As funny as it might sound, many business owners who invest in promotional activities don’t know the difference between search engine marketing and search engine optimization. Although related, these terms refer to different marketing practices.

In this post, we’ll compare SEO vs. SEM, what each process entails, and how to incorporate them into your marketing strategy. Check it out!

What is SEO?

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) is considered one of the most common methods for promoting a brand online. During the process, a marketing expert improves the functionality of a website, as well as the quality of an individual page, to reach higher spots in organic search results.

Keep in mind that when we talk about SEO, we mainly refer to Google optimization. While using this process can also help you with other search engines, marketers consider them irrelevant as they can’t yield the same organic traffic as the American giant. According to rough estimates, Google searches account for approximately 70% to 80% of all web browsing.

What does SEO entail?

Reaching the top of a search engine result page sounds like a dream. It can provide a fast influx of website traffic for relevant keywords, enticing the target audience interested in your products and services. Even better, search engine optimization can increase brand awareness and boost other digital marketing efforts.

Unfortunately, other brands are also aware of the benefits that search engines bring. If you also consider ever-changing search engine algorithms, you quickly realize that the top spots are much further away than you initially envisioned. As a result, an expert needs to have a clear SEO strategy in place before starting the process.

A common optimization process entails the following:

  • Technical SEO
  • Competitive analysis
  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO

Technical SEO

Technical SEO is a precursor of any digital marketing strategy, including SEO. During the process, a professional is looking to improve various aspects of a website, making it better for visitors and search engines. Here are some of the most common processes done during this step:

  • Optimizing site structure
  • Submitting sitemaps to Google
  • Allowing robots to crawl web pages
  • Increasing website speed
  • Improving mobile-friendliness
  • Implementing canonical tags
  • Using safe URLs
  • Adding Schema Markup
  • Removing duplicate content
  • Implementing redirects
  • Fixing other errors

Technical optimization, also referred to as SEO audit, is usually done when a new marketing agency takes on a project or when you build a new site. Sometimes, an expert will make a quick checkup to ensure everything’s in order.

By implementing these practices, you can improve your site’s crawlability so that search engine bots can find all the content on your site. Having a good structure is also vital for visitors, helping them find their way around. Google also takes into consideration other factors, such as speed and mobile accessibility.

Basically, Google does everything in its power to make the browsing experience better for its users. Sites that can simplify the search for visitors are more likely to reach the top of organic results and, thus, get more traffic.

Competitive analysis

Your ability to penetrate a certain market depends on numerous factors. This is why it’s crucial to perform competitive analysis before taking on a project to better understand what you’re going against.

During competitive analysis, you can analyze other sites’ link profiles, ranking keywords, traffic, and domain authority and gain other relevant insights. Among others, competitive analysis can be a valuable tool for creating your own marketing approach. Here are a few benefits of this process:

  • Ideating your own SEO approach
  • Exploring opponents weaknesses
  • Benchmarking performance against competitors
  • Finding common link sources
  • Learning more about keywords

Keyword research is often a part of competitive analysis. Marketing experts use the process to learn more about popular phrases and search intent, both of which can help in the short and long run. Ideally, you should be targeting keywords that can provide high organic traffic but are relatively easy to optimize for.

Analyzing competitors’ link profiles is another major benefit of the process, providing vital information for your SEO efforts. Most notably, it shows you where you can get relevant links for your business. Of course, the fact that the other company gained links from these sites doesn’t necessarily mean you can gain them as well.

This is why you’ll need high-quality content to entice them.

On-page SEO

Content marketing is the main focus of on-page optimization. As such, we can easily say that on-page SEO is what differentiates a successful site from an unsuccessful one.

During the process, your main task is to create articles according to preselected keywords. Each blog post is meant to answer users’ search intent for that particular query. Aside from providing quality information, your content should be easy to read and written in a simple yet enticing language.

One of the focal points of content creation is article structuring, which is a common tactic for making it more digestible. Top-tier writers use a combination of bullet and number lists, short paragraphs, headings, and quotes, to break up large blocks of text into sections.

To further boost user experience, you can add images and videos. Not only do they provide a better impression of the article, but they also force the readers to stay longer on the page as they’re taking in all this information.

To make a post more relevant for search engines’ algorithms, marketing professionals use content tools to learn what a perfectly-optimized copy should look like. According to tools’ suggestions, you can add new sections and keywords that would help the post rank higher on a search engine results page.

All of that is rounded up with internal links. These links are fantastic for user experience, as they guide visitors through pages on your site. They’re also vital for creating content clusters and funnels, both of which can enhance your rankings while boosting user experience.

Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO is the last ingredient of website optimization. The strategy refers to all activities happening outside of your platform meant to promote that same platform. Although off-page SEO mainly refers to link-building strategies, it can also include the following:

  • Local SEO tactics
  • Influencer marketing
  • Email marketing
  • Public relations
  • Social media marketing
  • Forum posting and other mentions

As a website owner, it’s your task to get as much outside traction as possible. All these methods can provide direct traffic to your site, although they have different levels of impact on search engines. For example, while traditional link building can boost your blog and page relevancy, social media links barely have any impact on search engines.

Off-page SEO also provides indirect optimization benefits by increasing raising brand awareness. Although this won’t have an impact on Google’s algorithms, nor will it increase the placement of certain pages, it will help link-building and other SEO efforts down the line.

What is SEM?

In theory, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) refers to different promotional methods meant to drive traffic via search engines. Generally speaking, search marketing is a more encompassing category that can also include search engine optimization.

However, to avoid confusion, most experts use the term to refer exclusively to search engines’ paid ads like Bing Ads, Yahoo! Ads, and Google Ads. They come in the form of paid ads and shopping ads. SEM doesn’t refer to display ads posted on third-party sites or social media ads.

As mentioned, similar to SEO, SMM can refer to organic search, although it’s rarely used in such a manner. So, for the purpose of simplicity, we will talk about search engine marketing from the perspective of PPC Ads.

What does SEM entail?

Both SEO and SEM are looking to dominate the top of Google search; the only difference is how they go about things.

SEO focuses on driving organic search traffic that comes as a result of all the efforts done on and off a website. SEM is done exclusively off a website by bidding via Google Ads and other PPC platforms. However, despite SEM being an external activity, website optimization affects the prices and relevancy of our paid ads.

In other words, your site and pages need to be relevant to the keywords you’re bidding on. The entire process is done in four steps:

  • Keyword research
  • Bidding
  • Creating ads
  • Targeting audience

Keyword research

Similar to SEO, SEM is highly dependent on keyword research. Before posting an ad, you need to figure out whether a specific phrase is relevant to your business and whether it can drive leads. Bidding for an informational keyword that doesn’t have a commercial value is a fool’s errand that will only cost time and money.

Besides that, keyword research is crucial for determining the average CPC (cost-per-click) for different phrases. As it usually goes, money keywords that drive quality leads will always cost higher than phrases that don’t have a commercial intent.


There are several things to consider before auctioning. First off, you need to set the maximum amount you’re willing to pay for one click. Ideally, this number should be several times lower than the profits you can make selling a product or service. Keep in mind that only a fraction of visitors will turn into customers.

Google also has the Quality Score metric that determines the relevancy of an ad for users and for advertisers’ platforms. With this, search engine prevents companies from bidding for keywords that add no value. The platform also assesses your landing page, location, device used, and a few other parameters.

If someone outbids you, the ad will never appear in Google’s search results.

Creating ads

Ads have a similar role as all other types of web posts. In other words, your message needs to be engaging and relevant to the target audience so they click on it. While you can experiment with different types of messaging, it’s vital that your ad is closely related to the main keyword so you can boost your Quality Score.

Ads that have high scores are generally much cheaper and are seen by a larger audience. Among others, getting a high Quality Score can be an indication of performance, so this should be your point of emphasis when creating an ad.

Targeting audience

Audience targeting is every bit as important for the success of your campaign as ad creation. During this step, you make sure that the right people see your post by setting demographic parameters. Otherwise, you’ll likely overspend on users that have no interest in purchasing your products and services.

5 Main differences between SEM and SEO

You need to take numerous things into account when comparing SEO vs. SEM. Although these two methods target specific keywords to reach out to potential customers, they do it in completely different ways. Most notably, unlike SEM, SEO focuses on providing long-term results and boosting brand awareness.

Without further ado, here are 5 main differences between the two approaches!

1. SEM places you higher

Paid search results always appear above organic rankings. In other words, no matter how much you optimize a page or a website, a pay-per-click post will always have an inherent advantage. This can be a real nuisance because paid search strategies are also much faster to execute and can make an instantaneous impact on your bottom line.

However, as users become more aware of how Google works, search ads might significantly underperform their organic counterparts. In other words, young web users understand they’re landing on an advertisement page every time they click on top links.

As people have a natural aversion to ads, they might purposely avoid these spots in search. Furthermore, many users are more willing to click on organic results as they believe these posts are more useful for their queries. Whatever the case, PPC still works great, but we might notice some shifts in the future.

2. Shopping Ads provide a massive advantage

Even if the regular ads don’t provide that much of an edge, shopping ads are definitely worth your money. Similar to traditional ads, they are placed at the top of search engines which gives them an advantage over all other content.

But the thing that really moves the needle is the visual presentation. Shopping ads come with product images and prices. That way, if you see something you really like, you can go instantly to that page and purchase it without having to browse any further.

With shopping ads, not only can you lead people to your site, but you can instantly eliminate all the competition. They are a super-boosted version of ads, which makes it really hard for organic results to gain any traffic for these queries.

3. SEO takes longer

The main critique of SEO is that it takes too much time to implement. The process is extremely arduous, and brand-new sites have to wait for three to six months to notice the first bump in traffic. Although there are strategies that can shorten the waiting period, they’re usually risky and can lead to penalties.

Because of that, SEO might not be the best choice for companies that need immediate sales to stay afloat. SEM is a much better solution in these cases as it can provide paid search traffic almost overnight.

However, it’s worth mentioning that you also need to do some prior work before launching a PPC campaign. For example, you might have to create great landing pages that can help convert the visitor. Otherwise, all this paid traffic will be for naught. Also, you need to make sure your platform is relevant enough for specific queries.

4. SEM requires constant investment

The tough thing about PPC is that the results vanish as soon as you stop paying. Paid advertising presumes that you have an active account with money in it to pay for every future click. However, if there’s ever a disruption of that money flow, you’ll lose your placement and, with that, all the leads.

Then again, it’s not as if you’ll retain the same organic rankings for ages without additional investments. SEO also requires a proactive approach, so you retain the results. Nevertheless, optimization is much more lenient in that sense as you’ll keep gaining benefits, at least for a while, once you reach the top spots in a search engine.

5. SEO is better for branding

Similar to SEM, SEO is an umbrella term that might include various processes. Besides technical analysis, keyword and competitive research, and content marketing, it also includes social media and email marketing. During the optimization process, you also need to spend lots of money on building a presence on other platforms, which includes link building.

As a cumulative impact of all these efforts, your name will be shown all over the internet. You’ll be featured in various social media threads, forums, third-party sites, and directories. All of this will lead to better long-term brand development and increased awareness.

Of course, using PPC can also provide branding benefits, as you’ll be seen by numerous users. However, this exposure will be much less diversified, revolving around a few keywords you decided to invest in.

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