SEO vs. SEM: The Similarities & Differences

Image of SEO vs SEM written on sticky notes

Here’s a question that gets asked a lot in the digital marketing world: What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Let’s start with the basics:

  • SEM (search engine marketing) is a form of online advertising that uses keywords and individual bids to show custom ads on a search engine results page (SERP). SEM is also known as pay-per-click advertising, or PPC.

  • SEO (search engine optimization) is the process of optimizing your website to rank high in the organic (free) section of a search engine results page.

Now, let’s dive a little deeper.

SEM: The Sprint

If you want to drive more visitors to your website right away, SEM is your best course of action. A paid search engine ad campaign can be set up and launched in as little as a couple of days and can drive traffic to your website almost immediately (if it’s implemented correctly).

Using a PPC campaign, you can indicate which specific keywords you want to be found for, as well as when and where your ads will show up using geographic targeting and ad scheduling. You can even take this a step further with a display ad campaign by setting parameters for target demographics, such as age, gender, and parental status.

SEO: The Marathon

If SEM is the sprint, think of SEO as the marathon. Despite what some companies may promise, there is no such thing as overnight success for non-branded keywords. You will not see your search engine rankings shoot up after a day, a week, or even a month. SEO is a slow, steady process that may take a few months to begin showing progress. More competitive industries may take as long as 6 months to show significant improvements.

There are two main pillars to SEO: onsite optimization and off-site optimization. Onsite optimization involves applying proper titles, header tags, meta descriptions, URL formats, scheme data, and the like throughout your website.

Off-site optimization is the process of improving your web presence outside of your website. Some common off-site optimization strategies include “link building” (the process of having other websites link back to your page), optimization of your local listings, and posting to social media sites. These practices build credibility for your business in the eyes of the search engine because it’s assumed that your content must be good if numerous websites are linking to it. Both onsite and offsite optimization are imperative for good organic rankings.

Contrary to popular belief, SEO doesn’t come without a cost. While there is not a direct cost associated with each visitor to your website, ranking well on any search engine takes time, effort, and a knowledgeable team of SEO specialists.

So, What's the Best Option?

The truth is SEO and SEM are both important components of any digital marketing campaign, as it’s crucial to have a healthy balance between your immediate and long-term visibility in search engines.
Since succeeding in each requires two different skill sets and specializations, companies all over the country turn to our full-service Internet marketing company, Scorpion, which specializes in both SEM and SEO. As a Google Premier Partner and Bing Elite Partner, we have experience helping businesses of all shapes and sizes reach and exceed their online marketing goals. Contact our team to find out how we can help you build your online presence!