Search engine optimization (SEO) differs from search engine marketing (SEM). Still, they can work together to help you launch—and succeed in—your online marketing efforts.
This article defines each strategy and lists their similarities and differences. Ultimately, you’ll need to decide which is right for your business or how to combine both to maximize growth.
SEO vs. SEM: What Do They Mean?
According to Digital Authority Partners (DAP), the easiest way to tell the difference between SEO and SEM is to know what they mean. Let’s begin with SEO.
SEO means improving a website’s ranking in the search engine results pages (SERPs). The goal is to appear on the first page or, better yet, first in the list of the SERP.
To accomplish this, SEO focuses on three types of site optimization:
- On-page optimization refers to factors you can control, such as the site’s HTML code, meta tags, keyword placement, and keyword density.
- Off-page optimization deals with actions you take outside your website to impact your rankings. These include link building, brand mentions, and social media.
- Technical SEO removes all potential barriers that prevent search engines from indexing and ranking a website. Common techniques are optimizing your server architecture, enforcing proper 404 handling, and ensuring crawlability via XML sitemaps and robot text files.
Meanwhile, some define SEM as any strategy enhancing your search results performance. That means SEO is also SEM.
Over the years, though, its meaning has evolved to refer more to paid advertising. These include:
- Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. You buy ad placements on SERPs and only pay when someone clicks on your ad. The most popular form is Google Ads, but you can also purchase ads on platforms like Bing and Yahoo.
- Paid search advertising. You bid on certain keywords and phrases. Then, your ad will show up whenever people search for those terms. These are similar to PPC ads but are not limited to SERPs.
- Display advertising. You buy placements on websites where your ad will show up as a banner or other type of visual ad. The goal is to raise brand awareness or drive traffic back to your website.
- Shopping ads. You create product listings that include an image, a price, and other relevant information. These appear on SERPs, and you only pay when someone clicks on your listing.
Spelling Out the Differences and Similarities
Both SEO and SEM have one goal: to improve your online visibility, especially in search engines like Google. These websites receive millions of visitors globally every day. Many are ripe for conversion or ready for persuasion.
However, they are also significantly dissimilar in the following ways:
Method of Generating Traffic
SEO creates organic traffic, which means people check out your page without the carrot in front, such as a freebie, sale, or discount. You let the content encourage prospects to get into your sales funnel so you could convert them into customers.
On the other hand, SEM attracts visitors through paid traffic. You pay for ad placements, and the advertiser brings these materials to your audience. It’s basically like buying your way to your lead’s attention. In return, you pay for every click, impression, or acquisition (or conversion).
SEM can deliver traffic fast. You’re ready to bring leads into the business as soon as you publish your ads.
SEO is a long-term strategy that takes as long as six months to generate the outcomes you’re hoping for. In between, you might have to adjust your tactics as search engines update their algorithms. For instance, websites are now adjusting to Google’s recent helpful content update. Building traffic, quality inbound links, and engagement are gradual.
You can start both SEO and SEM with little to no money. However, their potential return on investment (ROI) differs in terms of the time and effort required to see results.
In general, SEO is a more efficient use of resources since it doesn’t require you to pay for ad placements. You can start by publishing quality content, optimizing your website’s code, and improving the user experience.
SEM will need a little more money out of the gate since you’re essentially paying for traffic. Google Ads campaigns, for example, can cost as much as $10,000 a month. The good news is that this expenditure is more predictable since you know how much each click costs.
Additionally, both SEO and SEM are flexible in terms of how much money you’re willing to spend. You can increase or decrease your budget at any time without penalty.
SEO and SEM both provide reporting tools that show the progress of your campaigns and what needs improvement. They also allow you to see which keywords or placements are generating the most traffic and conversions.
The main difference is that SEO reporting tools focus more on giving you an overview of your website’s growth. Meanwhile, SEM analytics platforms provide greater details about each campaign, such as total ad spending and click-through rate (CTR).
Level of Technical Knowledge Required
You don’t need to be a tech expert to do SEM, although you can get a certification. In fact, anyone can create and launch a campaign on Google Ads in less than an hour.
SEO is a little more technical since it involves many aspects. These include website and UX design, link profile, content marketing, and mobile optimization. You might need to consult an expert or learn some coding to ensure your website is search engine-friendly.
Despite the many differences between SEO and SEM, they are compatible and work well together to help you achieve your marketing goals with the following:
- SEM can give your business leads, which you can then nurture through SEO.
- Generating organic traffic is more cost-effective. But since it takes time, you can already raise brand awareness quickly through paid ads.
- You can use insights from your SEO and SEM campaigns to improve each other. For example, if you notice that a certain keyword is driving traffic but not conversions, you can add it to your paid ad campaign to get immediate results.
- You can customize SEM to be part of your local SEO campaign.
- SEM is an amazing strategy to remarket to leads you’ve lost touch with.
- Optimizing your website well makes SEM more effective because it lowers your ad costs and improves your ad rank.
SEO and SEM are two digital marketing strategies that help you improve your website’s visibility and attract more leads. Although they are not the same, they also work seamlessly together to give you the results you want.
For instance, you can use SEO to improve your website structure and content so you can rank higher in SERPs. Once you start getting organic traffic, you can then use SEM to remarket to those leads and convert them into customers.
Both strategies require time, effort, and some level of technical knowledge. However, they are worth learning since they offer a high ROI and help you sustain your business growth in the long run.