SEM vs SEO: Is There a Difference?

SEO and SEM are often used interchangeably, but they differ in costs, goals, and results.

5 mins to read

You may know that SEM and SEO are necessary for your business, but do you know why or which strategy is best for your marketing needs? 

SEO and SEM are often used interchangeably, but they differ in costs, goals, and results.

In this blog, we cover:

  • The differences between SEO and SEM
  • How to choose the right strategy for your digital presence
  • Practical ways to implement both

The Difference Between SEO and SEM

SEO and SEM are both strategies used to market your business in search engine results, but the ways in which they do this vary. 

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is solely focused on optimizing your website to attract more organic (or unpaid) web traffic. It identifies target keywords and phrases that people are searching for and then places them strategically throughout your content. Hence, your business is more likely to show up in search engine listings.

Search engines like Google and Bing have certain criteria in place to make sure the most useful information is returned when someone conducts a search. Google bases its search engine rankings on 5 key factors:

  1. Meaning: Does the content match the intent of the searcher?
  2. Relevance: Does the content contain information that’s relevant to what the searcher is looking for?
  3. Quality: Does the content demonstrate expertise, authority, and trustworthiness?
  4. Usability: Is the site quick to load and easy to use?
  5. Context: Does the content match the searcher’s current location, search history, and search settings when necessary?

SEO is the process of optimizing your site for these factors to ensure search engines will see your content as helpful for the right people and queries.

What Is SEM?

Search engine marketing (SEM) aims to capture traffic from both organic searches and paid advertisements. For this reason, SEO is actually a subset of SEM. 

When you search for something, you likely see two types of listings pop up on the search engine results page (SERP): Normal listings and listings marked as “sponsored.” 

Sponsored content is a paid ad, as it indicates that a business has paid the search engine to show up on the first page of the search results for certain keywords and intents. SEM helps you gain visibility and traffic by both listing types.

Types of SEM include:

  • Pay-per-click (PPC) ads
  • Local search ads 
  • Product listing ads
  • Social media marketing (also called paid social)

Which Is Better for Your Business, SEO or SEM?

Whether your business should focus on SEM, SEO, or both depends on a few factors, including whether you have an ad budget, how quickly you need to see results, and whether you need to target specific audiences.

SEO doesn’t require an ad budget, but it takes more time to see results and doesn’t let you target specific demographics. SEM requires an ad spend but provides more immediate results that can be tracked back to your ad. It also lets you narrow your search audience.

SEM and SEO also have different click-through rates (CTRs). While less than half of Google searches result in clicks, more than 45% of searchers clicked on organic listings. Comparatively, only 4% of users clicked on ads.

Benefits of a Combined Search Strategy

When SEO and SEM are used together, they complement each other in search results. For example, sponsored listings can draw traffic to an organic page, helping boost its visibility. Using these strategies together can also create perceived credibility, as users may see multiple listings from your company in a single search.

Ways to Improve Your SEO

While search engine algorithms are constantly changing, there are a few tried-and-true techniques you can use to help boost your visibility in organic searches.

Optimize Your Google Business Profile

Considering Google owns more than 92% of the global search engine market, it’s critical to make sure your business comes up in relevant searches for your area, product, or service. You can help achieve this by creating a free Google Business Profile

Google Business Profiles are the only way you can claim your business and manage its appearance in Google products like Search and Google Maps. This is especially critical for local businesses like restaurants and service providers that depend on local traffic.

Improve Your Site’s Structure

For Google to scan your website for relevant information, your site needs to be structured in a way that’s easy to follow. Simplifying your website’s structure also creates a better user experience for your customers by helping them quickly find the information they need.

To simplify your site:

  • Use heading tags (H1s, H2s, etc.) to organize your information
  • Include a clearly labeled main menu
  • Add a search bar so users can search for the information they need
  • Use internal links to show which pages and topics are related

Make Your Site Mobile-Friendly

As of the end of 2023, more than 56% of all web traffic was conducted using mobile phones. Because of this, Google updated its web crawler to use mobile-first indexing, which prioritizes your site’s mobile version over its desktop version. This means your website must be responsive on mobile devices to rank well.

A few ways to make your site more mobile-friendly include:

  • Using a mobile-friendly and responsive layout
  • Compressing images to help pages load quicker
  • Making button sizes larger
  • Avoiding the use of pop-ups

Ways to Improve Your SEM

Just like with SEO, there are a number of ways you can quickly boost your SEM efforts. Here are a few to get you started.

Narrow Down Your Target Audience

To be successful at SEM, you need to understand your target audience and what they’re searching for. There are a number of tools you can use to narrow your target audience by factors like the following:

  • Age
  • Location
  • Gender
  • Household income
  • Parental status

For example, if you’re an attorney that is only licensed to practice in South Carolina, you’ll want to filter your ads by location so they’re not shown to irrelevant searchers outside of the state. Similarly, if you run a daycare, you’ll want your ads to primarily show to searchers with children.

Choose the Right Platforms

Part of understanding your audience is knowing which platforms they use. In addition to Google Ads, you can implement SEM strategies across platforms like:

  • Bing Ads
  • Facebook Ads
  • LinkedIn Ads
  • Amazon Advertising

The platform you choose should depend on your marketing goals, budget, audience personas, and sector. Each platform also has its pros and cons, such as how narrowly you can target your campaigns. Be sure to do your homework first so you can invest your budget wisely.

Test and Adapt

Not every campaign and platform is going to perform well, and that’s OK. That’s why it’s important to conduct periodic A/B testing, which enables you to compare two versions of the same webpage or ad to see which performs better. 

A/B testing can help you narrow down which messages, channels, and imagery resonate most with your audience. You can then use this information to adjust your campaign for better results.

When to Enlist a Digital Marketing Agency

SEO can be highly technical, and allocating SEM budgets can be nerve-wracking. Both strategies also require extensive ongoing attention and maintenance.

Between social media posting, website updates, creating content calendars, and more, many marketing professionals are already overburdened with responsibilities.

If this resonates, consider getting outside help from a boutique marketing agency that specializes in small business and startup marketing. Ongoing SEO and SEM efforts can be very affordable and are built around your specific needs and budget. 

In other words, it’s possible to grow your business without growing your workload!

Alan and Company: Specialized Digital Marketing for SMBs

Alan and Co. Marketing is a digital marketing agency in the U.S. that specializes in SEO and SEM for small and mid-sized businesses (SMBs). We have special expertise in marketing for drug rehabs and improving drug rehab SEO

Follow our blog for more SMB digital marketing insights, and schedule a free consultation to start getting the visibility your business needs. 

March 7, 2024

Jackie Rosu


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