I often wonder if marketing professionals who have spent their entire careers marketing larger businesses with much larger budgets understand the unique challenges small business owners and their marketers face on a daily basis. Anyone who has spent time in small business marketing knows the common theme, “How do we get more from less?” The answer lies in creative thinking.
I have seen executives from larger corporations struggle to make small business campaigns profitable because they tried to apply theories that work within large corporations to small business strategy. They returned to work for large corporations. Small business marketing is its own animal.
While companies with larger budgets cover the gamut of marketing and are faced with how many tens to hundreds of thousands to invest in everything, small business owners and marketers are faced with the challenge of deciding between marketing tactics in their efforts to achieve the greatest return on their much smaller investment.
While the use of social media has exploded in the small business arena, SEO and SEM continue to dominate social media in most performance metrics. I will touch on social media advertising in this blog post, but its focus is mostly on the advantages and disadvantages of SEO and SEM, when it is best to use one or the other, and the advantages of using both simultaneously.
What Are Some of the Benefits to Using SEM Versus SEO?
Understanding the Rate of Return Using SEM
The majority of marketers would agree that one of the advantages of SEM is that it produces results more quickly than SEO. My experience has taught me that the extent to which that is true depends on who manages the campaigns and their approach to campaign management.
Campaigns that are managed in-house give a business complete control over the amount of work that is invested upfront to ensure the campaigns perform quickly. Most in-house campaign managers have an aggressive approach because they are not juggling as many projects for as many companies. Campaign management that is outsourced leaves the allocation of work up to the SEM provider. If the provider does not offer a dedicated resource, then they may distribute their work over longer periods of time. That is why it is important to consider whether or not to outsource SEM as well as the approaches of the service providers that are being considered.
I have managed SEM for employers and for my own clientele. My approach has always been to frontload the work to set up the campaigns. Then I would shift my focus to analyzing campaign performance, discussing reports with clients, and making necessary adjustments to improve the campaign. I also implemented ROI attribution systems, which allowed me to prove their impact on revenue. This approach helped me to utilize the advantages that SEM has over SEO.
I have also worked for an agency where I was responsible for selling, creating and implementing SEM campaigns for specific clients. The campaigns I implemented produced quickly. Some of which outperformed campaigns created by a previous agency that specializes in the client’s industry.
This goes to show that it is not always faster or better to go with an agency that specializes in a specific industry. I have managed campaigns across multiple competitive industries and produced quickly. A certification wasn’t necessary. I knew enough about SEM to quickly pick up any changes in the Google Ads platform, to build campaigns properly and to implement them effectively. My approach? I frontloaded the work. There were some long hours, but they paid off.
I later worked with agencies where I did not manage the campaigns. One of which distributed the campaign set up process across the first one or two months. They took time to get the campaigns up and running and that impacted the speed at which the campaigns produced a return on their investment.
There are a few considerations to be made in their defense. The first consideration is that their campaign managers were competent and produced jaw dropping results for many clients. The second consideration is that the campaign managers were managing a lot of accounts. Another consideration is that some of the campaigns they managed were for companies that had the budget and patience that complemented the agency’s approach. Where this approach caused issues was with smaller companies who sought all of the advantages of SEM, had smaller budgets and expected fast results.
Often, we inherited existing campaigns that allowed for slightly faster implementation. Pre-existing data is always an advantage, but we did not always inherit properly built negative keyword lists, campaign extensions, conversion tracking and properly structured campaigns. That meant we still had to create campaigns from scratch and needed to run them for a certain amount of time to gain insights on these new campaigns. As a result, it took some time for these campaigns to generate a positive return–especially considering we did not frontload a lot of the work to get the campaigns up and running.
Campaign Control Using SEM
An additional advantage of using SEM is that campaign managers have more control over certain aspects of the campaigns. A couple examples include the ability to geo target and the ability to turn campaigns on and off.
If it is important to be sure that advertisements only occur in specific geographic areas, SEM may be the better choice. Geographic targeting increases budget efficiency and prevents a sales staff from having to field leads from outside of the targeted geographic areas.
The ability to turn SEM campaigns on and off is especially helpful for businesses that run seasonal campaigns, sales events or they want to advertise current specials. I have worked with businesses who effectively ran various types of temporary SEM campaigns alongside ongoing SEM campaigns. The ability to pause and launch campaigns quickly provides flexibility that SEO does not. Remember, it is important to consider the time it takes for campaigns that have been restarted to produce results. Campaigns should be launched no later than one week before they are expected to produce results.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Using SEO Versus SEM?
The 65% Rule of SEO
The advantages of SEO become evident when a keyword phrase is ranked within the top three positions on the search engine results pages (SERPs). If there is a healthy search volume for a targeted keyword phrase, SEO typically outperforms all other methodologies of digital marketing. Ruler, a reputable ROI attribution company for larger businesses, produced a blog post on the medical field industry stating SEO yields a %14.6 close rate versus a %5.1 close rate average for paid SEM. There are multiple industry reports that agree with this statement.
If the URL ranks outside of the top three positions on the SERPs for a specific keyword phrase, the results can be much different. I have remained proactive across all disciplines by participating in webinars, conducting research, and taking relevant courses. The courses I have taken have covered various topics including Google Ads, SEO, social media advertising, project management, and programmatic display advertising.
A graph was presented during one of the SEO courses I completed that illustrated the significance of ranking within the top three positions. The graph depicted the correlation between position and website traffic, with a sharp decline in traffic for websites ranked outside the top three positions on the SERPs. This course also explained the 65% rule. The 65% rule is based on data that suggests that a URL ranking in the top three positions on SERPs for a keyword phrase will receive 65% of the search traffic. Take a keyword phrase that receives 1,000 monthly searches for example. By targeting and ranking in the top three for that keyword phrase, the 65% rule indicates that a website will receive approximately 650 visits in that month.
The Cost Versus Benefit of SEO
SEO is also said to be more cost effective over the long-run. If SEO is managed in-house, the only real cost is the labor it takes to achieve these results along with some occasional backlinks in various forms. The advantage to an in-house SEO campaign manager is that they will be working full-time and be able to produce results more quickly. The downside is that it costs more than 10K a month for a competent full-time SEO expert. That is why most small businesses outsource their SEO.
If the SEO management is outsourced, it should not take more than $1,500 a month to achieve top three rankings for a keyword within four to six months (sometimes sooner). Much of that depends on the competition for that keyword phrase. A good SEO campaign manager will help to identify which keyword phrases should be targeted initially to achieve an ROI more quickly.
My experience is that keyword phrases in competitive industries that receive 1000 or more searches typically cost no less than $5 per click on average. That means an equivalent SEM budget would only yield 300 website visits for the same $1500 budget that would yield approximately 650 website visits in SEO. Also, who is to say some of the 300 clicks on paid ads are all unique visitors? Advantage SEO.
Ranking for Multiple Keyword Phrases
I mentioned ranking in the top three for one keyword using SEO in a conservative effort to establish a point. It is important to consider that campaign managers typically achieve top rankings for multiple keyword phrases in the same effort. This occurs when they create content for a website that incorporates multiple relative keywords throughout that content. Consequently, skillful SEO can attract more visitors from multiple keywords in the same effort and budget.
Ranking for multiple keywords also boosts the overall authority of a website which makes it easier to rank for other relative keyword phrases. Once top rankings are achieved for these keyword phrases, campaign managers can pivot and focus on ranking for other keyword phrases and place less emphasis on already top ranked URLs.
SEO Can Fuel Other Digital Marketing Efforts
There are a lot of benefits to SEO, and that is why it is so popular. Depending on how far a company takes their SEO efforts, a business can also benefit other areas of digital marketing.
SEO is typically driven by producing frequent content. There is on-page, off-page and technical SEO, but rarely does any of that produce results without some level of new and relevant content. While this content benefits SEO efforts, it also makes for valuable social media and email marketing content. This same content can be shared across social media to engage social media networks. The social signals surrounding this content benefits SEO. This practice also will amplify the blog’s reach, boost brand awareness and generate newsletter signups for those who would like to ensure they receive the new content via email. All of the above increases touch points and website visits.
SEO Has a Longer Shelf Life
It is best practice to continually invest in SEO on a monthly basis. The reality is that is not always possible for small businesses. Another small benefit to SEO is that it usually takes over a month or two before any significant slides in rankings occur. Just remember, it takes just as much time, if not more, to improve rankings. That is why I consider this a small benefit.
What Are Some of the Disadvantages of Using SEM Versus SEO?
The Cost Versus Benefit of SEM
While working in behavioral health, I successfully achieved multiple national rankings for a chronic pain and addiction treatment center. Their website received a significant amount of relative traffic, resulting in a high influx of phone calls. I also managed their SEM and proved its effectiveness by collaborating with the CFO of that company to compare revenue trends with ad spend trends. There was a direct correlation between the influx in revenue and influx in ad spend, as the ad spend varied depending on monthly instruction I received from the CEO.
The catch was that it took a $10,000 budget or more to produce significant results. That was more than my salary at the time. That amount may not seem like much to companies with larger budgets, but a monthly budget of that size for one marketing tactic can certainly intimidate small business owners.
Anomalies That Eat Up an SEM Budget
There are other challenges in healthcare such as targeting individuals with specific insurance. There was very little in the way of targeting insurance specific searches for their services at that time. SEM runs the risk of generating a lot of clicks on ads from individuals who are not covered by specific insurance providers. That eats up the budget, stops the ads and leaves out potentially qualified candidates.
SEM Can Require an Ad Spend and a Management Fee
I was managing those campaigns in-house. Another aspect to consider is the management fee involved when outsourcing. I used a previous example when outlining the advantages of SEO where I discussed that effective SEO should rank a website for a keyword phrase that is searched for +1000 times per month for an outsourced monthly budget of $1,500. Take out the fact that the same effort should improve rankings for other keyword phrases. If this sole achievement is realized, that achievement should generate 650 website visits based on the 65% rule. From my experience, most keywords phrases that achieve that level of search volume average a minimum of $5 per click. If you add a $1000 service fee for SEM on top of the $1500 monthly ad spend, that would result in 300 website visits per month vs. 650 for $2500 vs. $1500.
SEM and Average Click-through Rates
The click-through-rate (CTR) of top paid ad listings can be anywhere from five to twenty times less than the top three organic listings on Google. Reports may vary from industry to industry, but my experience tells me that PPC ads typically do not have the same CTR as the top three organic listings. Consumers consider that paid ads are sponsored and are becoming more discerning in their decision making when researching online. Searchers tend to click on organic listings, especially when looking for local establishments or businesses. Google Business listings are often clicked on before paid ads as well.
What Are Some of the Disadvantages of Using SEO Versus SEM?
The Rate of Return When Using SEO
SEO results typically do not occur within 2 months and often not for 3-4 months. It can take longer than that depending on a number of factors such as the amount of work that is performed per month, pre-existing rankings, market competition and whether or not the campaigns are meant to reach a local or national market. While the approach to SEO is just as impactful on its rate of return as it is with SEM, it is uncommon to see significant results within two months. At the ad agency where I worked and managed SEM campaigns, we would produce two to four blog posts, create backlinks, manage citations, and optimize on-page content each month for key clients who had local markets. The SEM campaigns outperformed the SEO campaigns until month four. We charged the same amount for both services.
The Limited Control SEO Presents
I implemented a comprehensive digital marketing program for one of my personal clients that included the three most popular digital marketing tactics: SEM, SEO and social media advertising. This campaign achieved over 300% more business in their first summer than they had throughout over 40 years in business. What’s the catch? They were only able to provide service to their specific geographic region.
SEO does not allow for geographic specific targeting, unless the strategy is to target location specific keyword phrases only. That approach is not typically recommended as it limits websites from ranking for keyword phrases that do not include a geographic indicator. The result? Lost opportunity. They already owned the geographic specific keywords, and there was a large market for non-geographic specific keywords that they had not capitalized on. So, I targeted those keywords. My SEO was so successful that they ranked third nationally for one of the top keyword phrases in their industry. That unfortunately meant that they were overwhelmed with phone calls that they couldn’t handle effectively. They simply did not want to address those calls.
It was an intriguing situation as it was one of my most significant achievements using SEO. It created pain points that I now consider when I approach any digital marketing strategy. If the business only serves a specific geographic area, receiving calls from outside that area can be problematic. Even though SEO may generate more revenue, the time and effort required to handle or field calls from all over the nation may not be desirable to the business stakeholders.
What Are Some of the Benefits of Using SEM and SEO Together?
SEM & SEO Versus Social Media Advertising
Many of the businesses I have worked with generally have invested in both SEM and SEO for the unique benefits of each, as well as the additional benefits that using both presents. They trusted in my guidance, and they benefited from that trust.
It wasn’t until later in my career where I held a role serving a plethora of businesses that utilized one service or the other. It is understandable for small businesses that have limited budgets. They have to start somewhere. I was not the campaign manager on these accounts, nor was I included in the sales efforts for these clients. I was a part of at least one conversation with a key client that resulted in adding SEO to their efforts, but those discussions had only begun when our in-house agency was laid off. Some of the clients invested in social media management, but did not invest in our SEM or SEO services.
I am a believer in social media for the right fit, but I was surprised to see some of these businesses investing in organic social media management versus SEM and SEO. Social media is typically most effective for branding and/or for advertising products or services that appeal to the masses.
A newly opened restaurant can benefit from advertising on social media to reach a broad audience. Car insurance is another example of a service that appeals to everyone. I had a discussion with an insurance broker who is very successful using social media.
Companies that sell services or products that do not appeal to the masses might not find the same benefit. Expensive products and services are also more fitting for SEO and SEM. A pool construction company or a lawn mower business should probably focus on incorporating SEO and SEM first. In such cases, social media retargeting or remarketing campaigns can be implemented to keep potential customers engaged, but I would not consider social media to be a better strategy to begin with for certain businesses.
Approaches to Using SEM and SEO Together
When using SEM AND SEO, it is important to consider the pros and cons of both, and how they can be used to complement each other. It is important to consider that SEO takes time to produce results. It is sensible to start both SEO and SEM campaigns simultaneously by targeting the choice keyword phrases with both campaigns. This creates an opportunity to win business and brand build as rankings improve on the search engines.
There are a number of decisions to be made at the point a website begins to rank in the top three results on the SERPs. Some businesses prefer to continue to bid on the same keywords through SEM that they rank well for organically. There is something to be said about dominating the SERPs with both paid and organic listings. This ultimately provides multiple opportunities for prospects to click through to a website.
Other businesses choose to pivot and reinvest their ad spend into campaigns that target keywords they do not yet rank high enough for organically. Then there are those who eventually determine they are generating enough business through SEO and choose to drop SEM completely. I would suggest a business reallocate their SEM budget and doubling down on SEO in situations where they want to abandon SEM altogether.
Another approach to using both SEO and SEM simultaneously is to bid on completely different keywords from the start. This is the approach I take. Highly competitive keyword phrases may take over a year to rank for organically. Instead of targeting those keyword phrases through SEO, I often bid on those keywords using SEM and focus on the “low hanging fruit” with SEO if there is any.
“Low hanging fruit” refers to desirable keyword phrases a website already ranks for further down the first page. This might also include URLS that rank for keyword phrases on the second or third pages. This approach generates an ROI through SEO more quickly. This revenue can then be reinvested to target more difficult keyword phrases later once Google begins to recognize a website as a more authoritative resource. Meanwhile, SEM efforts capitalize on the harder-to-rank-for keyword phrases. The cost-per-click (CPC) will be more expensive for these keyword phrases, but this is a great formula if the SEM budget is large enough.
The idea is to start with SEM to quickly generate leads, while improving search engine rankings for targeted keyword phrases. Doing both simultaneously makes a world of difference. I have yet to see this approach fail.
Summary: The Ideal Approach to Using SEM and SEO Together
Begin these initiatives by analyzing data to make an informed decision. Establish a healthy budget and consider the potential rate of return on investment. Be sure all campaigns are managed by a professional with experience in overarching strategy as well as managing campaigns. Be sure they frontload the efforts to speed up the time it takes for the SEM campaigns to perform. Implement an SEO campaign simultaneously with a strategy that makes sense. Be sure that the campaign manager provides detailed reports and have discussions around the ongoing performance of these campaigns. It makes a lot of sense to request examples of reports before hiring or outsourcing a professional.
It often makes sense to pivot during a campaign, but do your best to be patient when working with an experienced campaign manager. Consistency plays a factor–especially with SEO. As the campaigns begin to generate an ROI, have a plan in place for reinvesting at least some of that revenue into your campaigns to improve their performance and generate a greater ROI. Repeat this cycle until there is sufficient revenue to consider branding campaigns, such as display advertising, conventional advertising, and social media campaigns to increase brand awareness and drive additional sales.
Remember to leverage new content. Share it across the right social media platforms and create a subscription feature for individuals to receive blog updates, specials, and other information via email. Be sure the content is useful, accurate and according to brand standards. That is essential for this strategy to be successful.