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What Is The Difference Between SEO And SEM?

by | 19 Aug, 2022

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SEO and SEM are two of the most important digital marketing tools for businesses. However, they are not the same.

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. This is the process of improving the visibility of a website on search engine results pages. SEO is all about quality content, backlinks, and social media marketing.

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing (also known as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) or paid search). SEM is the process of using pay-per-click advertising to drive traffic to a website, in order to increase awareness and conversion rates.

The main difference is that SEO focuses on improving a website’s organic ranking in SERPs, while SEM focuses on paid advertising like Google Adwords or Bing Ads to drive traffic to a website or landing page.

What is SEO and How Does It Work?

SEO is the process of optimizing a website in order to rank in the organic, non-paid search engine results pages (SERPs).

Search engines have crawlers that scour all the available web pages on the internet.

Crawlers look for things like:

  • Quality Content
  • User Experience
  • Link Patterns

Then these crawlers take this information to their database for indexing. Algorithms then match a user’s search query to the information in the database.

It takes time for search engines like Google to notice your website, especially if it’s brand new. It could take months to years before you are rewarded with a high rank on SERPs.

What is SEM and How Does It Work?

SEM is a process of increasing the visibility of a website in the SERPs through paid advertising. You would usually find this as an ad at the top of the SERP.

Search engine marketing works through paid keywords and advertising.

These paid ads are all about bidding.

First, you allocate a budget to bid on specific keywords that searchers may use in their search queries. Once someone searches for that keyword, your ad shows up.

And when someone clicks on your ad, you pay the amount that you bid. This amount is known as cost per click (CPC).

Google uses metrics such as quality score and ad copy to determine whether an ad is a good match for whatever someone is searching for.

The results of using SEM strategies are instantaneous.

SEO Vs SEM, What’s The Difference?

The main difference is that SEO focuses on optimizing a website to attract traffic from organic (unpaid) search results, while SEM seeks to increase traffic and visibility through paid search.

Other key differences between SEO and SEM are as follows:

  • SEM is typically a paid strategy that relies on paid advertising, whereas SEO is an organic (free) search strategy.
  • The rewards of SEO take time (usually months to years), while the rewards of SEM are instant. You can see results in a few hours!
  • Over time, SEO efforts add value to a website. SEM efforts are fleeting and provide no long-term value. In fact, when you stop paying, traffic to your website stops.
  • In SEM, the website owner is charged every time someone clicks on their ad. In SEO, however, the owner pays nothing when a user clicks on their website.
  • SEM traffic volume is controllable and is determined by the amount that a person can pay or bid for online marketing. With SEO, on the other hand, it is difficult to predict traffic in advance.
  • SEM search results are displayed as advertisements to users, whereas SEO results are not.

Should I Use SEO Or SEM?

When To Use SEO

You Have A Limited Budget: For startups, small businesses, and people with a small to no marketing budget, adopting an SEO strategy is best.

You Have Time: SEO takes time to see results but those results are long-lasting. If you can wait for 6-12 months to see organic traffic to your website from search engines, then SEO is worth it.

You Wish To Build Your Online Reputation: By using SEO, you will have the benefit of building your website’s reputation as a high-value authority on search engines.

You Write Informational Content: You can rank for informational keywords like “What is _______?” or “How to ________”. These types of search queries get a lot of search volume even though they don’t convert well. If you write great content on popular topics that users are interested in, then using SEO will work for you.

When To Use SEM

Consistent Ad Budget: SEM campaigns will cost you money.

However, you can set a strict budget with Pay-per-click (PPC) ads to properly manage your budget.

With SEM, you’ll need a regular monthly budget to experiment with to see what combination of keyword targeting, ad copy, landing pages, and bids works best for you.

Drive Traffic quickly: If you need to drive traffic quickly to promote a sale, test a new offer, or simply increase the visibility of your website, SEM is the way to go.

Need Data About Your Visitors:

SEM allows you to collect far more visitor data than organic search.

PPC campaigns can be managed using dashboards such as Google Analytics, which show impressions, clicks, CTR, sessions, conversions, and so on.

This data can be used to track trends and attract new customers.

When To Use Both

If at all possible, combine SEO and SEM as part of your digital marketing strategy.

You can then use the data from your PPC campaigns to improve your SEO campaigns. This will give you a better idea of what your audience is looking for when they click your website, allowing you to tailor your content accordingly.

Furthermore, when you combine SEO and SEM, you can completely dominate SERPs.

Imagine if you have the top ranking on the first page of SERPs, as well as paid listings on the same page, you could double your reach.

You can also create remarketing campaigns by combining both practices.

If your SEO efforts are bringing in visitors but not converting them, you can use SEM to reach out to those prospects and bring them back to your site.

The downside of combining SEO and SEM, however, is that your paid listings and organic traffic may lead to cannibalization, which is just a waste of money.

Another problem you may face with pairing both campaigns is that it may be too much work for one person to undertake. However, this problem is solved by having enough staff to manage both SEO and SEM for you.

Mihael D. Cacic
“Digital Marketing Mad Scientist”

Physicist turned SEO Content Marketer. For the past few years, Mihael worked with many big SaaS and service businesses helping them rank higher and get more customers. Now here to share his secrets on how to make hyper-profitable blogs in hyper-efficient ways.

Mihael is a digital marketing mad scientist. He’s a sharp marketer with high energy and lots of ideas. The work he did leveled up our whole team.”

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Founder, MailShake

Most recent win:

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Increased monthly signups from 20 to 200/month in 7 months for one client.

Saying that Mihael is a content marketing guru is an understatement. His attention to detail is on another level. He doesn’t give room to the slightest mistake and makes sure each piece is the best out there.

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Writer, Notch Content

Mihael is brilliant, organized, considerate, and honest. A rare mix in today’s world. He is extremely analytical and can grasp complex topics quickly. If you’re looking to grow your blog, listen to Mihael – he knows what he’s doing.

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