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SEM and SEO are two different approaches to search optimization and are essential to your marketing strategy for increasing website traffic, grabbing your audience’s attention, and growing your business.

Without the proper knowledge of the differences between SEM and SEO, search optimization can be difficult to manage for your business. While these terms may sound the same, they are separate techniques for improving your search visibility.

At Higher Images, we’ve put together a guide on the differences between the two techniques and how you can effectively use them to boost your brand.

What You Need to Know About Search Marketing

Before we can dive into SEM vs. SEO, we need to understand the terminology that comes with this type of marketing. Search marketing is defined as any tactic that is used to help brands attract attention by improving their visibility in search engine results pages. This includes the efforts made to increase ranking and to improve search visibility to drive more traffic to a company’s website or specific pages on the site.

Within search marketing, the two main categories are SEM and SEO. SEM utilizes paid strategies to appear in search results, whereas SEO uses organic strategies to appear in search results. To create a clear marketing plan, it is crucial to treat SEM and SEO as separate strategies.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing and refers to the part of search marketing that utilizes paid tactics that are used to gain more visibility in search engine results. A paid SEM strategy typically includes the activities completed to set up and optimize your ads, as well as budgeting that is used to pay for ad placement.

SEM is also referred to paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) marketing. The most commonly used SEM search provider is Google Ads. With SEM, research is conducted to find the best keywords for your business. Campaigns are then created targeting the top keywords for your products, services, or industry.

When users search for those specific keywords, they will see your custom ads at the top or bottom of the search engine results. Each time a user clicks on the ad, the company is charged, hence the name pay-per-click.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization and is a search marketing strategy that uses organic tactics to improve search engine result visibility. When you use SEO, you don’t pay for ad placement on search engine result pages. An array of tactics are used to prompt the search engines to show your content near the top of the search results because the content is valuable and authoritative.

There are hundreds of SEO tactics that can be used to help you increase your search rankings, and they are often separated into three categories:

  • Technical SEO – this is a technique that optimizes non-content elements of your website. It also is used to improve the website overall to help boost the foundation and structure of the website. This technique includes improving site speed, mobile-friendliness, crawlability, indexing, structured data, and security. Technical SEO is used to improve the user experience and the search crawler experience to increase your search rankings.
  • On-page SEO – This technique is used to optimize each page of the website by targeting specific keywords that will appeal to search engines. Strategies for on-page SEO include content creation, keyword optimization, and keyword research. With on-page SEO, you can help search engines to understand a page of content which will provide it with higher ranks.
  • Off-page SEO – This is a strategy used to build your website’s authority and reputation by associating it with other top-quality sites. Off-page SEO techniques include managing local listings, managing directory profiles, and link building by acquiring top-quality backlinks.

The best SEO strategy combines all three types of SEO to create the best results.

How are SEM and SEO Similar?

SEM and SEO do share some similarities. Both SEM and SEO:

  • Improve search results. Both SEM and SEO are aimed at helping your brand appear more prominently on search engine results pages. Each of these tactics is used to help your brand show up within the search result when a user searches for specific keywords related to your products, services, or industry.
  • Drive traffic to your site. Each of these strategies is designed to drive more traffic to your website while also gaining visibility in the search engine results pages. SEO And SEM both use tactics that are designed to increase click-through rates and get more users to click on your brand in the search results.
  • Use keywords to identify popular search terms. SEM and SEO use keyword research first to identify the best keywords for your brand to target. Both techniques look at keyword popularity to determine the top keywords for your brand or buying the keywords your target audience is searching for. Both techniques also look at the keyword competition to see what your competitors are targeting to help you determine what you need to do to bring yourself to their level.
  • Require you to know your ideal audience. For either strategy to be successful, you will need to have a clear picture of who your ideal audience is and how they behave. You need to know your audience, their needs, and what they are searching for. This will help you create content that shows up when they are seeking services, products, or solutions that are related to your brand.
  • Require continual optimization and testing. Neither of these strategies can be set up and left alone. To be successful and remain ahead of your competition, you will need to continually monitor, test, and optimize your SEO and SEM campaigns.

How Are SEM and SEO Different?

Now that you understand their similarities, let’s take a look at the differences between SEM and SEO:

SEM results cost money per click, but SEO results do not.

Since your SEM results are paid placement ads, you will be charged each time a user clicks on the result. When a user clicks on an SEO search result, you will not be charged.

SEM results show up with an “ad” designation.

Your paid ads that are placed through your SEM techniques will often be identified as an ad with an icon that says “Ad” next to the placement. Search results that appear due to organic SEO tactics are not marked as ads.

Your SEM search results will have ad extensions.

SEM and SEO results appear differently in searches. With your SEM search results, ad extensions may be included, which can include callouts, phone numbers, or additional links. On the other hand, SEO search results will typically appear with a featured snippet.

SEM offers an instant impact; SEO’s impact takes time.

With the paid SEM ads, you have the ability to place your results in front of your target audience in just a few clicks. When the campaign is launched, you will immediately start showing your ads in the search results. SEO tactics take time and can sometimes take months of implementing SEO strategies before your company begins to build rankings on search engines.

SEO offers long-term value.

SEO tactics grow and build up over time for lasting results. SEM, on the other hand, only works as long as you pay for the results to show up.

Should I Choose SEM or SEO?

To determine whether SEM or SEO is right for your brand, consider the following factors:

How well do you know your industry?

For brands that have been in business for a while, you may already know what your customers want and the best avenues for reaching them. If so, we recommended that you start a long-term SEO strategy to give your brand value over time.

If you are new to the industry or are unsure how customers will respond to your products, services, or content, then an SEM campaign would be your best bet. This will allow you to test the waters with your ideas and offerings.

What are your competitors doing?

When developing an effective marketing strategy, it is crucial to look at your competitors to see what they are doing to maintain their edge. Look at how they are performing in search marketing to help your brand determine the best way to compete with them.

Start by researching the keywords they are organically ranking for and consider a plan to top their search engine results page placements. You will also want to research the paid terms that are using to drive traffic to the websites. Look for any gaps that you can take advantage of and any areas where you will struggle to compete with them in organic and paid search.

What is the average cost-per-click in your industry?

Before considering an SEM strategy for your brand, you will want to consider how much you will need to spend to show up in the paid results. The cost-per-click for specific keywords will vary based on your competition. If you find the cost-per-click is low, then SEM may be a great strategy for you. Higher costs may indicate it’s best to focus on SEO.

How old is your business?

If you’ve just opened your business, it can take time to see results with SEO. You may want to consider SEM strategies first to reap the benefits of ad placement while building your SEO.

Professional SEM and SEO Services to Increase Your Rankings

With so many factors to consider, there is no simple answer when choosing between SEM and SEO. At Higher Images, our team is well versed in the ins and outs of SEM and SEO, so for more insight on what is best for your company’s marketing strategy, contact us today! *