SEO and SEM are really two sides of the same coin, but they consist of very different actions and relate to different aspects of marketing. Sometimes the two terms are used together to reference a similar set of activities, which can be confusing for those of us who aren’t as familiar with this world.
So, what’s the difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)? How do the two relate and work together?
Any digital marketing professional should have a solid grasp on these two terms and understand their importance in the marketing arena.
SEO is a key part of your digital marketing strategy and some knowledge is essential no matter what area of digital marketing you specialize in.
NetMarketShare claims that as of 2017 Google grabbed more than 79% of search traffic globally, with the other main search engines lagging behind at 7% or less each. Thus, the main focus when we talk about search engines in the context of SEO is Google, but we still need to remember that others Bing, Baidu and Yahoo are still in the running (but barely)
Internet Live Stats claims that there are over 66,000 searches per second on Google each day. (Note that this is figure was taken at the time of writing – if you click on the link you’ll likely find a different number, as data from this source is collected in real time.) That’s a lot of activity for any given business to compete with and is why SEO is such an important (but tricky) area of digital marketing to know.
How SEO Works
Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to the process by which search engines “crawl” content to see how effective it will be to attract traffic. Search engines will assess a number of things in a website (such as keywords, tags, and link titles) and rank it for its capacity to attract organic traffic based on a variety of factors.
Some things that crawlers look for include:
Quality Content: Having great quality content sends a message to search engines that your website and business is delivering a legitimate good or service. Part of the way they assess you is via link building and keywords.
User Experience: Is your website designed for users to have a frictionless experience? Is it fast and easy to navigate? Can users meet their end goals (e.g.: making a purchase) with ease?
Link Patterns: Are you backlinking to authority sites? Where are your inbound links coming from?
Anyone can learn the basics of SEO and incorporate it into their digital sales, marketing and content strategy. And when you learn how to do it well, it’s bound to bring in more traffic. But learning the ins and outs takes some time and technical knowledge – for the most part, it’s a good idea to consider hiring an SEO expert if you’re looking to really make your website bring in conversions.
You should also note that it takes a bit of time for Google to recognize and reward your site – if your site is brand new, it probably won’t get “noticed” by Google for quite a while.
What is SEM?
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a descriptor that incorporates various types of paid search advertising. This is the type of thing that you’ll see as Google ad and usually ends up on the top of a page list. Usually, this has a to do with keyword placement and usage and that’s one way why doing it well can require some extra knowledge and strategy.
Here are some examples of SEM-based advertising activities:
Targeted (paid) ad campaigns
Writing copy using very selective keywords
Ensuring that advertising activities fall within an allotted budget
Applying key performance indicators like click-through-rates (CTR) and cost-per-click (CPC) towards future advertising activities
There’s such a thing as poorly done SEM, but when it’s done well, it will get you to the top of the rankings. This involves spending some time designing your ads so that they are targeted well.
SEM is great for brand recognition as it means that you’ll be at the top of the list every time someone searches. It’s also a great way to bring in targeted traffic to your website. And because it has to do with paid ads, it’s easy to understand your ROI in a direct way – you are using paid ads and will be able to monitor the traffic on those and then create campaigns based on this information.
Drawbacks of SEM are that it does require some extra special knowledge and tools (like Google AdSense). If you’re not well versed in the area, you’ll probably want to hire someone with a significant amount of expertise in web marketing and ad campaigns to handle this end of things and make it worth your while.
How does SEM differ from SEO?
When we talk about SEO and SEM differences, we’re really just talking about different approaches to advertising.
SEO is sometimes used as an umbrella term that includes SEM, but because SEM refers strictly to paid advertising, they are actually separate. SEM is about getting traffic via paid ads, and SEO is more about acquiring, monitoring and analyzing organic (unpaid) traffic patterns.
How are SEO and SEM Complementary?
SEO and SEM both heavily rely on keywords to drive traffic to business websites and web pages. Though the marketing techniques used for each are different, they are both focused on traffic flows and how these relate to marketing activities. People will use search engines to search for something that they’re looking for, and they’ll be able to find it by the organic results (SEO) or by the paid results (SEM).
Most people search online before buying anything so having a strong presence in search is crucial and using a strategic combination of both can boost your visibility in the long term.
SEO is for organic traffic – so that’s unpaid or free listings, and SEM is for targeted ads that you pay for. They can be complementary but only if the website itself is SEO-friendly first, then SEM has a greater chance of being successful.
SEO is the foundation for good SEM and when you have each set up properly, you have a better chance of getting high-quality traffic and improving conversion rates. Once you have an SEO-friendly site and sponsored ads that are targeted properly using the right keywords, you have more chance of showing up at the top of paid searches. But you have to have your SEO in place in order for Google to see you as a credible website
If your website is on the newer side, you can prioritize your PPC campaign first as it can take a while for SEO rankings to become established, but don’t ignore your SEO during this process.
SEO and SEM will continue to shift as major search engines are continually changing their parameters for rankings. For this reason, it’s difficult to predict what’s going to happen but here are some likely directions.
UX (user experience) will continue to become more important to SEO. This is a current trend and one that makes sense given that Google wants to reward the most user-friendly sites.
Google’s Accelerated Mobile Project (AMP) will gain even more popularity. AMP is a collaboration between developers and other industry professionals to create a massive open source library that offers users more opportunity to create quick and smooth mobile-friendly web pages. This is one area where we’ll be seeing the death of slow-loading pages that rank low. The use of AMP has resulted in huge increases in mobile searches and traffic from major publications such as the Washington Post and Slate.
AI will become more and more involved in SEO and other search activities, especially as the Internet of Things becomes more and more prominent. This will change the nature of searches but allow us to create more targeted ads for SEM.
Everything will become more data-focused and therefore it will be easier to create targeted, personalized campaigns. But because of this, users will also be increasingly concerned about privacy.
Anyone looking towards a career in digital marketing should have a good grasp not only on how SEO and SEM function in today’s current digital atmosphere, but they should be looking to how both will change as we become more and more reliant on technology. Having a solid grasp of how each of these are involved in digital marketing campaigns will be especially crucial in the digital marketplace in the coming years.
Credits: Digital Marketing Institute