SEO, SEM. What is it? What’s the difference?

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Although you’ve likely heard the terms SEO and SEM, it is understandable if you are unfamiliar with their exact meaning or applications. In short, it is important for businesses to get more visits by appearing in both organic and paid search results, and SEO / SEM help achieve these objectives. That said, how exactly do they work?

Search engines (like Google) have two types of search results:

  • Paid: results show up when companies pay for clicks
  • Organic: results that the search engines deem most relevant for the query

As most businesses are using SEO and SEM, it is important to distinguish between the two.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimisation. This is the practice of increasing the quantity and quality of traffic to your website through organic search engine results.

Google (or any search engine you’re using) has a crawler, which is a programme that, following a search, goes out and gathers information about all the content it can find on the Internet. The crawlers bring all those 1s and 0s back to the search engine to build an index. That index is then fed through an algorithm that tries to match all that data with your query.

The most important SEO factors are roughly divided into three categories:

On-page SEO

On-page SEO is the practice of optimising individual web pages such as:

  • Matching search intent
  • Covering a topic in-depth
  • Using short and descriptive URLs
  • Writing enticing title tags and meta descriptions
  • Using descriptive alt tags for images
  • Writing simple and easy to read content
  • Including keywords in important places

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is anything done outside of a website to improve its rankings and could include :

  • Getting backlinks from relevant and authoritative websites
  • Earning brand mentions
  • Optimizing your Google My Business listing
  • Earning positive reviews

Technical SEO

Technical SEO involves making technical changes to help search engines crawl, index, and rank content more efficiently. These changes can be:

  • Improving page speed
  • Using canonical tags to prevent duplicate content
  • Using hreflang tags for multilingual content
  • Optimizing robots.txt for crawl efficiency
  • “No-indexing” thin content

What is SEM?

SEM stands for Search Engine Marketing. This is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines. Because Google has the biggest market share, Google AdWords is by far the most popular search engine platform for hosting ads. Other opportunities include Bing ads, Yahoo Search ads or wherever you choose to spend your marketing budget. Here are some key strategies for successful SEM:

  • Launch ad campaigns with a specific audience (e.g., geographic, industry, etc.) in mind
  • Create ad groups that consist of target keyword variations
  • Write relevant ad copy using those selective keywords
  • Set an ad budget
  • Monitor metrics like clicks, impressions, click-through rates and average cost-per-click

Should you use SEO, SEM or both?

For budget reasons and consistency, we’d be inclined to say that SEO is the best option. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes it definitely works better, but at the same time SEM often does the trick, and both combined can achieve outstanding results. So how can you decide which one to use or to focus on?

Below are four ways to use SEO, SEM, or both combined for maximum search engine visibility and traffic.

Use SEM for keywords that are too competitive

It can take years to rank for some keywords because you’re going up against established brands like Amazon. But this doesn’t mean you should abandon SEO and just run ads.
Since ranking for competitive queries will likely be a long-play, there are a few benefits to using SEM while working to rank your pages.

Use SEM and SEO for ad-heavy keywords

Profitable keywords tend to attract lots of advertisers. Google shows paid ads at the top, and that leads to fewer clicks on organic results as they get pushed down the page. SEM, is therefore a great way to get traffic from this keyword.

Use SEO for informational keywords

Most searches are informational meaning that people are looking to learn, not buy.

That therefore explains why very few companies bid on these keywords, as it doesn’t make financial sense, even with a low average CPC (cost per click).

The question is, why are they willing to put effort into ranking organically, but aren’t willing to pay for traffic to that page? The answer comes down to cost vs. reward.

Use SEO and SEM to monopolize the search results

It’s not just ads that push down the organic search results. Google now shows results pages features like snippets, including “People also Ask” boxes and video carousels for some queries.

So which one is to be used?

There is no definitive answer. Although organic SEO takes longer to show results, in the end it will be less costly, and you will establish a search credibility that you might not establish with SEM.

When it comes to choosing the best tactic, it is important to evaluate your specific needs. However, be sure to fully understand the differences between the two and ensure to maintain your efforts.

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