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SEM Vs SEO: What’s the Difference?

When you plan your marketing budget, your primary goal is to deliver the strongest growth for the lowest cost. When you allocate funds to grow revenue through your website, you need to consider both short-term gains and long-term profitability. In other words, you need to weigh SEO vs. SEM.

SEO Search Engine Optimization

If you have looked into digital marketing in recent years, it’s possible that you’ve heard the phrase “SEO is dead.” However, nothing could be further from the truth. Search Engine Optimization has been the lifeblood of being found through search engine searches for well over a decade and it will continue to be important for years to come. The “dead” part of SEO is attempting to manipulate the signals that search engines use for ranking sites. In recent years, Google and other search engines have caught on to these manipulated signals and worked to minimize the effect of the manipulation and/or penalize those sites that have used those practices, especially in excess.

Relevant, Useful and Important

In its true form, however, SEO is making sure that your website is following specific, best practices so that Google and other search engines can see and rank your website. Put another way, SEO is creating or improving your website — sometimes in ways that aren’t visible — so that the search engines recognize it as being relevant, useful, and important in regards to the question asked by a searcher.
When a search engine thinks that your site is relevant, useful, and important to a search query, it should rank well in the Search Engine Results Pages (SERPs).

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is the process of optimizing the elements of a single web page to help search engines understand what it’s about. It also ensures that your content aligns with user expectations, including search intent, format, and comprehensiveness.

In other words, did you solve the user’s problem in the best way possible.

On-page SEO also includes optimizing page elements such as meta descriptions, title tags, headings, and image alt tags.

SEO vs SEM: What Are The Differences

Off-Page SEO

Website authority plays a big role in organic search rankings. Generally, domains with more high authority backlinks perform better in organic search. In fact, backlinks are one of the top three ranking factors.

A well crafted off-page SEO program leverages PR, social media, influencer collaborations, bylines, and standard outreach to build relevant backlinks. These links pass along authority to specific URLs they link to, as well as the entire domain.

Technical SEO

Technical SEO involves the optimization of the technical components of a website. This typically includes CMS, coding, scripts, page load time and site speed, URL structure, XML sitemaps, robots.txt, schema (structured data), and more. As a result, search engine crawlers can discover, navigate, and index the right pages.

Additionally, technical SEO ensures that web pages adhere to Google’s Core Web Vitals metrics to offer the best user experience.

Unfortunately, SEO is not a “one and done” process. It can be a relatively slow process at the outset and requires consistent effort to maintain. Search engines are constantly evolving, and your SEO strategy has to be able to evolve with them. The power of a good SEO campaign is unbeatable, but it is a very competitive and fast paced environment.\

Start with a Strategy

Establishing an SEO strategy is like planning your event. The more thought you put into who you want to attend and how you’re going to
let them know about your event, the more successful you’ll be.

Your SEO strategy should begin with these questions:
Who is your ideal customer?
• Where are they located?
• Where do they spend their time online?
• What words and terms might they use to search for companies like yours?
• What is their likely intent behind each search query?

Optimize Your Website
Once you have a strategy in place, you’ll need to optimize your website. Doing so is like following the rules and guidelines established for having your event listed in event calendars and listings. Typically, you can’t just call the publisher of an event calendar on the day of your event and expect it to be listed. Similarly, you can’t expect SEO to launch you to the top of the search results overnight. Below, we’ve provided you with some of the most foundational ways in which you should optimize your website to yield long term SEO results.

What is search engine marketing (SEM)?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a blanket term used to describe a variety of online advertising efforts. Like SEO, it is used to attract users to your site who will find your offerings valuable to them. When people think of Search Engine Marketing, they usually only think of the ads that are placed at the top and to the right of search engine results in search engines like Google and Bing. However, the term is also commonly used to refer to paid advertising on social platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Google+ and Pinterest; on many websites; in many apps and throughout the digital world.

This type of online marketing is also commonly referred to as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising because you generally pay a certain amount each time somebody clicks on your ad, although there are also options for paying per thousand impressions on many online ad platforms.
Whether you’re referring to paid online advertising as SEM or PPC, there are some key elements you should understand before you get started.

Differences Between SEO & SEM

SEO vs SEM-1 - Digital Marketing Agency with 3 Days Free Trial See Results Pay Later

Let’s start with some key differences between SEO and SEM. As we discussed above, SEO is used to get your website to rank in the regular search engine results, commonly called organic search results in the digital marketing industry.

Conversely, SEM is paying to place your ads with your website information in specific locations, including above or next to
search engine results. Both the organic and the paid sides of search results can be highly competitive, but they offer very different value
propositions. For example, while SEO tends to be highly effective in the long term, it can take 6 to 12 months —or even more depending on competition levels — to see consistent results from your SEO efforts. You also must continue to optimize and refresh your online presence
in order to maintain rankings. With SEM, on the other hand, you can see placement of your listing almost immediately but maintaining that placement requires upkeep and a constant infusion of money.

One of the best analogies we’ve heard for the difference between SEO and SEM is to think of it like losing weight via diet and exercise or via plastic surgery. SEO, like losing weight through diet and exercise, takes time to be effective, requires constant attention to details, and still requires work to maintain once the desired results have been achieved. SEM is more like using liposuction to take the pounds off. The results are fast and dramatic, but require money and constant upkeep in order to be maintained.

Key Components of SEM

SEM is a simple idea that can have complex implementation. While we don’t have the time to delve into all of the specifics of SEM implementation, let’s look at some of the key components that can make your paid online marketing efforts a success.

Cohesive Campaigns
When you work in SEM, as in traditional advertising, you work in campaigns. A campaign is simply a series of ads that share a common theme and are designed to work together. In SEM, you create your ad campaigns to target specific, relevant keywords.
The most effective campaigns are cohesive; they tie everything — your keywords, your ad groups, etc. — together so that you aren’t putting out conflicting messages with your ads.

Relevant Ad Placement
Another way to make sure that your ads are as successful as possible is to make sure that your ad is relevant to where it is being placed. Going back to our event analogy, placing fliers for a golf tournament in a sporting goods shop is likely to yield better results
than placing them in a sewing machine store. Of course, you want people to click on your ads. But, ultimately, you want people to see and click on your ad who are interested in your solution. What you have to understand is that it doesn’t matter how many people see your ad if the people who see your ad aren’t interested in what you have to offer.

The best ad placements are contextual to what the person seeing the ad is doing, seeing or reading at that time. The ads are contextual
to what they are doing and it actually adds to the experience instead of detracting from it. Contextual advertising — advertising goods or services that are related to what somebody is doing, seeing or reading — has been shown to be highly effective. Because of this, context and relevance are the key to success in online advertising.

Your ad placement through Google AdWords takes into account more than your maximum bid because they want to show highly relevant ads to their users. Therefore, your ad position is determined using their Ad Rank algorithm.

The three core elements of your Ad Rank are:
1. Your maximum bid.
2. Your Quality Score — including historic and expected click through rates (CTR), the relevance of your ad to the searcher’s query, and the quality and relevance of your landing page.
3. The expected impact of Ad Formats — including phone numbers, sitelinks, and the presence of your website’s domain in the ad headline.

Interestingly, if your Ad Rank isn’t high enough, your ad may not show up at all because Google feels that it isn’t really relevant to the searcher’s query.

Cost of SEO vs SEM

It’s important to note that both SEO and SEM have implementation costs which affect ROI. SEO costs more money to implement given the number of folks involved, and it takes longer to achieve results. However, it ultimately yields a much higher ROI due to its compounding returns.

Conversely, SEM has a quick ramp up period, requires a lower lift, and generates revenue more quickly. So, if you compare costs on a short-term basis, SEM will win. But if you stretch the scale out to 24 months, SEO comes out way ahead.

Here’s an example.

If you have an in-house SEO team, there are costs for salaries, benefits, equipment, training, management, and an SEO technology stack. If you work with an SEO agency instead, you’ll pay a monthly fee and have a much quicker ramp up period to production.

With PPC ads, you often have lower costs for an in-house team or agency. However, you have the additional cost per click (CPC) of the ads. And these costs can be in the millions of dollars per month depending on your market and budget and the type of agency you work with.

Often, companies pay exponentially more for ad clicks over SEO monthly costs, even though SEO can lead to cost efficiencies and greater business performance. For a deeper dive on this topic, read our post about the upside-down approach that many brands take to SEO vs SEM budgets.

SEO vs SEM: Which is better for your brand?

When does it make sense to invest 100% of your efforts into SEO vs SEM, and when should you combine SEO and SEM?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to these questions. Instead, there are a few factors that can determine which is the better option, such as budget, goals, business growth stage, and what your competitors are doing.

When to use SEO

Many brands use SEO as a core part of their marketing plans. The long-term value of SEO can range from stronger brand awareness to an increase in traffic, lead generation, revenue, and online market share.

But when should you focus only on SEO? Below are some factors that can help you decide.

You have time

SEO is not a marketing strategy that will bring results immediately. In many cases it can take many months to begin to bring in organic traffic that can generate leads and sales. But if you’re creating an evergreen content hub, then you have time on your side.

You’re looking to solidify your online reputation

SEO can be used to control the message in your branded search results. This extends far beyond the use of your own website, and can include the use of microsites, other owned digital assets, social media, press releases, and news coverage. The broader control of your brand SERPs is an important step in online reputation management.

Long-term investment

If you are looking to make an investment in your brand for the long-term, then SEO is a highly effective strategy. SEO efforts can have long lasting effects for brand- and business-building. Once a website is high ranking, its pages can remain at the top of the search results for a long time, assuming you’re maintaining your website properly.

When to use SEM

SEM offers the opportunity to ensure that a brand will be seen in the search results quickly. In the SERPs, advertisements appear either at the top of the page or the bottom of the page. The top-of-page ads are beneficial as searchers see the ads prior to viewing any organic results. The bottom-of-page placements can also be helpful, in that they are the final option that a searcher who scrolls down the page sees.

Below are a few times when it can be beneficial to focus on SEM alone.

Immediate results are needed

Because PPC can bring immediate results, it is perfect for new brands or brands that are just starting their SEO efforts. Within a short time you can have your budget set, ads created, and visibility when a search is conducted.

Test keyword effectiveness

If you are interested in starting a SEO campaign or other marketing campaign, but want to determine the keywords and ad messaging that are most successful, an SEM campaign can help. Doing in-depth keyword research and testing with a paid ad campaign can determine which keywords, messaging, time-of-day, and other marketing levers are the most beneficial for generating traffic and customers that convert.

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