The Difference Between SEO and SEM?

By Michael Gonzalez

Online marketing is tricky. From content to pay-per-click advertising, there are a lot of things you need to understand about today’s marketing world. However, online marketing is made even trickier with the number of acronyms and strategies that all sound similar.

Two of the most often confused digital marketing strategies are search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM). While they may sound similar, they are entirely different. SEO and SEM will have different goals, appropriate uses, and outcomes. If you want to attract attention online successfully, you’ll need to know the differences.

Here’s a look at what each entails, when you should use them, and what the major differences between the two are.

What is SEO?

If you own a website, you’ve probably heard about search engine optimization. SEO is a marketing strategy that allows you to attract more attention to your brand and website through properly optimizing your content to appeal to the needs of various search engines. The better you optimize your web pages, the higher chance you will have at appearing at the top of a search engine results list.

Many different factors contribute to an SEO strategy, such as keyword placement, content popularity, and website load time. However, these factors are broken down into two main categories: on-page factors and off-page factors.

Your on-page SEO factors will be those that are entirely within your control. These factors appear on your website or web page, giving you full control over how they look and where you place them. Your on-page SEO factors are often the easiest to implement, including things like where you put your keywords, the speed of the website, and the quality of the content you upload.

Off-page SEO factors can be harder to control. Because off-page factors are located somewhere other than your site, you need to put more effort into implementing them correctly. Critical off-page factors include company reviews, online listings, and backlinks to your website.

Properly optimizing your site and content allows search engine users to find your page more quickly. When they have a problem they need solving, they’ll jump online to do a quick search for potential solutions. Your listing will appear if your content fits the keywords they’re seeking.

However, because users rarely glance at more than the first page of results, you want to ensure your content is ranking very highly. Ideally, your listing would be among the top three results. Unfortunately, SEO can take some time before results start to appear.

SEO works slowly. As you continue to build your website, you rely on the optimization you’ve already created. Search engine crawlers will become used to your content, allowing you to build momentum surrounding your posts. After a few weeks or months, you’ll start to see your listings getting closer and closer to the top of a results list.

That makes SEO an organic way of attracting attention. Because the results appear naturally on a search engine results list, users will interact with them in their own time as they’re researching the problem they need solving. There isn’t a push to view your content, meaning they’ll be more open to your messaging and remember you when it’s time to come back to make a purchase.

What is SEM?

Search engine marketing is an umbrella term for all the ways you can market on a search engine. In some cases, this can include SEO. However, most people are referring to paid advertising strategies, such as PPC advertising, when talking about search engine marketing.

Like SEO, SEM focuses on attracting new attention from search engines. Despite this similarity, SEM does so through paying for top rankings. Whereas SEO tries to bring in new customers organically, search engine marketing uses paid tactics to bypass the wait time. That can be extremely beneficial if you’re trying to get results quickly.

SEM can also give you more control over how and where your listings appear. When you create an SEO strategy, you’re putting all the power in the hands of the search engine. If they don’t connect with the keywords you’re trying to target, all you can do is shift your strategy and try again. With your SEM strategy, you’re able to pay the appropriate amount to have your listings appear the way you’d like.

However, when you pay to have your listing appear the top of a search engine results page, it will show up as an ad. That lets the user know that it is a sponsored post, potentially pushing them away from clicking the link. Although you’re at the top of the page, users may skip over your listing and go straight to the organic posts.

The most common kind of search engine marketing is pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. With PPC ads, you will bid on keywords that you’d like your listing to appear on. With the right offer, your listing will show at the top of the page. However, you only need to pay for the advertisements that people click, so if you are on the top of the page but a user does not click on your listing, you don’t need to pay for that appearance.

There are other kinds of paid search engine advertisements that you may use, however, PPC is typically the most cost efficient. Even if a user does not click on your link, you can increase awareness about your brand by making the top of a search engine results page. The next time they come into contact with your company name or website, there will be some familiarity that can encourage them to learn more about you.

Using SEO and SEM Together

Promoting your website on search engines is critical for any company in any industry. As one of the best ways to attract new audience members and expand your customer base, you want to ensure you’re doing all you can to appear in relevant online searches. That means using both SEO and SEM together.

Both SEO and SEM have their advantages and drawbacks. However, they seem to pick up the other’s slack quite nicely. When you consider how the two works together, you’re able to attract your target audience appropriately.

Because SEO will take some time before you start to see results, a strong SEM strategy will allow you to draw attention for your target audience while you wait for your SEO strategy to kick in. SEM will also make it easier for you to appear on highly diluted keywords. While you may need to pay a premium for slots related to those popular keywords, the return can be well worth the investment.

You want your SEO and SEM strategies to complement one another. While each can give you results independently, they won’t be nearly as high as if you consider how the two can work together. To improve your results from both SEO and SEM, start to look at the two strategies as two arms of the same plan.

Think about what goals you’d like to achieve through both your SEO and SEM. Consider how those goals relate to one another and how the other strategy can bring you closer to achieving your goals.

Both SEO and SEM are incredibly important to growing your online business; however, if you do not include each in your online marketing strategy, you could be missing potential customers. To fully promote your brand through search engines, you need to include both search engine optimization and search engine marketing in your online promotion strategy.