I recently met with a general manager who was concerned about competing with a particularly large and savvy auto group, and was looking to shift some of his advertising to digital. He asked me, “Where should I focus my budget? SEO, or paid search? What is the difference between the two?” This is a question I am asked often, and it’s clear that many dealers are still unsure of the difference between SEO & SEM. So I’m going to give you a crash course on what all of this stuff means.

This question is the digital marketing equivalent to, “I want to get in shape. Should I be eating better, or start working out?” Ideally, the answer is both, but each of these options has its own function and its own benefits.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO), or work that improves your visibility within Google’s unpaid “organic” rankings, is the “eating better” part of this equation. It requires constant, direct attention and discipline.

Would you rather leave your website on autopilot than taking the time to write quality content someone would actually want to read? You can do that, but it’s the equivalent of grabbing a greasy cheeseburger from the food cart next door.

The healthy chicken-and-rice diet of SEO is using your website to give customers useful information about your dealership and your inventory. Content is the backbone of your website, just like food is the backbone of any good diet. Feed your website great content, and you will reap the rewards by ranking higher and more often for search terms.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM), is the opposite of SEO, through which you purchase rankings rather than earning them. SEM is the “working out” part of getting in shape. This brings paid traffic to your site: immediate results, regardless of your site’s ranking in search engines.

Paid search can take on many forms:

  • Text ads displayed to customers who are searching a particular phrase
  • Banner-style display ads shown to customers who are reading about a particular vehicle on a review site
  • Animated “remarketing” ads shown to visitors who have visited your site
  • Video ads served up to customers on video-sharing sites like YouTube.

Display advertising and retargeting are great ways to stay in front of consumers as they browse the Web, giving you opportunities to communicate your unique value proposition and reinforce your brand.

SEO or Paid Search

Should you be spending your time and effort “eating better”, or “working out”? It depends on the budget and goals of the dealership. Are you looking to drive low-funnel car shoppers to your website, or are you more focused with branding your store within the local community? Perhaps you’re looking to improve the experience on your website, increasing your time on site and conversion rate.

Regardless of what is most important to you, it’s essential to understand what to expect from organic or paid search. SEO is like a marathon, and SEM is like a sprint. They both deliver great results, but in a very different way and over a different time frame. The best digital marketing strategies include a combination of both SEO and SEM, allowing you to achieve your goals today and tomorrow.

Impress your pals at the water cooler

SEO: Search Engine Optimization – work that improves how you rank for phrases that customers type into search engines like Google and Bing.

SEM: Search Engine Marketing – Digital advertising campaigns that show your ads in text, image or video format to relevant consumers.

Display Advertising: Banner ads or videos, shown based on the context of a site being visited, phrases that a customer searches, or sites they’ve previously visited.

PPC: Pay per click, the most common advertising model in digital, under which you only pay for advertising when a customer clicks your ad.

What’s All This Talk About Hats?

Black Hat SEO refers to practices that attempt to manipulate search engines into artificially giving pages a higher rank. They include:

  • Cloaking: attempts to show search engines different information than users see
  • Link farming: Building networks of shallow, “spammy” websites for the purposes of creating links and improving sites’ ranks

Black Hat tactics can sometimes fool search engines for months, but search engine algorithms eventually adjust to punish sites that use black hat tactics.

White Hat SEO refers to practices that improve search engine rankings by providing useful information to searchers.

Want to learn more about SEO and SEM and find out which one is the better fit for your dealership? Contact Kevin Gordon at kgordon@convertus.com or (888) 354-6441.

Kevin Gordon is an international speaker and thought leader in the automotive industry, regularly speaking at conferences across North America. Kevin co-founded Convertus, a digital marketing solutions provider for dealers. Learn more at Convertus.com.