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SEO vs SEM: Understanding the Difference

In a world where more than 100k searches are done every second on the most important search engine, having a business and not using that huge field of human activity makes no sense. That’s why everyone, regardless of the type of business they run, should have at least a basic understanding of things like starting a blog, indexing, and practices like SEO and SEM – which people sometimes confuse.

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two different strategies that can be of huge help in establishing and promoting your business. But, however similar they may seem at first glance, there’s a significant difference in their meaning. SEO is an essential marketing strategy for reaching the target audience, boosting conversions on your website, and developing your business. The ultimate goal of search engine marketing or SEM is to promote a website by increasing its visibility in search engine results. There are many more differences between the two, and if you don’t know what SEO is you will hardly be able to take full advantage of SEM either. Regardless of whether you are a digital marketing professional or a business owner, it is important for you to understand exactly what these strategies include as well as what they don’t so that you can use them to your benefit.

In this article, we’ll explain these strategies in detail, point out their differences, and share some examples of best practices. Stay tuned to read more about:

  • What is SEO?
  • What is SEM?
  • What SEO and SEM Have in Common
  • SEO vs SEM Differences
  • SEO vs SEM – Which One is Better?

What is SEO?

At the moment of writing this text, there are 101,105 Google searches in 1 second. This stat also tells you one important thing – whichever industry you are in, the competition is fierce and without at least a basic understanding of SEO, you are lost. Google is, without a doubt the biggest player in the SEO game, and while other search engines like Bing, Yahoo, or similar are still running, they are far behind.

SEO refers to search engine optimization for websites and implies using different tactics that all have the same goal – to achieve greater visibility in search results. Thanks to the way search engines work, you don’t have to pay for your website to appear in search results. Instead of paying for the ranking position, different strategies are used to enable your website to take the desired position on search pages.

SEO uses a wide variety of tactics to help brands improve their search rankings. These approaches are generally grouped into three categories:

  • On-page SEO – refers to individual pages optimization of a website by targeting specific keywords that are relevant to the search engines in that specific context. This type of SEO helps search engines better understand the content of the page and therefore place it better in search results. Keyword research, content optimization, and keyword optimization are all needed to be done for on-page SEO to work.
  • Technical SEO is also of huge importance and includes site speed optimization, site responsiveness (mobile-friendliness), indexing, crawlability, website structure, user experience, security, and overall technical performance. Technical SEO improves the search crawler experience which plays an important role in achieving higher search rankings.
  • Off-page SEO relies on link-building tactics to ensure the website’s authority and reputation. The goal of off-page SEO is to connect your website with other quality websites and gain recognition this way. One of the criteria search engines take into account refers to the website’s trustworthiness – if many links lead to your website search engines count that as a sign that your brand is reliable and reputable and therefore deserves to be ranked well.

As you dive into the field of SEO, you will surely at some point bump into black hat SEO and probably feel tempted to use it. But, black hat SEO involves using SEO tactics that go against the terms of use of search engines, and in some cases are even illegal. However promising they may seem, resist the temptation to use them as they could get you in serious trouble.

What is SEM?

SEM – search engine marketing is paid search advertising that can take a variety of forms. Most commonly SEM includes targeted paid ad campaigns, PPC campaigns and similar paid digital marketing strategies. The Google ads that you often see on the top of a page are usually a part of some brand’s SEM strategy.

Both SEO and SEM aim at the same target – to get your brand on top of search pages, but they get to it in different ways. For an SEM strategy to be successful, you’ll need some experience in digital marketing as well as familiarity with tools like Google AdSense, as it is the most commonly used one, but also its alternatives.

Search engine marketing requires you to cover all the activities from setting up and optimizing ads to setting a budget. If done well, SEM will get you to the top of the page – or wherever the search engine decides to include ads – so it is better to engage experts than to waste the funds on experimenting with insufficient knowledge.

What SEO and SEM Have in Common

Both SEO and SEM are considered elements of search marketing. They share many overlapping features which are important to understand as they will allow you to also understand their differences better.

The first thing SEO and SEM share is that they ultimately have the same goal – to get your brand to appear in front of a person who searches either in the form of an organic search result (SEO) or in a form of a commercial (SEM). They employ different tactics to ensure your brand appears in search results when the target audience types specific terms related to your brand’s niche. To achieve this goal, they both rely on thorough keyword research to identify the best performing keywords. An SEO or SEM expert will explore the keyword popularity, define the top keywords that best match the customer intent, and analyze keyword competition to learn how other brands use them.

The second goal SEO and SEM have in common is to increase traffic to your website. They use different tactics to improve click-through rates and attract more users to click on your website in search results. Last but not least, both SEO and SEM demand a deep understanding of your target audience as, without it, it is not possible to identify the keywords or perform any other segment of SEM and SEO. Defining the buyer persona, exploring the ways your target group typically behaves on your website and understanding how they typically come to you and what their shopping habits are, is absolutely necessary for both strategies to succeed. Also, note that both SEO and SEM require constant testing and optimization.

SEO vs SEM Differences

Although both tactics aim to get your website to appear in front of a person performing a search, those search results look completely different. Ads show up on designated places at the top or near the bottom of the page, and SEO search placement does not include an ad. Unlike SEM, SEO search placement does not include an ad designation. Search results that come as a result of an SEO strategy don’t have ad extensions, they may only have featured snippets.

The difference between the two that you are likely to feel the most is the price. When it comes to SEO, you need to be willing to constantly invest time and energy to learn the rules of the SEO game, explore, test, adjust the strategy and monitor the results. Your goal is not achieved when you manage to appear on top of the page, you also have to stay vigilant to keep showing up in the top results. But, once you get the grasp and master SEO, it will be much easier to sense what needs to be done next to keep you at the top and you will be able to enjoy the results without having to pay each time a user clicks on your website in search result.

In SEM, you also need all the knowledge you have about SEO, plus some knowledge of digital marketing, and a bigger budget since SEM is usually based on a pay-per-click or PPC campaign which means you pay each time someone clicks on your ad. On the other hand, SEM usually provides faster results, it is excellent for brand recognition and brand awareness. SEO may take a serious amount of time before it starts to bring results.

SEM allows you to create a more precisely targeted campaign – you can choose exactly which audience will be able to see your brand in search results by using filters based on habits, income, age, location, preferences, and similar features. The moment you launch an SEM campaign your ads start appearing in search engine results pages, so the results of SEM are immediate. SEO does not include such possibilities, you can’t control who will see your brand in search results, or how much time it will take to start appearing in search results.

SEO vs SEM – Which One is Better?

The question of which of the two is better is the topic of many discussions, but there’s actually no need to ponder the question at all. Both tactics bring results, both are useful and the only real question is what exactly you are hoping to achieve. One does not exclude the other in any way, and if you have the means of course it is best to use both.

That being said,, we’ll now give you a few reasons why it is important to use SEO, regardless of whether you are employing an SEM strategy too:

  • Internet users are well aware of the difference between organic search results and paid ads, and as you can guess they tend to trust organic search results more. It usually takes a long time for a website to get into the top ranks on SERPs and when it does, you can be sure the site is of good quality as the algorithms that got it there are pretty refined.
  • The results achieved with SEO are long-term. Once you manage to position your website well, there is a fair chance it will stay on top of the page for months even if you stop working actively on your SEO. With SEM, the results are there as long as the campaign is on, the moment you turn off the ads you lose your position. Still, this doesn’t mean SEO does not require constant effort, it just promises more long-term results.
  • SEO makes you invest in your website quality. Many experts consider the field of SEO as unpredictable due to frequent Google algorithm updates. But, the ultimate goal of all these updates is to provide the best quality to the users so simply by investing in your website’s quality you are actually working on your SEO.

Now, don’t get fooled into thinking that SEM is not worth the effort. In case you are establishing a new brand and need to earn brand recognition quickly, reach your target audiences faster, and want to see the results immediately – nothing can replace a good SEM strategy. Your competition is also a factor you should always factor in when considering which strategy would be more effective for you.

Research the terms your competition organically ranks for, what paid terms they use to drive traffic, and investigate if there are gaps to fill and areas in which it is impossible for you to compete. Bear in mind that SEM campaigns are better for testing – they allow you to test your marketing efforts, ideas, products, and services faster. Another important factor is the length of the typical consumer buying cycle. If your target consumers tend to know what they want and buy it quickly, an SEM campaign may be particularly effective. But, if they tend to browse similar websites to compare quality and prices, an SEO strategy may be more effective.

In Conclusion

Now that you understand the difference between SEO and SEM, you are surely aware of how both strategies can help your business grow. There are many different factors to consider and analyze to decide which of the two deserves more attention in your case. Some businesses benefit the most from combining the elements of both SEO and SEM strategies into one, custom-made approach. It all boils down to what your unique goals are and what kind of resources in terms of time and money you have at your disposal.