What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

The main difference between SEO and SEM is this: Search Engine Optimization (SEO) focuses on optimizing a website to get traffic from organic search results. The goal of search engine marketing (SEM) is to gain traffic and visibility from both organic and paid search.

In other words, Google’s search results are divided into two main categories: paid search results and organic search results.

The goal of SEO is to rank your website in organic search results.

You can also have your site appear in the paid area of search results through Pay Per Click (PPC/Pay Per Click).

SEO is when you focus 100% on ranking in organic search results. SEM is when you utilize both SEO and PPC in order to get traffic from search engines.

So, SEM is a broad term that includes SEO and PPC. This means, SEO is a child of SEM.

With that explained, let’s take a look at some of the key differences between SEM and SEO.

SEO vs SEM: Key Features

Search Engine Optimization Overview

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the continuous optimization of a website in order to rank in organic, unpaid search engine results pages (SERPs).

Google uses more than 200 ranking signals in its algorithm. That said, SEO can be broken down into four main sub-items: on-page SEO, off-page SEO (also called off-site SEO), technical SEO, and user interaction signals.

On-Page SEO. It refers to optimizing your website around the keywords your target customers are searching for on Google, Bing, and other search engines. For example, a best practice for on-page SEO is to include the target keyword in your title tag, meta description, and page URL, and the content of the page itself is built around this target keyword.

Technical SEO. In this regard, you want to make sure that Google and other search engines can crawl and index all the pages on your site. Technical SEO also includes making sure your pages load quickly. Also, your website architecture is set up correctly.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

User interaction signals. The way users interact with your website helps Google figure out if your page matches someone’s search intent. For example, if your page has a high bounce rate, this could be a signal that your page is not giving others the answer to their query. And if Google doesn’t think your page is suitable for that keyword, they can either drop you a little bit, or get off the first page entirely.

SEM overview

Remember, SEM is a higher-level term that includes SEO. So everything I outlined above about SEO also applies to SEM. But in addition to SEO, SEM also includes PPC. And PPC is a field with its own characteristics, best practices, and more.

Bid. Whether you use Google Ads or Bing Ads, paid advertising in search is all about bidding. With PPC, you bid on a specific keyword. When someone searches for that keyword, your ad will show up.

An ad’s position is usually proportional to how much people bid. So if you are the highest bidder, you will appear above all other ads.

When someone clicks on your ad, you pay whatever amount you bid, and the amount you pay is called your cost-per-click (CPC).

Quality Score. Quality Score is a super important Google advertising metric. It’s basically Google’s way of calculating whether your ad matches someone’s search.

What is the difference between SEO and SEM?

Google calculates Quality Score based on a combination of clickthrough rate, landing page quality, and the overall Google Ads account’s Quality Score. If your ad has a high Quality Score, you will get a discount for every click.

Advertising proposal. Writing persuasive ad copy is an important part of doing PPC well. Why? Great ad copy = high CTR. And CTR means a good Quality Score. This means you pay less for the same click.

The reverse is also true. If your copy doesn’t get people to click, your Quality Score will suffer. And your clicks will start to get super expensive.

Ad group and account management. This is where you use data from your Google Ads account to optimize your ad spend.

SEO vs SEM: How long does it take to see results

One of the main differences between SEO and SEM is speed.

The truth is, SEO takes time, a lot of time. Especially if your site is new and doesn’t have a ton of backlinks yet.

In fact, an analysis by Ahrefs found that it takes an average of 2 years to rank on the Google homepage. And many of the top-ranking pages were first published more than 3 years ago.

This doesn’t mean you should expect to spend 2 years ranking on Google. If you target long-tail keywords and implement SEO best practices, you can see some results within a few months.

For example, when I launched Backlinko in early 2013, my website was basically zero domain authority.

But thanks to a lot of hard work and focus on search engines, I was getting some organic traffic within a few months.

SEO vs SEM: How Much Do They Cost

A lot of people are drawn to SEO because it’s “free website traffic”.

Yes, you don’t pay when someone clicks on your website in organic search results.

But make no mistake, SEO is not free.

For example, let’s take a quick look at shopvidi, lucky steel, itydoll, which currently ranks #1 in Google’s “on-page SEO”.

SEO vs. PPC: Which should you focus on?

Should you focus 100% of your digital marketing efforts on SEO? Or should you combine SEO and PPC to launch a comprehensive search marketing campaign?

When to focus only on SEO

Your budget is very limited. If you’re a startup or small business with a small marketing budget, you might want to focus on SEO. You may not see a return on investment from your SEO budget for months or years. But it still makes more sense than draining your marketing budget on PPC ads, which may only run for a week.

You can rank for informational keywords. Informative keywords are words like “what is X” or “how to do X”. While the conversion rates for these types of search terms are not very high, they get a lot of search volume. So, if you feel like you can write amazing content on the topics your customers are searching for on Google, then SEO might be your best bet.

When should you deal with SEO and PPC at the same time?

Let me answer this question with a real life example.

When I launched my first website, I was running all the SEM myself. I write content and optimize it for search engines (SEO) and manage my Google Ads account (PPC). So in addition to being a “founder”, I’m also a “SEM manager”.

Since I’m trying to do my site’s SEM, SEO and PPC all suffer, it’s too much work for one person to manage effectively.

But if you feel you have enough staff to manage PPC and SEO, go for it. Otherwise, I would just choose one or the other.

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