Both Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are crucial for the success of any digital marketing campaign. Admittedly, there could be some confusion since the terms are at times used interchangeably. Knowing the differences between the two will help you smartly use them in your brand’s marketing.

In this guide to SEO and SEM, we define the two terms, explain their differences, and share ideas on how to apply them in your digital marketing.

What is SEO?

SEO refers to the process of optimizing a website to organically increase its visibility and ranking in SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). SEO is done by optimizing the website’s content including text and images, on-page elements such as anchor text, page titles, meta tags, and structured data.  SEO has four main categories:

  • On-page SEO: This is where you use keywords to optimize your website. These are words that your potential audience would be using in their Google searches.
  • Off-page SEO: Here, the focus is to gain credibility for your website by building top-notch backlinks to your site.
  • Technical SEO: It should be easy for search engines like Google to crawl and index the pages on your site and that’s what technical SEO does.
  • User interaction signals: Google determines the authority of your website by how users interact with it. If your site has a high bounce rate, it will affect your rankings.

What is SEM?

While in SEO you’re not paying any money to improve your search rankings, SEM uses paid tactics. Instead of waiting for your website to slowly improve its ranking, here you spend money to increase its visibility in SERPs.

You do that by buying ad space and if you’re using Google, it will be Google Ads. Digital marketers usually bid on keywords for the search engine’s PPC or Pay-Per-Click advertising. When a user searches using a specific keyword that you select, your ads will be shown at the top of the organic search results.

SEM is not just restricted to search engines. You can also use them to improve your visibility on social media platforms.

The differences between SEO and SEM

The biggest difference is that SEO is unpaid optimization and SEM is paid advertising. This doesn’t mean SEO won’t cost you. It only means that SEM will cost you more. The other big difference is that SEO takes time. It might take months or even years for your website to start ranking higher. SEM can give you immediate visibility.

The Click-Through Rate or CTR is higher for SEOs since organic ranking appears more credible to users. This also means that the traffic potential is unlimited with SEO whereas, with SEM, the traffic potential depends on your budget.

Another way to look at it is that with SEO, it’s internal. You’re fundamentally improving your website to provide reliable and easy user experiences. You work on your digital assets to build authority and trust. While you would also have to work on your website in SEM, it’s largely external.

So, SEM can give you short-term benefits. But for long-term benefits, you have to work on SEO.

When should you use SEO and SEM?

It’s never an either-or situation with SEO and SEM. You need to use both depending on your marketing objectives.

Using SEO: Focusing on SEO will give you a search engine-friendly website that will grow over time. An SEO audit will reveal your current strength and weaknesses, allowing you to lay a robust groundwork to make your website both user-friendly and authoritative in your domain. It will also help you create and roll out an effective content strategy to acquire and retain users.

Using SEM: If you’re launching a product or service, you may not have the time to wait for SEO to give you organic traffic. SEM campaigns can give you immediate visibility and get your product or service in front of users. But do remember that even if you get traffic, your website needs to meet their expectations for them to stick around.

In short

A viable strategy is to first use SEO and spruce up all the aspects that search engines use to rank your website. This is an inexpensive method but it takes time. If you have to gain quick visibility for a particular product, offer, or content, it’s good to add SEM to the mix.

The best results happen when you use the compounded power of both SEO and SEM to drive your digital marketing.

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