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What is SEO? What is SEM? What’s the Difference?

When consulting with clients about their digital marketing strategies, a question that I often hear is, “What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?”
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A conversation defining these two facets of digital marketing is always a helpful starting point.

SEO is a far more well-understood term. It stands for Search Engine Optimization and encompasses the full range of initiatives designed to generate organic visits to a website.

SEM is less clear. Previously it was used as an umbrella term for any type of Search Engine Marketing, but more recently it’s been used to reference only paid tactics such as pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. For the purposes of this article, I’ll be using SEM as a synonym for paid search engine marketing.

SEO vs. SEM?

This is another question that I sometimes encounter. However, it is not one versus the other. In fact, SEO and SEM share the same goal of maximizing website visits and increasing brand awareness and are both essential components of a digital marketing strategy. Both are informed by the other, build upon the other, and need to be continuously refined based on:

  • Intelligence gained from analytics,
  • Insights into competitor activity, and
  • Google’s constantly shifting search algorithm.

This leads to a critical point that needs to be clarified before diving any deeper into a conversation about the distinctions between SEO and SEM. While SEM is a paid, or pay-per-click, strategy, SEO should not be viewed as “free.” Optimizing visits to your site via the search engines calls for an investment in both time and expertise.

Organic Does Not Mean Free

The misconception that the “organic” component of SEO equates to “free” can serve as a big barrier to effectiveness. There’s not an out-of-pocket direct cost component associated with SEO, but organizations need to invest in it.

The days of viewing SEO as a task that consists of a few good guesses about search terms that will drive visitors to a website, plugging these terms into website content, and then checking SEO off the to-do list for a while, are largely a thing of the past.

Most of us have gotten wise to the fact that the market we are in has gotten very strategic about SEO, and competition is intensifying. Everyone is vying for the same goal of appearing among the first three results on a search engine results page (SERP).

SEO can be amazingly cost-effective in its ability to target online prospects who are looking for what you have to offer, but time and resources need to be devoted to it, and this means:

  • Conducting keyword and key phrase research,
  • Continually monitoring rankings relative to priority search terms,
  • Becoming knowledgeable about how Google crawls a website and evaluates pages,
  • Staying up to date about ongoing changes to the Google search algorithm, and
  • Following technical SEO best practices that also have an impact on Google rankings.

If the expertise or bandwidth to achieve the above points does not exist in-house, it’s necessary to either focus on upskilling or to seek the expertise and support of an outside agency. A solid SEO strategy is not a nice-to-have in the current business climate. It is an essential survival skill, and when well executed, can fuel a thriving growth trajectory.


Site Architecture and Speed

While strategies surrounding the research and application of key words and phrases are at the core of a solid SEO strategy, factors surrounding the speed, architecture, and general performance of a website are also critical and cannot be emphasized enough. Beyond matching search queries to the keywords on your website, search engines like Google crawl sites to assess a range of factors that have an impact on the user experience of the site.

In addition to assessing the quality of the content, Google’s crawlers pay attention to how often the content is refreshed, how long visitors stay on the site, how keywords, tags, and link titles are used, how easy it is to navigate your site and the logic of the site architecture.

Also, site speed is very much an issue. Google downgrades sites that are slow or not performing up to par.

And there’s more. It’s important to always be mindful of the third and strategically significant leg of SEO — backlinks. Also known as inbound links, backlinks help to establish the validity and value of your site via links to your content from other credible sites and sources. Some of this happens organically, as other content creators discover the solid content on your site in the process of their own research. This can also involve proactive outreach and reciprocal agreements.


Backing up the Long Game

As a strategic, research-based, value-building endeavor, SEO is a long game. SEM, on the other hand, offers the advantage of near immediate gratification, leveraging paid tactics to get top billing on search engine results pages relative to specific search words and phrases.

SEM is often based on pay-per-click campaigns in Google Ads. Campaigns are built around either the highest-volume search terms relative to what the organization has to offer, or “long-tail” search terms that are more specific and for which there is a lower search volume. The advantage of a long-tail strategy is that in many fields, competing with major players for the most popular search terms is not economically feasible. Bidding for more specific, long-tail keywords provides more opportunities for appearing at the top of a search engine results page, as well as better targeting of customers whose search activity is more closely aligned with your specific niche.

SEM results are inherently measurable and trackable. That’s a rarity in marketing and a feature that creates invaluable intelligence that fuels future campaigns. It also can factor into content strategy to enhance SEO, while offering insights into competitors’ activities, that can effectively inform subtle or significant strategic shifts.

And even though SEM is a paid strategy, it actually provides an opportunity for free exposure within pay-for-click campaigns in which top placement on a search engine results page will generate views (impressions) from searchers on the page, whether or not they click on the ad.

Dynamic SEO/SEM Duo

Possibly the most essential driver of digital marketing — whether organic SEO or paid SEM — is that it is dynamic. Google is factoring in new information with every search query, every site visit, and every crawl of a site. Nothing stays the same.

This, in fact, is what I love about digital marketing because it offers an opportunity to constantly get smarter and better at fine tuning both your digital presence and the paths that lead visitors to it.

Looking for some digital marketing help to sharpen your SEO and SEM strategies? Let us know! We’d love to help.

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