As your business explores digital marketing, you are likely to come across two commonly-used acronyms: SEO and SEM.
Normally, telling the difference between two abbreviations like this is easy because writers avoid using them interchangeably. However, there’s no such luck with SEO and SEM: both appear in similar contexts, generating confusion.
In this post by AAM Consultants, we resolve all your burning questions about SEO and SEM, defining each in turn and then spelling out the differences in the final section.
What Is SEO?
SEO is short of search engine optimization and refers to any technique designed to improve your organic ranking on search engines.
SEO generally falls into three broad categories.
On-page SEO refers to everything you can do on the pages on your site to make them more attractive to search providers, like Google. Things like including keywords in the heads, using embedded videos and writing compelling meta descriptions all fall into this category.
Off-page SEO, by contrast, is anything that you do on third-party sites to enhance your pages’ visibility. The classic example is creating backlinks that forward users to your site, but there are plenty of others, including creating popular social media accounts and encouraging customers to post public reviews on Google and TrustPilot.
Technical SEO involves all of the SEO practices that improve your website’s backend. Many of these interventions involve speeding up your website loading or making it easier for search engine algorithms to crawl (and index).
What Is SEM?
SEM stands for search engine marketing. It refers to activities that involve paid strategies to boost your visibility on online platforms directly.
SEM generally falls into several categories, depending on how you intend to advertise.
Most brands start by using Google Ads, formerly known as Google Adwords. Google provides this platform as a tool for constructing relevant ad placements in search results. You choose the keywords that you’d like to target, set your budget, and then allow the search engine to bid for space against competitors looking to rank for the same terms.
You can also place paid ads on social media.
SEM, therefore, is ideal for new brands looking to gain immediate traction on search engines. Ad placements appear at both the top and bottom of the screen in groups of three or four, catapulting you to the first page of results automatically. The rest of the page includes regular results and anything else the search engine decides to include, such as call-out boxes.
The goal of SEM is to slash the cost of advertising by appealing directly to leads, not just the general market. That’s why SEO agencies will spend so much energy helping their clients seek out keywords that reveal user intent. They want to find out what users are typing into search bars when they’re on the cusp of buying.
For example, a shop that sells bicycles could display ads every time a person types “road bike” into the search bar. However, that simple phrase doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is on the cusp of making a purchase.
By contrast, somebody who types “road bike for sale” or “road bike shops near me” is much more likely to be a lead and not just somebody looking for information.
What’s The Difference Between SEO And SEM?
The big difference between SEO and SEM is the way they build traffic.
SEO uses techniques that encourage the flow of organic traffic through your site, whereas SEM pays for traffic directly.
Strictly speaking, they are both forms of marketing since each of them requires an investment of money, time or both. But with SEO, you put in time and money today for a payoff that comes later on. By contrast, with SEM, you pay to generate traffic immediately but don’t invest in the long-term viability of your site. Once you stop paying for ads, your stream of customers dries up again.
SEO, therefore, provides value over time, while SEM gives you results immediately. For instance, the first day you start implementing search engine optimization strategies, you’re unlikely to see big changes in the number of people reaching your site. However, after a couple of months, the effects become noticeable, even if you stop investing in it. With SEM, it is the reverse. You can start drumming up traffic within just a few hours but don’t get any long-term payoff.
SEM usually has lower click-through rates than SEO. Results appear as an “ad placement” which a subset of users ignores automatically. SEO results, on the other hand, tend to capture more paying customers over the long-term.
Bottom line: SEO is for the long run and SEM is for the short term. SEO takes time to do well, while SEM is a function of paying. For long term success, it is recommended to engage in both forms as well as some of the social forms of marketing too.