SEM vs SEO – Which One First?

As the owner of a new website, you should know the importance of traffic to your site. It is to online marketing as location is to real estate. It is the only thing that matters. Why?

Because no traffic = no sales.

The million dollar question then, is which traffic generation method to use first? Search engine marketing (SEM) or search engine optimisation (SEO)?

I would strongly advocate SEM because it provides immediate feedback, and this produces many benefits as explained below.

Quick Definitions:

Just to ensure that we are all on the same page, here are the definitions used for SEM and SEO in this article.

SEM: paying for an ad listing on search engines such as Google or Bing.

SEO: ranking highly on the search engines and generating “organic” traffic. This is achieved via on site and off site optimisation.

On site optimisation requires content generation and keeping your site user friendly and search engine friendly, while off site optimisation refers to link building.


Cost Paid in the form of money Paid in the form of man hours and effort in content generation and link building
Time Frame Immediate Long term, depends on competition
Potential Problems Google disallows your ads, bans your account Google changes search algorithm and your site goes from ranking #1 to oblivion on page 10

This comparison seems to imply that

  • If you have a tight budget, you should do SEO first
  • If you have a long term plan, you can afford to do SEO first/only

That’s just simply not true. Why?

2 reasons here.

Firstly, sometimes it is just not viable for companies to engage in SEO.


To succeed at SEO, consistent effort in generating quality content is required.

And the problem with most company sites is that they lack sufficient pages of content to be able to rank highly in search engines.

Should you decide to take the time and effort in creating a content rich site then, the question you have to ask is this:

“What is the value of your time and effort? Will it produce a positive ROI? Or would it be better spent on the primary money generating activities of your business?”

Secondly, all the factors shown above are not equal, i.e. they don’t carry equal weight

The most important factor here is IMMEDIACY.

SEM Immediacy Benefit #1

Using SEM to generate traffic to your site instantly and in large amounts will provide you with data on which keywords convert and which don’t.

This is assuming you set up a proper analytics and tracking system, of course.

In business, productivity is key.

And so it is essential not to waste months and effort doing SEO for keywords that don’t convert.

For those with tight budgets, I would say money can be earned, but you cannot buy time.

Money spent testing can be earned back in greater amounts if you learn from the testing, but time and effort spend doing something that doesn’t work cannot be earned back.

SEM Immediacy Benefit #2

Benefit #2 is about generating enough traffic to your site via SEM so that you can analyse user behaviour on your site.

Which pages are they leaving from? Is your information relevant? Can users find what they want? 

With data provided by this analysis, you will be able to better optimise your site.

In other words, you will know how to

  • Set up a more effective funnel to get users to perform your desired actions
  • Know what users want and give them what them want more efficiently and effectively

The result, is increased conversion rates.

Again, this is assuming you set up proper systems to track user behaviour such as real time recordings, heat maps, feedback systems, etc.

Key Takeaway

It is essential to get traffic to your site, but it is more crucial to get (a) targeted (b) customers to your site.

Note: There are 2 ideas here.

The benefits of immediacy of SEM allows you to do just that.

Knowing which keywords convert gets you targeted customers, and optimising your site via analysing user behaviour allows you to better convert users into customers.

This is also reflected by a study by Engine Ready, an Internet marketing company, which suggests that visitors who get to retail sites through sponsored links are more likely to buy than those who click on organic results.

They also spend more – the average order of a paid linker was $11 higher, at $117.06.

The final figures, were:

Tracking Your SEM Campaigns

As mentioned earlier, SEM results must be measured, and not done blindly.

Without tracking, doing SEM is like trying to find your way out of the woods, in the dark.

Walk straight, and you see nothing about foliage enshrouded in darkness.

Turn left or right, and you can count yourself lucky not to bang into a tree.

And you dare not look back, as the howls of unknown animals and the chirping of crickets send chills down your spine.

You are stuck in the same spot, and bound for failure.

But the thing is it is so easy to call for help, as tools such as Google Analytics are free and easily within reach.

They can help you track where traffic is coming from, which pages to refine, which keywords are converting and many more.

Most importantly, with proper tracking, you are then able to optimise your ads and web pages to convert more visitors into customers/leads.

Here’s a brief video by Justin Cutroni explaining how to evaluate your AdWords campaigns, ad groups, and keywords with post-click data from Google Analytics.

If you would like to leverage on the power SEM and Google Analytics tracking to get targeted customers to your site fast, why not contact our friendly consultants to see how we can help turn your website into a sales generating machine?

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