The difference between SEO and SEM is simply that Search Engine Optimization is part of Search Engine Marketing or Search Marketing as it is widely known. Both processes aim in increasing visibility in search engines.
SEO is about optimizing your website to get higher rankings in the organic search results while SEM goes beyond SEO. It involves other methods that can get you search engine traffic like PPC advertising.
SEO VS SEM
As you can see in the SEO Vs SEM diagram above, a typical search engine’s results page (SERP) includes two types of results. The first one is the paid search results and the second one is the organic search results.
Paid results are usually denoted with the letters ‘AD’ (and sometimes in a different color) to help users distinguish them from the organic results. They are shown on top and below the organic search results.
To get your website to appear on top of the ‘paid search results’, you need to use PPC (pay per click) ads to bid and win one of the top positions.
You can do this through the different PPC platforms offered by search engines to advertisers.
For example, Google Ads is the advertising tool of Google, Microsoft Advertising is the ad platform for Bing, each search engine has its own tool.
To get your website to appear on top of the organic results, you need to use good SEO practices. In summary, this means, having an SEO friendly website and publishing content that satisfies the intent of the user for a particular search term.
Both processes (SEO and PPC) make up what is generally known in digital marketing, as Search Engine Marketing or SEM in short. Here is a visual representation to help you understand the difference between these three terms.
Let’s examine SEO and SEM in more detail to understand how they work.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
For the purpose of doing a comparison between SEO and SEM, it is important to start with the definition of SEO, so that it is clear for everyone what the difference between the two is.
SEO is the process of optimizing your website for the purpose of getting free traffic from search engines. Traffic coming from SEO is also referred to as organic traffic.
SEO is important because the majority of search engine traffic goes to the top of the organic results. So, if you want to get traffic from search engines without paying for it, your website needs to appear in one of the top 5 positions.
An SEO optimized website is easily understood by search engine crawlers and this increases the chances of ranking higher in SERPS (search engine results pages).
There are 3 main types of SEO: technical SEO, on-page SEO, and off-page SEO.
Technical SEO refers to the process of optimizing your website for the crawling and indexing phase. With technical SEO you ensure that search engines can crawl and index your website without any problems.
The main components of technical SEO are:
- XML Sitemaps
- Canonical URLs
- Site structure
- Website security
The main components of on-page SEO are:
- Page title optimization
- Meta description optimization
- URL optimization
- Image optimization (through the use of ALT Text)
- H1 Tag optimization
- Content optimization
For beginners, this may be confusing but try to think about it like a ranking system where the website that has the most references, ranks higher. References, in this case, are links coming from other websites to your site. That is also the reason why off-site SEO is referred to as link building.
To avoid any misunderstandings, it’s not only a matter of how many links you have pointed to your website but also from where these links are coming (and a number of other factors).
Resources to Learn More About SEO
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
SEM is a digital marketing process with the goal of increasing visibility in search engines either by getting organic traffic through SEO or paid traffic through PPC advertising.
Search Engine Marketing is over and above SEO but it’s only a subset of digital marketing.
Digital marketing includes other channels you can use to increase your website’s traffic besides SEM and SEO like social media marketing, email marketing, video marketing and content marketing.
Why is SEM traffic Important?
Search Engine Marketing traffic (either through organic SEO or Paid Search Advertising) is considered the most important source of Internet traffic because it is targeted.
It is widely accepted that people use search engines to find a solution to a problem, an answer to a question or to learn how to do something.
So, when searchers click on a website from the search results or click on an ad, they are more likely to convert. The relevancy of the displayed web sites and ads makes SEM traffic more valuable than any other source of traffic.
Facebook and Twitter are trying to optimize their advertising platforms to utilize targeted traffic but still, traffic coming directly from search engines has a better ROI.
Does SEM help SEO?
Despite what many people think, SEM does not help SEO. If you use PPC to target specific keywords and get search engine traffic, that does not positively or negatively affect your SEO efforts.
SEO rankings are decided after taking into account hundreds of factors and SEM or PPC campaigns are NOT one of them.
Through paid search advertising you essentially buy advertising space in the search engine results. So, instead of trying to rank in one of the top positions organically through SEO and get free traffic, you pay to appear in front of the search results.
The most well-known advertising agency for PSA is Google Ads (formally Google Adwords). Through Google Ads, you can get your ads to appear in the Google search results and you pay only for the clicks on your ads.
This is also the reason why the whole process is called Pay-per-click or PPC.
Here is an overview of the PPC process:
- Create an account with a PPC platform (for example Google Ads)
- Specify for which keywords you want your ads to appear in the search results
- Create your ads (search engines currently show only text ads in their results)
- Set your daily budget and MAX CPC (the maximum amount of money you want to pay for clicks on your ads)
- Run your campaigns and monitor the results
Once your budget is exhausted your ads will stop running. An important point to note is that while you pay to get your ads shown on the search results, it is not guaranteed that they will show on the top ad positions.
This depends on competition and how much you are willing to pay per click to secure one of the top ad placements.
Resources to Learn More About PPC
SEO Vs SEM: Which is better, SEO or SEM?
Despite the fact that SEO is one of the two components of search engine marketing, many marketers when they refer to SEM they mean PPC advertising.
Basically, they consider Paid Search Advertising as being the only component of SEM. In this case, we can do a comparison between the two.
Organic SEO is generally the best marketing tactic for long-lasting results. Websites that rank high in the organic results for their target keywords, can get free traffic 24/7, industry recognition, and enjoy all the benefits of SEO.
Websites that use PPC can still get targeted traffic from search engines but they have to pay for it. Once they stop the paid campaigns, the traffic disappears.
It’s important to note at this point that although SEO traffic is generally considered to be free, it takes a lot of time, effort, and money to get to the top organic results for popular keywords.
The search space is highly competitive for all industries and you need to make a considerable investment to secure one of the top positions.
You will have to create high-quality content consistently (which is a very costly process), hiring an SEO expert to help with the SEO process and the optimization of your website with hundreds of SEO rules.
So, which is more effective cost-wise, SEO or SEM? Definitely SEO. It might require an initial investment but once you get to a point to rank high for the keywords that matter for your business, you can enjoy the ride and the ‘free traffic’ 24/7 without worrying about advertising budgets.
Another major difference between SEO and SEM is that it takes a lot of time for SEO to work and generate results while PPC is almost instant.
So, which is better depends on your overall digital marketing goals. If you want to get traffic fast then you can start with SEM (paid search advertising) and in parallel work on your SEO. If you want to create a long-lasting online business without relying on paid traffic, then SEO is your answer.
Ease of learning
For beginners, there will be a learning curve to learn SEO and PPC but from my experience, you can become a PPC expert faster than an SEO expert.
The reason is that PPC has fewer rules compared to SEO. Once you learn how to use a PPC platform, you can start experimenting with PPC campaigns. You can run pilot campaigns with a limited budget, analyze results, and then expand your budget and create more campaigns.
Plus, with the introduction of artificial intelligence in SEM platforms, your job is easier since many of the complicated tasks we used to do in the past (like manual bidding for ad placement) can be done automatically by the AI algorithm.
On the other hand, to learn SEO, you’ll have to understand how search engines work and in particular how ranking works. If you take into account that search engines use hundreds of rules when deciding the order the results will appear for a particular search term, you can realize that it’s a lot of work.
The good news is that there a number of online courses to speed up the learning process and build your SEO skills fast.
When your business depends on SEM, you need to consider the risks involved with SEO and PPC.
For SEO the greatest risk is Google algorithmic changes. Google is the biggest search engine and also the major source of traffic for any website. A few times per year they release changes that affect the organic results. During these changes, it is possible to lose or gain rankings and traffic.
If you gain traffic, that’s great but if you lose traffic, it may take a considerable amount of time to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it (if it’s possible to fix it).
For PPC the greatest risk is advertising costs. The cost per click is increasing year by year and if you solely depend on paid traffic, you may reach a point that the cost of advertising goes above the acceptable levels. This means to stay in business you may have to increase prices but this may reduce sales and profit.
From my 20 years of experience in the industry, the best way to handle these risks is to use both SEO and PPC as part of your SEM campaigns. Depending on your business model, you can get started with PPC as it can generate faster results but in parallel, you need to work on your SEO.
The ideal scenario is to reach a point where you can get targeted traffic from both channels so that if something goes wrong with SEO or PPC, your business will not be totally affected.
SEM Marketing has two components, SEO marketing, and PPC marketing. Although SEO is technically part of SEM, many people when referring to SEM they mean the process of using PPC ads to get traffic from search engines.
In general, Search engine marketing is a critical digital marketing channel. If you want to create a long-lasting online business, you need to use both.
PPC can get you faster results but you will have to keep paying for the traffic, SEO takes longer to generate results and requires a bigger initial investment.
Both processes aim in increasing a website’s visibility in search engines for the purpose of getting highly targeted traffic.