SEO vs SEA: their definitions, differences and uses

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 16 June 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Search engines are a key channel for business marketing. Businesses use various strategies to ensure their search engine result page (SERP) rankings are high, including search engine optimisation (SEO) and search engine advertising (SEA). These strategies work alone or integrate as part of a holistic digital marketing strategy. In this article, we look at SEO vs SEA and consider their features, differences, benefits and uses.

SEO vs SEA

If you're new to marketing, you may wonder about the difference between SEO vs SEA strategies. Both can grow qualified, relevant inbound traffic to websites. SEA activity or PPC campaigns can result in a rapid spike of targeted traffic to your website for a set budget. SEO activity also brings a steady flow of relevant traffic to your website over the long-term. These strategies can also integrate for different benefits.

SEO activities also tend to gain traction over time, especially if the business diligently invests in its search marketing strategies and covers all SEO bases. The algorithms used to place websites change regularly, with it being necessary for digital marketing professionals to stay ahead of the curve to understand how search engines rank content. This allows them to adapt their tactics to stay ahead of the competition. As with SEA, if the business pauses its search marketing activities, other websites may pull ahead and rank favourably for the same keywords by investing more consistently and wholly in their campaigns.

Related: Digital marketing skills: definition and examples

What is SEO?

Search engine optimisation is the process of generating traffic to your website content. Marketers use SEO strategies to maximise the volume of relevant inbound content to their optimised websites. The aim is to optimise business content so it appears in the top five results for a specific search and before other non-sponsored website links. The first step of effective SEO is to research the keywords that relate to your brand and its offer and see how the competition is doing for its search rankings.

When you have defined your keywords, you can create an SEO strategy. This is a long-term approach that involves creating valuable and relevant content that incorporates your target keywords. Other strategies include optimising your landing pages, adding metadata, using local search strategies, optimising the website flow, ensuring it's mobile-friendly and using plug-ins. This can be a time-consuming process without immediate results, but the benefits over time can be good. SEO targets interested customers with a high level of purchase intent and can help to better target relevant leads.

Related: How to become an SEO expert

Benefits of SEO

The main benefits of SEO include:

  • Builds a strong reputation: Brand trust is vital online. When you invest in SEO, you help to build your company's reputation and show it's a trusted brand.

  • Creates a better user experience: Users often click organic results by preference, rather than advertisements.

  • Supports lead generation: Back-linking, a strategy where leads share your content, is a great way of growing your SERP ranking. SEO work boosts back-linking by producing valuable, relevant and shareable content for keywords.

  • Generates reusable content: Brands can repurpose quality SEO content across other digital channels, such as email and social media. This extends their use and minimises waste.

  • Grows a strong online presence: It can take a long while to achieve a high SERP listing for an organic keyword search, but it grows a powerful brand recognition once you do and your clicks might grow exponentially if you continue to work on SEO to maintain your position.

What is SEA?

Search engine advertising is a form of online advertising. Businesses pay search engine companies to place their website content links at the top of a search result page. The results of this placement depend on the keywords you want to place for. The system works through an online account bidding system. The most popular keywords and combinations can be more expensive than more niche keywords. Businesses register to set up their campaigns and pay-per-click (PPC) budgets. They can then set their campaign parameters and budget for target keywords and their combinations.

The business still needs to do its own keyword query research, but the search engine provides detailed metrics for ad tracking and campaign management. SEA strategies usually need a lot of monitoring as the business only receives traffic to its landing pages while it pays for clicks. Keyword bidding can become expensive and ad copy needs to be regularly updated. SEO provides instant exposure, positive short-term results and a spike in profitable visits to your website. Businesses minimise costs by planning SEA campaigns expertly and by carefully analysing the PPC metrics.

Benefits of SEA

The main benefits of SEA include:

  • Speed and results: PPC campaigns are a quick and ready way of driving targeted traffic to your website with instant results and a likely spike in conversions for the length of your campaign.

  • Detailed targeting: Search engines offer highly targeted options for demographic targeting. This allows brands to tightly define the parameters of their campaign and maximise their results.

  • Broad targeting: Ad targeting with search engines also goes beyond broad demographics and includes sophisticated options for geography, time of day and device type.

  • Streamlined and simple process: Online paid ad campaigns operate via the search engine's own platform, using a single and slick user interface. All campaign information, such as scheduling and analytics, can be found in one place.

  • Control of the landing page: You choose the landing page that links to your paid search result. This contrasts with SEO where the search engine selects the page it deems most relevant to the user's search term.

  • Better device visibility: PPC adverts tend to be visible on all devices, unlike search engine results which tend to just display several results before the screen cuts off.

Related: What is PPC management? Everything you need to know

When to use SEO and SEA for marketing

Most businesses use a blend of SEO and SEA activities to help grow their online presence and to drive traffic to their websites. There are times when one approach might be more appropriate and times when an integrated strategy can create better results. Here are some examples:

Situations where a business might use SEO only

A business might choose an SEO-only strategy when it's creating online content that offers brand value, but that doesn't need immediate commercial gain. For example, a brand could be launching a new social media account that can grow with a social marketing strategy over time. It might be starting a new corporate blog for visibility, brand awareness and for general PR purposes. It might also be setting major website changes live or creating a new site map. When this happens, the digital marketing team submits the new map to search engines so their search bots can begin indexing it.

The focus with these examples is on long-term, organic growth, visibility, engagement and PR, rather than on immediate sales. The activity runs over time without the pressure of a short-term commercial driver or the need for immediate conversions. When those conditions are in place, SEA activities are appropriate.

Situations where a business might use SEA only

A business might use SEA only when it needs to bring qualified and targeted traffic to its landing page to generate a conversion. As an example, a business might be offering a special promotion and an online discount code for a limited time. It might also be promoting a pop-up event or launching a targeted online marketing campaign to persuade a key demographic to buy a new product. In both instances, the online advertising campaign targets a certain demographic, quickly.

With the right targeting criteria, the PPC campaign can bring motivated users to the business landing page and increase profits with immediate online sales or other types of desired conversion, such as a sign-up. The focus is on a speedy result relevant to online users who have searched for the relevant keywords and who want to buy, sign up or carry out another kind of transactional intent.

Situations where a business might use SEO and SEA together

Many businesses combine SEO and SEA strategies as part of an integrated digital marketing strategy. For example, if a business launches a new product or service, it might combine the two strategies, with SEA providing an immediate influx of relevant traffic to the product landing page and SEO building up organic searches for the product or service over time.

A business might also use both strategies to launch a new partnership with a social media influencer or to create a multi-channel marketing campaign that integrates social media marketing, email marketing, influencer marketing and offline marketing channels.

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