SEA vs SEO: the different strategies to gain visibility on search engines

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For some it is a synonym for SEM, while others understand it as a separate branch worthy of specificity: we are talking about SEA, an acronym for Search Engine Advertising, and thus all the activities of promoting a brand through paid ads on search engines.

What is SEA, search engine advertising

We know very well how important it is for a brand of any type, size and sector to have visibility on search engines, and therefore how much digital marketing strategies serve to increase the chances of success and earnings of businesses.

As such, it makes sense to be aware of all the opportunities available, and SEA is certainly one online marketing tool that can be used by businesses to increase their exposure and sales.

In the most common and widespread definition, SEA stands for Search Engine Advertising, and we can summarize it as “search engine advertising”: it involves buying advertising space on the SERPs of Google and other search engines using targeted keywords, with cost based on market bids for those same queries in which the ads are placed.

These paid ads often have prominent position on the search results page, with priority (or otherwise prominence) over traditional organic results, and are shown in a targeted manner to users searching for specific keywords and phrases; the company using them pays a variable commission each time a person actually clicks on the ad.

The characteristics of search engine advertising

Search engine advertising is thus a native form of Internet advertising, and is sometimes also referred to by other names such as search advertising, Internet search advertising, online search advertising, or even keyword advertising, while the payment method used by advertisers is universally known as pay per click or PPC.

Google’s dominance in the market has led its advertising platform, Google Ads (formerly Adwords, until a few years ago), to become another term used for SEA, but beyond the linguistic aspects and despite its various forms, the concept is still the same: placing the ad above, below or next to free search results.

We can therefore think of SEA as a subfield of online marketing and, more precisely, a subfield of search marketing and SEM.

In any case, even if we have never encountered these terms before and have never heard of SEA, we certainly know its resulting output, i.e., search results labeled “ad” in SERPs, which are frequent for so many types of queries and intents.

How SEA works and how ads are created

The principle of search engine advertising is quite simple: unlike traditional advertisements that are purchased outright (making it easier to control the cost of the campaign), companies essentially book and buy space (and position) for temporary ads displayed in relevant SERPs and, as mentioned, pay a commission each time a user clicks on the ad, regardless of whether the user then takes an action on the landing page.

The advertisements appear in the form of text or images on the pages of search engines such as Google or Bing, in usually prominent positions for targeted keywords or queries (above, below, or next to organic search results) and are the main source of revenue for the search engines themselves.

At first glance, SEA ads resemble a normal search result (and are often confused with organic results, if we do not immediately pay attention to the “ad” label), and are characterized by the presence of:

  • Title, the most prominent part of the ad, which should contain targeted and relevant keywords and phrases, as well as descriptive language illustrating what products or information can be found on the page.
  • Display URL, which includes the URL’s domain, subdomain, and path fields and tells the user what can be found on the page.
  • Descriptive text, which summarizes the most important details about the information and products on the page; its language should focus on convincing users to click and visit the website, and should describe only the main product or service.

In addition to the label (which is required by law to make the intent of the content clear and distinguish SEA results from normal search results on the page), some ads may also appear larger than organic results, possibly including special extensions (which do not cost extra), such as additional links below the main ad that increase the visibility of the ad itself and provide users with more options to click on.

To create an ad (and more generally entire online marketing campaigns), therefore, a SEA specialist must have multidisciplinary skills and be able to develop, execute, and analyze the strategy. The first step is to define the relevant keywords for that specific business to be promoted with Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines, and then identify the key search terms used to find competitor Web sites and similar offerings, which are essential to ensure that the ad reaches the desired target audience. Immediately after that, it is necessary to create a draft copy for the ad (and it is not unusual for advertisers to have to rewrite the copy several times before creating a catchy text with perfectly integrated keywords for an ad to have the desired effect), optimize the landing pages to which the ads link, and then move on to the most peculiar part of this promotional form: determining the amount of investment, which also means quantifying the amount we are willing to pay for a user to click on our ad. The last phase follows the actual launch of the campaign, because it involves analyzing data and performance to see if the ad generated positive effects or if something did not work.

The main types of SEA campaigns

    In principle, it costs nothing to simply place an ad in the search results, because as mentioned, search engine advertising works on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis, and therefore advertisers only have to incur payment (and receive the expense charge) when a user clicks on an ad and is redirected to the landing page. 

    Possible SEA campaigns are various, and among the main ones we identify:

    • Brand protection, which essentially serves to counteract brandjacking by competitors (i.e., the use of a brand name by a competitor, who exploits it to record conversions on their website).
    • Targeting for generic keywords, related to the business sector but not the brand name, to reach a wider audience of Web users.
    • Remarketing campaigns (through display ads, YouTube, Gmail ads, etc.) targeting users who have already visited the website, to re-engage them and increase conversions.
    • Brand awareness campaigns (through display ads, YouTube, Gmail ads, etc.) that target users based on their interests and searches and serve to increase the website’s brand awareness among a more specific target audience of potential users.

    Regardless of the type, the cost of an SEA campaign is calculated based on CPC (cost per click) and, in fact, is strongly influenced (or determined) by our competitors: for example, if we use “popular” keywords (i.e., those also frequently purchased by competitors), the amount invested will automatically be affected by the CPC of our competitors. If they have higher bids than us, in fact, we should increase the CPC to appear before and above them.

    Although, in fact, the cost per click is something that advertisers can decide for themselves, the frequency with which the ad is displayed corresponds to the size of the bid. 

    The allocation of ad space is then decided by an auction, through a mechanism known as Real Time Bidding: summarizing, for each query the search engine checks the terms to determine which ads are relevant and useful to the user. When the search term contains a common keyword, there are often several potentially suitable ads, which are ranked in order of relevance in a fraction of a second.

    An important criterion in ad selection in this case is the CPC bid set by the advertiser, i.e., the maximum price the advertiser is willing to pay for one click on his or her ad; usually, the higher the bid, the more likely the ad is to reach a prominent position in the search results. Based on the bid and the keyword/phrase used, the search engine begins the process of assigning a quality score to the ad, which in turn will determine its ranking and position: ad quality is necessary to offer a selection of results that are most useful to the user, and for example, Google has a quality score as part of its rating system to prevent low-quality ads with high bids from reaching the top of search results.

    To determine the prominence and higher visibility in SERP ads-in a word, the value of SEA ads-we can then think of the equation

    Ads with the best placement = highest CPC bid x quality score

    How much does SEA cost

    But in short, how much do paid search engine ads cost?

    From what has been written, it would seem impossible to set a share of the investment, but obviously this is not the case is – through fixed monthly and daily budgets – the advertiser can define exactly how much money he intends to spend each day on SEA campaigns, because – referring to Google (which remains the most widely used platform in the industry) – the ad remains in the search results until the daily budget is exhausted. For example, we can set a monthly budget of $3,000 and break it down into $100 per day, but without being sure that we will always get the same number of appearances in the search results-which, we reiterate, depends on the cost per click and user interactions, and thus can vary from a few cents to several dollars, appearing until the budget we set as the daily limit is spent.

    Determining the budget for a campaign, then, also depends on other factors, such as the competitiveness of the industry (e.g., promoting a hotel in Paris will require more spending than ads for a hotel in a smaller city with fewer competitors and searches), point in the funnel where we want to intercept users and so on, desired level of visibility in SERPs and so on.

    As mentioned, then, on the visibility front, we must not forget (even in SEA!) the aspect of ad quality: a well-thought-out SEA campaign, with high-quality content, will tend to rank significantly higher in the search engines, as it is useful and inviting to the user. On Google’s official help page we can read that Google’s quality score “is an estimate of the quality of the ads, keywords, and landing page,” which contributes significantly in the creation of a successful advertisement. 

    Google’s quality score-which is not used at the time of the auction to determine ad ranking-examines a multitude of elements to provide an “aggregate estimate of overall performance in ad auctions,” and specifically analyzes:

    • Expected click-through rate, calculated on the ad’s frequency of publication, i.e., impression, and the number of clicks generated by an ad;
    • Relevance of the ad to the query, both in title and copy;
    • Relevance of keywords;
    • Experience on the landing page, and thus quality of the landing page

    and more.

    In principle, then, the success of an SEA campaign does not depend on the size of the company, but it is often most effective for specialized services with low competition: sometimes, for example, it can be surprisingly cost-effective to advertise on a search engine if we promote a niche product or if we tailor campaigns to long tail keywords with lower search volumes.

    The value of SEA: goals and benefits

    Having clarified the general aspects, so to speak, let’s try to understand why SEA is important and what types of businesses and sites it can serve-assuming that it can actually serve everyone!

    Generally speaking, this type of search engine advertising is usually part of a marketing or branding strategy: the great advantage of SEA is that it gets results very quickly, often with high ROIs and with freedom to set the budget according to what the desired goals are; revenue growth and success happen almost instantaneously compared to the time lenghts of SEO, and is even greater with particularly aggressive strategies.

    According to a well-known statement from Google, pay-per-click based SEA marketing generally results in an average of two dollars in revenue for every dollar invested, with 100% gain then resulting from the fact that search network ads can be optimized to target specific audience segments, specific keywords, and are displayed in the top 3 places in search, catalyzing up to 40% of all clicks from search engines.

    In addition, again according to average estimates, visitors from SEA paid search traffic are 1.5 times more likely to convert on the target site, which is why various research calls SEA digital marketing “the single top channel for generating revenue.”

    By its nature, search engine advertising offers Web site owners the opportunity to place ads exactly where potential customers will search for the products and offers they want, and can prove to be an effective tool for increasing Web site traffic, promoting the brand (improving its visibility among others in its field), and generating conversions and leads, thereby expanding the (potential) group of buyers and even the customer base.

    If the strategy is effective – the keywords are chosen in a reasoned manner, the ad copy and landing page closely match the user’s intentions – the ads really become the best answer to the search query, more so than organic results that risk hammering the user with unwanted information and over-optimization that is of little practical use. In addition, this form of advertising is less intrusive than other forms of advertising (just think of annoying interstitials, banners or old-fashioned popups…) and can give users an option for something they are already looking for, as opposed to other forms of outbound marketing strategies that can be discouraging and irritating.

    This can translate into a rapid increase in click-through rate through advertising space, which is also matched by an improvement in conversion rate. In fact, search engine advertising is usually exploited by sites in the e-commerce sector because it brings ready-to-action customers to the pages and thus can increase sales. In any case, it can also serve to reinforce the brand and attract leads by generating interest around the brand through page impressions in display campaigns, leading to improvements in newsletter subscriptions, resource downloads or reviews, for example.

    Another advantage of SEA lies in the greater options for monitoring and measuring data it provides, with information gathered from advertising being more detailed than traditional SEO techniques. In particular, factors such as Average Ad Position, Conversion Rate, Cost Per Conversion, Geographic Location of Potential Customers, Devices Used, and more can be monitored and measured. Element that should not be overlooked, however, is that the reach and effects of SEA campaigns therefore always depend on the amount of advertising budget invested and the actual search volume of the identified and used search keywords.

    To summarize, then, the benefits of SEA are:

    • Quickly visible results.
    • Greater control over performance.
    • Wide reach.
    • Targeted targeting.
    • Low invasiveness to the user.
    • Can be part of a temporary marketing campaign.

    Among possible downsides, however, should be mentioned (at least) the need for ongoing economic investment (at the end of the campaign, the ad “disappears”) and high competition, especially commercial keywords.

    SEA, SEO and SEM: all search marketing activities

    It is time then to clarify what the various acronyms that make up the search marketing universe mean.

    Let’s start with SEM, which is the expression that somewhat encompasses all search engine marketing activities: the acronym really means Search Engine Marketing and, in its broadest sense, it represents a combination of SEA and SEO and includes all the elements necessary to improve the visibility of a website in the SERPs of a search engine, whether paid or free.

    SEA is search engine advertising, as we have extensively described, and basically involves placing ads on search results pages or other Web sites using methods such as CPC (cost per click).

    And then there is SEO, which includes all the activities carried out to ensure that a website gets higher rankings in the organic results of search engines such as Google through techniques to optimize the onpage and off-page factors of the website itself.

    SEO vs SEA: the main differences between the two activities

    SEA and SEO have some aspects in common, but also significant underlying differences.

    Both forms of online marketing aim to attract more traffic to the website and contextually strengthen the brand, but the method of achieving the goal differs significantly: in SEO, users click on organic results, added for free by the search engine, while for SEA, advertising costs must be paid, usually in the form of pay per click.

    The “time factor” also changes a lot: SEA provides immediate results, but these only exist as long as the campaign is active (and therefore as long as we pay for the ads), while developing organic SEO visibility requires more commitment, perseverance, and patience, because it can take up to months before we see ranking and traffic improvements, but these are also usually more stable and long-lasting.

    In terms of visibility in SERPs, then, it should be noted that paid search results on Google are usually at the top of the page (three or four ads for desktop searches and three on mobile devices) and sometimes on the side or at the bottom; in addition, a user will always see paid searches, even if they scroll past, whereas an organic result is likely to be invisible at a glance.

    There is also an issue related to control over the actual performance and results of strategies: search engine advertising relies on paid results, custom ad text, ad approval, and various other factors that are more easily monitored by companies, while there is no direct control over whether search engine algorithms reward SEO efforts.

    For these very reasons, many companies prefer to go the fast route and buy ads that appear on the first page of search results, rather than deploy SEO techniques and wait for them to be rewarded with organic visibility.

    How to use SEO and SEA in an integrated way

    In fact, many experts argue that SEO and SEA work best by integrating efforts and strategically aligning campaigns to cover both short-term and long-term goals.

    An optimal online marketing strategy, therefore, uses and maximizes the benefits of both methods, which complement and support each other, in part because they target the same users: for example, SEO can help identify which keywords to promote and what is the intention of people searching for a specific term, and SEA can give a gives direct feedback on the keywords on which advertising is invested, which can then be leveraged to improve content for organic searches.

    In addition, it is believed that being present and visible both organically and through paid advertisements can increase the trust and awareness of potential customers, who view the site twice during relevant searches.

    In other words, a unified search engine marketing strategy with SEO and SEA is the optimal approach, leading to better results in the short and long term, although of course every market is different and we need to study what approach best suits our specific business needs.

    What is the impact of SEA on SEO.

    There is no direct link between search engine advertising and SEO, but the effects of SEA can benefit a website’s organic traffic and ranking, even in light of what we were saying earlier-that is, that we can work on the same keyword research base and target audience for both SEO content and PPC ads.

    In addition, optimizing the pages of the site that are the destination of the ads-the home page, product pages etc-also works for the overall improvement of the site’s quality perceived by search engines; still, potentially a paid search ad campaign can help companies increase backlinks, improve brand awareness, and lead to more shares, which can generate SEO benefits.

    SEA could thus be an indirect SEO measure: if an online site, such as an e-Commerce site, increases its advertising impact through ads and thus improves its reach and visibility, it is likely to subsequently gain direct user interactions, including in the form of increased branded searches and notoriety, which from the Web world can also be transferred “offline” through word of mouth.

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