SEO versus SEM: the differences between two complementary web strategies

SEO vs Google Adwords: Keywords and their use.

In SEO as in SEM, keyword research is a crucial step in ensuring the performance of a digital strategy on search engines. However, they each have their own distinctive features and uses. For some companies, SEO will be the best option, while SEM will be recommended for others. But these two strategies remain complementary and can be powerful when combined, allowing you to stand out from the competition by appearing in the first results of the SERP (Search Engine Result Page).


What is SEO?

SEO or Search Engine Optimization represent different strategies used to rank a given website as high as possible on search engine (Google, Bing, etc.) organically. Like SEM, it increases your online visibility and therefore allows you to find more potential customers than if you would rank on the third or fourth page. There are three components to SEO: on-page and content, technical, and off-page.

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The content

Choosing the right keywords to integrate into your website is then very important, because good management of the semantics used in your web content will indicate to Google that your site is the most relevant option to present to users and will help to be recognized as a reference in your field. It is therefore a question of working on the texts, titles and other components of your pages (Hn tags) to enrich the content. We tend to say that content is king when it comes to SEO. But there is more !


Technical SEO

You will also need to focus on working on the technical side of your website. Which provide double the benefit: A site that loads faster will have a better bounce rate and potentially higher rankings, as search engines, such as Google, favor sites that load quickly.


Off-page and Backlinking

Finally, the last step that will make the difference, an off-page or backlinking strategy can also have a positive effect. It will then be necessary to obtain relevant links pointing to your site (backlinking) from trusted external sites having an authority already established in the eyes of Google.

The alchemy between these 3 components (on-page and content, technique, off-page) will then allow you to hope for a solid organic ranking. It is the best investment to make in the long run (the results are generally visible in a period of 3 to 6 months) to make a difference and get more prospects.

Little joke that turns in the world of SEO: “If you have something to hide, put it on the third page of Google”.


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What is SEM?

When we talk about SEM or Search Engine Marketing, we are referring to buying keywords on search engines in the form of an auction (with Google Adwords), which will usually place your brand in the three to four first paid results, in the form of ads (before organic rankings).

The search engine will display a personalized ad as soon as a user enters the keyword on which you have bet. Advertisers therefore pay most often according to the number of clicks that lead a potential customer to their site. This tactic gives an opportunity to take advantage of the competition by increasing visibility much faster than SEO, but also much more precisely.

You will also have the possibility, in your SEM strategy, to target a much more precise audience than SEO by choosing to address a certain type of people in a specific geographical area for example.

SEM is ultimately, like SEO, finding the right keywords that will target the right audience. But one wonders how different their strategy and use are?

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Keyword research strategies


Ranking on the right keywords

Your website is built from different elements that make up its structure. Some of them will become more important than others in the hierarchy of your website and therefore in the search engines ranking. SEO content optimization will consist of integrating the keywords on which you want to rank for in these essential elements.


Title tags (or Meta titles) and meta descriptions

Among these elements, we can distinguish Meta Titles and meta descriptions, which will respectively be the title and description of the website which will appear in the search result page. Headlines and Titles are the titles of your pages and of your content sections. Search engines also take into account bold (strong HTML tag), italics (em tag), image descriptions (alt tag) and URLs.


Identify Keywords

First, identify the keywords that are relevant to your business and to your web visitors. Think about the words that your potential customers would be likely to use to find the products or services that you offer.

It will then be necessary to make a selection to use the keywords that the user is actually going to search for, and not to use keywords based on assumptions and thoughts. For this, we need to use a keyword research and SEO optimization tool such as Semrush, which will give us the search volumes of a specific search term (per month) and the level of competition. We will have to find a good balance between the two to be able to position ourselves on a keyword with enough search volume, but not yet saturated by competition, leaving us more likely to appear quickly on this search term.


Website structure

Do the following exercise while also thinking about the structure of your site, having a theme per product or service page and therefore keywords associated with each of these different pages. It is recommended to make one page per service, one page per product, one page per blog post, etc. In short, a theme = a dedicated page. In 2020, we must have rich content with as many pages as possible (avoid one pagers that are difficult to position from an SEO point of view).


Keyword Length

Next, try to find the right relationship between long tail keywords (made up of several terms) and more generic ones (short tail). Generic keywords will bring traffic volume while longer tail words will have higher conversion potential despite lower volume.

For example, if we take the following keywords:

“Mattress for sale” (short tail or generic)

“60 inch queen latex mattress for sale” (long tail)

It is obvious that in the first case, the potential visitor wishes to shop for a mattress, but it is highly possible that its purchase intention is not yet clear. This is the so-called research phase.

In the second case, on the other hand, the purchase intention is much clearer: the potential visitor already knows what he wants, he knows the characteristics of the product he needs. Either way, that searches are likely to result in a visit, but it’s a safe bet that a precise search will convert much better.


Identifying lexical field keywords

Another important step: find all the words in the lexical field that could also fit in the search terms. For example, have all the words in the lexical field of the chair (cushion, wood, leg, etc.). This allows you to position yourself on a maximum of alternative search while helping Google and other search engines to better identify the theme of your page. If these alternative words are also products of your other pages, feel free to bold them and link them to these pages. This will have the effect of solidifying what is called your “internal linking”, which is all the internal links between each of your pages.


Linking between pages (interlinking)

A good interlinking will have positive effects for your SEO: easier search engines indexing, optimized bounce rate. This is because your visitors will be less likely to leave your site directly after viewing a page if you suggest other pages in the body of your content.

Good to know: don’t overdo it, keep in mind that the content must remain high quality, beware of keyword stuffing (use too many / over-optimize the keywords). Instead, find the right balance between inserting keywords and staying clear and informative. Also avoid black hat SEO practices, such as inserting white keywords on a white background to influence Google bots while invisible to users. This will have a negative impact since the algorithm will penalize you sooner or later.

In 2020, the key to good SEO is: quality and expertise. Always work to provide high quality, well-structured content, and position yourself as a trusted expert in your field. Keep an eye on your competition, and always have the will to do better than them. The effort will definitely pay off in the end.

Finally, keep in mind that SEO is a long-term endeavor, leave your keywords in place for at least 6 months to give enough time to position themselves and you will probably see an improvement. Otherwise, if the test proves to be unsuccessful it will be time to change strategy.


Find keywords for SEM

When creating a keyword structure for paid search engine strategies, start as with SEO, with a first draft of keyword ideas that could be linked to the services or products you sell, whatever comes to your mind that could potentially be a search for your customers.

Google provides within its campaign creation platform the Keyword planner tool directly to help us find keyword ideas from a list (your first idea stream). There we can get information like search volume per month, competition level, and the approximate cost per click we can expect for each particular term (does that remind you of anything?). This tool can help us find the right terms, but also get new ideas. Try to select the keywords that make the most sense based on the data provided by the Keyword Planner.

Google Trends is also a good tool to compare two keywords to find out which one has the most search volume and therefore find out which you should prioritize or for which it would be interesting to create an adgroup.

You should also try to research directly on the search engine you are advertising on, to see what types of businesses appear or if there is market share to be seized because there is no competition.

The auction system works with a quality score which is calculated by combining the maximum amount of the cost per click that we are willing to pay, the expected click rate, the quality and relevance of the ad, but also the page of destination. The higher the score, the more likely you are to display your ads at a good price.

It is therefore important that the keywords you use are found on the landing page to which you redirect the user according to the targeted keyword, but also in the ad you are going to create (keep in mind for SEM / SEO complementarity).

This is where ad groups come in and become very useful for returning a number of keywords to a specific page while also referring others to another page (service, different products on different pages).

After you’ve found all of your keywords, you’re going to need to decide what types of keyword matches you’re going to use. There are 4 of them: broad match, modified broad match, phrase match and exact match, each one with its own particularity and giving you the opportunity to target your audience more broadly or more precisely. Avoid using keywords that are too broad which could lead to irrelevant queries.

Finally, one last element remains significant in the implementation of an SEM campaign, negative keywords. Indeed, you would not want to appear on keywords that are similar to relevant ones, but that have no connection with your business. By excluding these keywords, you ensure that you won’t pay for unnecessary and unqualified clicks. By doing your keyword planner research, you may be presented with new ideas. If you are an lawyer, you will want to remove all terms like “study”, “salary”, “free”, etc.


Are SEO and SEM complementary?

Choosing one method over another depends on many factors regarding on your immediate and long-term needs. However, bringing these two strategies together could be of great benefit to your online business.

SEO, by adding rich and relevant content using specific keywords, will help increase the quality score of your ads on Google. The keywords you bet on in paid search will also be part of your site, telling Google that you are giving your users a better experience. It will then reward you by lowering your costs.

The SEO will greatly increase your traffic, which will allow you to go retarget more people who would not convert on your site at first but would eventually convert thanks to Google Ads remarketing campaigns. (This also applies to other web marketing initiatives).

Subsequently, the SEM can secure you by always appearing in the first results to position you against your competition while a good SEO will allow you to obtain traffic even from people with an ad blocker or who refrain from clicking on ads, but also when your daily Google Ads budget is spent.

Finally, the SEM will increase your visibility while waiting for the implementation of your SEO strategy to bear fruit and position you higher in the search results. There is no need to work on the content and the results are immediate.


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If you need assistance in the implementation of your Web strategy, do not hesitate to contact our team of experts.

Article written in collaboration with Julien CAPUANO, SEO Specialist at Rablab.

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