SEO v SEM. You said what now?

September 5, 2023

No, these aren’t new drug delivery vehicles or manufacturing processes. In a biotech industry where acronyms run rampant, these are two that actually have nothing to do with biology, regulation or patient advocacy. They do, however, play a huge role in your company’s digital strategy, and when harnessed correctly, can pay dividends in amplifying the work that you’re doing on behalf of patients.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are two complementary digital strategies that are employed to boost your brand’s online visibility. Below, we’ll define what they are, how they work and how they can be leveraged in the unique world of biotech.

What is SEO?

SEO is the process of optimizing your website content, architecture and technical elements to increase your visibility in search engine results. The goal is to drive more organic traffic to your website via search engines. One of the primary ways you do so by using relevant keywords throughout your site and publishing content on a regular basis so that Google, Bing and others can index these pages and rank your site higher in their algorithms.

An important point of emphasis here is “organic traffic” – in contrast to SEM, which we’ll touch on later, SEO does not involve paying these search engines to increase visibility in search. It does require an investment in time and resources – particularly in identifying relevant keywords and generating a content program that supports long-term organic growth. The distinction is that there’s no transaction directly with the search engine.

So SEM is paid traffic?

Right! SEM is a paid advertising approach with the goal of driving targeted traffic to your website through bidding on keywords and placing ads with search engines and other digital platforms.

While you may target the same keywords for both SEO and SEM, you’ll get a more immediate traffic boost with an SEM approach. When you see a “sponsored” search result at the top of a Google search, you’re seeing SEM in action. The trade off, of course, is that you’re paying for the ad.

To SEO or SEM?

Short answer – yes.

SEO is important for establishing trust and credibility. By publishing content to your website, such as blog posts that explain a component of your science, patient stories, or even articles explaining your approach to team building, you naturally weave in keyword-rich content to your website – this is what search engines love. Even more important, this kind of content establishes trust in your brand by positioning it as an educational resource for your science, a committed partner to the patient community and a socially responsible steward of your company.

But SEO alone does come with two main challenges for biotech companies: 1) resource investment and 2) competition.

  1. Resource investment: Committing to a long-term content strategy can be difficult, particularly when you don’t have someone dedicated to it. For smaller teams, particularly early-stage biotech companies, it can be difficult to take scientists or patient advocates off their existing responsibilities to write and publish blogs – doing so on a regular basis even more so.
  2. Competition: Even among larger, more established biotechs, SEO can pose a challenge. While you may be able to devote a larger team to regular content creation, you’ll find that you’re competing for the same keywords with some very well-established organizations with incredibly robust content engines. For instance, an oncology company with a lead candidate targeting BRAF mutations will be competing against the likes of Johns Hopkins Medical Center, Memorial Sloan Kettering, the National Institute of Health, the American Cancer Society and several other organizations. The body of content that these groups have on their websites can be daunting for even the most robust in-house content teams.

The work you’ve done on the SEO side is still important – without relevant content for your site visitors, they could exit the site as quickly as they arrived. But by pairing a steady organic SEO strategy with targeted SEM, you can both establish brand credibility and recognition, while driving highly desirable traffic to your site.


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