SEO vs. SEM: What's The Difference?

SEO and SEM are essential parts of any successful marketing and advertising campaign. Learn the crucial difference between SEO and SEM
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It's time to start a new marketing campaign. Whether it's a new, exciting product or a new service to offer customers, it's time to upgrade your current strategies. Through SEO and SEM, your business has a better chance of making an impact. But what are the differences between SEO vs. SEM?

First, let's go over these two marketing terms to help customers click towards your web page. Then we'll explore some ways to implement these strategies through digital marketing consultation services.

Are SEO And SEM The Same Thing?

No, SEO and SEM are not the same. Let's look at the different definitions of SEO vs. SEM. One is paid advertising, the other is an organic effort. Either way, you'll need a professional to help you decide which is best for you and your business.

For other helpful definitions in the marketing world, be sure to peruse our digital marketing vocabulary cheat sheet.

Let's learn more about both terms.

SEO Meaning

SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEO involves optimization for a specific web page or domain.

If you need SEO help, hiring an SEO specialist or working with an in-house team is a great idea. These professionals study your industry, compile a list of relevant keywords, and optimize a site using them.

The end goal? Ideally, your site and pages rank highly in Google's search result pages (SERPs). Let's put SEO into practice with an example dealing with a subscription service.

Rosé Every Day: Building A Presence With SEO

For example, let's say you're trying to grow organic traffic by utilizing SEO for e-commerce businesses.

More specifically, your subscription service dealing in wine. Every month, wine lovers receive a box of carefully curated wines. How did these consumers get there? Often through SEO. But how?

Great keyword research involving wine and wine-related terminology. An SEO specialist, targeting the wine market and its massive consumer base, saw that rosé drinkers were more curious about the difference between their favorite rosé and a new brand of Merlot.

By employing tactics (and understanding peoples' search habits), the SEO specialist targeted rosé drinkers. More specifically, rosé drinkers willing to branch out and try the red wine in your subscription service.

Perhaps SEO experts used terms like 'rosé vs. Merlot' or 'The difference between red wine and rosé.' Or maybe they used long-tail keywords and negative keyword lists to narrow down search options, guiding would-be customers toward the subscription service.

The result? Your wine subscription service appeared on the first page of Google. Great job! Amateur sommeliers everywhere now have a way to experiment with wine without trips to the store.

So, if SEO is all about using specific keywords to improve search results, how does SEM help your business?

SEM Meaning

SEM stands for search engine marketing, and it's relatively broader in scope than SEO. SEM encompasses various marketing activities and strategies involved with search engines.

So while SEO focuses on your website more specifically, SEM takes a more general approach, employing multiple methods to get your company exposure. And it's paid, while you can perform SEO practices free of charge.

Any Google user will recognize a few paid ads at the top of the first page. These ads are in place due to SEM. A brand gets massive exposure from paid ads.

Let's circle back around to our wine subscription service.

Instead of slowly building a presence online with on-page SEO, you shoot right to the top of the page with certain industry terms.

Maybe you'll show up as the first paid ad at the top for anything dealing in shipping wine bottles. Or perhaps for anything dealing in purchasing brands of rose. Either way, SEM launches you to the top.

SEO vs. SEM: Which Is Better?

man writing the benefits of SEO vs. SEM on glass board
Which SEO or SEM strategy to use? They both have pros and cons

Let's look at some pros and cons regarding SEO vs. SEM to get a clearer picture. And a clearer view of the bigger picture.

SEO Pros

  • Target your specific audience. SEO best practices make a point of finding what makes your target audience tick and home in on it. Over time, SEO experts can attract a narrow customer base and cater to their needs through detailed keyword research.
  • More organic traffic. Since SEM involves paid ads, SEO comes out on top regarding organic traffic efforts. Pages using SEO best practices and resonating with customers will experience much more organic traffic than their SEM counterparts.
  • Good SEO builds domain authority. With continued SEO efforts, you can eventually build up your domain authority. In other words, Google will recognize your website as an authority on a given topic. For Google searchers, this means a lot, and your advice could carry more weight in purchase decisions in the marketing funnel.
  • SEO is cheaper. Overall, SEO and SEO campaigns end up being much cheaper than SEM. Over a long period of time, the CPA from SEO becomes lower than SEM (if you're doing it right).

SEO Cons

  • Slower results. It's no secret that you usually start seeing significant SEO results in varying time frames. It could be a few weeks to six months before you see the needle start to move for certain content. With SEO, you're playing the long game. In short, SEO is a labor of love a lot of the time.
  • No promise of results. Along with slower results, the results themselves may not even appear. We know it's a bit frightening. All that work and nothing to show for it? That's why you need to hire someone experienced with SEO strategies to help you market your site. Leaving it up to chance is just too risky.
  • Constantly changing rankings. You're not the only company attempting SEO. There are hundreds of thousands of competitors, and there isn't enough room on the first page of Google for everyone. But changing rankings is a great way to see what's working with your SEO campaign and improve upon your shortcomings.

SEM Pros

  • You can make an impact (if you have the budget). SEM is a no-brainer if you're working as a part of a large company with cash to burn. The more ad spend you're able to commit to, the more your potential reach. You can reach the top with paid ads easily.
  • SEM helps build brand awareness. Building brand awareness is everything if you want to target specific users and online communities.
  • Increased sales and leads. The more exposure your brand has due to SEM ads, it follows that you'll have more opportunities for solid business leads and sales.
  • Quicker impact. Unlike SEO, SEM has a much faster effect. That labor of love we mentioned now isn't so labor-intensive. You can start to see results almost immediately. SEM ads appear before optimized web pages.
  • Keywords from Google. Unlike SEO, SEM allows you to derive your keywords right from Google with its keyword explorer.

SEM Cons

  • SEM can be costly. On the flip side of the cost of SEM efforts, if you're not part of an organization that can spare the expense, SEM might be too tall an order. This is where, in the fight between SEO vs. SEM, SEO can be a more favorable alternative.
  • Based on your budget. Another aspect is ad spend and the lingering effects. Once your ad spend dries up, so do your SEM efforts. That's why if you're running a massive SEM campaign, you need the funds flowing.

In the end, both are essential for business to run smoothly.

SEO vs. SEM and Digital Marketing Consultation Services

two women sitting beside table and talking
Digital marketing consultants are a great resource to develop coehsive SEO and SEM strategies

It’s crucial to get a second opinion when determining which marketing method to go with. That's where digital marketing consultation services come in to save the day.

Digital marketing consultants can go through every aspect of your business, your company goals and determine which strategy would work best in both the short and long term.

By nailing down pain points (or aspects of your business you struggle with), digital marketers can help craft sound SEO and SEM strategies for a better chance at returns on investments.

SEO vs. SEM: Which Do I Choose?

Both SEM and SEO are integral pieces of a winning marketing campaign. However, if you're looking for a more comprehensive digital marketing strategy, SEM is the way to go.

It's always helpful to use both in certain circumstances. But examine your business, its goals, and whom you're targeting.

But that doesn't mean altogether abandoning SEO, as it plays a big part in the success of SEM. It depends on which you prioritize. Want to increase the chances of getting traffic from both paid ads and your organic SEO? Then we'd opt for SEM.

Again, it all depends on your company's goals. But when it comes to SEO vs. SEM, building your brand is an invaluable marketing move.

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