SEO vs. SEM: Which One Do You Choose for E-commerce?

For E-commerce Businesses, Does SEM Beat SEO? Every Time?

SEO search engine optimization concept
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If you are an e-commerce professional that's not been living under a rock, you are plagued by the SEO vs. SEM debate. SEO, as well as SEM, are terms that can mean different things to different people. So let me clarify what I mean by those terms. By no means are these expected to be comprehensive definitions, but they serve the purpose of accuracy and simplicity.

SEO

Activities you undertake on your website, such as maintaining a certain keyword density, or on other websites, such as link building, with the intention of ranking higher on search engine results pages, is called Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

SEM

Paying search engines to send qualified traffic your way, probably using a pay-per-click mechanism, is Search Engine Marketing (SEM).

It can easily be argued that SEM is much broader than what I have just described and, in fact, includes the practice of SEO. So that we can come to some actionable conclusions, I am isolating SEO from other SEM activities.

Which One Is Better for E-commerce Businesses?

If I had some way of convincingly answering this question with a "this one," I would be one of the most sought-after e-commerce marketers. As expected, the answer is more of a "depends." I know that sounds unhelpful, but don't worry it gets better.

SEO Is Better Because...

  • you expend resources once and reap benefits forever.
  • once you achieve success in your SEO, it is a formidable competitive advantage that is not easy to replicate in a short period.
  • e-commerce websites tend to have inherently poor SEO. As a result, even a little effort can bear substantial fruit.
  • users, who can distinguish between organic results and ads, tend to find organic results more credible.
  • it is expected that in the long run, the cost per visitor will be a small fraction of what you will end up paying for SEM campaigns.
  • in some verticals, SEM spends have turned prohibitively expensive.

SEM Is Better Because...

  • SEM campaigns start yielding results instantly, while SEO can take months.
  • you know exactly what you are paying for, and you can measure the return on investment (RoI).
  • your SEM spend won't suddenly be worth zero when search engines such as Google tweak their algorithm
  • once you hit the winning formula, you can keep scaling up your SEM strategy with great ease.
  • it is in your control and does not depend on the whims of a couple of Stanford PhDs and their cronies.
  • most e-commerce businesses observe that, on a per visitor basis, PPC traffic converts better than organic search traffic.
  • you get to control how your brand name and other attributes are treated.

So Which One Is Best?

The pros and cons that are brought out by the above lists are compelling. Clearly, e-commerce businesses cannot entirely overlook either SEO or SEM. Here are some conclusions you can draw:

  • If your e-commerce website is new, you can't wait for SEO success to kick in. Consequently, most of your resources, say 90%, should be spent on SEM exercises, and the remaining 10% on SEO.
  • As time progresses, and you find some SEO success, you can gradually increase the allocation of resources to SEO.
  • Given that there will always be something you want to promote "right now," you will need to lean on paid traffic forever. In the long run, you can hope to stabilize at a 50-50 spend on SEO and SEM activities.

    Word of Caution

    It is easy to get stuck in an SEM-only approach, as that is what bears fruit initially. But the price per click might soon rise to levels that your business may not be able to sustain. So it is good to build your organic leg too. Also, SEO is turning out to be an irritatingly moving target. Think about using content marketing as an SEO approach. It sure seems like content marketing has a lot of steam left.