Over the past few years, several reports have found that online research before purchasing is often linked to both offline and online purchases, with the percentage of consumers doing so reaching over 80%.

It is thus no wonder that search marketing, a tactic used to gain online presence and drive website traffic via both paid and unpaid strategies on search engines, is becoming increasingly important for business growth.

01 What are SEO and SEM?

Search marketing consists of two components – Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). Together, they form a comprehensive search marketing strategy.

1.1 Three types of SEO

SEO is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to a company’s website through organic search engine results (Verzdesign, n.d.). It includes on-page, off-page, and technical optimisation.

A)On-page SEO

On-page SEO is the practice of optimizing web page content for search engines and users (Backlinko, 2021). This enables search engines to easily understand the website and its content, thus identifying whether the website is relevant to a searcher’s query.

In order for on-page SEO to work, the content on the website must first match what the search engines want to rank. To do this, there are three elements the content has to be:

A content that fits the three description above is a good foundation. Beyond that, here are some ways to further optimise the on-page content for the search engines:

Including your keyword in the title gives the reader a signal of what the page is about. In addition, making sure that the title is wrapped in an H1 tag assists Google in understanding the structure of the page.

Use short and descriptive URLs to allow searchers to know what the page is about even before clicking. It is also helpful to have a keyword in the URL.

A compelling meta description entices people to click on your website. Including your keyword once in the description also helps increase click-through rate, as Google bolds the searched terms.

B) Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to actions taken outside of your own website to increase your rankings within SERPs (MOZ, 2021). This matters because backlinks and other off-site signals are the foundation of the algorithms of search engines.

While there are many ways to do off-page SEO, building backlinks is the most critical part of it. This is because Google search is built on PageRank, which is an algorithm that looks at backlinks pointing to a website (Hardwick, 2020).

Here are 3 tips in order to build backlinks:

Long-form content, on average, gets 77.2% more links than short articles (Dean, 2019).

Getting linked by a page with more ‘authority’ increases your rank more.

People tend to link to a page in order to cite a statistic. Thus, providing statistics about your topic would also help to increase ranking.

C) Technical SEO

The last form of SEO is technical SEO. It refers to improving the technical aspects of a website in order to increase its ranking in SERPs (Hallebeek, 2021). Doing this helps search engines crawl your website easily.

As with on-page and off-page SEO, technical SEO can be done through various ways. However, the best practices include:

Websites are accessible with or without www in front of a domain name, but search engines register them as two different websites. Setting a preferred domain helps to prevent indexing issues and loss of page rank.

This helps search engines to understand and index a website easier. Users are also more likely to stay on the website as they are able to find what they want.

A set of links at the top or bottom that allows users to navigate to a precious page or to the home page. This helps users in the navigation of website and gives hint to search engines about the website’s structure.

When successfully implemented, a combination of the three methods will help the company’s website to rank more highly in search engine results pages (SERPs). This will then translate into more high-quality organic website traffic.

1.2 SEM

SEM involves running paid ads to target the keywords one’s customers are searching for on search engines (Verzdesign, n.d.).

Types of paid ads include:

These ads will appear at the top or bottom of the SERPs whenever the chosen keywords are searched (for search ads and shopping ads), and in designated areas of Google Search Partners’ websites (for display ads). This will lead to increased visibility.

To have better results for SEM, a company has to:

Identify top phrases that are popularly used by your target audience.

These keywords target prospects near the bottom of the purchase funnel.

For the amount your company is able to invest, consider the ROI you expect.

Now that we know more about SEO and SEM, let us compare the two. Under the same umbrella of ‘search marketing’, SEO and SEM have various differences, as well as several similarities that overlap.

02 The Differences

The primary difference between the two lies in their approaches to advertising.

However, there are still various differences, of which some may be deciding factors for a company in deciding its marketing strategy.

2.1 Appearance of the Search Results

The results displayed under SEO are organic results and have featured snippets, while that of SEM have an “Ad” label and ad extensions below the title. This, particularly the ‘Ad’ label, may affect the consumers’ behaviour such as decisions in clicking the website.

2.2 Click-Through Rate

Perhaps due to reasons such as the differences in appearance as mentioned above, successful SEO generally has a higher click-through rate (CTR). Statistically, SEO has a CTR of over 60% on the desktop, while that of SEM stays below 5% (Fishkin, 2018). Though overall CTR rates for mobile are lower than that of desktop, but organic still yields a higher percentage than paid. Although converting these clicks into actual revenue depends on many other variables, a higher click rate may imply a higher probability of the conversion.

2.3 Duration of Effects

SEM, however effective, stops when the paid ads are turned off. Successful SEO on the other hand creates a formidable competitive advantage for the company, which has a long-lasting effect on the company’s growth.

2.4 Time Taken to Yield Results

SEM campaigns are able to yield results immediately, as opposed to SEO which is acquired over time. This would be of great significance to companies who are looking at speed in generating results for their strategy.

2.5 Measurability and Scalability

SEM provides a great range of data, which gives the company precise information on the returns on their marketing spending. This allows for clarity in the usage of spending, and the company can easily measure the return on investment. Once the SEM campaign begins converting at a profitable rate, increasing the campaign budget will result in the leads increasing accordingly.

2.6 Independence from Algorithm

SEM is unaffected by any changes in algorithm on the search engines’ sides, hence the spending would not suddenly be worth zero should any tweak in algorithm be implemented . SEO, however, has dependence on the ranking of the website on SERPs, and would be affected by any slight changes in the search engines’ algorithm.

03 The Similarities

As different as they appear to be, SEO and SEM also have similarities, stemming from the fundamental way they are meant to work.

a) Need for Understanding of Target Audience

Both strategies require one to have a good understanding of the target audience and the way they act (Yesbeck, 2019). This includes having an idea of what their needs are and what they are searching for. Only by knowing the target audience can a company create valuable content to present on the SERPs, attracting customers as they search for services related to the company.

b) Reliance on Keywords

After understanding the target audience, both strategies require using keyword research to find popular search terms. Since SEO and SEM both rely on keywords to drive traffic to the business’s website (Digital Marketing Institute, 2019), it is essential to conduct proper keyword research to determine top keywords that the target audience often search for. This also comes with the element of competitor analysis, looking at other brands who are targeting the same keywords and planning the necessary steps to compete with them.

c) Continuous Tweaking and Improvement

It is important to note that both strategies require continual experimentation and optimisation. Like any business strategy, there is no ‘one-size-fit-all’ SEO or SEM strategy, and an effective one requires constant tweaking and changing to find the optimal fit and maximised results.

Comparison: A Summary

The differences and similarities covered above can be summarised into this table:

Putting The Two Together

As different ways of marketing, combining SEO and SEM strategies help to reach the target audience with more coverage on the SERPs. The paid ads get the company in front of the searcher right away, while SEO help to bring the company’s website on the front page, which increases the searcher’s perception of the company’s trustworthiness and credibility. Furthermore, the two mutually benefit each other.

As such, aligning the SEO and SEM strategies could lead to greater results and a more effective marketing strategy. Nonetheless, in deciding an optimal strategy, various other factors such as budget and objectives should be taken into account.

Case Study: Campaigns run by other brands

Let us now look at some examples of how companies used SEO and SEM.

  1. Maldive Traveller

Maldive Traveller is a travel and tourism company. Their original digital marketing strategy was not working, and thus they had to approach a skilled company for assistance.

What changed?

The company that helped them conducted the following:

The results showed a lot of improvement in Maldive Travellers’ digital success.

Key results include:

Lead generationIncreased by 153%
Bounce rateDecreased by 64%
Visitor per dayIncreased by over 42.03%
Returning visitors37%
Average visit durationIncreased by 57%

2. Lab Express

Lab Express specialised in lab and industry chemicals. In order to ensure that manufacturers and firms making chemical related searches are able to reach its website, they also contacted a company to help them in doing SEO.

What changed?

With the help of the company, the following steps were taken:

The SEO was also a success, obtaining impressive results:

Non-branded TrafficIncreased by 137%
Inbound linksIncreased by 80%
Bounce rateDecreased by 59.38%
Returning visitors87%
Average visit durationIncreased by 61%

3. Intel

Intel, recognised as a high-performing computing brand worldwide, is amongst the many brands that tapped on the power of Search. Its goal was essentially to build its customer base by driving engagement.

What they did:

Intel adopted a three-step approach:

1. Understanding the audience: Generating insights to understand customer online behaviour

2. Reaching the audience: Advertising a wide range of keywords to capture all the needs

3. Engaging the audience: Capitalises on search ad formats e.g. sitelinks and extensions to deliver key brand message and drive consumers to appropriate landing pages

Through Intel’s strategy in this area over the past 12 years, they have managed to leverage on the power of search as a marketing and brand-building strategy increasing their brand reputation in recent years beyond what was already built on TV campaigns.


It takes effort to analyse the important keywords with high-conversion, and even more time to incorporate that into a company’s SEO and SEM strategy. However, search marketing can be a very powerful tool when used effectively. More importantly, it is appropriate for companies of any size as long as budget is allocated and the content is optimised. No matter how small a company, if SEO and SEM are implemented properly, the company’s website will be able to gather more traffic and have a lower bounce rate.