SEO vs SEA: Get your digital marketing budget right


Whether you're starting out with managing your online presence or you’re a seasoned digital marketing professional, all the possibilities in this digital world can be a bit daunting and it’s often hard to see the beginning of this journey. It’s not just difficult to plan activities and assign resources, but also to set priorities right in your digital marketing budget and manage your investments as efficiently as possible.

Two of those possibilities that are more widely known are SEO and SEA: Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Advertising.

Let’s start with SEO. In my opinion, SEO or search engine optimization is actually an outdated term from the time when you could still fool search engines by applying black-hat optimization techniques. Nowadays, you shouldn’t think of SEO as optimizing your website for search engines. Instead, you should be optimizing it for your visitors and as a result, search engines will reward you with a higher ranking. But since this is still the commonly used terminology, I’ll keep using this acronym until I come up with a more up-to-date term.

SEA or Search Engine Advertising is a form of paid marketing that aims to get you ahead of competitors by paying a search engine (e.g. Google) to show your page at the top of their results. This works by bidding on certain keywords you believe will generate valuable visitors for your pages.

Once you hear about SEA, a common misconception is to assume you can just skip the "optimizing your website" part and cut the line by throwing some money at Google and expect to be the number one result. But I wouldn't be writing this blogpost if that were the case, of course.

First of all, there is a difference between paid and organic search results. Paid results are shown on top of the page with the designation "Adv.", while organic search results are shown lower on the page. Organic search results are in no way affected by paid advertising on Google. 

Google's algorithm is more complex than just giving the top slot to the highest bidder. AdWords, the SEA service of Google, uses "Ad Rank" to determine who deserves the best position in paid search results. This Ad Rank is an internal score that consists of 4 main parameters:

  1. The level of your bid: how much money is your company offering to Google?
  2. The quality of the advertisement you want to show
  3. The quality of the content on the page you are directing visitors to: Is the landing page easy to navigate, optimized for mobile use, unique, fast-loading, etc.?
  4. The relevance of this page for visitors: will clicking on your ad provide an answer or solution for the person searching?

This means that even if you have the highest bid for a certain keyword, you can still lose your position to a competitor who did a better job at delivering relevant and high-quality content to search engine users.

This leads us back to our initial concern on budgeting priorities, and it is clear that you should definitely invest time and effort in developing a strong SEO strategy for your website before complementing it further with pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns.

In my opinion, the following things should always be in the back of your mind when building your SEO strategy:


SEO isn’t a quick fixSEO isn’t a quick fix you can apply to certain pages on your site. In order to thoroughly optimize your website, you will need an overhaul that starts at the core. Which means starting on a more technical level to improve page speed, title tags, meta descriptions, redirects, etc., after which moving to a content strategy to improve factors such as authority and backlinks on relevant websites.


SEO is not a goalSEO is not a goal, but rather one of the means to improve the quality of your website, increase organic traffic and ultimately to drive conversion.


SEO shouldn’t be seen as an additional marketing activitySEO shouldn’t be seen as an additional marketing activity, but as a checklist of parameters that forms the base of your website. A quick and dirty overview of some checks to get you started includes:


    • Every page has a unique title tag
    • All relevant pages have a meta description tag
    • URLs are well-structured (understandable, logical, use of hyphens, …)
    • All images have alt text
    • A sitemap is present to make crawling by search engines more efficient
    • Irrelevant pages are excluded from search results by using the rel=”nofollow” tag
    • All site pages are optimized for mobile usage
    • Good page speed: >80 on the PageSpeed score

Once SEO is on point and you’re happy with your organic search rankings, you can think of allocating a portion of your budget in SEA to drive-in more traffic. If you start the other way around, you’ll end up wasting a valuable chunk of your digital marketing budget. In conclusion, investing in SEA when your website doesn’t comply with SEO guidelines and standards will be rather useless, as Google Adwords ranks ads with similar criteria as organic search results are ranked.