The main difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO refers to organic search, while SEM usually refers to paid search. Organic search is when somebody searches a keyword and your website shows up based on the engine’s algorithm. Paid search is when you pay to advertise at the top (or sometimes the side or bottom) of these search results pages. The paid search results will look almost identical to organic listings, except that you have more control over what they say.
Here’s the quickest way to visually explain SEO vs SEM:
What is SEO?
SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, is a targeted effort to improve a website’s authority in the eyes of search engines. This is accomplished by both On-page and Off-page SEO.
On-Page SEO includes all of the content that is actually on your website. This includes meta titles and descriptions, URLs, sitemaps, keywords, internal and external linking, site architecture, and much more.
On the other hand, Off-Page SEO includes all tactics that take place elsewhere on the web. This includes link building, social sharing, press release distribution, forum and discussion board posting, and more.
What are the pros and cons of SEO?
Pros of SEO
- No variable traffic cost
- Builds brand authority
- Helps overall site visibility
- Very sustainable long-term
Cons of SEO
- Very time consuming
- Can take several months to see results
- Less control over search result text
- Harder to quantify results
What is SEM?
SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, encompasses paid advertising on search engines, as well other aspects of digital marketing (even SEO). To keep the confusion limited, most people associate SEM with PPC (pay-per-click) and CRO (conversion rate optimization) while keeping SEO separate.
PPC (Pay-Per-Click) Advertising
The first thing that comes to most people’s mind when they hear SEM is PPC advertising. This refers to placing ads next to search results that look nearly identical. The advertiser will typically pay on a per click basis, although other methods like cost per acquisition do exist. The advertiser controls the headline and description in their ad, as well as any extensions below it. In comparison, organic search results don’t have nearly this level of control.
CRO (Conversion Rate Optimization)
Conversion Rate Optimization is usually grouped in SEM by digital marketers. This strategy refers to optimizing pages to encourage users to perform an action such as filling out a form or making a purchase. Since PPC ads are usually sent to a landing page, optimizing them for conversions is crucial to achieving profitability. CROs will often utilize tactics such as A/B testing on their landing pages to find out what converts best and apply it. They will test a multitude of things such as wording, position, colors, and more.
What are the pros and cons of SEM?
Pros of SEM
- Fast way to reach the top search results
- More control over search result text
- Easier to quantify results
- Ability to pivot quickly
Cons of SEM
- Must pay for each click
- Low barrier to entry for competitors
- Ads won’t always show (based on budget and other factors)
- Some people ignore or block ads (“ad blindness”)
Do I need SEO or SEM?
By now you probably understand that it isn’t so much SEO vs SEM as the two often times work in synergy. SEO is a long-term strategy that may not reap an immediate return on investment like SEM. However, when investing in SEO, many companies start to see their authority rise, resulting in lower cost per clicks for SEM. On the other side, when investing in SEM, you will start to see more branded traffic and awareness which helps SEO. Over time, you will find that a strong presence on both the organic and paid side of search engines is necessary to build synergy and compete in the digital marketplace.
You can also read our post on Digital Advertising Explained, where we give definitions for all digital acronyms.