According to statistics, 90% of consumers used the internet during 2020 to find local businesses. 

Whether you’re a locally-based business or an e-commerce site, appearing in search is key. If your site is not ranking on Google, you’re missing out on customers and revenue. 

SEO and SEM are the two primary strategies for ranking in search. If you’re new to internet marketing, you might be wondering, what is SEO, what is SEM, and how do they differ?

If you want to effectively market your offerings online, understanding the differences between SEO vs SEM is key. 

If you don’t know what these terms mean and how they fit together, things can get confusing fast. 

Fortunately, SEO and SEM are not complicated terms to get to grips with. 

Keep reading to get clear on the difference between SEO and SEM.

What Is SEO?

To understand the differences between SEO vs SEM, let’s first take a look at what is SEO. 

SEO stands for “search engine optimization”. It is the practice of optimizing one’s website and pages for search. The better you can optimize your website for relevant searches, the more likely Google or another search engine will be to display your site in searches. 

There are a lot of different components that go into a typical SEO strategy. They can be broken up into four main types of SEO:

  • Technical SEO
  • On-page SEO
  • Off-page SEO
  • User interaction signals

Technical SEO involves making sure a website is crawlable, that your site is structured correctly, and optimizing page loading times. 

On-page SEO consists of optimizing your site to target specific keywords that your customers are searching. 

Off-page SEO centers around gaining authority and trust signals from other sites through backlinks. Social media sharing and Google’s E-A-T can also contribute to off-page SEO. 

What Is SEM?

Now that we know the answer to what is SEO, what is SEM?

SEM stands for “search engine marketing” and is an umbrella term that includes SEO as well as paid marketing strategies like PPC ads. 

We’ve already gone over some of the elements of SEO, so let’s zero in on the paid marketing portion of SEM. This consists mainly of pay-per-click search ads.

PPC ads target specific keywords. If someone conducts a search that contains the keyword you’re bidding on, your ad will display above the search results. 

For instance, if your business offers plumbing services in San Diego, you might want to bid on a keyword like “plumber San Diego”. When someone searches for “plumber in San Diego” your ad should appear above the organic search results. 

However, you need to make sure you are bidding in the range (or above) of your competitors’ ads. If there are 40 other plumbers in San Diego all bidding on that keyword, and you’re bidding in the bottom range, your ads won’t show. Google only displays a maximum of four ads above search results. 

The highest bid ads will show in these four slots. Once someone clicks on your ad, you’ll pay what you bid. This is called cost-per-click or CPC for short. 

To achieve good results with PPC you need to zero in on the right keywords, and fine-tune your ad copy so it attracts clicks. The better the click-through rate (CTR) on your ads, the better your Quality Score will be. Google also factors in the quality of your landing page, and the Quality Score of your overall ad account. 

If your ad gets a high Quality Score rating, you’ll get a discount on each click. 

Finally, you’ll also need to play around with your bid amounts so you can optimize your ad budget and ROI. 

The Difference Between SEO vs SEM

Some marketers consider SEO vs SEM to be two different things, with SEM only covering paid search ad strategies. However, this is not entirely correct. 

By definition, SEO is a component of SEM. SEO is part of search engine marketing, not an entirely separate strategy. 

The difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM is an umbrella term that includes both SEO and paid strategies. 

Which Is Better, SEO or SEM?

Now that you know the difference between SEO and SEM, you might be wondering if you should concentrate on paid strategies or double down on your SEO strategy. 

Neither SEO nor SEM is necessarily better than the other. However, they do have different applications.

Because SEM encompasses both SEO and paid ads, it is more time-consuming and costly than simply focusing on SEO. However, it will generate faster results. 

Paid ads can get you almost instant traffic. You can place an ad in the morning, and start getting clicks in the afternoon of the same day. However, it does require you to invest money upfront.

Also, paid ads don’t build on themselves like SEO does. The moment you stop buying ads, your traffic from them will stop.

Finally, paid ads can require a lot of trial and error. If you don’t have much experience with digital ad campaigns, you’ll need to devote some time and budget to tweaking and experimenting with your ads. 

SEO, on the other hand, can generate organic traffic far into the future. The importance of SEO is its ability to grow your site and traffic long-term. However, SEO is a long-haul game. 

A lot of the time, effort, and budget you put into SEO will only generate results in the medium to long-term future.

Also, SEO is not free. If you want to deploy effective SEO, it’s best to call in an expert. What’s more, things like content creation require either an upfront investment of timeā€”or money to pay a content creator. 

That said, 49% of marketers name SEO as having the highest ROI of all marketing methods.

Ideally, you should practice SEM and focus on both an SEO strategy and paid ads. This will generate quicker results, while still building your long-term organic traffic. 

However, if you are spread thin, and don’t have either the time or the budget for both paid ads and SEO, it might be best to focus more on SEO. Because SEO generates ongoing, long-term results, it is an investment in the future of your business as well as a medium-term traffic source. 

Are You In Need of SEM or SEO Services for Your Business?

Understanding the differences between SEO vs SEM is important if you want to market your business online and appear in search. 

Are you in need of SEM or SEO services? If so, we can help. DIYing SEO and SEM takes a lot of trial and error, and can even cost more in the long haul than if you handed to job over to a professional. 

Here at Key Element Media, we have been helping business owners like you with their SEO, paid ad strategy, and marketing for more than a decade. 

Contact us today to discuss your digital marketing needs.