The SEO vs SEM showdown comes down to which search marketing strategy works best to help you secure leads for your web design or development business. Can you generate enough leads organically solely via search engine optimization? Or do you need the strength of paid search engine marketing for the knockout?
First off, let’s define some terms. SEO is Search Engine Optimization, and refers to tuning your content and website to be most relevant and attractive to search engines. SEM is Search Engine Marketing, which refers to a strategy that involves investing in advertising on search engine results pages. (SEM is also referred to as PPC, short for ‘Pay-Per-Click,’ however, that is too restrictive a term with all the options available these days.)
In both cases, the name of the game is to get visitors to your website and turn those visitors into leads who may later be converted to paying customers.
Leads are the fuel that powers a business. Every lead, no matter whether it comes in via SEO or SEM, needs nurturing to the completed sale through contact, follow-ups and follow-through.
Web designers and developers need more leads to produce more sales, just like all businesses that want to grow. The more leads you have, then the more choices you have, which will result in you being happier doing what you love to do.
It’s when you don’t have enough leads that when the troubles start.
If you don’t have enough leads (or more importantly, enough high quality leads), you may be tempted to work on projects or with clients that your gut is telling you to run away from. Let’s help you avoid this as much as possible with the help of SEO and SEM tactics.
SEO vs SEM: A quick refresher
In today’s digital world, you’ve likely had a time daily where you had a question and immediately went to Google. Why is that? Because Google helps users solve problems by serving up the best results to match their search queries.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) tactics can improve your website’s position in the organic (unpaid) search results and in the organic local maps results. In part, SEO address factors of your site’s pages like target keywords in your title tags, H1 and H2 headlines, sprinkled within the body copy with target keyword variations, and content relevancy. These SEO tactics require knowledge and manpower to implement.
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) tactics put advertising dollars behind your efforts to appear in search results. Instead of appearing in the organic results, your site appears above them as one of the four ads, or in the four below the ten organic listings:
Google AdWords advertisements are the cornerstone of SEM since they have most of the search traffic. In addition to the search results, AdWords’ Global Display Network (GDN) includes more than 2 million display network placements reaching over 90% of internet users worldwide. That’s a LOT of opportunities for your SEM efforts to reach prospective leads.
While Google handles a majority of the search queries, it’s not the only game in town. There’s also Bing, as well as a number of other search engines that are popular in other countries. We’ll talk mostly about Google in this post.
SEO for lead generation: Pros and cons
The advantage of digital marketing tactics over traditional marketing tactics is that you can directly measure most interactions with your site from different sources. Because of that, you can make changes that incrementally improve your results over time. The more resources you have to iterate on your SEO strategies, the faster you can improve.
Pros of using SEO for lead gen
- Organic rankings brings in consistent traffic.
- You can target very specific customer intent. Ideally, more specific intent will lead to more conversions. Your speed and ability to rank for target keywords depends on the quality of your content, on-page SEO elements, off-page SEO – citations & backlinks, and the level of competition for that keyword.
- You can learn SEO tactics if you are willing to put in the elbow grease. All the information you need can be found online for free.
Cons of using SEO for lead gen
- It can take anywhere from nine months to a year to rank in the top five organic results for competitive keywords.
- If you aren’t well-versed in SEO tactics or don’t feel like putting in the effort to learn, you might need to invest in hiring talent, like an SEO specialist.
- It takes time to create remarkable content, especially if your goal is to attract links from other websites.
SEM for lead generation: Pros and cons
Within Google Adwords, there are remarketing opportunities available to serve your display banner ads to the Display Network of website partnerships. Google has a 93% reach on US websites. SEM is great for lead generation — if you have the budget to invest in it.
Pros of using SEM for lead gen
- SEM (and remarketing in particular) gives you multiple chances to market to people who already know you because they have been on your site before. They’ve demonstrated an interest in your brand and are more likely to convert.
- You don’t pay unless someone clicks your ads.
- You can layer your targeting with geo-specific and demographic restraints, so you don’t display ads in locations that you won’t benefit from. (This is especially important if you choose to only work with clients in your immediate vicinity.)
Cons of using SEM for lead gen
- It can take time to ramp up for remarketing campaigns, because your site must have at least 1,000 visitors on a remarketing list before your banner ads will begin to show.
- For the search ads at the top of each search engine results page (SERP), if your industry has highly competitive keywords, then SEM gets costly, very quickly.
SEO vs SEM? Nah.
SEO and SEM are different, and can give varying results depending on your target audiences and your specific service offering. But in an ideal world, you can — and should — do both.
If potential leads visit your website via organic search results, they’ll also have the impression that you are everywhere via your SEM ads — your brand will be in multiple spots for multiple search queries.
Having said that, most web designers and developers need just enough leads flowing in to get the engine moving to book work. You can start small and work your way forward:
Start with fundamental SEO tactics
Basic SEO best practices are relatively simple to learn to implement and have a positive impact on your search ranking over time for your target keywords.
Try AdWords Express for Local Ads
AdWords Express for Local Ads is a great place to start exploring. It’s fast, affordable, and simple to set up. You are essentially skipping the line for local SEO tactics by having the opportunity to be in the few ads on top of the local search results.
Graduate to AdWords for Remarketing
AdWords for Remarketing should be next on your to-do list. Start by putting the AdWords tracking code on each page of your website. Create some simple banner ads and AdWords starts building a list of your site visitors, regardless of where they came from. If they land on any page on your site, they will get tracked. When you are ready to put some ad spend behind your remarketing campaign, you won’t have to start at zero — you can simply turn it on and start testing.
Don’t forget Local SEO
Local Search Engine Optimization can get you results within three to six months, and provide a good flow of monthly leads by being in the top three local rank positions.
Explore online display ads
Google AdWords Display Ads is where you could focus next. Choose the sites you think your target audience also visits, or even specific pages on a particular site. Limit yourself to a dozen selections and broaden your reach if there is more traffic needed. You can also target users by demographics: gender, age, household income, etc.
Try, test, repeat
SEO and SEM tactics are not disappearing any time soon, so why not use them to your advantage? There are a lot of people using search engines to look for what you have to offer, and in the area you are offering them in.
Test out the various tactics, and remember that it will take time to see results. Like most things in life, there’s no magic Easy Button to know what will bring in the most leads for your business.
Have an opinion about the SEO vs SEM smackdown? Let us know in the comments how you’ve benefitted from SEO and SEM for lead generation. We’d love to hear about your experiences!