If you are in the field of digital marketing, the terms SEO and SEM are so mainstream for you. Both Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) sound similar and have a difference of only one word. But these two are not the same.
There are several differences between SEO vs SEM that you must know, along with the importance of both.
SEO is focused on attracting organic traffic to your website through various means, relying on search engine algorithms to show your pages on the SERPs to potential customers. SEO requires quality content, an understanding of optimization techniques, and long-term goals in order to sustain non-paid traffic. For many in the industry, SEO strategies also include user experience and other tactics that don’t directly influence SEO, but that have an overall positive impact on both your authority and the experience visitors have when they come to your site.
SEM, on the other hand, encompasses everything that gets users to your site, including SEO and PPC/paid advertising.
In terms of work, SEO is more complicated than PPC, as it requires things like content creation, optimization, ongoing refining, keyword research, competitor analysis, and more. SEO also takes longer to see results. This approach is “free,” kind of. You don’t pay for it directly (unless you have hired an SEO agency to help) like you do with ads, but it does take quite a bit of time and effort.
Setting up your ads is the most time-consuming part of PPC, and it does require some understanding about what you’re doing (though Google does offer some DIY options that help newbies set up ads—these aren’t always ideal, but they do work). The requirements for PPC include writing copy, knowing the geographical area you want to target, understanding what your budget is and what it will get you, and finding your way around the Ads platform. Once you have your info loaded into the platform, you can essentially set it and forget it (though we recommend regularly checking in and making tweaks as necessary), and you start seeing results almost immediately.
What is SEO?
Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of trying to rank in a search engine’s organic results. It involves four main steps:
Keyword research – Find what people are searching for
On-page SEO – Craft content for searchers
Off-page SEO – Build trust and authority from other websites
Technical SEO – Ensure search engines can find, crawl and index your content
What is SEM and How Does it Work?
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a descriptor that incorporates various types of paid search advertising. This is the type of thing that you’ll see as Google ad and usually ends up on the top of a page list. Usually, this has a to do with keyword placement and usage and that’s one way why doing it well can require some extra knowledge and strategy.
Here are some examples of SEM-based advertising activities:
• Targeted (paid) ad campaigns
• Writing copy using very selective keywords
• Ensuring that advertising activities fall within an allotted budget
• Applying key performance indicators like click-through-rates (CTR) and cost-per-click (CPC) towards future advertising activities
There’s such a thing as poorly done SEM, but when it’s done well, it will get you to the top of the rankings. This involves spending some time designing your ads so that they are targeted well.
SEM is great for brand recognition as it means that you’ll be at the top of the list every time someone searches. It’s also a great way to bring in targeted traffic to your website. And because it has to do with paid ads, it’s easy to understand your ROI in a direct way – you are using paid ads and will be able to monitor the traffic on those and then create campaigns based on this information.
Drawbacks of SEM are that it does require some extra special knowledge and tools (like Google AdSense). If you’re not well versed in the area, you’ll probably want to hire someone with a significant amount of expertise in web marketing and ad campaigns to handle this end of things and make it worth your while.
How are SEO and SEM Complementary?
SEO and SEM both heavily rely on keywords to drive traffic to business websites and web pages. Though the marketing techniques used for each are different, they are both focused on traffic flows and how these relate to marketing activities. People will use search engines to search for something that they’re looking for, and they’ll be able to find it by the organic results (SEO) or by the paid results (SEM).
Most people search online before buying anything so having a strong presence in search is crucial and using a strategic combination of both can boost your visibility in the long term.
SEO is for organic traffic – so that’s unpaid or free listings, and SEM is for targeted ads that you pay for. They can be complementary but only if the website itself is SEO-friendly first, then SEM has a greater chance of being successful.
SEO is the foundation for good SEM and when you have each set up properly, you have a better chance of getting high-quality traffic and improving conversion rates. Once you have an SEO-friendly site and sponsored ads that are targeted properly using the right keywords, you have more chance of showing up at the top of paid searches. But you have to have your SEO in place in order for Google to see you as a credible website
If your website is on the newer side, you can prioritize your PPC campaign first as it can take a while for SEO rankings to become established, but don’t ignore your SEO during this process.
When should I use SEO vs. SEM?
While SEO is the preferred choice in many cases, some situations benefit more from SEM vs. SEO.
For example, you should use SEO when:
You can wait three to six months to start seeing traffic, leads, and online sales
You want to use a digital marketing strategy that isn’t dependent on having a monthly ad spend
You have the time and resources (or your SEO agency does) to manage SEO proactively
In comparison, you should use SEM when:
You need to generate traffic, leads, or sales immediately
You want to have a presence in high-competition search results without the wait of SEO
You have the time, resources, and budget to manage your ads weekly
Overall, choosing between SEM and SEO depends on what you want and how fast you want it.
Here are the three general rules:
- SEO is best for informational keywords.
- PPC is best for “hard to rank for” keywords.
- PPC and SEO are best for ad-heavy keywords.
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