What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?
Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are both used in the marketing arena. They both have a role to play in the field of digital marketing that businesses and organizations use to make themselves visible to their clients or customers.
Both terms are sometimes used interchangeably. But each of these marketing strategies has its own role to play. Knowing the difference between SEO and SEM can better help in making a choice on what digital marketing strategy will work best for business growth.
Some businesses use both SEO and SEM to be able to collectively achieve business goals like boosting sales, increasing traffic and brand awareness, reaching their target audience, higher ranking, and others.
So how will you know which one is better for your business? This article focuses on studying the main differences between SEO and SEM, along with the costs associated.
What is SEO (Search Engine Optimization)?
Search engine optimization is focused on obtaining organic search results to rank higher in the search results (Google, Bing). It involves optimization activities like designing, editing, and improving a website so that it will appear first when users look for the products and/or services of a company.
In obtaining expected digital results, SEO will target and use the right keywords on each page of the website. The main goal is to increase the quality and quantity of organic search traffic so that the website will rank high in organic search results.
Simply put, SEO uses strategies to make sure that when users look for a specific product or service using keywords, the website will appear first on the search engine result pages.
How is this done?
There are four main steps involved in the process of trying to rank high in organic search:
SEO experts research the best keywords that users use to know more about a specific product or service. There are several tools on the internet used to identify the best keywords that a business can be ranked higher for.
When a website is optimized for the keywords or phrases that its customers most likely will type when they are searching for the business’s products and/or services, the website will most likely appear higher on search engine results pages.
For example, there are 114,000 monthly searches for the keyword “SEO” in the U.S.
In search engine optimization, content is created to be relevant and high-quality to help a website rank high. Search engine crawlers that use relevant keywords that are industry-specific to rank websites high will identify content that contains these targeted keywords.
Aside from strategic keyword choice and placement, on-page SEO also considers other factors that would affect SERP ranking such as:
- Compelling title
- The use of descriptive URLs
- Optimizing images
- HTML source code optimization
- Content creation
- Heading optimization
- Meta descriptions
Search engine optimization also includes doing activities outside the website to prove to Google that a website should be ranked high. The main focus of off-page SEO is the use of quality and relevant backlinks.
These backlinks serve as votes from other high-quality and relevant websites that will tell Google that a website is credible.
Check this example below:
If this article gets backlinks from other sites about SEO and Google sees them as an authoritative voice in the industry then, they might rank the content because others have deemed it worthy.
Other off-page SEO activities that impact how a website will rank include:
- Content marketing
- Social media marketing
- Blog posting
- Customer reviews
- Influencer marketing
- Brand mentions
- Social bookmarking
- Local SEO
The most important things being considered for successful off-page SEO strategies include the following:
- Domain authority
- Site traffic
For the most part of off-page SEO, link building is the main focus. When technical tactics aren’t enough to promote products and/or services, efforts can be directed to building relationships with clients by strengthening online presence.
Efficient ways that this can be achieved include:
- Ask friends and family who write blogs to link to your site.
- Using the local newspaper to publish your promotions for new products and/or services
- Ask your business partners to add a link to your site on one of their pages or publications.
- Pay your local chamber of commerce to post a link to your site.
SEO experts also use a process that will ensure that a website meets the technical requirements of a modern and functional website aimed to improve ranking.
Technical SEO focuses on enhanced user experience and optimum search engine experience.
Check out the flowchart below for a more detailed explanation
Technical aspects of a website that are optimized in technical SEO include:
- Site speed
- Site architecture
- Structured data
All the content of a website should be optimized for search engines to find, crawl, and index so that a website will be ranked higher on search results.
What is SEM (Search Engine Marketing)?
Search engine marketing is a digital marketing strategy that focuses on driving traffic to a website using search engines like Google and Bing. There are two main ways that traffic on a website can be obtained.
- The first is through organic results, which is the main goal of SEO. SEM, therefore, includes SEO strategies as well because it includes the goal of increasing traffic through organic results impacting ranking on search, the main purpose of SEO.
- SEM covers both paid and unpaid advertising and optimization techniques that impact a brand’s online visibility on SERPs.
In general SEM strategies include:
- Display advertising
- Shopping/product advertising
What is Pay-Per-Click (PPC)?
The second is through pay-per-click (PPC). By the name itself, it focuses on paid advertisement. A business will earn traffic through paid clicks on ads that are posted on the internet through social media platforms and web pages when they are clicked by users.
For example, clicking this ad on Google costs Gucci money:
When advertising on Google using PPC, the process involves these steps:
- Keyword research to determine what terms your users mostly type in search when looking for your products and/or services.
- Bid setting to decide how much you will spend on each click from a user on your published advertisement.
- Ad creation focuses on creating a compelling and relevant ad that will be posted on Google pages related to your industry.
- Audience targeting is where you choose the specific audience who could see your ad so you get to reach those who will most likely convert to paying customers.
Considering the PPC process, the only main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM also includes paid advertising to achieve marketing goals like boosting visibility in SERPs, using Google Ads and Facebook Ads, and other platforms to boost traffic to specific pages of a website.
How Long Does SEM Take?
SEM incorporates SEO strategies. SEO results do not happen overnight. The length of time to obtain results from SEM will largely depend on what you choose to include in your SEM strategy.
Simple SEM that is focused on paid ads can have more immediate results compared to SEM which includes SEO strategies. On average, it will take six to twelve months to see significant results using SEO…which is slower.
In fact, a study of 2 million keywords found that only 22% of pages in the top 10 were published within a year.
The success of an SEO strategy and how long it will take to see results will generally depend on the following factors:
Your website’s condition
If you have not yet established your online presence through optimizing your website and you are working on using a new domain, it will take longer for you to see results from doing SEO.
Expect to see results within nine to twelve months for a brand new domain.
Established websites that already have gained credibility with at least some level of authority and quality backlinks will be easier to manage with SEO.
It will entirely be a different story if your website has previously been affected by factors that can delay seeing results from SEO strategies.
Some factors that may cause a delay in results are:
- A previous penalty
- A core algorithm update
- SEO work on the website was against Google’s webmaster guidelines
For niches in an industry that have lesser competition on search queries, you can expect quick results from SEO work. According to Semrush, “It could take 2 years or more to earn prominent page 1 visibility if you are trying to rank a website for competitive personal finance keywords.”
However, if you are trying to rank for local or narrower lower competition keywords, you can expect SEO results within three to six months.
This is one good reason why SEO specifically considers keyword research to study the current position of your competition with the keywords they are targeting.
The more resources you allocate to doing SEO, the quicker you will get results.
Time is the most important resource that you can invest in when it comes to doing SEO tasks if you want a shorter length of time to see results from an SEO campaign.
At a level playing field with all factors constant, an SEO specialist that dedicates more time to doing SEO will see better and faster results.
So, it is always best to be able to invest more in an SEO project if you want to move forward at a much quicker pace against your competitors.
Moreover, SEO is not an overnight strategy. If you want a well-maintained website with sustained visibility and results, you will need to consider investing in frequent reporting and maintenance.
Remember that SEO is a long-term digital marketing strategy.
In the end, the length of time to see results from SEM will largely depend on the website and how much needs to be done so that it will rank high on search queries from its target audience. Pay close attention to the details that will impact how long SEM will bring results.
Carefully assess technical issues, quality of the content, and strength of the link profile of a website and determine the best strategy to use which will help you project the success you may achieve.
How Much Does SEM Cost?
Again, the cost of SEM will depend on whether you will include SEO strategies. With pay-per-click advertising alone, the budget will depend on the number of clicks made on your ad. The more clicks generated, the more you will have to spend.
If you want to overlap PPC with SEO, you will need to budget thousands of dollars to get the results that you want in terms of boosting traffic.
Ahrefs reported that traffic remains steady when both PPC and SEO are done because they complement each other in achieving marketing goals.
Which Type of SEM is Best?
SEM can both be accomplished with PPC and SEO. Both PPC and SEO require a budget if you want real results that will impact your marketing goals.
The best strategy will depend on your purpose and what you want to achieve.
To better help you make the right decision, find answers to these questions:
- Are your searchers or target audience looking to learn or buy?
- Can you realistically rank anytime soon?
- Are the ads getting lots of clicks?
In general, when your target audience is using informational keywords, it is best to focus on SEO.
But when competition is fierce and the keywords you are targeting are “hard to rank for”, focus on PPC. Lastly, using both PPC and SEO will give optimum results when you are targeting ad-heavy keywords.
SEM and SEO offer many benefits to businesses when they are used strategically. You can use either one of them or even both simultaneously depending on your budget, business goals, and the behavior of your audience.
Also, consider getting insights from expert digital marketing experts who understand the ins and outs of search marketing.
More from Infintech Designs