SEO or SEM? Understanding the Differences

Search Engine Optimization is a world unto itself, with its own set of jargon and argot. The acronyms alone can be intimidating to the uninitiated: SERP, PPC, KPI (Search Engine Results Page, Pay-Per-Click, and Key Performance Indicator, respectively), just to name a few. Simply learning all the CP acronyms—CPA (Cost Per Acquisition), CPL (Cost Per Lead), CPC (Cost Per Click), CPM (Cost Per Thousand Impressions), and more—can be overwhelming.

Two such industry acronyms that are often confused are SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing). Even though the two work hand in hand, there is a world of difference between SEM and SEO.

What Is SEO? SEO is the art of optimizing all the elements of your website for user search engines like Google. That means creating engaging, useful, and entertaining content, making sure all your visual pieces can be searched, and building in a seamless user experience that helps users find what they’re looking for quickly and easily—regardless of what device (phone, tablet, computer) they’re using.

While this benefits you on multiple levels, the core goal here is to try to get your website to show up as close to the top as possible in an organic search. That means answering users’ questions before they’re even asked, and making sure there is nothing in your site that will get skipped over by search engines.

What Is SEM?

SEM—sometimes referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) advertising—is more about driving the visibility of your website in search engines, beyond the overall contact. In this instance, you are actually paying for ads specifically developed to target the keywords your customers are searching for. At its core, SEO essentially comes down to creating the best and safest website possible and hoping to gain attention for that reason; SEM, on the other hand, is actually sending the message out across the web: “We have what you are looking for, it’s right here.”

Both types are based on the idea of creating traffic for your website. Since the two approaches tackle the problem from different directions, they can be combined to be more effective than the sum of the parts.

SEO & SEM Together: The Best Strategy

It is theoretically possible, of course, to run a successful SEM campaign without SEO. It will likely deliver less than ideal results, however: you would basically be driving traffic to a site by promising information that may or may not exist there. Visitors to your site won’t stay if they don’t find answers, and it could actually do your site more harm than good.

By the same token, it is theoretically possible run an SEO campaign without investing in SEM … but as we mentioned, in doing so you create a situation that is dependent on others to actually discover your site and spread the word. That usually takes a lot more time, and you might not be in a position to hold on until it happens.

If we think of it in terms of more traditional marketing, SEO is word-of-mouth advertising, while SE is more like paid media. A billboard or television spot might pull a customer into your store, but if the service is inferior and the shelves are only half-stocked, what are the odds you’ll get a repeat visit? Worse, people will tell their friends to stay away.

Conversely, having fair pricing, friendly clerks, and brightly lit aisles with a good selection? That’s a recipe for success … but only if people KNOW that. Working in tandem, SEM’s job is to get people to check you out, while SEO is designed to ensure they want to stay awhile and come back often.

If you’re looking to establish a strong online presence and pull a positive return on investment, your key strategy should involve balancing the immediate results of SEM with a long-term SEO game plan. The sooner you start to implement this one-two punch, the better. If you’d like help, just give us a call.

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