SEM, Search Engine Marketing which uses PAID strategies to appear in search.
SEO, Search Engine Optimization which uses ORGANIC strategies to appear in search
The main difference between SEM vs. SEO is that SEM is a paid strategy and SEO is an organic strategy.
What is SEM?
SEM, or search engine marketing, is often considered the part of search marketing that uses PAID tactics to gain visibility in SERPs. A paid SEM strategy includes both the activities involved with setting up and optimizing ads as well as setting a budget that pays for the placement of ads.
This strategy is often referred to as paid search or pay-per-click (PPC) marketing.
Google Ads (formerly Google Adwords) is the search provider most commonly used for this strategy. With this tactic, brands conduct keyword research and create campaigns that target the best keywords for their industry, products, or services. When users search for those keywords, they see the custom ads at the top or bottom of SERPs. The brand is charged each time a user clicks on the ad.
For more SEM tips and basic strategies, check out our post on PPC lead generation.
SEM vs. SEO: What’s the Difference?
SEM and SEO are unique elements of search marketing. But when you compare SEM vs. SEO, you’ll find that they have both similarities that overlap and differences that separate them.
Both help a brand appear in search results. One of the SEO and SEM basics is that they both aim to help a brand appear in prominent positions on SERPs. The goal of each tactic is to help a brand show up in search results when users search for specific terms related to the brand’s industry, business, or offerings.
Both are designed to drive more traffic to a website. The goal of both is to gain visibility on SERPs, but more importantly, to drive traffic to a website. Each strategy employs tactics to increase click-through-rates (CTR) and get more users to click on the search results.
Both require knowing your audience. To succeed at both strategies, you must have a good understanding of your audience and how they act. By using buyer personas and psychographic segmentation, you can get to know your audience, discover what their needs are, and what they are searching for. Then you can create valuable content that shows up when they go looking for solutions related to your brand.
Both use keyword research to uncover popular search terms. The first step for both SEM and SEO is performing keyword research to identify the best keywords to target. The research includes looking at keyword popularity to determine the top keywords or buying keywords that your ideal audience searches for. It also includes looking at keyword competition to see what other brands are targeting the same keywords and determining what you will need to do to compete with those other companies.
To conduct keyword research, start with Alexa’s Keyword Difficulty Tool. Enter a search term related to your industry, business, products, or services and view a list of related search terms along with scores on their popularity and competition.
Both target specific keywords. Both strategies focus on targeting specific keywords that are identified during keyword research. At the core of each tactic are keywords.
Both require testing and continual optimization. When comparing SEM vs. SEO, you should know that neither is a strategy that you can set and forget. Both require continual testing, monitoring, and optimization to increase performance.
SEM search placements include an “Ad” designation. SEO does not
Search results that appear as a result of SEM or SEO look different on SERPs. Paid ads that receive placement through SEM tactics are often identified as an ad (e.g., by an icon appearing next to the placement), whereas the search results that appear as a result of organic SEO are not marked in such manner.
Improve Both of Your SEO and SEM Strategies
When comparing SEM vs. SEO, there is no quick formula or simple answer. There are a lot of factors to consider. Some businesses may choose to focus on SEO. Others may choose to focus on SEM. And sometimes the right approach is to implement a combination of SEO and SEM strategies. It all depends on your unique business and goals.
But now that you know the similarities and differences between SEM and SEO, you’ll be better equipped to decide how each can help your brand reach its goals.
To get even more insight and data to help you make those decisions, sign up for a free trial of Alexa’s Advanced Plan. You’ll get access to tools that help you research competitor search and link building strategies, find keyword opportunities, review your site’s SEO, and learn about your target audience. These insights, paired with what you know about SEM and SEO, will help you uncover the best search marketing strategy for your unique brand and goals.
As your budget progresses and evolves, continue referring to your SMART objectives. Stay focused and remember your goals – they will always inform what your next step will be!