Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) are essentially two sides of the same coin. However, they have a set of very different actions and relate to different aspects of selling.Sometimes, both terms are used together to reference an identical set of activities, which may be confusing for those folks who aren’t well versed with digital marketing jargon.

SEO vs SEM: All you need to know

Any digital marketing professional should have a solid grasp on these two terms and understand their importance within the marketing arena.

In this post, you will learn about the role that SEO and SEM play within the field of digital marketing today.

SEO vs SEM: What are they and what’s the difference?

What is SEO and How Does it Work?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is generally a very important part of any digital marketing strategy. A basic knowledge of SEO is mandatory for you to effectively work in the digital marketing field, no matter what area you specialize in. 

NetMarketShare claims that as of 2017 Google grabbed more than 79% of search traffic globally, with the other main search engines lagging behind at 7% or less each. Thus, the key focus of all SEO strategies are Google search results. However, 21% is a small but significant number, so the results on other search engines such as Bing and Yahoo should not be ignored. 

Internet Live Stats claims that there are over 66,000 searches per second on Google each day. (Note that this is figure was taken at the time of writing – if you click on the link you’ll likely find a different number, as data from this source is collected in real time.) That’s tons of activity for any given business to compete with and that is precisely why SEO is such a crucial but complicated aspect of digital marketing to know, understand, strategize and execute.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) refers to the method by which search engines “crawl” content to ascertain how effectively that content will draw traffic. Search engines assess a variety of things while crawling through a website (such as keywords, tags, and link titles) and rank it for its capacity to draw in organic traffic based on a variety of factors.

These are some of the key things that crawlers look for:

  • Quality Content: Having great quality content sends a message to the search engines that your website and business is delivering  legitimate goods or services. One of the major ways via which search engines assess you is with the help of link building and keywords. 
  • User Experience: How smooth is the user experience on your website? Is it fast and easy to navigate? Can users meet their end goals (like making a purchase) with ease?
  • Link Patterns: Are you backlinking to authority sites? Where are your inbound links coming from?

Anyone can learn the basics of SEO and incorporate it into their digital sales, marketing and content strategy. And when you learn how to do it well, it’s bound to bring in more traffic. But learning the ins and outs takes some time and technical knowledge. At least in the beginning, it’s a good idea to consider hiring an SEO expert if you’re looking to actually make your website to convert your traffic into sales..

You should also note that it takes a touch of your time for Google to acknowledge and reward your site – if your site is fresh, it probably won’t get “noticed” by Google for quite a while.

What is SEM and How Does it Work?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a descriptor that comes along with a variety of paid search advertising. This is the sort of thing that you’ll see as a Google ad which is typically present on top of the search results. Usually, this tends to depend on keyword placement and usage. Doing it well requires some advanced level of knowledge and strategy. 

Here are some examples of SEM-based advertising activities:

  • Targeted (paid) ad campaigns
  • Writing copy using very selective keywords
  • Ensuring that advertising activities fall within an allotted budget
  • Applying key performance indicators like click-through-rates (CTR) and cost-per-click (CPC) towards future advertising activities

There’s such a thing as poorly done SEM, but when it’s done well, it will get you to the top of the rankings. This involves spending some time designing your ads so that they are able to reach their targeted audience more efficiently.

SEM is great for brand recognition as it means that you’ll be at the top of the list every time someone searches for the keyword associated with your product. It’s also an excellent method to usher in targeted traffic to your website. And because it’s done using paid ads, it’s easy to know your ROI during a direct way. Since  you’re using paid ads, you can monitor the traffic on those and create subsequent campaigns based on this information. 

Drawbacks of SEM are that it does require some phenomenal knowledge and tools (like Google AdSense). If you’re not well versed in the area, you’ll probably want to hire someone with a significant amount of expertise in web marketing and ad campaigns to handle SEM  and make it worth your while.

SEO vs SEM: Major differences

When we talk about SEO and SEM differences, we’re really just talking about different approaches to advertising.

SEO is usually used as an umbrella term that has SEM, but because SEM refers strictly to paid advertising, they’re actually separate. SEM is about getting traffic via paid ads, and SEO is more about acquiring, monitoring and analyzing organic (unpaid) traffic patterns.

How are SEO and SEM Complementary?

SEO and SEM are heavily reliant on keywords to drive traffic to business websites and sites. Though the marketing techniques used for each one of them are different, they’re both focused on traffic flows and the way it relates to marketing activities. People will use search engines to look for something that they’re trying to purchase/find out about. They can find what they are looking for with the help of organic results (SEO) or paid results (SEM).

These days, most people have a tendency to search for a product online before buying it. They usually end up buying the products from top ranked websites. So it’s very important to have a strong presence on search results. Creating and employing a strategic combination of both SEO and SEM can help boost your visibility and ranking in the search results for your potential customers. 

SEO is for organic traffic – so that’s unpaid or free listings, and SEM is for targeted ads that you simply buy . They can be complementary. However, for that to happen, the website needs to be SEO friendly first. If that’s the case, the chances of SEM’s success are higher. 

SEO is the foundation for good SEM and when you have each set up properly, you have a better chance of getting high-quality traffic and improving conversion rates. Once you have an SEO-friendly site and sponsored ads that are targeted properly using the right keywords, you have a much higher chance of showing up at the top of paid searches. But you have to have your SEO in place in order for Google to see you as a credible website

If your website is on the newer side, you can prioritize your PPC campaign first as it can take a while for SEO rankings to become established, but don’t ignore your SEO completely during this process.

SEO and SEM: What does the future hold?

SEO and SEM will still shift as major search engines are continuously changing their parameters for rankings. For this reason, it’s difficult to exactly predict what the future holds but we can discuss a few trends.

  • UX (user experience) will become even more important to SEO. This is a current trend and one that creates sense as long as Google wants to reward websites for being user friendly. Google’s Accelerated Mobile Project (AMP) is bound to grow more popular with time. AMP is a collaboration between developers and other industry professionals to create a massive open source library that offers users more opportunity to create quick and smooth mobile-friendly web pages. This is one area where we’ll be seeing the death of slow-loading pages that rank low. The use of AMP has resulted in a massive increase in mobile searches and traffic from major publications such as the Washington Post and Slate.
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) will become more and more involved in SEO and other search activities, especially as the Internet of Things becomes more and more prominent. This will change the nature of searches but allow us to create more targeted ads for SEM.
  • Everything will become more data-focused and thus it’ll be easier to make targeted, personalized campaigns. But due to this, users also will be increasingly concerned about privacy.

If anyone is trying to pursue a successful career in the field of digital marketing, a sound knowledge of both SEO and SEM is a must. The current digital climate is heavily reliant on both SEO and SEM and how they evolve in the future, will also decide the path in which future digital marketing will go. As we increase our reliance on technology, the importance of search engine results is going to grow. Having a solid grasp of how both SEO and SEM are involved in digital marketing campaigns is going to be especially crucial within the digital marketplace during the coming years.