SEO vs SEM, What’s The Difference?

We get asked about search engine optimization (SEO) and pay-per-click search engine marketing (SEM) a lot. Most people think that SEO and SEM are the same things. In this blog post, we will look at the differences and tell you when and how each should be used.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Let’s start with Search Engine Optimization or SEO as it is commonly called. This describes all the work we do that makes it easier for search engines to find and add content to their databases, a process also called indexing. The goal is to create and place content that fits a very specific mathematical model called a search algorithm. Search algorithms are kept secret by the search engines, and SEO specialists are constantly trying to reverse-engineer them so they can achieve top placement for their keywords.

In general, SEO is really about creating and organizing content in a way that makes it easy to find, evaluate, categorize and rate while keeping it informative and entertaining. This is not always an easy task. Content optimization relies heavily on statistics, and our SEO analysis tools typically tell us that we need to change the content of pages in ways that make them awkward to read. In fact, over-optimized pages sound downright spammy.

Once the content on your website is optimized, then you start the process of “off-page optimization,” which is a subject for an entirely different blog post. For more information on SEO, see our blog series Search Engine Optimization Tips.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Search Engine Marketing, or SEM, is also called pay-per-click (PPC) advertising. In the case of SEM, we focus solely on purchasing ad space on search engines. Paying for ad placement in search results is a complicated process for many reasons, not the least of which is that it is a bidding system. Because the position of your ad in the search results depends on both the amount you are willing to pay and the relevance of your web page’s content to the search phrase, SEO can have an impact on your SEM budget.

As a general rule, ads that appear at the top of the search results are the highest cost and link to content that is considered to be relevant to the search performed by the user. If the ad is for a product or service that is not directly relevant to the search, the ad will be moved to the right column or forced to the 2nd or 3rd page of search results. In this way, the search engines make the most money while keeping their links relevant.

Ad relevance, content quality, and keyword cost have some interesting effects on your ad placement and cost. We have seen clients bid much higher than other advertisers for the same keywords and still not get top ad placement. Google has many articles that describe how and why their system works this way; however, it all comes down to providing the most relevant content to their visitors.

SEO and SEM Working Together
The bottom line is that you will pay less and get better placement when optimize first and pay for placement last. Your ads should match the user’s search phrase as closely as possible and the page where you are sending those users should contain well-optimized content.

Search engine optimization is a long, labor-intensive process while search engine marketing can be set up quickly and have an immediate impact. Knowing when and how to use both can make a huge difference in the success or failure of your online marketing efforts. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Optimize for your brand, product, and service keywords. 
These keywords are the most relevant to your business and will be the most helpful long-term. Informed consumers and existing customers will find you using these keyword phrases. Ranking in the organic (non-paid) search results for your brands, products, and services is extremely important.

Think like your customer. 
Imagine you are a new, uninformed or lightly informed customer, then ask yourself, “What would that person be searching for?” If you cannot do that, ask a middle school student to find your competitor’s website, but don’t tell them the company name. The process will be very educational.

Avoid industry jargon. 
You didn’t find this blog post by searching for “PPC CTA A-B split testing.” Only a search engine marketing geek like me would search for something like that. Try to keep your searches more plain English because that is what most people are going to use when they start their searches.

Make a list and check it twice. 
Make a list of every possible search phrase that would describe your company, industry, products, and services. Google and Bing will help you find those keywords and even provide you with search volumes and competition levels. From there you can categorize and prioritize your keyword list into two lists: SEO and PPC.

Pay for placement until you achieve organic placement. 
For some keywords, you will need to show up right away and you don’t have time for the SEO to work. If you have relevant content and are ready for traffic, pay for it. Once your SEO efforts pay off and you have achieved your desired rankings, turn off the PPC for those keywords. When your placement slips, turn the PPC back on.

It can be cheaper to pay for clicks than to optimize. When dealing with low-volume keywords that have little to no competition, it is often cheaper to pay the 5 to 10 cents per click than spend the time and money needed for search engine optimization.

Monitor and review your placement. 
You will never know how well you are doing or if you need to re-optimize existing content unless you monitor your search engine placement. When done properly, your search engine placement monitoring report will tell you:

  • Where your site ranks in organic searches
  • How your placement has changed over time
  • Give you insights on how your competition is doing
  • Alert you to problems that are harming your placement

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