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SEO vs. SEM: The Similarities & Differences

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Joe Martin

Marketing can be complicated. There are so many different terms, so many different strategies. You will be reading one blog post that says you should spend all your time on content and another that says you should only do Instagram ads. Among all that noise there are also a ton of acronyms thrown around, seo, sem, ppc, and dozens of others. In this post we are going to take you through the differences between SEO and SEM specifically and also give a little advice on how to do one or both of them. 

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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.

Paid search ad campaigns are also easily trackable and give you real-time data. As you launch your campaigns, you can test how your ad is performing, measure the results (the number of clicks you get), and allow you to evaluate your strategy for a better performance next time.

How to Get Started

For the best results, it’s helpful for businesses to create an overall marketing playbook or a marketing plan, so strategies are a waterfall effect to grow the business. Each strategy should complement the next and so on. If you’re starting from scratch, that’s ok too! To get started with SEM, you need to know what product or service you want to advertise. Develop your ads with four main points in mind: what problem your customers may have, how your product or service solves it, evidence to support that claim, and a call-to-action.

Make sure you perform keyword research and utilize that keyword in your ad when you move to the copy and design stage. Decide where you want your ad to live, such as Google ads, and monitor your ad’s progress and click-thru rate.

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 an 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 show progress. More competitive industries may take as long as six 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 is imperative for good organic rankings.

Contrary to popular belief, SEO doesn’t come without a cost. While there is no 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.

How to Get Started

Almost all your organic SEO optimization strategies will revolve around your content. Perform keyword research and assemble a content calendar around those keywords. Many can be used as topics, so feel free to turn them into blog posts, videos, podcast episodes, or social media posts.

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Can SEO and SEM Work Together?

It may surprise you to learn you can enhance one will, focusing your efforts on another. While SEM and SEO are pretty different strategies, there’s one thing they both have in common: keyword usage.

By utilizing keyword research, and optimizing your pages to rank organically for that keyword, the default result is your site lands on the first page for SERPs that your ad is also ranked for. That’s the dream. So how do you do that? It can be tricky, but you need to perform keyword research.

Keyword research will give you an idea of what keywords people are searching for, how well your competitors are ranking for it, and whether or not you can use it in your content. As mentioned above, to rank for it in an SEO strategy, you need to optimize that keyword in titles and tags, etc. For SEM, best practice is to use it in your ad language.

If the stars align and you can rank for a keyword with both SEM and SEO strategies, your business will be difficult for customers to miss. However, it can take a lot of effort and planning for both strategies to elevate each other, so if you need to focus on one or the other, then do so.

So, What's the Best Option?

The truth is SEO and SEM are both essential 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!