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SEO vs. SEM: The Danger of Silver Bullet Thinking

Published on July 27, 2014 by Kevin Elliot

I think, for local businesses especially, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has been overrated, and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) has gotten a bum rap. There, I said it.

You may have been led to believe that if your website ranks well for certain key terms and phrases on the Google results page, a function of effective SEO, your online marketing job is done and that the leads will start rolling in. Conversely, you may have been told that advertising on Google’s AdWords or some other platform (SEM), is a waste of time and money. Just rank well and leave it at that.

I call this “silver bullet thinking,” the idea that there is one magic tool or technique that will do everything for you online. This is not true.

Both SEO and SEM are powerful online business tools, and should be used together, so I would like to explain the pros and cons of each to equip you with the information you need to really take advantage of Cyberspace for your business.

What SEO is and is not

SEO is a result

First of all, according to the SEO masters at, Search Engine Optimization is not a “thing,” it is a result. If your business website is built according to best practices, has focused and valuable content, and remains active over time, Google rewards your site with better rankings (it is a little more complicated than that, but those are the biggies).

Google does this because they can have confidence that people searching around your keywords and phrases will find the answers they need from your site. Therefore, there is no trick to SEO. It is a set of commonsense techniques and hard work on your website.

SEO is not always enough

In the past, business people were sold on big SEO plans that guaranteed certain ranking results. They were costly (if spammy), and actually could be pretty effective. But here is the core problem. If you spend, say, $400 a month on an SEO plan, and you are a local business where only 100 searches are performed each month around the terms for which you rank well, is that low search volume going to generate enough revenue to even cover the cost of the SEO plan? This could be the very definition of a Pyrrhicvictory – you win, but at what cost?

Also, most of the techniques used to snag those rankings are now expressly forbidden by Google. They do not work any more and, in fact, if you are caught using them, your site will be punished harshly.

Good rankings have to be legitimately earned. Period.

SEO is time consuming

Think of placements on the Google search engine results page (SERP) like a battleship in the open sea. Battleships do not turn on a dime, and neither do rankings. You can expect at least 4-6 months of hard SEO work on your site before you see significant changes in your rank, especially if you have a new site.

But I still want to rank well, right?

Of course. It has been shown that ranking well on the Google SERP does lead to more traffic to your website, so ranking well still matters. But watch what it costs you in time and money to get those rankings. Read the related article here.

And like I said above, for high rankings to be really valuable, you need significant search volume around your key terms. Also remember, changing just one word in a search query can affect your rankings. Being in a top spot for one term does not mean you rank well for all the ones that are valuable for your business. Hence the danger of silver bullet thinking.

SEO is cumulative

If you do the hard work of quality SEO over time, your site should start to perform better in rankings. However, that time can eventually work to your advantage. The search engines like to see performance over time; therefore, your efforts are cumulative. So, once your site begins performing, there is a certain momentum you build, a positive snowball effect. It’s all about quality and consistency.

SEO has limited capacity

One last thing. On an average Google results page, there are going to be between 3 and 10 slots for “organic” results. Here’s an exercise. Count the number of competitors you have in your area. Now, what if all of you are doing the same SEO best practices to grab those few spots? If you are in an industry with, say, 30 competitors, it is possible that you can do all the right SEO things, or pay someone to do them, and still not rank on page 1. Those are just the numbers.

SEO is valuable for what it is, but if you are a small local business in a smallish market, don’t bet the farm on it.

What SEM is and is not

Think of Search Engine Marketing as paid advertising like TV, radio, or a billboard, because that is what it is. With a few HUGE differences.

SEM is highly targeted

If you place a TV ad or post a billboard, you are allowing massive, wasted views (“impressions” in internet language) by people for whom your ad is not relevant in order to reach the ones for whom it is.

Search Engine Marketing, however, is incredibly targeted. You can find just the people you want, just where you want them, just when they are thinking about your business offerings. Along with that, you can advertise on websites related to people’s interests, so they see your messages even when they are not specifically searching for your offerings.

With SEM, you can find your target markets wherever they may be. Just imagine people walking into your business all day long and asking you to show them your offerings. SEM done well is just like that; super targeted.

SEM is trackable

The second difference is trackability. Everything in SEM is trackable. You can tell where people were when they clicked your ad, what time of day, even what type of device they were using. You can then follow them to your website, where you can see how long they stayed on any individual page and what buttons they pushed. Tracking, or Analytics, is a huge advantage for Search Engine Marketing. And this leads to better return on investment. You actually know if your ads are working or not, and can make course corrections along the way.

Let me ask you, how many people saw your billboard yesterday? How many saw your TV ad or listened to your radio spot? There is no way to know. But online, you can know, and that is better for your bottom line.

SEM is flexible

For most other advertising, there are long term commitments. Not so with Search Engine Marketing. Campaigns can be turned on or off with the click of a button. Also, you can test different ads to see which ones work best, then change, or “optimize” them for better performance. You can adjust budgets and placements on the fly. SEM is nimble and responsive (again, if managed well), and that allows you to maximize your marketing budget.

SEM is not easy

Google makes the vast majority of its money from advertising, like 97%, so it behooves them to make their advertising platform, AdWords, easy and accessible for the average business owner – or at least to seem that way.

We here at Kerigan Marketing manage many Search campaigns for clients, we are Google AdWords Certified and an official Google Partner. We have done the hard work and training to be well qualified to manage SEM campaigns, and we do so every day. So, trust me when I tell you that SEM can be very, very effective, but it is NOT easy. It is easy to start a campaign, true, but it is not at all a simple matter to make that campaign perform well.

Just ask someone who has tried to manage AdWords by themselves, and they will tell you. It can quickly get overwhelming; I think that is why so many people give up and say it has no value. Managing their own campaigns was just too much. I know I have a vested interest here, but if you are interested in trying SEM, hire a pro. You will be glad you did.

SEM is time consuming

We spend on average, 1-3 hours per week working each campaign we manage and, like I said above, we have training and experience. So let me be real with you here. You can expect to double that time if you are new to SEM and want to manage your own campaigns. Oh, and by the way, that time doesn’t include training and testing. So, do you have an extra 5-7 hours per week to learn and manage your AdWords campaigns?

There is real benefit for you in Search Engine Marketing, but like with everything else in life, there are times when hiring a trained professional is just a no-brainer. This is one of those times.


Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing both have great value for businesses, but each have pros and cons that must be considered. Hopefully, this article has helped clear the air about what they are. And remember there are no silver bullets. Integrating several marketing channels is always best.

Thanks for reading.

Kerigan Marketing Associates is Google AdWords Certified and an official Google Partner, and we manage successful search engine marketing campaigns for multiple clients. To learn more about what our business can do for yours, or to have Kerigan Marketing bring you SEM success, please contact us anytime.

Start your successful SEM campaign now

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