SEM vs SEO services: which is right for your business?

8 min read
Siew Ann Tan

Regardless of what products or services you offer, having an online presence is practically a must for businesses. But if you have a website, having it listed on relevant search engine results is crucial. Many would work towards that through optimization strategies like SEO and SEM. If you want to understand what is the difference of SEM vs SEO services, read on. 

Most people turn to search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo when they’re looking for something. If your website can’t be found via a search engine search, your potential customers are likely to visit other websites instead. This means you’re missing out on website traffic and revenue, and possibly losing that to your competitors too ranked on search engine results. 

In essence, you want your website to appear on the first few results of a search engine result page. More often referred to as SERPs, these are pages which display returns after a user submits a search query. 

So how do you get your website on the search engine result pages (SERPs)? Like what was mentioned above, there are two main ways:

  1. SEO or search engine optimization
  2. SEM or search engine marketing

These two methods may sound similar, but they are worlds apart. Read on to learn how they differ from each other and which you should use for your business!

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) refers to the practice of increasing both quality and quantity of website traffic, as well as exposure to your brand through non-paid (also known as "organic") search engine results.

When you embark on SEO for your website, then you are looking to make sure it appears in SERPs when someone looks up search terms (or “keywords”) relevant to your business. 

For example, if you are operating a bakery in the Orchard Road area in Singapore, you may want to have your website rank for keywords such as:

  • bakery singapore
  • orchard road bakery
  • where to buy cakes in orchard road

The north star of a good SEO strategy is to have your website rank on the first page of Google SERP. In the long run, SEO is a great way of getting visitors to your website on “auto-pilot” without the need to pay for additional advertising. If your website ranks well for keywords relevant for your business, it brings in sustainable streams of web traffic.

This is in contrast to social media marketing, which has a shorter lifespan due to its algorithms. Investing time and effort in ensuring your website is SEO optimised will pay off in the long run. 

Types of organic search results

The variety of search result formats on Google have increased over the years. We are seeing more variations of how your website can appear on Google SERPs. Besides appearing as a regular organic search result, here are the other ways your website or content can appear on Google:

  • Knowledge Graph Panel and Knowledge Card: A knowledge graph panel is Google’s way of organizing information for users, highlighting how different entities are related to the user’s intended search. It usually occupies the largest space on top of a search result page,
  • Local search results (also known as Local 3-Pack): Have you ever tried to search for something within your locale? Whether it’s “bakery near me” or “clinics near me”, local search results prioritizes a user’s location. Regardless of whether a user included “near me” in their search query, websites which are optimized for local searches will show up in a user search within a locale. 
Example of SEO: A local 3-pack search result from Google when a user searches “bakery in Singapore”
  • Rich results and featured snippets: Going beyond displaying a link and description of your website, rich results and featured snippets display more information about your site, often sections which are highly relevant to a user’s search. Learn more about these search results here

Because these do not require payment, there is heavy competition for each of these featured spots and each requires its own strategy. Once you've mastered SEO basics, you can learn more about how to improve the chances that Google will choose your listing to feature in one of these coveted places.

Types of SEO techniques

If you’re looking for SEO services, you should be aware of these different SEO techniques. They should ideally be used together for a truly effective SEO strategy:

  • On-page SEO: Techniques you apply directly on your web pages' content to signal to search engines the keywords your website should be ranked for. This can include inserting keywords into the title, headings and body of your content.
  • Off-page SEO are techniques executed outside of your website to boost its authoritativeness. This helps your website be seen as more credible, and should be given greater visibility in search engine results. A popular off-page SEO strategy is link building. This is where you work to have many other websites (especially authoritative ones) link to yours as possible.
  • Technical SEO are techniques to improve your website’s technical performance so that search engines rank it more favourably. For example, you may add a sitemap to help search engines discover and display your web pages in the search engine results.

Editor’s Note: Check out this article for a detailed starter guide to everything you need to know about SEO!

What is SEM?

While SEO involves trying to get your webpages to appear on SERPs for free (i.e. on the “organic” listings), SEM or search engine marketing involves buying your way into the search engine results through paying for ads.

For example, here is a series of ads that appear when I do a Google search for “where to buy cakes in singapore”:

Example of SEM: Image of Google Search Ad

Why might you carry out SEM or search engine marketing? Paid search engine results can appear above organic listings. This gives you extra visibility and a higher likelihood of searchers seeing and clicking on your listing to visit your website.

It’s also a good way of driving traffic to your website in the short term, because SEO usually takes at least a few months to start generating results. As long as you’re willing to spend, you will usually be able to get some traffic to your website using SEM. It’s just a matter of whether you’re getting enough traffic and conversions to justify the cost.

SEM ad formats

SEM ads can appear in a variety of formats. Here are a few common ones from the Google Ads network:

  1. Text ads

    This is a plain text ad on the search engine results pages. For example:

    Image of plain text ad on the search engine results pages

  2. Product shopping ads

    This is a shopping ad that includes an image and product information to help viewers decide whether to check out the product being advertised. Remember the row of ads that appeared in the “where to buy cakes in Singapore” search above? Those are Product Shopping ads.

  3. Video ads

    These are ads in video form, and you’ll see most of such ads on YouTube. Here’s one selling car insurance as an example:

    Screenshot sample of SEM ads in video form in YouTube

SEO vs SEM: Which should you use for your business?

This question is frequently asked by businesses new to SEM and SEO services, and there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for all businesses. 

Personally, I’m an SEO fan. With SEO, I can utilize content to rank for relevant keywords, and generate consistent stream of traffic to my website. This frees me up to spend my time and effort on other aspects of my business.

As mentioned above however, SEO does take some time to generate results. 

This is especially if your website is new, and hasn’t built up its reputation yet. If so, you might need to wait a couple of months before your SEO efforts start to bear fruit.

Hence, my recommendation is that once you’ve launched your website, you should start working on your SEO first. If you are planning to outsource this work, look into SEO services as soon as you launch you website. 

But at the same time, you can also consider investing in SEM or search engine marketing if you have the budget for it.

This way, you can drive short-term traffic to your website while your website is still building its authority. Once your SEO efforts have taken off, gradually reduce SEM spend and focus on creating content favoured by search engines.

This is my personal take on the SEO vs SEM debate, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Feel free to experiment with both to see which works for your business. It could turn out to be SEO, SEM or a combination of both.

Editor’s note: Got questions about putting your idea online? Get instant answers on GoDaddy Asia Facebook Messenger now.