SEO vs. SEM: What's the Difference?

What’s the difference between Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Computer against white backdrop with white flowers and the text "SEM vs. SEM"

You might hear the terms Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) used interchangeably, but they’re actually not the same thing.

The difference between them comes down to the two types of search engine results: paid vs. organic.

When you search for something on Google or other search engines, your search results will either be:

  1. Paid for (and feature that tiny “ad” text in the corner)

  2. Or appear organically based on how the search engine indexes and ranks that piece of content

Graphic of a computer with screenshots of paid Google search results and organic Google search results

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) focuses only on generating organic traffic. Search Engine Marketing (SEM) focuses on both organic and paid search results.

In other words, SEM is more of an umbrella term used to describe both SEO and PPC (pay-per-click) marketing efforts.

Flow chart with Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay-Per-Click (PPC) under Search Engine Marketing (SEM)

They’re both incredibly important when it comes to marketing your business online. Let’s dive into the differences so you can understand why.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

The goal of SEO is to help your website rank in organic search results that you don’t need to pay for. That’s what makes SEO such an important focus area for all business owners (especially small budget businesses!) because it costs more to pay for clicks than it does to get those clicks organically.

But gaining organic traffic is not always easy, which is why an SEO strategy is important.

There are three major components to focus on when building out an SEO strategy: on-page, off-page, and technical SEO. Here’s what each one means:

On-Page SEO

This is all about optimizing your website to create a high-quality experience for your customers (and for Google!). It’s called “on page” because these are changes that visitors can physically see on your website, as opposed to off-page or backend technical SEO elements which aren’t visible.

Tactics include:

  • Keyword research

  • Easy-to-read formatting

  • Title and heading tags

  • Meta descriptions

  • URL length

  • Internal and external links

  • User experience (both desktop and mobile)

  • And more!

For example, on-page optimization includes internal linking or linking out from one piece of content on your site to another.

Screenshot of internal linking in a blog

It also involves paying attention to the searcher’s intent. In the Google search below you can see that searchers typing “how to do a squat” are looking for educational content (aka a step-by-step guide or video tutorial).


Screenshot of "how to do a squat" Google search

But someone searching “squat bands” is ready to make a purchase.

Screenshot of "squat bands" Google search

Understanding and utilizing searcher intent and other on-page optimizations can help improve your rankings and drive more targeted traffic to your website.

Off-Page SEO

Google wants to know: can we trust you and your content? It doesn’t like to send searchers to the wrong website. So off-page SEO is all the tactics you do off your website that build trust and authority for your site to help improve your rankings.

Tactics include:

  • Link building (like backlinks, or links back to your website)

  • Social sharing

  • EAT (Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness)

What are backlinks and how do they build trust and authority?

Backlinks are links from other websites to your website. This helps generate more traffic by getting your site in front of a different audience. But more importantly, high-quality backlinks help you build authority online.


Graphic of one website linking to another to visualize backlinks

Image source: Backlinko


If a site that Google already considers trustworthy links out to you, that’s a signal to Google that your site is trustworthy too. And when you have a lot of high-quality websites linking to your site, that’s the ultimate SEO boost. In other words, the more high-quality backlinks you have, the more authority you build with Google.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO involves all the back-end site development that helps search engines crawl and index your site.

Tactics include:

  • Site architecture, hierarchy, and navigation

  • Mobile Optimization

  • Robots.txt

  • Canonicalization

  • Pagination

  • Structured data

  • Protocols

  • Redirect codes

  • Site speed and user experience

  • And more!

Technical SEO is the backbone of SEO. Because if Google and other search engines can’t crawl and index your content, then it doesn’t matter what on-page or off-page tactics you’re implementing.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

The goal of SEM is to drive traffic to your website through both SEO and paid results called pay-per-click (PPC).

What is Pay-Per-Click (PPC)?

PPC is quite literally what the name describes: you’re paying for website clicks. For example, if you’re Impala Rollerskates you’re paying Google every time someone clicks on your ad below.


Screenshot of "roller skates" Google search

You’re getting prime-time real estate in that “roller skates” Google search result, but that real estate comes with a cost.

Just like the actual real estate market these days, PPC is all about the highest bidder. You earn paid ad placement by bidding on a specific keyword, like “roller stakes”. If you’re the highest bidder, your paid ad will rank at the top of the page.

Exactly how much you need to bid depends on the keyword. Some keywords are more competitive or have higher search volumes, which makes them more valuable (aka pricey!).

Screenshot of a list of keywords and CPC or cost-per-click data

But it’s not just bidding that’s important to keep in mind with PPC. Like SEO, you want to do extensive keyword research to understand what your target audience is searching for. There’s no point in being the highest bidder on a keyword that’s not relevant to your audience or your business.

When you go to set up your Google or Bing ad, they’ll walk you through these steps to help you target the right audience and keywords for your website. But it’s helpful to spend some time researching the right keywords and locations that you want to target before you go to set up your paid ads.

PPC vs. SEO

Both PPC and SEO are about getting your business front and center in Google or other search engine results. The biggest differences between them are cost and time.

SEO is “free” while PPC is paid. But I put quotation marks around SEO being free because ranking organically in search results doesn’t exactly happen on its own. SEO takes time and energy. And, as we all well know, time is money.

But unlike SEO, you’ll get almost instant results with paid ads. And that’s because with SEO you’re earning an organic spot in search results (which takes time) vs. paying for that spot with PPC (which happens instantly).

So why focus any attention at all on SEO?

Well, think about your own experience typing something in a Google search bar. Are you more likely to click the paid ad or the organic search result below it?


Two side by side screenshots of Google search results but one with paid ads and the other with organic search results

According to Higher Visibility research, the average person is more likely to click on the organic search result than the paid one. Their stats say that organic search drives 53% of website traffic while paid search only drives 27%.

So even though it takes a bit of effort, SEO is important for driving traffic to your website.

And another key difference between the two is that when you stop paying for Google ads, you stop bringing in paid traffic. This makes it a constant suck on your marketing budget.

But with SEO, you’re building authority online that only continues to grow over time. There’s no “pulling the plug” with SEO because you’re investing in a long-term strategy. And while it often takes a lot more work upfront, once you build and establish a solid SEO framework it’s mainly about maintaining or improving upon that framework as you grow.

SEM vs. SEO: Which One’s Better?

In short: you need both. An SEM strategy involving both SEO and PPC is important for your long-term success. Both play useful roles in helping drive traffic for your business.

SEO is great as part of a long-term marketing strategy. But sometimes organic traffic is out of reach. For example, if you’re just launching a new business, you might have difficulty appearing in search results. Or, as a small business owner going up against bigger businesses, it might be difficult to rank for competitive keywords.

That’s where PPC can help. Paid ads can get your business at the top of the page for high-value keywords that you’re just not there yet with SEO.

By utilizing both in your marketing toolkit, you increase your visibility online and help drive more traffic to your business both in the short and long term.

 

Looking for help creating SEO-optimized blog content? Enroll in my free course for 10 easy steps to success:


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  • Guide on How to Build a Buyer Persona


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