SEO Vs. SEM: Differences, Similarities and Best Practices
Today, and more than ever, businesses can see the effects of good digital marketing practices on the success of their operations in real-time. SEO and SEM, two pillars of search marketing, are often some of the most significant parts of any successful digital marketing strategy.
But how can you determine which technology is ideal for your business? Each business and industry are different, and SEO and SEM yield different results based on several factors. Before investing in either SEO or SEM, it’s important to be sure you’ve made the right choice that fits your business needs.
What Is SEO?
SEO, or Search Engine Optimizations, refers to a set of practices and guidelines that, if implemented correctly, can help your page achieve a higher ranking for a specific keyword or keywords on SERPs (Search Engine Results Pages). In SEO, your goal is to achieve a spot on the 1st page of results organically, meaning without paying for ads.
What Is SEM?
SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, generally refers to practices that drive traffic to your website, whether through paid ads or organic ranking. According to Ahrefs, SEM is an umbrella term that includes SEO and paid advertising, but it is mostly used to refer to the practice of utilizing platforms like Google Ads to get a paid spot at the top of SERPs for a specific keyword or keywords. These ads usually operate on a Pay-Per-Click (PPC) or Pay-Per-Impression (PPI) basis, where the advertiser pays a certain amount for each click or impression they get through the ad.
What Are the Main Differences Between SEO and SEM?
There are several differences between SEO and paid SEM. The first difference is that SEO doesn’t require payment to Google Ads or a similar platform, while paid SEM does.
Furthermore, SEM results are immediate. Once you’ve set up your page to rank for a certain keyword, it won’t take any time to appear at the top of the SERP for that keyword. This makes paid SEM much easier to test and refine than SEO, since you can see immediate results that reflect the effect of your ad copy and keywords, as opposed to SEO where pages may take months to rank.
It’s important to note that while SEM provides instant results and guarantees your page a spot at the top, there is a way to do it wrong. SEM cannot work properly without SEO, because SEO determines the keywords to use and makes your pages readable and user-friendly. Without proper SEO, you may not see promising results from paid SEM, and you may see a high bounce rate.
SEO is a long-term investment, as it provides stronger brand recognition, traffic, lead generation, and sales. It’s also important to note that once your page ranks in the top three on a SERP, it becomes self-sustaining, as organic traffic drives backlink generation, thus maintaining and raising your rank.
What Are the Similarities Between SEO and SEM
SEO and paid SEM ultimately serve a common purpose: bringing targeted, quality traffic to your website and increasing your click-through rate.
Furthermore, SEO and paid SEM rely heavily on keyword research and competitor analysis, therefore, whichever tactic you choose, you will gain significant knowledge of your audience, current market trends, and competition. This knowledge is bound to reflect positively on your product or service.
SEO and paid SEM also require frequent monitoring, testing, and optimization to keep up with competition and changing market conditions.
Which technique is the best fit for your business needs?
SEM is a good choice for your digital strategy if:
- You have a good, stable digital marketing budget.
PPC or PPI ads require a consistent monthly budget in order to guarantee traffic. If your budget runs out, the ads immediately stop. It’s also important to note that your budget may vary in the beginning when you are still figuring out how to set up your ads or which keywords work best for you.
- You need immediate results.
If you are launching a new business, product, or website, it’s probably ideal for you to get visibility and increase traffic right away. Because paid SEM provides immediate results, it will help you gain traffic for your selected keywords and will give you valuable insights into the performance of your ads, enabling you to improve them and gain a better understanding of the market and your competition.
- You have high competition in targeted keywords.
With certain products or services, you may find yourself competing with established brands that take up the entirety of the first page results. Relying on ads, in this case, lets you gain visibility over your competition and drive sales.
- You have ad-heavy keywords or keywords that are hard to rank.
Some search engines display more ads for certain keywords. This causes organic results to get pushed down, which means less clicks. Paid SEM will help you avoid losing traffic by keeping your page at the top. With the right SEO techniques, you may also be able to top the organic search results, further increasing your traffic.
- You have experience managing ads.
Setting up your ads is not a straightforward process. You will need to conduct keyword research to determine what keywords to run ads for, learn how to manage your ad account, and have efficient spending while also benefiting from the data it provides.
SEO can provide good results for your business if:
- You want to rank for informational keywords.
SEO is an ideal choice if you intend to rank for informational keywords (e.g., “How to…” or “What is…”). Although these types of keywords don’t serve sales very well, they help to bring quality traffic to your site, the session length, and build your brand identity.
- You have a limited marketing budget.
If you don’t want to burn through your marketing budget quickly, SEO is a better choice for you. Although you may need to hire people with SEO experience or spend time learning all the ins and outs of SEO, the cost is spread out over a long period of time, unlike paid SEM, where the cost of advertising must be paid upfront, and the effect of the ads stops immediately if payments stop.
- You can wait for results (6-12 months).
Utilizing SEO techniques does not give immediate results. After optimizing your pages to rank for certain keywords, it may take anywhere from 6 to 12 months to see your pages ranking.
- You can optimize link building.
One of the most important factors in the success of SEO is link building. If your pages have enough backlinks (i.e., links to your pages exist on other websites), you will see much more promising results from SEO.
- You have experience with managing technical SEO (website structure, indexing).
SEO may seem simple to implement at first glance, but there are a lot of technical aspects and tools you must be aware of to ensure the success of your SEO strategy. Search engines must be able to crawl and index your pages before they can properly rank, and other factors like accessibility, mobile-friendly browsing, and link-building also play an important role.
Effective Marketing Strategies Need Both SEO and SEM
Ideally, every business should be utilizing both SEM and SEO techniques in its digital marketing strategy. SEO is essential to the success of SEM, and data from paid SEM ads can help you significantly improve your marketing strategy and SEO. Depending on your business goals and your budget, you may decide to start with paid SEM, but it’s important to also focus on expanding your SEO skills and adding it to your strategy. If you start with SEO, familiarising yourself with paid SEM will also definitely pay off in the long run.