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February 06, 2018

Are Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) complementary tools?

Digital Strategy
Google AdWords

Are SEO and SEM complementary tools? Should you prioritise one over the other? Do you need to hire someone to write articles, or should you allocate your budget to Google instead? How much does this cost?

These are questions we’re often asked by our clients and prospective clients.

To take a more in-depth look at the subject and offer some answers, we’ll recap the definitions of the two processes and share the opinions of three local specialists.

So what are SEO and SEM?

Let’s start with the definitions.

SEO (Search Engine Optimisation)

Referencing is the process of improving the visibility of a website or webpage in the natural or non-paid search results on a search engine.”

SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

SEM is the process used to increase traffic by buying adverts on search engines. It is also referred to as paid search and sometimes CPC (cost per click) or PPC marketing (pay per click) because most targeted ads on search engines are sold on a CPC/PPC basis

Advantages & disadvantages 

For each of the solutions, here’s a non-exhaustive list of the advantages and disadvantages you might encounter:



  • Regular traffic on a long-term basis
  • Once you’re well ranked, it is hard to then be displaced
  • CTR is higher for organic results (70% SEO v 30% SEM)


  • It takes time (a lot of time – anyone who claims this isn’t the case is a charlatan)
  • It requires substantial resources (editorial strategy, content creation)
  • You need to regularly obtain incoming links



  • You will get to the top of the results page immediately
  • You can present your products in a complete manner (for example Google Shopping)
  • The targeting is very precise (country, city, day, time, language, etc.)
  • You’re in total control of your budget
  • You can measure the results straight away


  • Depending on your products or services, it can prove to be very expensive
  • It demands continued analysis and substantial resources

Specialists' opinions

In order to take the pulse of current practice, we spoke to three specialists in this domain: Ziad Allani (, Bruno Guyot (LinkedIn) and Yann Graf (

Let’s get started!

  • How do you view SEO and SEM? Are they complementary?

Z.A.: When a company launches on the internet, they need to consider the short term in order to validate their business model and generate revenue, but also have a long-term vision in order to guarantee good growth and a satisfactory share of the market.

In the case in point, SEM (AdWords, essentially) guarantees that you will reach your audience from the very first day if you pay for it, which allows you to save a lot of time.

SEO, which is mistakenly referred to as free referencing, is a set of more or less reliable techniques which enable you to position yourself on keywords in a perennial manner. It can take a new site over a year to start to acquire a good amount of traffic through organic search. But with this approach, you don’t pay every time someone visits your website.

B.G.: They’re clearly complementary. That’s why it’s important to advise clients to use both if they can, or to make sure that they’re communicating, even if this means forcing them to sit down together on a regular basis.

SEA is a Trojan horse for SEO: you test keywords in SEA and soon establish which work and which don’t. But be careful:

  • You need an excellent tracking setup in order to measure the true micro and macro value
  • For certain searches (those which are less commercial), Google doesn’t always display ads (which falsifies the search volume in a sense)
  • It’s important to be aware of this and also to check the SERPs and/or cross-check information.

But SEO gives something back to SEA too. Typically, DSA campaigns (campaigns without keywords, where Google matches searches to content on pages) require content that is rich and optimised in order to be optimal. They also require optimised metatitles, because these serve as titles for dynamic ads.

Ultimately, they’re really communicating vessels. We’ll redirect mid-funnel SEO traffic using SEA. We’ll create SEO content to answer questions that SEA traffic won’t find on our site.

Y.G.: I see them as two complementary tools, generally to be used togetherr. SEM is quicker to deploy, and easier to measure, but isn’t necessarily lasting.

SEO, on the other hand, is a long-term process, which sometimes brings relatively few results at first. The advantage is that you’re obliged to create quality content and build stories around your organisation. This content can then be reused, whether as appendices for presentations, compiled in a book, or as part of the onboarding process for employees, etc.

With SEM, you only have landing pages ;)

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of investing in both SEO and SEM?

You have to integrate the notion of Life Time Value (LTV) when calculating ROI" Ziad Alani

Z.A.: It depends above all on your business model, the market you’re targeting and your competition. In some sectors, neither SEO nor SEM is profitable. But for me, one thing’s for sure, and that’s that you have to calculate each action by integrating the notion of Life Time Value (LTV) when calculating ROI.

B.G.: The only disadvantage is the budget required. But to be honest, I don’t really see how you can be successful today without investing in both. Unless, of course you’re in a very niche market with little competition, or aren’t in any hurry to get results. It’s a case of pay to play: we’re not in the 2000s any more.

As the others said, they’re complementary. It’s a war out there! So two weapons are better than one ☺

Y.G.: Advantages: possible synergy – the keyword search will feed on both aspects. Speed optimisation will benefit both… and, above all, the final user.

Disadvantages: umm…?

  • We talk a lot about the costs encountered in SEM, but what about SEO?

Z.A.: With SEO, the more money you have, the easier it is. You can certainly still get there with limited resources, but it takes a very long time and is quite complicated - especially when your competitors may be buying press campaigns and links on well-known sites.

B.G.: In my mind, both are quite expensive. I’d even say that SEO is a lot more expensive, actually. The rules change regularly and you can never really be sure for how long you’ll be able to maintain a good position. You need to dedicate time to it, create content, get links, etc., and that’s without even mentioning voice search, which is growing progressively. And with that, you don’t get ten results, but just one, so the competition will only get stronger.

That doesn’t mean I’m preaching in favour of AdWords. The two are complementary tools, and it’s better to invest in both at once. I think there are still great opportunities to drive organic traffic even today. And then with SEO, it’s not just about pages of content on Google; there are images, videos and other platforms too.

Y.G.: The good thing with the costs linked to SEM is that they’re easy to measure, as you can set a daily budget.

With SEO however, it’s a lot more difficult to calculate. There’s a much wider range of participants: developers for the technical aspects (speed), writers (for content), and the referrer. Content that is posted and optimised today is likely to receive visits over the next 5-10 years.

  • So regarding SEO and SEM, what advice would you give to a company that’s just starting out and which has no online presence?

 Z.A.: I’d say that it’s a good idea to start with AdWords, whilst allocating some resources to SEO: there are always ways to act on it without needing to spend large amounts, as long as your goals are reasonable.

"If your site doesn’t sell you, it’s useless bringing people to it.". Bruno Guyot

B.G.: Ah, that’s a big question! It depends on so many factors and there are so many things I could say. For SEA, the most basic thing is to remarket your traffic, and to use AdWords to protect your brand. For SEO, it’s important to have a Google My Business page containing all the necessary detailsand as many positive reviews as possible, and to write content which answers any questions people may have. When people call you, what questions always come up? Write some answers! Phone clients and ask them what doubts cross their mind before purchasing your product/service. Produce content to address that. Your site is important. If your site doesn’t sell you, it’s useless bringing people to it.

My best piece of advice if you’re starting a company in 2018 is to find some good digital marketing partners even before launching your company. Providers have a power of life or death over a company that’s just launching, especially if the company doesn’t have a huge budget. I’ve got a fair amount of experience in this job and I’ve seen quite a few things: the good, the bad, with some companies succeeding, others shutting down. SEO, SEA, web standards, social media… It’s all constantly changing. Only the hardened specialists and those who stay up to date can succeed. Start by knowing who you’ll be working with for your digital marketing before you even launch your company. Don’t try to do things as cheaply as you can, because it’ll cost you later. Work with good people, even if it’s more expensive to do so. This isn’t the domain for penny-pinching…

Y.G.: I’d start by carrying out (or having someone carry out) an audit of my company’s online presence. Is the site optimised (content, technical aspects of SEO, speed)? Are the support platforms (Google Maps listing, Facebook…) all set up?

Then I’d set up Google AdWords campaigns. That way, you’re visible on Google immediately and can generate traffic and conversions.

These campaigns will give you precious indications about the most interesting terms (those which convert), which you should focus on during the second phase: SEO.

  • If SEO pays over the long term, is it realistic to expect to spend less on SEM as years go by?

Z.A.: Yes, SEO can help you make huge savings on SEM. It’s a very good strategy, as long as you start the referencing at a very early stage.

B.G.: No, not anymore, I don’t think. But at the same time, the focus isn’t in the right place. We’re entrepreneurs, so we want growth, don’t we? I don’t like the word ‘cost’; I prefer ‘investment’. Again, if you have a good tracking setup, you’ll learn and optimise quickly. If SEO and SEA are profitable and you can scale up further, why stop there?

"If the SEM budget is generating enough conversions and at an attractive price, why deprive yourself of those?" Yann Graf

Y.G.: No, not necessarily. If the SEM budget is generating enough conversions and at an attractive price, why deprive yourself of those? And generally, you can see a correlation between organic traffic and paid traffic. More publicity = more organic traffic.

- Anything else to add?

Z.A.: I just have two tips for entrepreneurs in Swiss Romandie:

  • Get the necessary training in the relevant digital marketing sectors, or get assistance from professionals in order to avoid making mistakes which could prove very costly.
  • Carefully measure each action and focus on the most important KPI in order to avoid falling into the trap of vanity metrics. For instance, if you have an e-commerce site, it’s wiser to consider the number of sales a day or the average basket value than to think about the number of likes on your Facebook page.


"Bringing in traffic for a site which hasn’t been designed to convert is essentially like throwing money out of the window." Bruno Guyot

B.G.: SEO, SEA, SEM, SMM, all of that is worthless if you’re not offering something good. Remember, there’s no magic behind it. And it’s the same if you can’t sell yourself. Create a persuasive site. Clearly explain the value you contribute, how you’re different to the competition, who is your ideal client. Say it in clear, simple words. Create a site which is trustworthy. The site is at least 50% of the whole task. Bringing in traffic for a site which hasn’t been designed to convert is essentially like throwing money out of the window.

Most agencies which build sites have developers, designers, integrators. That’s all great. But those people aren’t marketers, copywriters, business developers. And that’s we have a real problem today. Even in agencies where all skills are covered, most of the time these function in silo mode. So the future is bright for people like me ☺

Y.G.: The number of users activating ad blockers is increasing every month. As a result, competition for the top spots in organic search results will grow. That means that SEO, which had perhaps lost some of its importance (in favour of SMM or SEM), may come back into the spotlight.

 - Thank you all for your very thorough answers!

SEO and SEM need to work together 

SEO and SEM work in different ways, but as mentioned above, they share a common goal: to boost your online visibility and increase traffic to your webpage.

With SEO, it may take several months and a solid content strategy before you’re able to gauge the results obtained, whereas results produced with SEM will appear rapidly, as long as you’ve set up a relevant campaign and a suitable landing page. 

According to a study carried out by didit.comwhen a brand appears in organic searches (SEO) only, the link receives 60% of possible clicks, whereas if it appears in both organic and paid searches, it will attract 92% of possible clicks. So that’s yet another reason to give the same level of attention to SEO as SEM.

In today’s environment, we think it’s necessary – no, obligatory – to work with both SEO and SEM, if you can afford to do so, in order to obtain the best results in the long term.


steve axentios
February 11, 2018 at 12 pm 19 min

Article très complet, bravo!

February 16, 2018 at 12 pm 32 min

Hello, Disons que le problème n'est même plus la méthode, mais surtout l'aspect financier. Combien de e-commerçants à succès dans les PME en Suisse Romande qui sont des pure player ? Franchement c'est rare et il 'y une explication à cela. Générer du chiffre d'affaire directement par internet c'est compliqué, le référencement payant c'est bien, mais encore faut-il pouvoir amortir le coût global des campagnes. Le référencement naturel, tout le monde s'exclame et pourtant je vois peu de sites vraiment devenir leader sur leur marché par le contenu qu'ils génèrent (vu comme une perte de temps par les clients de créer du contenu pertinent / gratuit). Ceux qui réussissent le mieux ? Bien souvent ce sont des passionnés qui ne regardent pas leurs heures, je le vois dans mon réseau client... c'est surtout dans la philosophie du client / marchand que se fait la différence et les cas qui émergent sont très rares, il faut cette aura qui attire. Mon avis est un peu tranché sur le sujet, mais c'est comme le "sport", tout le monde sait qu'il faut en faire, mais quand il faut passer à l'action un jour qu'il pleut et qu'on a la crève... là rares seront les motivés. En référencement c'est exactement pareil, c'est pour cela que peu émergent de la masse. Merci pour ce billet et aux participants ;) A bientôt !

Brands Up
March 28, 2018 at 10 am 09 min

Steve, merci pour le commentaire :) Webbax, merci pour ton avis !