SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?


Types of Search Engine Marketing

As marketing has evolved over the years, so too has the language that marketers use. They are all guilty of tossing around acronyms and jargon that often leave the readers confused. And if we are completely honest, many marketers are probably confused about what specific acronyms and terms mean half the time! If you’re asking yourself “what is the main difference between SEO and SEM”, you’re not alone.

The two acronyms and terms that are often interchangeably used without a clear understanding of how they are related and how they differ in meaning are Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM). They both have a symbiotic relationship, and, when leveraged to their full potential, they can produce remarkable marketing results.

Continue reading to learn about “what is the main difference between SEO and SEM” and how they each allow marketers to rank pages and increase traffic.

What is the Main Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Search engine optimization, commonly known (and referred to) as SEO, has conventionally been considered an SEM component, i.e., search engine marketing, encompassing both organic and paid tactics. However, today SEM refers exclusively to paid search - meaning you’re paying to have your content displayed higher on the search engines.

Search engine optimization is defined as the process of attracting and receiving more traffic from organic, free, natural, and editorial results. On the other hand, search engine marketing is getting website traffic through purchasing ads for search engines, think Google’s Pay-Per-Click (PPC) ads.

In short, SEO is an organic and free search strategy, whereas SEM is a paid strategy. Both of these strategies must be a part of your brand's online search marketing arsenal.

SEO Overview

Search engine optimization disciplines the need to constantly evolve to keep up with the ever-changing algorithms of Google. The one constant in SEO is that it's made up of off-page and on-page (i.e., off-site and on-site activities), and these are its two main pillars. We would be remiss if we did not also mention local SEO though.

Features of On-Page SEO

- Social sharing integration with content

- Optimized page speed

- Optimized meta details such as page title tag, heading tags, meta descriptions, and image alt name that involve target keywords

- Optimized and well-written page content via strategic keyword research

- Well-formatted and simple page URLs with selective keywords

Features of Off-Page SEO

- Attracting attention from social bookmarking websites like Digg, Reddit, and Stumbleupon

- Social signals, for example, enhancing traffic to a site from social media sharing

- Building links to attract and acquire quality inbound links

Create high-quality and valuable content useful for your target audiences, such as articles, blog posts, and web page copy. Doing this will allow you to establish your authority which will eventually and ultimately result in increased organic traffic, enhanced opportunities for inbound links, and more conversions.

Make sure to pay attention to these off-page and on-page tactics to ensure your web copy, landing pages, blog posts, and articles are optimized for search.

SEM Overview

Search engine marketing (SEM) strictly comprises of earning search visibility via paid advertisements on search engine platforms like Google. These paid advertisements are commonly known as PPC or pay-per-click ads. There are several other words used for SEM activities such as paid search advertising, paid search ads, cost per click, or CPC ads.

PPC advertising allows marketers to target potential buyers through keywords and relevant ad copies that match their search requests. These ads show up in SERPs, also known as search engine results pages next to organic listings. PPC ads allow businesses to increase the visibility of their landing pages, web pages, articles, blog posts, and more.

Examples of SEM Strategy

Google AdWords is, by far, the most popular and widely used search engine platform for hosting ads. There are other platforms as well, such as Yahoo search ads, Bing ads, etc. Whichever platform you select to spend your online marketing budget on, make sure you follow some successful SEM strategies to reap adequate benefits. A few of these strategies include:

  1. Generate ad campaigns with a particular audience in mind (see our article on Defining Your Target Audience)

  2. Create ad groups that comprise of target keyword variations

  3. Create relevant ad copies using selective keywords

  4. Set a budget for ads

  5. Monitor metrics like impressions, clicks, average CPC and click-through rates

There are few other considerations for launching and maintaining a successful paid search ad campaign, but these five are most critical for beginners.

3 Types of Search Engine Marketing

The types of search engine marketing can be characterized into three types:


Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

SEO is a method of enhancing the rankings of a website in the SERPs to drive traffic, achieve more visibility, and eventually help a website grow its leads and conversions. Search engines like Bing, Yahoo, Google aren't paid to provide ranking in SERPs. Instead, SEO experts offer guidance to optimize a page and make it rank organically.

Search Engine Advertising

While SEO is the way to enhance sites ranking on the SERPs organically; Search engine advertising is the way search engines are paid to make an ad appear on top of their search results. They usually appear on top of the SERPs, above the organic results, and are labeled with an 'AD' tag.

Paid Submission

One of the less common types of search engine marketing is paid submissions. This is a method of listing a business's information, including its site, to online directories through monetary payments. Online directories have editors that manually review the submission, and once approved, these submissions are listed permanently. It can help increase a business's online citation that can affect visibility on search engines.

SEO vs. SEM: Which is Better?

Advocates on either could reason one is more effective and successful than the other. But, we like to see high-quality SEO as an underpinning for high-quality SEM. Both hold significant value and should be part of any inbound marketing strategy.

Focus on SEO When:

As discussed above, SEO lays the foundation for SEM through optimized content that is useful and attractive for customers. Without web pages, blog posts, articles, and landing pages optimized for search, all SEM efforts would, unfortunately, fail due to poor quality. Additionally, SEO is less expensive over the long term and helps brands to enhance their search credibility.

SEO is great for building organic rank on the search engines to help drive traffic organically to your website.

Focus on SEM When:

If you're launching your website and want to create your initial online footprint to promote a service or product, then SEM would be a good means to receive immediate visibility until you attain organic credibility. An effective PPC campaign can make this happen, but make sure that you do not rely heavily on paid ads in the long run. Quality content is a must for engaging customers to your website and to achieve conversions.

SEM is also great for building brand awareness if you’re just getting started, because remember: if people don’t know you exist, they won’t become customers.

Final Note

The differences between SEO and SEM are not many, but to know when and how to use each is the key to achieving an effective marketing strategy. If your budget allows, coupling SEO and SEM efforts can posture your organization for growth.

Pendragon Consulting is not only a leading Baltimore SEO company, but also experts in managing PPC advertising for our client’s SEM needs. Book your free consultation today to discuss your needs: hello@pendragonconsultingllc.com.

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