Search engine optimization and search engine marketing can be a confusing concept to grasp. Is there even a difference between them?
Both terms are often used interchangeably, which makes matters even worse.
It is important to understand the difference between the two terms and that they are different.
In this post, I will help clear up this issue with some frequently asked questions that I have heard from others.
What is SEM?
SEM, or search engine marketing, is a marketing tactic where a marketer optimizes and advertises their website in order to appear higher in search results.
According to a deeper Wikipedia definition, “Search engine marketing is a form of Internet marketing that involved the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPS) through optimization and advertising.”
SEO is increasing the amount of website visitors by getting the site to appear high on results returned by a search engine. SEM is considered internet marketing that increases a site's visibility through organic search engines results and advertising. SEM includes SEO as well as other search marketing tactics.
What is the benefit of SEM?
While SEO allows you to optimize your website for a greater chance in appearing higher in search results, and online advertising allows you to send promotional content to the target audience of your choosing, SEM combines both benefits as your content is both optimized for higher search rankings and is placed primarily in front of audiences who are most likely to convert when they click on your ads.
Is paid search the same as SEM?
At this point, you might be asking, "If I can pay for my website to appear higher in search results, how is SEM different from paid search?" Well, paid search is a major aspect of SEM and refers to pay-per-click (PPC) ads specifically. However, the two strategies are different.
The key distinction is that SEM is a broader strategy which combines paid search and SEO tactics. So, if you set up a PPC advertisement, but don't take steps to optimize the ad or the website it links to, this is a standard example of paid search. However, if you optimize your site and your search content with solid keywords, then you put money behind it to boost it on targeted audience's search pages, then you're dabbling in SEM.
What components does SEM include?
As noted above, other than search engine optimization, SEM includes the use of paid search, such as pay per click (PPC) listings and advertisements. Most of the time, SEM strictly includes PPC campaigns and activities, but if you use SEO and paid search, that falls under SEM efforts.
What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?
SEO is essentially a component of the larger category, SEM. According to Google’s Knowledge Graph, search engine optimization is “the process of maximizing the number of visitors to a particular website by ensuring that the site appears high on the list of results returned by a search engine.”
The SEO industry is continually changing due to the frequent changes made to Google’s algorithm. But, there is one aspect of SEO that stays constant: SEO is made up of On-Page and Off-Page activities.
What components does SEO include?
As stated above, SEO is comprised of two different activities:
Incorporating selective keyword naturally into title tags, meta descriptions, heading tags, alt text, etc.
Blog posts and page copy that is written and optimized with quality
Clean and formatting page URLS
Optimized page load speed
Google authorship incorporated
Social sharing integration within your content
And much more!
What components does off-page SEO include?
Creating a high quality, natural backlink profile (aka having other high quality/authoritative sites link to your site naturally)
Social sharing signals
Social bookmarking (Stumbleupon, Reddit)
List goes on here too!
Which is better: SEO or SEM?
The main difference between these two terms is that search engine optimization is simply a component of search engine marketing. As mentioned above, SEM includes components of paid search, such as PPC and also SMM (social media marketing).
It is important to note that you should never use the terms SEO and SEM interchangeably, because although they work hand in hand, they are not the same term.
The Bottom Line
Many marketers debate whether one is better than the other. As an Inbound Marketer, I would argue that organic SEO is the best approach, but as you can see, true SEM cannot succeed without the use of organic SEO.
Additionally, there are many situations where PPC (a component of SEM) makes more sense than SEO. For example, if you are first launching a site and you want immediate visibility, it is a good idea to create a PPC campaign because it takes less time than SEO, but it would be unwise to strictly work with PPC and not even touch search engine optimization.
Although organic SEO takes longer to show results, in the end it will be less costly and you will establish a search credibility that you might not establish with PPC.
When it comes to choosing the best tactic, it is important to evaluate your specific needs, but be sure to fully understand the differences and how you will maintain your efforts. Check out Revenue River's free guide for how SEO how-to.
Editor's Note: This blog post was originally posted in January 2014, but was updated in January 2020 for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Jun 19, 2014 10:00:00 AM, updated February 05 2020