SEM vs SEO: What’s the Difference?

In digital marketing, we often talk about SEM vs. SEO. Both types of marketing involve showing up online: being seen in front of your prospective customers and becoming at the top of their mind. But what are SEO and SEM, and what’s the difference?

We’ll take a look at SEM vs. SEO, what sets them apart, and how you can use them together as part of a comprehensive, integrated marketing strategy.

What’s SEO?


Search engine optimization (SEO) involves orchestrating your page so that it ranks highly on SERPs (search engine results pages), ideally as the first page and top result (or even the knowledge graph) in Google.

Search engine optimizers and content creators achieve this in many ways, including:

  • Presenting thoughtful, informative content
  • Answering users’ queries and addressing their concerns
  • Technically formatting their site and blog according to the Google bot’s preferences
  • Building backlinks and guest blogging
  • Appropriate and natural use of keywords
  • Linking out to authoritative content
  • Creating long-form content
  • Including the main keyword in the website’s URL

Beginners in particular should learn Google-approved strategies. Make sure you stick to strategies that work for you. They should be current and within the rules.

SEO is more about ranking on Google and netting inbound traffic from search engines. This used to mean gaming the system with black hat techniques like keyword stuffing. Now it means creating content users want to see – because Google’s algorithm is self-teaching and its ultimate purpose is to present the user with the information they’re looking for.

This means keeping the technical stuff in mind, but ultimately creating a positive user experience and getting searchers the information they need to solve their problems.

What’s SEM?


Search engine marketing (SEM) is the practice of purchasing traffic through paid search listings. This refers to:

  • The sponsored ads at the top of Google or Bing (or any search engine’s) search results
  • Paid network ads on websites
  • Other sponsored ads like the ones you see on Facebook
  • Sponsored posts about products on blogs

Most of these items fall under the umbrella of PPC, or pay-per-click marketing. Google AdWords is generally regarded the most popular and user-friendly PPC option, especially with the addition of Google AdWords Express.

How Do SEO and SEM Work Together?


As a product or service provider, you want to make sure you have multiple traffic sources coming to your blog. This can include:

Organic traffic: Typically considered the most valuable (and hopefully the highest converting) traffic source, organic search traffic comes from people trying to find products, services, or general information. Let’s say you sell those Superhero Hoodies. How would people get there through an organic search? They might look up “facts about superheroes” or “best superhero action scenes.” If you’ve got a blog about that and point to your product at the end, you may make some sales. It’s all about using the right keywords and capturing interests.

Repeat traffic: People on your email list, existing customers, and folks rediscovering your business will visit your site after they’ve seen it before. Having new products, sales, and regularly updated content (blogs) are great ways to bring people back repeatedly. Using our example, maybe someone bought a superhero hoodie last year, but this year they want a different superhero hoodie of a different character. They’ll remember to check your site first.

Paid advertising (PPC) traffic: These are ads. When someone looks up “Superhero Hoodie,” these ads appear. Even if the person doesn’t click or by, they might be retargeted – meaning an ad for these hoodies could show up again on their Facebook feed or at the top of their Gmail inboxes.

What Types of Traffic Is My Site Getting Now?


That’s a great question – and an ideal starting point. Google Analytics can tell you exactly where your traffic is coming from. It’ll break down your traffic into different sources, including PPC and organic. You’ll also be able to figure out which social platforms work best for you regarding PPC and virality of your published blog posts.

Google Analytics will also reveal how many of your visitors are on your site for the first time, which allows you to grow and retain more traffic. Plan your content and ads accordingly.

SEM vs SEO: Use Keyword Research to Integrate SEO and SEM


So now that we know how SEO and SEM are different, let’s talk about how they work together. An integrated marketing campaign can include SEO and SEM elements, plus many more options (even old-school printed brochures). SEO and SEM are just a piece of the marketing pie.

Search marketing as a whole combines these two principles.

They’re not just grouped together because they’re digital, however. They have a lot in common, and if you have the budget, you should use both.

Keyword Research

Keyword research should be the basis of your integrated digital marketing campaign. Combined with your customer knowledge (and hopefully a handy buyer persona), think not just about how you want your content to rank, but also your related ads.

Tools like SEMrush and Moz can help you analyze both your organic and paid opportunities. Some tools even let you examine your competitors’ ads so you can make something even better.

Product and Service Releases

When you release specific products and services, you’ll want to time the promotion of your paid posts and your organic content. PPC advertisements, especially if you’re managing budgets, should go right on the editorial calendar with everything else.

Use Writers, Please

Writers create content for both ads and inbound blog content. Copywriting is a specific skill (and often refers to the precision needed to write ad copy), but it’s possible that one solid writer can create inbound organic content AND advertising copy that converts. A solid writer should be able to produce both types of copy for you as long as you provide them with your keywords and basic info about your site.

Are you ready to embark on an integrated SEM and SEO strategy? Let us help you figure it all out – and do it better than the competition. Reach out to Dominate with SEO today.

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