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SEO & SEM: How to Optimize A Holistic Search Strategy

For those in the industry, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are distinct and differentiated search strategies. Surprisingly, however, a 2018 study revealed that 58% of surveyed respondents do not recognize Google Search Ads, which appear above Organic and unpaid search results.

Further – from a business perspective, all too often, the two strategies are left to different departments or outsourced agencies – a firm that specializes in SEO, and a separate advertising agency. When SEO and SEM become siloed strategies, the processes in effect compete with each other – which leads to a lower overall search ROI than if SEO and SEM are complementing each other.

SEO & SEM Differences

Before breaking down the complementary aspects between SEO and SEM, it is important to understand the key differences. The primary, and most notable differentiator, is that SEM is of course a paid process. With SEM, and search advertising specifically, websites and specific products or services are able to be promoted through paid keyword placements, which appear above organic results on Search Engines like Google.

The SEM advertiser will have to pay each time an advertisement is clicked, while the clicks and website visits from organic listing clicks are free. Although the organic listings do not cost an organization, having high organic rankings are a longer term and more difficult process to achieve.

Correlation Between SEO & SEM: Cannibalization & Wasted Spend

In terms of revenue, and assuming the SEO and SEM departments are working separate of one another, it would be in the best interest of both the SEO team and the SEM team to drive as much revenue as possible from their respective links on search engines. With conversion and attribution reporting being able to quantify return-on-investment (ROI) from paid conversions, SEM placements often cannibalize Organic listings, and are able to take credit for conversions and revenue. From a holistic standpoint, spending additional marketing dollars to convert a customer who otherwise would have likely converted organically results in wasted spend. While it looks good for the SEM department’s ROI – it is not what is best for the organization.

Cannibalization refers to a reduction in sales volume as a result of the introduction of a new product by the same producer. In the case of SEM and SEM, Organic results (SEO) and search engine listings are often cannibalized by paid advertisements (SEM) appearing on the top of pages from the same organization. Understanding how to harmonize the two search strategies will yield the most effective overall search performance.

How To Harmonize SEO & SEM

There are instances when having multiple top-of-page listings can be beneficial for an organization. In some ultra-competitive verticals like travel, hospitality, and finance, organizations may opt to bid on their own brand name as a form of brand protection – as competitors are also vying for their branded traffic. However, having a paid ad shown for every single variation of your brand name in a search is not always recommended. The best practices and guide below will ensure SEO and SEM strategies are aligned, to maximize overall search ROI.

  • SEM should complement SEO.

SEO should target your most important keywords, and it is important to understand ranking positions. If an organization is already achieving, for example, the top organic listing for a given keyword – the SEM campaign should focus on targeting other keywords that do not yet have visibility.

An optimized SEM campaign should aim to drive highly targeted website traffic from keywords that are not generating organic results – making SEO and SEM keyword targeting complementary.

  • SEM should be intent driven & understand the user stage in the purchasing funnel

The key phrases that are being bid on in an SEM campaign should primarily be conversion driven. Spending advertising dollars on non-converting keywords is a quick and easy way to limit the ROI potential from an SEM campaign.

Utilizing negative keywords in SEM campaigns ensures that non-transactional searches for your brand or services will not trigger advertisements to appear.

As an example, say ‘Hotel XYZ’ is running paid Google Search Ads, and bidding on variations of their own brand name for increased visibility. Without negative keywords in place, Google searches like “Hotel XYZ online check-in” or “Hotel XYZ complaint department” may trigger ads to be shown to users, while the users being advertised to have no intention of making a purchase, or have already purchased.

It is also critically important to understand user intent, and the stage in the purchasing funnel a user is in when selecting complementary SEO and SEM key phrases to target. Visit this link for more information on optimizing for user intent and funnel stage.

  • Understand competition for keywords

Leveraging tools like Google keyword planner will reveal useful targeting insights, like average search volume, and competition for given keywords. Understanding which keywords have lower or higher competition will influence whether to include or exclude them from SEM campaigns, or the decision to target them through SEO.

Another useful metric to consider is keyword effectiveness index, or KEI, which is a scaled metric based on competitiveness and popularity for keywords, and how difficult it may potentially be to rank for these keywords.

When optimizing overall search strategy, targeting a variety of keywords between SEO and SEM will yield the strongest results. Understand where the best opportunity lies between SEO and SEM targeting, and always consider the competition. Remember, when bidding on keywords with high organic rankings and no SEM competition, campaign spend is wasted.

SEO and SEM Working Together

SEO and SEM are more intertwined than many think, and complementary SEO and SEM strategies ensure both processes benefit from one another. An SEM campaign that boosts visibility for keywords that are not ranking organically will allow for expanded visibility for a variety of high-value key phrases – across both paid and organic listings.

Remember that without quality website content and landing page experience, the performance of both processes will suffer. However, when building a holistic search strategy around strong and relevant content, SEO and SEM can be harmonized to get the most out of overall search performance.

Contact a member of our team here for a consultation on best practices and harmonizing SEO and SEM strategies.