The Difference Between SEO and SEM

SEM and SEO, message on blackboard and hold by businessman 9Sail Fairfield NJ

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

People use SEO to optimize their websites to get better rankings in search results. SEO’s greatest advantage is that it garners free traffic from search engine, unlike SEM. By incorporating long tail keywords and industry-specific keywords into your website content, the search engine crawlers find your site more easily, increasing your site’s chances of ranking higher in SERPS (search engine results pages).

SEO fits under the umbrella of SEM (search engine marketing). Generally, SEO includes on-site and off-site activities.

On-site activities include:

  • Optimized titles & good descriptions, which you’ll get by incorporating select keywords into title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, and alt text
  • Well-formatted, cleanly formatted page URLs
  • Well-written, optimized quality blog posts and page copy
  • Social sharing integration within page content

Off-site SEO gets votes from other websites to increase the likelihood that search engines will trust your site. “Votes” are actually links that come from other websites to your site—so you can also think of off-site SEO as link building. For you to get more bang from off-site SEO, you’ll want to create a high-quality website. Check this site out for a more expanded description of what constitutes a high-quality website and how to successfully build one.

Off-site activities include:

  • Social sharing signals
  • Social bookmarking like Reddit, Digg, or Stumbleupon
  • Creating a high-quality backlink profile—in other words, getting other authoritative, highly-ranked sites to link back to yours naturally. This link-building makes up the majority of off-page or off-site SEO

SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

SEM is the umbrella under which SEO falls. The goal of SEM is to gain visibility in search engines by using SEO or paid search advertising. Paying gets you advertising space on the SERPS.

You’re probably most familiar with Google Adwords: your ad appears in Google search results—and you only pay for the clicks on your ads (hence the pay-per-click—or PPC—process).

What is SEM’s value? It’s targeted. In other words, when people use search engines to find the answer to a question or a service or a product, and searches click on a website from the search results—or click on an ad—there’s a greater likelihood of conversion.

So how does PPC work, exactly?

PPC, cost-per-click (CPC), paid search ads and advertising are all SEM activities. PPC advertising facilitates your ability to target buyers by using relevant ad copy and keywords that hone in on their searches. These ads appear in SERPs next to the organic results and increase the company’s web, landing, and blog pages’ visibility.

What you pay for CPC depends on your ad’s rank. The higher the rank, the higher the CPC. The most you’ll pay is the minimum amount needed to keep your position—if you want a higher rank in SERP, you’ll pay more, so budget accordingly.

In addition to Google AdWords, a very popular platform for hosting ads, you’ll also want to consider the following when you’re utilizing SEM:

  • Launching ad campaigns geared toward your specific audience
  • Creating ad groups that have a variety of target keywords
  • Using select keyword groups to write relevant ad copy
  • Setting your advertising budget
  • Monitoring metrics for clicks, impressions, click-through rates, and cost-per-click. You can adjust your campaign based on data you collect and analyze.

When you implement SEM correctly and effectively, it incorporates the SEO and expands your presence within the search results. It can also increase leads to your website, drive more visitors, increase online visibility, and target users based on their search goals.

Which marketing tactic is better?

Technically, SEM can’t exist without organic SEO. If you’re just launching a new business or a new offering and you want visibility right away, it may be a good investment of your marketing budget to use PPC. It takes less time than SEO to set up, but once you’ve stopped paying for the ads, there’s no guarantee that people will continue to convert. However, if you use this method to drive traffic to your site while you’re building up your SEO, and then let the organic (and free) SEO continue, you’ve already built a strong foundation by which to keep funneling new customers (and conversions) to your site.

SEO takes longer to show results, but it costs quite a bit less, and it enables you to achieve that all-important search credibility you don’t necessarily gain by using PPC. This article from Staples gives an even more detailed analysis on the differences between natural and paid searches.

Pros of SEO

SEO helps build brand awareness which improves your company’s long-term prospects and attracts more potential customers.

When you provide customers with the info they’re looking for, your credibility increases because they view your company as an authority.

Since Google tries to rank the best websites first, people trust the engine and they trust websites that rank high on Google’s SERP.

SEO drives a lot of targeted, ready to convert traffic to your site when you’ve got the content your customers are seeking. SEO thrives on solid content marketing and how you leverage that content to grow your brand and teach others about it.

SEO nets good results with minimal investment—it’s got some costs associated with it, but the ROI is high.

You want your business to last—and to get that sustainability, where you’ve got targeted customers visiting your website regularly, a marketing strategy that includes SEO works very effectively.

Focusing on SEO broadens your reach. If you’re publishing more high-quality content on your site, more people will find it. The more people who find it, the more conversions you’ll get, and the higher your page will rank.

Cons of SEO

There are a few drawbacks—SEO is a lot slower in comparison to PPC for generating more traffic and conversions, especially if you’re the new kid in town.

SEO is competitive, and if you’re newer, you may struggle to find keywords/phrases that aren’t “taken” by other players. Beat them at their own game by incorporating long tail keywords with less competition.

You’ll need to plan, develop, and publish strong content assets like blogs or other quality content regularly and consistently.

You’ll also need to invest time searching for other websites to get relevant backlinks. It takes time to build quality links.

Pros of SEM

SEM’s got its advantages. Using PPC propels you to the top of SERPs quickly. BUT it costs money to bid on the right, most effective keywords.

You’ll have more control over your results when you use PPC. You can use analytics to adjust your ads and improve your campaign’s overall performance.

Product listing PPC ads, allow you to show a picture of the product in the listings.

You can increase brand visibility because you’re targeting specific audiences looking for the products and services you provide.

PPC allows you to set a daily budget, which is important in the beginning of a campaign. After you’ve evaluated the analytics, you can adjust your daily spending.

PPC ads allow you to target audiences based on multiple variables including devices, languages, time of the day/week, and geographic location.

You can get real-time feedback thanks to Google analytics and the data collected by the PPC ads themselves so it’s easier to make adjustments quickly.

Cons of SEM

PPC adds up quickly; you might lose a good portion of the budget without seeing decent ROI. You’ll also need a continual investment to keep PPC ads running.

You can’t hide from your competitors when using PPC. Everything—your strategy, landing page, ads, keywords—is out there.

Some experts think that SEO is a better investment than SEM because while results may take time to build, they last longer whereas SEM is pay-to-play. Doing both simultaneously is a great way to boost results while building up SEO. But ultimately, your goals for your business will guide whether you want to focus your marketing dollars on SEO alone or incorporate in a little (or a lot) of SEM. It’s important that you evaluate your specific needs, goals, and desired ROI when you’re planning and strategizing.

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