When it comes to digital marketing, the number of three-letter acronyms is so high, that sometimes we find our heads spinning! But don’t worry.
Enter SEO and SEM.
So, let’s get started with SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?
What is SEO?
First things first, let’s individually define the two. At Digital Storyteller, we talk a lot about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). For those just now getting on the SEO train, let’s start with the basics!
According to Moz, SEO is “the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.” SEO is how marketers tailor their content to appeal to search engines like Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.
For example, you might search ‘coffee shop near me’ or ‘coffee shop open late’ on Google. The way that Google then provides results based on your search is determined by SEO. SEO is the tool that tells Google, “Hey! This is what information my website has, this is what I’m talking about, and these are the types of people that would find my website interesting!”
For more on SEO, meta descriptions, title tags, SEO strategy, link building, ranking factors, and so on, check out this article for 10 tips to maximize your SEO, this article we wrote on why SEO is important, or one of our newest articles on how to effectively combine SEO and content marketing!
What is SEM?
Now let’s talk SEM. We promise, it’s not as scary as it sounds, and definitely not as scary as STEM!
SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. And what’s search engine marketing, you might ask? SEM, according to Optimizely, is “a digital marketing strategy used to increase the visibility of a website in search engine results pages (SERPs).”
In the past, SEM typically encompassed both organic and paid search. Today, however, it almost exclusively refers to paid search advertising.
If you’ve begun to put the puzzle pieces together, you might be thinking to yourself, “Huh… That sounds a lot like pay per click, or PPC.” Well, if so, congrats! SEM, paid search, and PPC are all used interchangeably.
Take it from our Team:
“A lot of people consider SEM as part of an overall umbrella of SEO, but they’re actually pretty different. Most generally, SEM features the paid side of search engines.”
“SEM includes anytime that you’re doing paid search, display ads, etc. SEM is a really great opportunity if you know you want to rank for a very specific keyword. You can pay the search engines to rank your content first.”
It’s also important to note that paid search is short-term. As soon as you stop paying for the paid search ad, your traffic is going to stop too.
In a final attempt to provide clarity for you, SEM is “the act of using paid strategies to increase search visibility.” Every day, businesses pay big money for their ads to rank first on search engine results pages…
Hint: You can tell when businesses are using SEM by the bold “Ad” text that accompanies a search result! Example below.
Similarities vs. Differences
Let’s first start with a bullet list of similarities. Both SEO and SEM:
- Use keyword research
- Help your business appear in search results
- Increase traffic to your website
- Only work if you have a specific target audience and keywords
- Require ongoing effort (i.e. optimization, monitoring)
Here are some differences between SEO and SEM:
- SEO search results include featured snippets whereas SEM search results might include phone numbers, additional links, or callouts.
- SEO takes time, but once you reach a high ranking on a search engine, you typically stay there. SEM, on the other hand, is rather immediate, which also means that your ranking is not permanent.
- More people are likely to click through organic SEO results in comparison to SEM.
- As previously mentioned, SEM includes the bold “Ad” text in a search result.
- Every time someone clicks your SEM result, you are charged. Hence the term, “pay per click.”
- SEM is easier to experiment with.
So, What’s Best for Your Business?
We know, we just dumped a lot of information on you! (But it’s golden, so you’re welcome!) Now that you have a grasp on SEO and SEM, their similarities and differences, it’s time that you explore making an informed decision about which to use for your business.
Consider the following:
- Do you know your industry yet?
- Typical cost per click in your industry
- Is your business relatively new? What is the overall health of your website?
- Your client buying cycles
- Who is your competition?
These questions can help inform how you compare to the competition as far as search goes.
What is Your Ultimate Goal?
It’s important to remind yourself of what your ultimate goal is.
At Digital Storyteller, we focus on organic search overall as a whole. Why? We want to ensure that our clients’ content ranks and persists over time.
This considered, at Digital Storyteller, we believe that the focus on SEO is a lot more important than the overall focus on SEM specifically. If you want to run paid ads, it’s a really great addition to your overall marketing strategy (but we believe it’s a slice of the pie, not the whole pie!)
Still not clear on which is best for you? Learn more about how to optimize your content for search. After all, investing time and resources into content development is in a sense useless if not properly optimized.