Internet Marketing

What's the Difference between SEO and SEM?

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two of the most popular advertising buzzwords in the world.

SEO refers to the practice of refining your website to make it show up better in Google search results and provide a great experience to your visitors.

SEM refers to the entire set of online advertising practices, which includes SEO, pay-per-click advertising (PPC), web design, and more.

That makes SEO one of many strategies under the SEM umbrella, which you can see in the graphic below.

The Differences between SEO and SEM

To fully grasp all of the differences, let's take a closer look at each topic individually.

What is SEO?


At its core, SEO is the practice of making your website as easy-to-use as possible.

When you do that, Google and other search engines will notice that your site provides value to your visitors. Then, they'll start ranking you above your comeptitors in search results.

That boost in your ranking will attract more users who will have a great experience and show search engines that you're a valuable and helpful resource in your industry.

This cycle continues as you work on your site, particularly when you follow SEO best practices.

These are five of the most important SEO best practices

  1. Title tag optimization: Using keywords in your page's name
  2. Meta descriptions: Writing a short summary about your page to display in search results
  3. Heading optimization: Adding keywords in your page's headings
  4. Internal page links: Creating text-based hyperlinks to other pages on your site offering similar information
  5. Multimedia alt tags: Writing short descriptions about each image for search engines to read and understand

With these practices — and others we haven't listed — you tell search engine users exactly what to expect from your page and then deliver with your body text, multimedia, and other site elements.

This shows your visitors that your business is savvy and in-tune with the needs of your customer base.

In other words, you demonstrate your company's value to those who may not have known about you before. And if they did know about you, then you prove that you're an excellent resource on any question they have for your industry.

That establishes trust, and that trust makes it easier for your website visitors to convert into full-paying customers.

SEO isn't a once-and-done task, though. You have to maintain your rankings, especially as competitors crop up and try to steal your spot in search results.

It's also important that you expand your SEO strategy over time so you can build off of the progress you established your first time around.

With that in mind, SEO is a process. It takes time, patience, and hard work, but the results are worth the effort.

Now that we've checked out SEO, let's take a look at SEM.

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What is SEM?


SEM is a general term that includes SEO along with a range of other strategies.

Other than SEO, the five most popular SEM strategies include:

  1. Content marketing: Creating text, image, video, and other media that attract and inform website visitors
  2. Pay-per-click advertising (PPC): Paying to promote your brand on search engines, social networks, and other popular websites
  3. Social media marketing: Crafting free profiles for your business to develop a trusting, dedicated following for your company
  4. Email marketing: Sending helpful messages to qualified recipients who want to hear from you and converting them into paying customers
  5. Conversion rate optimization (CRO): Refining your website to get as many new leads and / or paying customers as possible

Often, companies cherry-pick the SEM strategies they'd like to use to fit their specific needs. A company that just started its website might concentrate on content marketing and PPC to get an early foothold online, while a company that's been online for 10 years may focus on converting its existing traffic with CRO.

There's always one or two companies that want to use every SEM strategy they can, though. These companies tend to be well-established, household brands that fight for positions in high-traffic keywords.

If that describes your business, then a total SEM package could be the right choice for you.

Most companies will be fine only using a few strategies, though. Small, mid-sized, and even large companies don't usually need to use every SEM strategy at once.

Still, it's nice to have the option.

A big part of SEM's appeal is that it's so cost-effective. When you partner with an agency, you may pay a few hundred or thousand dollars for the service you get.

The payoff is huge, though. It's also completely trackable through the use of analytics software.

That gives SEM a big advantage over traditional marketing. SEM is more affordable, cost-effective, and trackable than something like a billboard or television commercial.

While you can continue using traditional advertising with SEM, many companies find that they can just use SEM and succeed just fine.

For the companies that want to go really big with their marketing — again, typically household brands — it's always an option to use SEM and traditional advertising together.

SEO or SEM: Which is right for you?

Wondering whether SEO or SEM is right for you?

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We've spent the past 20 years working in SEO and SEM. We'll even give you a free quote and consultation!

Contact us today to lay out your SEO or SEM strategy today!

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