July 19, 2020

SEM vs SEO: What’s the Difference?

Taking a glimpse into the digital marketing world, there are a lot of confusing terms. Are they just buzzwords? Do they all mean the same thing? 

SEO, SEM, what’s up with that? Is there a difference?

We know that it can be confusing at first, especially if this is a completely new world to you. SEO and SEM are two important parts of your search engine marketing strategy, and we want to help you understand. 

So, SEM vs SEO: what’s the difference? Is one better than the other? Should you be working on both at the same time? 

We’ll walk you through it.

Keep reading for more information on SEO, SEM, and how each of them can contribute to your marketing campaign. 

What is SEM?

You may have guessed this already from the acronym, but SEM simply means search engine marketing. It’s an umbrella term that includes and utilizes SEO, but also includes other methods of marketing and gaining traction in customer searches. 

When used colloquially amongst marketers and digital natives, SEM typically refers specifically to paid marketing strategies rather than organic ones. When looking for the difference between SEM and SEO, most people will tell you that SEM is paid. In this case, “search marketing” would be the umbrella term.  

But how does that apply to your marketing campaign? And if it’s not really organic, how does it work?

How Does SEM Work?

When you’re browsing the internet, do you ever see search results that have a little “Ad” indicator next to them? 

Those are SEM strategies at work. 

With SEM, you’re paying to get your page at the top of customer searches. You can also link directly to sales pages and contact pages, or include contact information in the small area of adspace.

SEM relies on keywords that are chosen to target specific searches and groups. This means that when those words are typed into Google or Bing, the ads will come up first. 

While Google Ads is the most popular option for SEM, there’s also an option for every search engine. Google is incredibly popular, but it doesn’t hurt to have a broader reach.

There are different kinds of keywords that you can use to reach the target audience.

Broad match keywords are going to encompass words that are tangentially related to your target term. If there are similar search terms (like synonyms), or different forms of the words in the search terms (like plural versions), they will still direct to the ad. 

Exact match keywords are going to look for search terms that are exact (or almost exact) matches for your target term. If it’s misspelled, within reason, it will still show the ads. It will also show plural versions, like the broad match keywords. 

Negative keywords exclude certain words from directing towards your ad. These can be terms that are overall useless to your campaign even if they are related. Someone searching for “ice cream maker” would likely have no interest in your ice cream shop, for example, so “maker” or “appliance” might be an omitted term.  

Types of SEM Targeting

SEM is good for getting specifically targeted customers onto your page. While this is possible with SEO, SEM has some benefits.

There are a few different “groups” that you can target while using SEM strategies.

Scheduled targeting allows you to mark specific times of day that you want to hit with your ads. If you only want your ads shown at night, you can do that with ad scheduled targeting.

Demographic targeting can select your targets based on the demographics that your company is aiming for. With collected data, you can target a specific gender or age group. This helps you to avoid wasted ads. If you’re looking to target middle-aged women specifically, you won’t benefit from your ads being shown to young men.

Location targeting gives you the option to pick a specific area that you want to target. You can target your city, another city, a specific zip code, and so on. This is great for smaller “local businesses” who have no use for targeting people who are far away from them. 

You’re also able to target specific devices with the use of device targeting. If you want to target people who are accessing the search engine via tablets or mobile phones, you can do that. This is great for app developers, or any company with an associated app. The customer can click through right to the site instead of having to discover it on desktop and look it up later. 

Advantages of SEM

SEM has the benefit of specific and simple targeting. While targeting is possible with SEO (more on that later), SEM allows you to hone in further with less effort. You can reach your audience faster and omit users that aren’t helpful for your brand. 

SEM is also great for anyone in a hurry. Building SEO takes a bit of time, but SEM is just a matter of buying the right ads. You can get an effective SEM strategy with very little effort.

SEM also allows you to retarget quickly if you feel the need. If your current marketing strategies aren’t effective, you can change your demographics and copy in a flash. SEO takes time. While that time is useful and builds up to something great, sometimes you need quick results.

SEM isn’t inherently more valuable than SEO, but it does have some important benefits that shouldn’t be ignored when you’re developing your online marketing strategy

What is SEO?

SEO is a kind of search marketing that works on getting organic results. SEO is search engine optimization, meaning that your website is being optimized for more clicks and better visibility on search engines. 

SEO doesn’t rely on paid ads, so it won’t be at the very top of search engines, but when done correctly, it can be on the first page. The first page of search results gets the highest volume of clicks by a landslide. That’s where you want to be.  

SEO is boosted through several strategies that help you rank higher in the eyes of the most popular search engines. You can use on-page SEO or off-page SEO (preferably, a combination) to reach your targets and improve your ranking. 

How Does On-Page SEO Work?

On-page SEO focuses on the specific page that’s going to be showing up in the search. If it’s optimized correctly, Google will drag you to the top of the list. There’s a lot that goes into on-page SEO, but for brevity, we’ll discuss some of the more important factors.

Part of on-page SEO is choosing the right keywords. Keyword research is essential for all search marketing, but you won’t make your way to the top without putting time into researching for your SEO strategy. 

With SEO, it can be useful to consider the intent of the search rather than the specific keywords. Like in the earlier icecream shop example, someone searching “ice cream near me” is going to turn up a lot of results. Some of them will be places to buy by the pint, others will be specific kinds of ice cream at ice cream shops. 

If your keywords are focused around your specific product or service (for example, vegan ice cream shop), you’ve got a much more specific keyword, and a much smaller audience (and less competition).

On-page SEO also relies on content (which relies on your keywords). Search engines are smart. They’re looking for fresh, helpful, mobile-friendly content to help the users find what they need. 

Not all content is created equal. We won’t get too deep into this, but there are a few things to think about. 

While it’s tempting to just churn out content quickly and stuff it with keywords that will drag you up the ranks of Google, this can actually do more harm than good. Poor-quality content is going to lower your SEO rankings. 

This means that SEO is a lot of work. You need to be churning out content that’s going to be helpful to searchers and fresh without looking spammy. 

How Does Off-Page SEO Work?

Off-page SEO focuses on things that may not be directly related to your website. It largely focuses on efforts that you’re making outside of the direct website in order to enhance your rankings. 

Off-page SEO deals with a few things including (but not limited to) backlinking, influencer marketing, and social media. 

Basically, they help to fill out a more comprehensive digital marketing strategy. 

Backlinking is using links to and from high-quality sites to help enhance your own SEO. These links help to improve the user experience, so you will rank higher with higher quality links from more valuable and trusted websites. 

The goal of off-site SEO is to drive more traffic to your site through outside methods. In the case of influencer marketing, you can see how this works very clearly.

The influencer markets your product or service and includes a link to your website. Traffic from that influencer then comes to you even if your page wasn’t ranking high from your on-page SEO. 

Types of SEO

While on-page and off-page SEO can be considered types, SEO can also be broken down by targeting and quality.

Local SEO helps to create more specific locational targeting, similar to SEM. This is good for “local” businesses trying to drum up customers in their area. Businesses can set up business accounts on Google, set up local geotags, and drive their keywords towards their area. 

These things all help to direct local customers to your business. 

Mobile SEO is specifically for mobile users. Mobile-friendly sites will have an easier time climbing up those rankings. Images and videos should be optimized for mobile phones and tablets. Millennials alone spend hours on their phones daily, so mobile SEO is important. 

Mobile SEO is related to voice SEO, which helps to target users who primarily search vocally (and listen to their results). Evergreen content is great for this. 

White hat SEO is SEO that’s being used to find and help a target audience. It’s customer-focused instead of search engine focused. This is what Google wants to see on your website. 

Black hat SEO is SEO that’s only being used to drive up your rankings on search engines. It’s often spammy, misleading, and unhelpful to any potential searches. You can be flagged by Google for black hat SEO, lowering the rankings that you worked so hard for. 

Advantages of SEO

While SEO takes time to build, the fact that it’s organic means that more customers will click on your website if it can make it to the front page.  They’re also more likely to return because high-ranking content is helpful. 

SEO establishes you as a credible site and source of value. Having a strong SEO framework also helps you set up a good SEM campaign. 

While SEM is great, SEO will get you more authority. It also costs you nothing when people click on your site from an SEO link. 

When to Use Each

Both SEO and SEM are crucial to a business’s marketing strategy

SEO lays the groundwork for your website. Building it is a slow process, so after you have a strong landing page, and a few good pieces of content laid out, you can start using SEM for non-organic traffic. This gives you time to build your SEO and still have customers finding your website while your rankings aren’t quite good enough yet.

If you want to change your target demographic, you’ll want to use SEM so you have that immediate shift while you repurpose your SEO to match (which will take time). 

Basically, when you want immediate results, you want to go for SEM. SEO is in it for the long haul. 

SEM vs SEO: Takeaways

While both SEM and SEO are valuable parts of your digital marketing strategy, they aren’t the same. They provide different kinds of value at different stages of your business. 

When it comes to SEM vs SEO, you can loosely break it down to “paid vs organic”. While you may pay a professional for SEO help, SEM is always going to cost money to hold that adspace.

You can also consider “immediate vs long term”. SEM is going to give you the fast results that you need to get started, while SEO will take a long time but provide more value. 

For more information on digital marketing, or to get a consultation for your digital marketing strategy, visit the site and reach out. Let’s work together to get your project going. 

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