Creating Marketing

SEO vs. SEM: The Guide to Optimization

SEO vs. SEM
Written by Lindsay Tigar

As you build your career in content marketing, you should challenge yourself to create new desirable skill sets. Over the past several years, becoming SEO and SEM savvy has grown in importance to remain relevant and build a lucrative career. After all, many clients are looking for a one-stop shop for all of their digital marketing needs.

But if you’re a little confused about the differences between SEO and SEM, don’t sweat it. Sometimes, it’s best to see it broken down in a digestible, easy-to-understand way. By having a general understanding of these two pieces of successful marketing campaigns, you can create a better outcome for your business or clients.

how SEO and SEM work together

How SEO and SEM work together

Generally speaking, SEO and SEM work best when done in tandem, explains Katie Tweedy, content marketing and content strategy supervisor at Collective Measures. By combining the data derived from SEO and SEM campaigns, marketers can better understand their target consumer/customer behavior and illuminate what they care about at each stage of their journey, Tweedy says.

“Co-optimization can help optimize paid media budgets while optimizing pages can improve paid search quality scores,” she continues. “Strong co-optimized marketing efforts can result in greater overall share of voice, knocking out competitors, and can allow marketers to monitor search cannibalization more effectively.”

That’s a lot of bang for your effort, huh? Here, we explore SEO, SEM, and the ultimate guide to effectively optimize for any industry and client.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • What SEO is
  • What SEM is
  • How SEO and SEM are alike
  • How SEO and SEM are different

What is SEO?

SEO stands for ‘search engine optimization,’ and it’s the process of impacting a website’s visibility in a search engine’s ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ results, Tweedy explains. As a result, this increases visitors to the website who will hopefully take the desired action — from buying a product to signing up for a service or providing their email address for later promotions.

“Optimizing for search engines requires a knowledge of search engine algorithms and the ability to change the website,” she continues. “SEO includes a variety of tactics, from optimizing meta titles and descriptions to site speed analysis to auditing the search landscape to identify topic creation opportunities.”

There are many elements of SEO, including:

  • On-page copy
  • Keyword research
  • Internal and external linking
  • Bulleted lists and smart organization
  • Meta descriptions, titles and other backend optimization

What is SEM?

SEM stands for ‘search engine marketing’, and is typically considered the second step in an optimization strategy. As Katharine McKee, the founder of Morphology Consulting, explains, SEO involves your go-to-market and specifically involves organic ranking, while SEM is paid.

SEO will teach you what type of keywords are more likely to convert, so you can then put money behind them to rank higher in search results, thus, creating a more powerful business funnel.

“SEM revolves around paid ads and paid placements, so that you come up more often in search or at a higher rank in search for terms you don’t own,” McKee continues. “Now SEM is a long-held practice. It’s also part of what makes brands feel like they have to pay to play in the space. That is because they are doing one or the other and not both.”

There are many elements of SEM, including:

  • Ad campaigns
  • Ad text
  • Landing pages, blog pages, and more
  • Keyword filtration and optimization

how SEO and SEM are alike

How are SEO and SEM alike?

As we’ve mentioned, you can do SEO without SEM. And sure, you can also do SEM without SEO. But you’ll see the most benefit from allowing them to complement and inform one another. They may serve different functions ultimately, but there are many ways they are alike.

To name a few:

  • They both rely on search
  • They both require technically sound sites for success
  • They both rely on quality content that meets search intent

SEO and SEM both rely on search

To capture a user, gain a customer or otherwise garner attention, search is non-negotiable. This is true regardless if it’s paid or organic. “Search is far and away from the most common channel for users to find site content,” Tweedy says. “Therefore, dedicating time, effort, and budget to capturing this traffic is a wise use of resources as this traffic often results in conversions.”

SEO and SEM both require technically sound sites for success

You know the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ That’s true. But there’s a key component there: you have to build something worthwhile and technically sound. You can invest time into SEO and money into SEM, but if your website isn’t reliable? You’ll lose at both, Tweedy warns.

“Technically sound websites are a crucial aspect of SEO and are a direct ranking factor,” Tweedy says. That includes “good user experience with mobile-friendly content, fast page loads, and more,” she explains.

These technical SEO aspects can also impact SEM efforts. “Poor site experiences from a slow page or broken images can impact conversion rates and bounce rates, which in turn can negatively impact SEM campaigns,” she adds.

SEO and SEM both rely on quality content that meets search intent

Have you ever searched for something, found a promising link, and then were disappointed by what you saw after you clicked? Quality content is vital for SEO and SEM. And specifically, content that meets search intent and answers the question of the searcher.

“The user needs to find content that addresses their implicit and explicit needs to be satisfied and convert. This is as true for SEO as it is for SEM — the intent is simply often different for each discipline,” Tweedy adds.

how SEO and SEM are different

How are SEO and SEM different?

They’re not exactly opposites, but SEO and SEM definitely attract. However, they aren’t twins. Here, a few differences between these marketing tools:

  • SEM is best for comparison and conversion-focused topics
  • SEO is best to capture the early stages of the customer journey
  • SEO is the long game

SEM is best for comparison and conversion-focused topics

Because marketers pay for clicks with paid search campaigns, targeting keywords that are more likely to result in a conversion, like a sale, is the best use of resources, Tweedy says. This means that most SEM campaigns are designed for conversion rather than education or awareness.

As an example, a skincare blog may create a piece of content that compares two different ingredients and explain how they benefit our pores. Throughout the content, the skincare company could promote conversion by including information on their products.

SEO is best to capture the early stages of the consumer journey

On the other hand, SEO is more beneficial to teach customers or provide valuable information related to their queries.

“SEO is crucial for content across the consumer journey but can really shine in the early stages,” Tweedy says. How come? SEO builds trust and teaches users of your expertise and ability to meet their needs or desires.

SEO is the long game

The most significant difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO is a long game, says Payge H. Kerman, president of Wink Digital.

“It can take months to see major results, but when you do, they will organically snowball,” she continues. “SEM, on the other hand, is nearly immediate. Yes, it takes a bit of time for Google to optimize their algorithm to the ads and target demographics, but noticeable and traceable results appear on a much shorter timeline.”

You know #SEO is important. But have you also have heard about #SEM? Here’s what to know about these two marketing tools. Click To Tweet

About the author

Lindsay Tigar

Lindsay Tigar is an experienced, established travel and lifestyle journalist, editor and content strategist. Since uprooting from Asheville, North Carolina in 2010 to Manhattan, Lindsay's work has appeared on several websites, including Travel + Leisure, Vogue, USA Today, Reader's Digest, Self, Refinery29 and countless others. While she is always up for the challenge of any assignment, her main areas of focus include travel, wellness, career, psychology, love and healthy living.

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