Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are often used interchangeably. You’ll see digital business plans listing both, or hear marketers throw them out as part of an alphabet soup of online concepts. But despite this occasional murkiness, they have a few distinct differences that make the segmentation important.
First and foremost is money.
SEO refers to organic (i.e. non-paid) ways to generate traffic to a website or page. SEM encompasses paid strategies to influence search. When you optimize on-page keywords and H1 headers or write blogs, all with the goal of influencing how many people are drawn to your site on their own, this is SEO. If you then pay for a campaign, such as pay-per-click (PPC) through Google Ads, to have your blog or your page show up in search results, this is SEM.
Part of the confusion around the two terms arises when marketers lump SEO tactics into SEM tactics. In this usage, SEO is only organic search efforts, and SEM is all organic efforts plus all the paid efforts, meaning it’s simply lumped in under a bigger umbrella. No matter which is being used, the important thing is to provide clear definitions and avoid term confusion. For our purposes here, let’s go with this more common definition and say SEO is only organic efforts, and SEM is organic plus paid.
SEO is influenced by a large set of factors, and varies on the search engine being used. Google, by far the most widely popular, is said to use over 200 ranking signals in their algorithms to return results. Factors include:
- Keyword phrases
- H1 titles
- Relevant, quality backlinks
- Load and page speed
- On-page and off-page factors
- Overall customer utility
Many of the ranking signals are a tightly-held proprietary secret. SEM uses these features too, but comes down to bidding. Google Ads and Bing Ads both let you place ads in search for a price. The more you are willing to pay, the more likely your ads get seen (and clicked) more often.
With definitions in place, let’s dive deeper.
When you Google, well, anything, Google returns a few pages of results that best match your query. This is called the Search Engine Results Pages, or SERPs. Digital content creators and SEO/SEM marketers strive to get on the first page of Google results for a simple reason: searchers are far more likely to click on the links there and be taken to your page or business. The more people visiting your site, the more likely a few of them are to converting into customers.
Let’s say you’ve googled “shoes”, and you’re looking at the page-one SERP that’s been returned to you. You’ll see the top few results above others (marked with tiny disclaimers) are paid ad placements. These placements are the results of SEM. Someone has paid to have those ads placed at the top of the SERP. The results below it, showing URLs and snippet text, are the organic results. Those are returned based on the volume of searches, relevant backlinks to and from the individual pages (also known as PageRank), and many other organic SEO factors.
As you can see, both SEO and SEM are important segments of a digital marketing strategy. SEO helps your website content improve naturally; it’s always a good idea to take those strategies to heart no matter the goal. SEM helps your brand or page get seen more. With the web being absolutely full of links, content, brands and products, standing out organically can be an uphill battle. You write great stuff, put work in, care about your brand—and you want its rank to reflect that.
You’re likely wondering: if SEO and SEM both work, which do I choose?
That comes down to your needs, budget, time, and goals. If you’ve got a decent ad budget and are looking to make a quicker splash, SEM is potentially your route. There are some provisos. Google Ads uses a metric called Quality Score to figure out if your ad is a good match for what a searcher is looking for. All the factors determining that are complicated and sometimes hidden. But one factor that matters is terrific ad copy. A compelling, useful ad that captures attention means your ad budget, no matter the size, isn’t going to waste. For a good return-on-investment (ROI) in a paid campaign, you’ll want every factor at your disposal.
SEO can take longer to get results, but it’s doable on a smaller budget. Again, the most important factors are good writing, useful copy, optimized on and off-page factors, cultivating relevant backlinks, and having a clean, great website that helps customers and users find what they’re looking for. If you’re not quite ready to invest in a paid campaign, starting with SEO and monitoring your results is a safe place to start. If you decide you want more, SEM can take over and a mixed organic-paid strategy can help ensure your online marketing dollars put you on the map to your potential customers.