There’s a popular joke among digital marketers: “The best place to hide a dead body is on the second page of the Google search results.” This, of course, is because most of us tend to end our searches somewhere toward the top of the first page!
But when you’re trying to figure out how to get your website to move toward those higher rankings, this joke may not seem so funny. If this sounds familiar, you may have already tried researching a wealth of strategies to try—though some may be confusing. What’s the difference between SEO and SEM, anyway, and how do you use them?
If you’re not sure where to start, we’ve got you covered. Read on to learn the ins and outs of these digital marketing strategies!
What Is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?
Before we get too far into the specific definitions of each strategy, it’s a good idea to have a broad understanding of the differences between them.
It’s also worth noting that you’ll hear the terms “SEO” and “SEM” used interchangeably in some marketing offices. This may be because these strategies are similar in nature, and at times, their uses and results may even overlap. To be more specific, they’re both part of the larger umbrella of search marketing.
“Search marketing” is a term that refers to all of the strategies a brand uses to increase its visibility in the search engine results.
Both SEO and SEM help with this, though they do it in different ways.
SEM, or “search engine marketing,” helps increase visibility—as the name suggests—via digital marketing strategies. These strategies involve paid services.
SEO, or “search engine optimization,” does much the same job. However, this tactic does not use paid marketing to increase visibility. Instead, through subtle tweaks to a brand’s website, SEO helps the site in question to rank higher in the search engine results page on its own, or “organically.”
All of this terminology can seem confusing at first, especially because there are so many similarities between the different types of services—and because the acronyms themselves look similar! However, a further understanding of the basics of SEO and SEM can help you better understand the nuances. Let’s take a look at each service to cut through the confusion.
What Is SEO?
As stated above, the goal of SEO is to help attract more website visitors by boosting the site’s position in the search engine results pages. This is done by “optimizing” the website, or making continual tweaks to the site’s backend details, content, and off-page links. Again, marketers carry out these changes without paying for extra services.
The changes to a website are designed to help the website showcase its expertise, authority, and trust.
It’s worth noting that the changes made via SEO should help the website’s users, not just the algorithms designed to rank websites. Sure, it’s true that search engine algorithms are important in the grand scheme of things—but the algorithms themselves are designed to rank a website based on its usefulness. In other words, making a more useful website is a one-two punch: it helps make things better for users, and it makes bot “crawlers” more likely to rank a page higher in the search engine results pages!
There are four main types of SEO: on-page, technical, off-page, and local. All of these have their own specific uses, and all of them are vital for marketers who want to boost a brand’s rankings. Let’s take a look at the details of each type.
- On-page SEO affects the elements of a website that visitors interact with, like images and content
- Off-page SEO helps connect a website to the larger digital ecosystem using strategies like link-building or social media tactics
- Technical SEO impacts the backend elements of a website, like increasing page speed or optimizing images
- Local SEO involves tactics that help brands show up in local searches, like optimizing online contact information
The best SEO companies will understand that all of these strategies have to work in harmony with each other for a successful campaign. Picking just one won’t yield the same results!
What Is SEM?
As discussed above, search engine marketing is a paid strategy. For that reason, you may also hear it called “paid search marketing” or simply “paid search.”
Because they involve paid services, SEM campaigns can sometimes be easier than their SEO cousins. That isn’t to say that developing an effective campaign doesn’t require thought and insight! However, once the campaign has begun, you won’t have to do as much continual tweaking as you might with an SEO campaign.
SEM campaigns start with one of several sponsored ad services. The vast majority of businesses are well-served using Google Ads, which dominates this market. However, ad services via Yahoo, Amazon, and Bing continue to play a role with certain audiences.
From there, you’ll need to do research to understand your target audience and the keywords you wish to use. You’ll also need to create the ad copy yourself.
SEM can be a powerful tool for any marketer, as the resulting ads can reach a wide range of online users, even those who haven’t visited your website.
SEO vs. SEM: Which Should You Choose?
Now that you know the differences between these two services, you may be wondering which is right for your business. After all, it’s hard to overlook the benefits of SEO and SEM—which is why it’s always a good idea to do both, if possible! As stated earlier, these strategies are key parts of search marketing overall, and they work well when used together.
However, if you can only choose one or the other, you’ll have to weigh the pros and cons of each with care. There are a few factors that may help you make a decision.
First, you’ll want to consider your time. If you have limited hours to spend on your marketing strategy—especially if you don’t want to make tweaks on a regular basis—SEM is the better choice. Once you’ve set up your campaign, this strategy can be much more hands-off than SEO will be.
Second, think about the amount of money you can spend. SEM requires an ongoing budget to put toward your ads, while SEO requires little to no investment at all.
Your choice may also vary based on the length of time you’re willing to wait for results. SEM campaigns will get your brand in front of online users right away, but with SEO, the results will be slow and steady. However, it’s also worth noting that SEO offers consistent, long-term results in comparison to SEM, which will only offer results as long as you pay for ads.
Launch Your Next Campaign
Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM—and how these strategies can work in harmony—it’s time to reconsider your next campaign! Researching the ins and outs of both of these marketing tactics is a great way to make the most of a campaign, so be sure to think things through. Consider working with an expert as needed to understand the best approaches for both.
Want more of the key tips you need in the world of marketing and beyond? Check out our other posts for more insightful guides.