once the campaign has had a bit of a run, we can take averages of how many leads we need per customer, what average profit we make per customer and thus know exactly how much money we can spend per lead.

In SEO we should also take into account all these indicators, the problem is that as we need more time to get used to them, it will take a lot longer to start monitoring them. But, please, monitor them, it is the only way to know if your strategy is working or not.

SEO and SEM: a necessary feedback

Velocidad de carga

I didn’t want to finish this piece without talking about what, for me, is the best option. If you can afford it (and this is very important) combining online advertising and SEO strategy will generate even better results than using it separately.

I say this is very important because if you go halves with both, you might not reach your goals. If you don’t have so many resources, it is better to focus on SEO or SEM. However, from a minimum, combining strategies will give you better results.

Always bearing in mind that it will depend on the specific casuistry of your business. But I am talking about the usual in a general way.

As the general theory of systems says, a system is more than the sum of its parts and that is exactly what happens if we combine SEO and SEM. Of course, in order to do so, you have to have the necessary resources. If we don’t have enough, it is better to focus on just one of them.

The first phases of SEM campaigns will help us to have more data about the audience that is really interested in what we offer and the organic and paid keywords research will complement each other during the whole process.

In addition, deriving SEM traffic to the pages we want to position will give us an important advantage. We will be able to start measuring on-page behaviour, dwell time, etc… for a given keyword. We and, of course, Google.

Because in organic, this is often the most complicated process. Getting it indexed, reaching a high position and Google can see that our content has quality and is of interest to the user. However, with SEM, Google will have this data in advance than if we only use SEO.

Let’s not forget the CRO

CRO Marketing

Finally, I would also like to mention another very important aspect when working with SEO and SEM. This is CRO, which stands for Conversion Rate Optimisation. Conversion rate optimisation is fundamental in SEM and, in most cases, also in SEO.

I say mostly because in SEO it does not always apply. For example, I have sometimes worked on media or outreach projects. In those cases, it wasn’t about selling anything or getting any leads, we just needed traffic. If you are only looking for traffic or brand awareness (for which you can also use paid), you don’t have to worry about CRO.

However, if you want the user who enters through your online advertising campaign or through Google to buy your product, leave you their details, download your guide or anything else, then you have to make it as easy as possible.

To do this we can do A/B testing and check if similar audiences convert more with the location of the button in a certain place, with some colours or others, etc…

CRO works as a complement that helps to get better results in our SEO and SEM strategies.

With all the machinery in place, dedicating resources and taking the work seriously, success is only a matter of time.