Search engine optimization and search engine marketing can be confusing concepts to grasp. This is in part because the two digital marketing phrases are often used together, and sometimes interchangeably. They’re also difficult to fully understand thanks to their algorithms constantly changing.
So, is there really a difference between them? If so, what makes them different?
The truth is, SEO and SEM are not the same. Think of them as father and son, rather than twin brothers, because really SEO is a subset of SEM. They both aim to increase the visibility of your website, but they do different things to achieve it. And of course, it is wise to use both in a successful web marketing strategy!
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization is focused on getting your site to show up higher in search results. This is done through on-site and off-site SEO. Tactics include using proper naming conventions, keywords, and link building. (For my all-encompassing rundown on SEO, check out this blog post.)
SEM, or Search Engine Marketing includes SEO, but also involves other marketing strategies. I see SEM as a very broad term because it includes everything that can be done to promote your website through a search engine. Paid advertising, done through Google Adwords, is one of the most important pieces of SEM. It allows you to buy space for your website in the search results. So instead of trying to rank higher via link building, you bid for the top spots against your competitors.
When your campaign is successful, your ads will be shown to customers specifically searching for your products. Another great feature of paid ads? You only pay when you receive a conversion from your advertisements, which is known as Pay-Per-Click advertising (PPC).
Side note: If you want to become a certified “SEM Expert” you can take the free Google Partner exam. I did this a while back, and I highly recommend it if you have the time to study. Not only are you able to speak knowledgeably about Paid Search Advertising, but it makes navigating the search marketing world much easier!
So which one is better? There isn’t a real answer to this question, because it all depends on the needs of your business. Can you have SEO without SEM? Technically, yes. But SEM definitely cannot succeed without the use of SEO. It also depends on how quickly you would like to see results and how much you want to spend. SEM gets you relatively fast results, but it comes at a price. SEO takes longer to show results, but in the end will cost you almost nothing, and you will have a great search credibility established.
While the SEO vs. SEM debate is certainly a conundrum for many businesses, understanding how these elements affect your marketing campaigns is the first step toward using them to your advantage!