SEO vs SEM – What’s the difference?

SEO and SEM are marketing techniques used by businesses and organizations to reach their target audience. These three-letter acronyms are often used interchangeably though they are very different.

In this article, we will define search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) and identify ways in which you can use these techniques to the benefit of your business or podcast.

The difference between these two marketing channels is easy to understand and remember once it’s been explained. Soon you’ll be an SEO vs SEM pro!

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization and refers to the organic strategy of boosting the quality and quantity of website traffic. It targets unpaid traffic as opposed to paid or direct traffic.

Search engines are like answering machines. They scour billions of websites and pieces of content and catalog it all, which is known as crawling and indexing. PDFs, images, videos, and entire web pages are scanned and cataloged all so search engines can return what they think is the right content for the search.

Search engine optimization is as much about search engines as it is about understanding people. It’s about having an awareness of what people are searching for online, the answers they are looking for, the words they use, and the type of content they want to find. Understanding the answers to these questions will help you connect to the people who are searching for the solutions, products, and services you are offering. Put another way – you should be aware of what people are looking for (topics) and how people are searching for related content (the keyword terms and phrases).

Four Pillars of SEO

Marketers can optimize their websites with SEO by working through content creation, technical SEO, on-page SEO, and off-page SEO to return the best results for a particular search.

Let’s look at these pillars in a little more detail.

Content Creation – This is one of Google’s main ranking factors. You’ll struggle to rank high in search results if your content does not match the searcher’s intent. However, content goes far beyond basic copywriting, and there should be an overarching and strong strategy in place.

Technical SEO – This focuses on upgrading the technical structure of your website. What does this really mean? Technical SEO aims to improve site speed, mobile-friendliness (a MUST in 2021), crawlability (how search engines like Google know what you offer), structured data, security, and indexing.

On-page SEO – All about optimizing parts of the web page that clearly help search engines make sense of the content in context. This includes items like title, H1, meta tag optimization, and image alt tags, just to name a few.

Off-page SEO – You might be thinking how do I improve something that is not on my site. Well, think of off-page SEO as authority building. To build your site’s credibility, tacts like link building can help. Link building involves getting other websites to link back to yours. This can come in the form of a simple hyperlink from one website to another. Link building is decidedly one of the most difficult tactics for ranking a website, though one of the most rewarding once accomplished!

Searchers want to see that you’re a leader in your industry and search engines tally this up using backlinks. The more other sites link to yours, the more credible you appear!

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a strategy in which paid tactics are used to gain visibility from search engines. SEM is also referred to as PPC, or pay-per-click. Those first couple of search results with ‘Ad’ next to them – those are brought to you by SEM. You may also see SEM campaigns in YouTube Ads, Gmail Ads, display ads, or shopping ads.

As opposed to on-site tactics that help a site rank organically, SEM uses PPC advertising platforms like Google Ads and Bing Ads to use the available ad formats to reach your target audience.

An SEM campaign will begin with a thorough keyword search and competitor insights to create targeted campaigns. These place products and services in front of the ideal audience.

Is SEM right for my business?

That depends. Do you have the funds to bid against competitors? Are you ready to see results now?

With SEO, it can take months to see real results. But with SEM, you will start driving clicks and conversions quickly.

SEM allows for greater control over when ads appear and who they are targeted to, making this channel ideal for testing new strategies, directing traffic to a sale, or increasing traffic during lulls.

Really, SEO and SEM strategies should be used in tandem with one another, not as separate, isolated channels. These are two parts of a comprehensive digital strategy to drive visibility, traffic, and conversions from search engines.

SEO vs SEM: Similarities

Let’s take a quick look at the similarities between these two often confused channels.

Both SEO and SEM:

  • Improve your website’s visibility on search engines. Both methods will help your site rank by using targeting and optimization of keywords.
  • Drive more relevant and quality traffic to your site. SEO and SEM encourage users to click through to your site, even if they use different tactics to do so.
  • Help gain a deeper understanding of your audience. Both SEO and SEM require that you have a deep understanding of your target audience in order to be successful.
  • Use keyword research to find and target relevant keywords. This keyword research helps you gain a deeper understanding of what your competition is targetting.
  • Require ongoing testing, maintenance, and optimization. Continuous monitoring and refinement are required for both of these strategies to be successful.

SEO vs SEM: Differences

There are some marked differences between these strategies.

Every single impression or click is paid for with SEM. 

Advertisers pay for every single time a user clicks on an ad (CPC, or cost-per-click). Depending on the type of campaign created, you may be paying for CPM or cost-per-thousand-impressions.

You pay nothing when a searcher clicks on an organic linked that ranked because of SEO.

SEM shows clearly marked ads on search engines.

As a paid strategy, SEM is easily distinguishable from SEO ranking. Organic SEO listings do not show an Ad icon.

SEM ad rankings allow for greater control and customizability, such as links, phone numbers, and callouts, and allow you to enhance a standard search.

SEO delivers aggregated results

SEO keeps adding value over time, and the return on investment should be collective. A good SEO strategy will grow over time and leave lasting results.

This does not occur with SEM. As soon as the ads are turned off, your visibility comes to a halt.

SEM is easier to test and perfect than SEO

Any paid advertising requires testing. Copy must be revised, new audiences can be identified and targeted, and you’ll likely have to change the landing page content for these tests to work.

With all of the data that is available to you, this can be done quickly, with changes occurring swiftly and effectively.

SEO does not allow for the same kind of testing. Testing is still an important part of a strong SEO strategy, but it is not comparable to the data the PPC provides.

SEO vs SEM – Which should I use?

It depends! Such a helpful answer, right? Here are a few questions to ask yourself when identifying which channel to focus on.

What is my specific goal? If you’re looking to drive immediate traffic to a sale, test new offers, or jumpstart a slow traffic month, then SEM is for you. SEO is best for long-term growth strategies. Remember, SEO compounds over time, making it more valuable in the long-run.

How is my site’s current performance? If you already rank well organically, SEM may be a good addition to boost visibility.

What are my margins? A paid search strategy may not make sense for everyone. With high click costs and low product margins, it might not make sense to run an SEM campaign. In these situations, SEO is more likely to drive stronger returns. There are many free tools available to help you estimate the CPC of SEM campaigns (like this one from SEMrush).

These questions assume that you are going to use only one of these channels. But in reality, a successful strategy relies on both SEO and SEM to drive growth from potential customers.

Now, promoting your video content – that’s a little bit different…