What Exactly is the Difference Between SEO & SEM?

June 8, 2018

whole brain marketing blog author


Posted by Jessica Janda

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 various jargon and acronyms on a daily basis that often leave our clients confused. And in fact, we as marketers are probably confused ourselves at times on what certain terms and acronyms mean as well.

An example of this are two terms and acronyms that are often used interchangeably without clear understanding of how they're related and how they're different: SEO & SEM.

What is the Key Distinction Between SEO and SEM?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) has traditionally been thought of as a component of the umbrella term, Search Engine Marketing (SEM), encompassing both paid AND organic tactics. Today, 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,” while Search Engine Optimization is defined as “the process of getting traffic from the free, organic, editorial or natural search results on search engines.”

So, rather than viewing SEM as an umbrella term encompassing SEO, it’s more accurate to view SEM (paid search) and SEO (organic search) as separate entities to use as part of your Search Marketing arsenal.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

The industry and discipline of SEO is continually evolving to keep up with Google's ever-changing algorithms, but one thing is constant: SEO is made up of on-page and off-page (aka "on-site" and "off-site") activities as its two main pillars.

On-page SEO consists of:

  • 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 that incorporate target keywords
  • Simple and well-formatted page URLs with selective keywords
  • Optimized page speed
  • Social sharing integration within your content

Off-page SEO consists of:

  • Link building to attract and obtain quality inbound links (aka "backlinks")
    • This makes 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

A large part of SEO is creating valuable, high-quality content (e.g., blog articles and web page copy) that your target audience will find helpful. Over time, this results in increased organic traffic to your website, more opportunities for inbound links and, most importantly, more conversions.

Be sure to 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)

SEM strictly involves earning search visibility through paid advertisements on search engines like Google. While these advertisements are commonly referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) ads, there’s a slew of additional terms used for paid search or SEM activities—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. These ads show up in the search engine results pages (SERPs) next to organic listings, which gives your company the opportunity to increase the visibility of its web pages, landing pages, blog articles and more.

What Are Some Examples of SEM Activities?

Google AdWords is far and away the most popular platform for hosting ads, but there are some key activities needed for successful SEM on the platform, such as:

  • Launching ad campaigns with a specific audience (e.g., geographic) in mind
  • Creating ad groups that consist of target keyword variations
  • Writing relevant ad copy using these selective keywords
  • Setting an ad budget
  • Monitoring metrics like clicks, impressions, click through rates and average cost-per-click

There are several other intricacies involved in launching and maintaining an effective paid search ad campaign, but these five activities are especially important for any beginner to master. If you’re thinking about ramping up SEM efforts to complement organic SEO, be sure to take a look at Google Adwords’ Search Ads page.

So, Which is Better? Strict SEO or SEM?

Advocates on either side could argue one is more effective than the other, but I like to view high-quality SEO as a prerequisite for high-quality SEM. SEO lays the foundation 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, and visibility in the SERPs will be extremely difficult. Organic SEO is also less costly long-term as you establish search credibility, as long as you maintain it with the consistent creation of quality content and social media usage.

On the other hand, if you’re just launching your first website and initial online footprint, you’re likely going to need some immediate visibility in search until you build up some organic credibility. With a strategic PPC campaign, you'd be able to achieve this. What you shouldn't do, though, is rely strictly on PPC long-term while ignoring organic SEO.

So, evaluate what's best for your specific needs but make sure you fully understand the differences and how you'll maintain your efforts long-term.

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

Compare organic SEO to Pay-Per-Click



Topics: Search Engine Optimization



whole brain marketing blog author
Written by Jessica Janda

Jessica manages all of Weidert Group's inbound marketing for the agency. With a background in digital advertising and media sales, Jessica spans the tide of marketing and sales. A graduate of the University of Oshkosh with a dual degree in Marketing and Journalism, Jessica brings a unique perspective to all the projects she works on.

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