SEO vs SEM — What Do They Mean? Is One Better to Focus On?

Jonathan Stanis
Posted by Jonathan Stanis on October 14, 2020


As marketing evolves, so does the language we use as marketers. Like many industries, we’re guilty of tossing around jargon and acronyms that can leave clients confused. And, to be honest, we marketers are likely confused about some terms, too!

Here are two doozies: SEO and SEM. These two terms (both acronyms) are often used interchangeably without a clear understanding of how they’re related and how they differ.

  • Is SEO part of SEM?
  • What components are included in SEM?
  • Isn’t organic SEO the best long-term approach?

This article explains it all, but one fact is clear: they have a symbiotic relationship and, when both are leveraged to their full potential, they can get you great marketing results.

SEO and SEM – Definitions, Differences, and Strategies

Let’s start with definitions. Here’s an easy-to-remember way to begin:

SEO is an organic search strategy.

SEM is a paid search strategy.

Yes, these are separate (but closely related) strategies, yet both should be included in your company’s online search marketing arsenal. In fact, you need SEO to properly do SEM.

The goal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is to increase the number of website visitors by elevating the site’s position within results returned by a search engine. This is done by continually optimizing the site to rank higher. Because of Google’s ever-changing algorithms, SEO tactics are always changing, too. However, one thing stays consistent: SEO is made up of “on-page” and “off-page” strategies (see more below).

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) involves gaining website traffic by using paid ads to increase a website’s visibility on search engines. However, your ad copy and targeting strategy must align with keywords that match your target buyers’ search queries, allowing your ads to show up in relevant search engine results pages (SERPs). Paid ads give your business the opportunity to increase the visibility of its web pages, landing pages, blog articles and more. So, marketers using SEM must tap into both SEO — for keyword strategy and having high quality content — and pay-per-click (PPC) ads to target potential buyers and drive traffic. So, yes, SEO is a component of SEM.

On-Page SEO Strategies

  • Optimized meta data — incorporate target keywords into page title tag, meta description, heading tags, image ALT tags
  • Optimized page copy (that’s also well-written) using strategic keyword research
  • Simple, well-formatted page URLs with selective keywords
  • Optimized page speed
  • Social sharing integration within your content
  • Internal link building using targeted keywords and avoiding generic link text
  • Content optimized for featured snippets that quickly answer a query; can be definitions, lists, tables, steps

Off-Page SEO Strategies

  • Link building to attract and obtain quality inbound links; backlinks help make up the majority of off-page SEO
  • Social signals — increasing traffic to a website from social media sharing
  • Social bookmarking to grab attention using sites like Reddit, Digg, and MIX
  • Links from industry-specific communities to attract your target audience
  • Local SEO helps businesses promote their products and services to local customers

Create valuable, high-quality content that your target audience finds useful (blog articles and web page copy, for instance). This helps establish your authority over time and results in increased organic website traffic, more opportunities for inbound links and, most importantly, more conversions.

Pay attention to these on-page and off-page tactics to ensure your landing pages, web pages, and blog articles are optimized for search.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Strategies

Google Ads is far and away the most popular platform for hosting search engine ads. Consider other opportunities, too, such as Bing ads, Yahoo search ads, and Amazon-sponsored ads for the right industries. If you have a target market in China, put an ad on Baidu.

Wherever you choose to spend your internet marketing dollars, there are some key strategies for successful SEM:

  • Launch ad campaigns with a specific audience (e.g., geographic, industry, etc.) in mind
  • Create ad groups that consist of target keyword variations
  • Write relevant ad copy using those selective keywords
  • Set an ad budget
  • Monitor metrics like clicks, impressions, click-through rates, and average cost-per-click
  • Create retargeting audiences
  • Develop targeted social media ads on appropriate networks, such as LinkedIn

There are other considerations when launching and maintaining an effective paid search ad campaign, but these seven are especially important for any beginner. If you want to ramp up your SEM efforts to complement organic search engine optimization, take a look at Google Ads.

RELATED: What an Inbound Marketer Should Look for in a PPC Agency

Which is Better? Should You Use SEO or SEM?

OK, you now know that’s a trick question. SEO is a component of SEM; a foundation, really. You can't have successful SEM without SEO, so one isn’t “better” than the other. You also now know that you shouldn’t use the terms “SEO” and “SEM” interchangeably.

Focus on SEO First

SEO lays the groundwork for SEM through well-optimized content that prospects and customers find helpful. Without landing pages, web pages, and blog content optimized for search, SEM efforts fall flat due to poor quality. Gaining visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs) ends up being extremely difficult as a result.

Organic SEO helps establish search credibility, but it’s important to consistently create quality content and share on social media and other content distribution and promotion channels. In other words, you need to have something for which people will find worthy of searching.

When to Focus on SEM

Are you just launching your company’s website and creating your initial online footprint to promote your product or service? Then you’ll likely need immediate visibility in search until you build up your organic credibility. With a strategic PPC campaign, you’ll be able to achieve this.

Of course, you can’t rely strictly on PPC over the long term. You need to create great content that visitors will want to engage with once they get to your website.

Evaluate what’s best for your specific needs, but make sure you fully understand the differences between SEM and SEO and how you’ll maintain your efforts going forward.

Discover more tips and solid insights within four chapters on our SEO deep-dive page. From the basics to the brain-twisting, we cover it all.

The SEO Survival Guide Free Resources and Download

Topics: Search Engine Optimization

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