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Should Charities Invest in SEO or SEM

When you talk about ways to increase traffic to your website, you’ll hear the terms SEO and SEM.
What is SEO? It stands for search engine optimization, and refers to the things you do to your website so that search engines rank you higher in their search results.
What is SEM? It stands for search engine marketing, and refers to advertising your site in the sponsored listing areas on top of search results pages.
The distinction between the two be confusing, especially in terms of how it affects charities trying to promote their organization online. Here’s a chart that explains and compares the two.

 Search Engine Optimization (SEO)Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
GoalImprove ranking in search results pagesShow targeted ads at top of search result pages
BenefitIncrease organic search trafficIncrease paid search traffic
Monetary CostHighVery High (Zero cost with Google Grants)
Time CostHighMed to High
Time to Realize BenefitLongImmediate
Duration of BenefitLong-termTied to funding (Indefinite with Google Grant)
Required ExpertiseVery HighMed to High

The idea behind SEO is the higher you can rank in search results pages, the more traffic you’ll get since searchers are more likely to click on the top results. In SEM, it’s similar in that you want to be listed at the top of search results. The difference is that you’re paying for those positions in SEM.
The biggest difference in benefit is that in SEO, the more traffic you generate, the better return you get on your investment since that traffic comes through regular search results. In SEM, the more traffic you generate, the more costly it is because you usually have to pay for each click. However…
Monetary Cost
If you have Google Grant, Google absorbs that cost for your charity, up to $10,000 per month (which is a huge amount). Otherwise, the cost of running SEM would be extremely high and probably not very cost effective for charities. SEO can also be quite costly because you’ll likely have to hire outside help to do it. It’s a difficult and technical thing to do, which is why SEO specialists charge so much.
Time Cost
In terms of how much time it takes someone to do effective SEO, it’s quite consuming. There are the changes you have to do to your website to make it easier for search engines to find your content. There’s the actual content you have to generate and optimizing, and the testing to find out what works. In SEM, it can also be time consuming because you have to set up advertising campaigns. Over time, you should still be testing and improving your campaign, but it won’t be as onerous as the start. Also, with sufficient knowledge and training, you can conduct SEM more effectively and dramatically reduce the time cost.
Time to Realize Benefit
SEO takes a long time for you to realize the benefit. The reason is that it takes time for search engines to register the improvements you’ve made and translate it into a higher ranking. On the other hand, SEM provides an immediate return. As soon as you start advertising, your ads are eligible to appear at the top of search results. Within moments, you can increase traffic to your website.
Duration of Benefit
While SEO takes time before you see the benefit, the plus side is that you enjoy that benefit for a long time. Your ranking in search engine results change slowly. With SEM, there are some long term benefits you can gain from using that traffic to create return visitors. For the most part, the duration of benefit depends on how long you keep paying for your ads to show. Once you stop, your organization stops appearing at the top of search results. However, with the Google Grant program, you continue receiving SEM funds indefinitely, as long as you actively manage your account. Therefore, the duration of benefit can last a long time provided you have a Google Grant.
Required Expertise
As previously mentioned, SEO takes a high skill set to accomplish. Not only does it require web design knowledge, but a thorough and current understanding of SEO itself, which is always changing. SEM also takes skill because you need an understanding of how keywords are ranked, what ads draw people in, and how to compete against other organizations that are advertising. However, you can get by with a lower skill level, you just won’t realize as much benefit as if you’re armed with strong expertise.
Conclusion – Invest in SEM (if you have Google Grants)
Without the Google Grants program, my pick would be SEO. Despite being a high cost proposition, your long term payoff will be better. The Google Grants program changes the decision entirely though. It removes the biggest downsides in SEM of monetary cost and limited duration of benefit by paying for your ads indefinitely. You’ll see those gains immediately and will be far more cost-effective, since it’s free. If you want to find out more about Google Grants, visit our informational page here.

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