What Exactly is the Difference Between SEO & SEM?

May 13, 2019

weidert blog author

Posted by Kelly Wilhelme

What Exactly is the Difference Between SEO & SEM.jpg

As marketing has evolved, so has the language we use as marketers. We're all guilty of tossing around jargon and acronyms that often leave our clients confused. Let’s be honest. We as marketers are probably confused on what certain terms and acronyms mean half the time as well!

Two terms and acronyms that are often used interchangeably without a clear understanding of how they're related and how they differ are SEO and SEM. They have a symbiotic relationship and, when both are leveraged to their full potential, they can get you great marketing results.

What is the Key Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has traditionally been thought of as a component of Search Engine Marketing (SEM), encompassing both paid and organic tactics.

Today, however, SEM is used to refer exclusively to paid search. According to Search Engine Land, Search Engine Marketing is “the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines.” Search Engine Optimization, on the other hand, is defined as “the process of getting traffic from free, organic, editorial or natural search results.”

SEM is a paid search strategy.
SEO is an organic search strategy.

These separate strategies should both be a part of your company’s online search marketing arsenal.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Overview

SEO disciplines need to continually evolve to keep up with Google's ever-changing algorithms. But one thing is constant: SEO is made up of on-page and off-page (i.e., "on-site" and "off-site") activities as its two main pillars.

Elements of On-page SEO

  • Optimized meta data, including the page title tag, meta description, heading tags, and image ALT tag, which incorporate target keywords
  • Well-written and optimized page copy through strategic keyword research
  • Simple and well-formatted page URLs with selective keywords
  • Optimized page speed
  • Social sharing integration within your content

Elements of Off-page SEO

  • Link building to attract and obtain quality inbound links (these backlinks help make up the majority of off-page SEO)
  • Social signals (e.g., increasing traffic to a website from social media sharing)
  • Attracting attention from social bookmarking sites like Reddit, Digg and Stumbleupon

Create valuable, high-quality content that your target audience will find useful such as blog articles and web page copy. This helps establish your authority over time and results in increased organic website traffic, more opportunities for inbound links and, most importantly, more conversions.

Pay attention to these on-page and off-page tactics to ensure your landing pages, web copy and blog articles are optimized for search.

The SEO Survival Guide Free eBook

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Overview

SEM strictly involves earning search visibility through paid advertisements on search engines like Google. These advertisements are commonly referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) ads. There are lots of other terms used for SEM activities including cost-per-click (CPC) ads, paid search ads and paid search advertising.

PPC advertising allows you to target potential buyers through relevant ad copy and keywords that match their search queries. PPC ads show up in search engine results pages (SERPs) next to organic listings. They give your business the opportunity to increase the visibility of its web pages, landing pages, blog articles and more.

RELATED: What an Inbound Marketer Should Look for in a PPC Agency

What Are Some Examples of SEM Strategies?

Google AdWords is far and away the most popular search engine platform for hosting ads. Consider other opportunities, too, like Bing ads or Yahoo search ads. Wherever you choose to spend your internet marketing dollars, there are some key strategies for successful SEM:

  • Launch ad campaigns with a specific audience (e.g., geographic, industry, etc.) in mind
  • Create ad groups that consist of target keyword variations
  • Write relevant ad copy using those selective keywords
  • Set an ad budget
  • Monitor metrics like clicks, impressions, click through rates and average cost-per-click

There are other considerations when launching and maintaining an effective paid search ad campaign, but these five are especially important for any beginner. If you want to ramp up your SEM efforts to complement organic search engine optimization, take a look at Google Adwords.

Google AdwordsSo, Which is Better? Should I Use SEO or SEM?

Advocates on either side could argue one is more effective than the other. However, I like to view high-quality SEO as a foundation for high-quality SEM. Both have extreme value and should be part of your B2B inbound marketing strategy.

When to Focus on SEO

SEO lays the groundwork for SEM through well-optimized content that prospects and customers find helpful. Without landing pages, web pages and blog content optimized for search, your SEM efforts will fall flat due to poor quality. Gaining visibility in SERPs will end up being extremely difficult as a result. 

Organic SEO is less costly over the long term and helps establish search credibility. But it’s important to maintain it with the consistent creation of quality content and social media sharing. In other words, you need to have something worth searching for.

When to Focus on SEM 

Are you just launching your first website and creating your initial online footprint to promote your product or service? Then you’ll likely need immediate visibility in search until you build up your organic credibility. With a strategic PPC campaign, you'll be able to achieve this. What you shouldn't do, though, is rely strictly on PPC over the long-term while ignoring organic SEO. You still need to create great content that visitors will want to engage with once they get to your website.

Evaluate what's best for your specific needs, but make sure you fully understand the differences between SEM and SEO and how you'll maintain your efforts going forward.

To learn more about organic SEO and PPC advertising, download our Organic SEO vs. SEM Pay-Per-Click Comparison Guide below!

Compare organic SEO to Pay-Per-Click

Topics: Search Engine Optimization

whole brain marketing blog author
Written by Kelly Wilhelme

Kelly Wilhelme currently manages all of Weidert Group's marketing efforts. Through her past experience as an inbound marketing consultant on our client service team and, prior to that in financial services communication, she has a deep understanding of complex businesses and a desire to help them grow. Kelly has a passion for communication strategy, layout and design, as well as writing and content creation.

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