Differentiating SEO vs. SEM

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SEM and SEO are related digital marketing strategies. When implemented, they align to accomplish the same goals but consist of very different execution. Sometimes search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are used interchangeably; however, this is inaccurate. 

You may be wondering how you know what avenue to pursue as you work to achieve your digital marketing goals. Today we’ll cover how SEO and SEM work together and differentiate the two marketing strategies. 

Key Takeaways

  • SEO is a broad term. However, its strategic application is the best way to increase organic traffic to your website.
  • Search Engine Marketing (SEM), also called PPC, uses paid strategies to gain visibility on search engines.
  • Sometimes search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are used interchangeably; however, this is inaccurate.

What is SEO

SEO is both an art and a science. It focuses on communication strategies with search engines such as Google and Bing. SEO aims to increase the number of times search engines recommend your content to search users as the best solution to their problem. The broad practice of search engine marketing includes three core areas. On-page SEO, Technical SEO, and Off-page SEO work in tandem to ensure search engines understand the context of your content. 

Read more on our blog post What SEO is and, More Importantly, is NOT!

Three subtypes of SEO work in tandem with the core types:

When and How to Use SEO

SEO is a broad term. However, its strategic application is the best way to increase organic traffic to your website. Additionally, proper SEO implementation on digital platforms such as YouTube will improve organic search opportunities within the platform search feature and on search engines.

Whether publishing a blog post, web story, or infographic, you will increase the opportunities for long-term growth by adding on-page and technical SEO to every piece of high-quality content you publish.

Learn more about how to use SEO on our blog article: Optimize Your Blog Posts Using an SEO Checklist [Free Template]

What is SEM

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) uses paid strategies to gain visibility on search engines. It is also known as PPC (pay-per-click). SEM strategies use information about a company’s target audience to develop clear search ads. 

When and How to Use SEM

Search engine marketing is helpful for highly competitive industries and keywords. With SEM, you can use the power of PPC advertising platforms like Google Ads and Bing Ads to get your message in front of your ideal audience using a variety of ad formats.

A few times when it may make sense for your company to consider PPC include:

  • Industries with seasonal popularity, such as pool repair services.
  • When you have a new product or service launch.
  • If you’re a new business in a competitive industry.
  • If you have an existing company that is expanding to a new location.

If your digital marketing goal is to quickly show up on the first page of a search query for industry-relevant keywords, you may want to invest in PPC. In contrast, the timelines for search engines to sort out how to contextually categorize your website with SEO strategies may take several months.

How SEO and SEM Complement Each Other

Both SEO and SEM are stronger strategies with the development of a detailed buyer persona. In addition, both digital marketing strategies involve keyword searches, understanding search intent, and writing relevant content.

Whether the focus of your search strategy prioritizes Google Ads or increasing organic traffic from search engines, you’ll need to incorporate relevant keywords into the written copy, title tags, and meta descriptions.

Differences Between SEO vs. SEM

A few differences exist between an SEO strategy and SEM including: 

You Pay for Every Click or Impression with SEM

With SEM, you pay for clicks or impressions, but with SEO, you focus on the free real estate of Google’s search results page. As a result, your budget may not get you very far with an SEM strategy. However, SEO efforts will enable your evergreen content marketing to work for two years or longer. 

SEM is for Immediate Results. SEO is for Long-Term Results.

The visibility of paid SEM campaigns can be seen within a few clicks. The ads will be displayed in search results if they meet the approval criteria and have sufficient bids.

The time it takes to see organic results from an SEO strategy can vary and may take several months, especially if there is competition in the market. Additionally, you may find that as your content naturally earns relevant backlinks, your position rankings increase.

SEO Delivers Cumulative Results

As soon as you turn your ads off, your visibility stops. This is why SEM digital marketing efforts must be used in specific ways. The focus of SEO organic efforts continues to add value over time as you publish more content. Regardless of your digital marketing strategy, you’re investing time and money. Your return on your investment should be cumulative. The benefit of SEO is that the strategy will build over time and will leave lasting results.

SEM Offers Clear KPI Measurements and Results

Effective testing is essential for paid advertising. Successful tests can be conducted by revising ad copy, targeting new audiences, and adjusting landing page content. In addition, the available data allows for quick changes and rapid results.

Because search engine algorithms include over 200 ranking factors, you cannot test your strategy like with SEM. But, of course, testing remains a very important part of a solid SEO strategy; it is just not comparable to what PPC allows.

Learn more about SEO comparison on our blog post: How To Run An SEO A/B Test [Template Included]

Is SEO or SEM Right for You?

Working with the experts is the best way to ensure you execute the right digital marketing strategy. When you work with SMA Marketing, we’ll conduct in-depth intensive and present a well-rounded SEO content marketing strategy. When SEM marketing is the right option, our PPC Specialist will implement a strategy using proven methods to help you gain visibility in search engine results. 

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