SEM vs. SEO: What’s The Difference?

CSS. HTTP. URL. HTML.

It’s possible the only field that uses more acronyms and initializations than web marketing is the military.

The military uses them to save time.

Sometimes, it seems like our industry only uses them to confuse newcomers.

And it’s not uncommon for even experienced professionals to mix them up.

Some of the most common mistakes happen when it comes to the similar and related, but distinctly different concepts of search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM).

Once upon a time, in the halcyon days of the early internet (that is, circa 2001), SEO referred to a part of SEM.

But, as the language and nuance of web marketing shifted, search engine marketing came to refer to a specific type of digital marketing. So, what’s the difference?

Sometimes also referred to as organic (SEO) and inorganic (SEM) search, both are focused on using Google (and to a lesser extent other search engines) to drive traffic to a specific website.

From a high-level view (and don’t worry, we’ll dive into the details a bit later), SEO is the process of improving your website to generate traffic, while SEM is using paid methods to show up in searches.

Don’t feel bad if you’ve mixed these terms up. It happens all the time.

To help you avoid any embarrassing mishaps when speaking with other digital marketers, we’ve compiled this handy guide to give you an overview of these concepts.

Confused? Don’t be, all will be made clear in the end. Now let’s get started.

PPC, Another Variable In The Mix

As we get started, just to make everything even more confusing, let’s add one more initialization into the mix: PPC or pay-per-click.

Okay, that one isn’t really fair because PPC is just another term for SEM – or at least, a part of it.

PPC is most likely a term that evolved through the Wild West days of early search engine strategies when different people used different terms to refer to the same thing.

Eventually, pay-per-click and search engine marketing came to mean the same thing: paid digital marketing advertisements on search platforms.

Pay-per-click, regardless if it’s called PPC, CPC (that is cost-per-click), paid search, or search ads are referring to paid search marketing, typically through search engines like Google and Bing.

Other terms and tactics used in digital marketing initiatives – especially those tied to search marketing tactics (both paid and organic) – may not be so simple and clearly defined, though.

What’s The Difference Between SEO & SEM/PPC?

We know SEO is search engine optimization.

Marketers aren’t optimizing search engines, however. We’re optimizing content and websites for search engines (and humans, too), so they can better understand, access, and direct searchers to our website.

Again, initialism doesn’t always make sense. So, naturally, this is a bit illogical.

Just like other things in life that don’t always add up, there are some acronyms that will never make sense either.

Like Humvee, which doesn’t stand for any words that start with U or E in them. (It actually stands for High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, and was spawned from the original acronym, HMMWV.)

We’ve also determined that PPC marketing is (at least now) the same as or a very large part of SEM. Here’s where they overlap:

  • Both are paid initiatives.
  • Both need a budget.
  • Both make search engines like Google and other advertising platforms a lot of money.

But, while Wikipedia defines SEM as “a form of internet marketing that involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPs) primarily through paid advertising,” it’s not so quick to call them the same exact thing.

In fact, pay-per-click marketing has its own Wikipedia page separate from search engine marketing (despite there being plenty of discrepancies and confusion throughout the page).

The bottom line is this:

SEO is not a component of SEM.

And, while PPC is typically the largest and most demanding component of SEM, both PPC and SEM are paid initiatives that offer real-time data, ROI, and protected data that can only be accessed by advertisers on certain platforms.

Why It Matters

Consistency is the main reason it’s important to clarify these terms.

Too many novice marketers, or marketers who aren’t specialists in maximizing value through search, have adopted these industry definitions and crossed them, combined them, confused them, or used them in a way that only further diluted their true meaning.

And even well-seasoned marketers who simply didn’t agree with or possibly even completely understand the terms themselves help contribute to the turning tide, as well.

Conferences have set up entire segments of their educational offering around the SEM naming convention when referring to strictly paid marketing efforts, but those efforts aren’t strictly done through search engines.

SEM, at least from this perspective, includes PPC ads on search engines but also on third-party platforms like Amazon and YouTube, as well as industry-focused platforms like Houzz, Thumbtack, or Yelp. It also includes display ads and remarketing efforts.

And, as the opportunity to advertise on social media continues to grow, it is usually used to refer to paid advertising on those networks, too.

Here at Search Engine Journal, we’re doing our part. Keeping the definitions and their usage consistent is going to be the best way to keep the information organized in a way that makes sense for marketers.

It also helps us, as marketers, convey our thoughts and ideas to clients and stakeholders, peers, or a friend who is curious about just what exactly it is we do for a living.

But, you should never assume someone else knows what you’re referring to when you use these terms.

Be concise and explain exactly what you’re talking about and make sure everyone agrees on term definitions.

Before we move on, let’s recap:

  • SEO is the organic effort that goes into marketing through search engines.
  • SEM and PPC are paid initiatives through search and other platforms.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on.

Should I Use SEO Or SEM?

Now that you hopefully have a grasp on the differences between SEO and SEM, you’re undoubtedly asking yourself a question: Which one should I be using?

Ideally, both.

But if you don’t have the bandwidth and can only choose one, here are some things to consider:

What Are Your Goals?

If you want to drive traffic quickly, whether to promote a sale, try out a new offer or just give your website more exposure, SEM is the choice for you.

SEO, on the other hand, is a marathon, not a sprint. It takes more time to show results but is good for long-term growth and compounding value.

What Is Your Budget?

Obviously, SEM campaigns are going to cost you money. After all, there’s a reason it’s called pay-per-click.

If your budgets are tight or you have low product margins, it may not make sense to run SEM.

SEO, on the other hand, is more of a time investment than a financial one. And, you can probably enlist people already on your payroll like writers, IT personnel, and marketers to help.

How Is Your Site Currently Performing?

If your website already ranks highly for your keywords, your SEO needs will be primarily driven by changes to the Google algorithm and competition.

In this situation, SEM is a great augmentation. Conversely, if you’re not getting a lot of organic traffic, you probably need to get your SEO in order before you start spending money on paid ads.

How Much Data Do You Have Or Need About Visitors?

SEM lets you capture a lot more visitor data than organic search.

You can run your PPC campaigns through dashboards like Google Analytics, where you can see clicks, impressions, CTR, sessions, conversions, etc.

You can then use this data to track trends and attract new customers.

How Is Your Online Reputation?

SEO is a great way to control the narrative around your brand.

Using the same techniques you use to climb to the top of search rankings, you can control the way your organization is seen online.

In one famous (albeit unsuccessful) example, UC-Davis paid a consulting firm $175,000 to scrub the internet of negative postings.

Of course, if you can swing it, you should combine SEO and SEM as complementary search strategies.

This way, you can use the data you gather from your PPC campaigns to refine your SEO campaigns. This will give you a better idea of exactly what your audience is looking for when they click your links, so you can customize your content to it.

Combining both practices also lets you create remarketing campaigns.

If your SEO work is driving visitors, but you’re not seeing the conversions you want, you can use SEM to actively reach out to those targets and bring them back to your website.

Pairing SEO and SEM can also allow you to completely dominate search engine results pages (SERPs).

If you have the top ranking on the first page of results, plus paid listings on the same page, you’ve just claimed a lot of real estate.

The downside of this, however, is that your paid listings may cannibalize your organic traffic, which costs you unnecessary money.

Conclusion

Hopefully, by this point, we’ve successfully impressed on you the difference between SEO and SEM. But just in case it wasn’t clear, here it is once more for the people in the back:

SEO is using non-paid tactics to drive traffic to your website organically. It’s a slower process (usually three to six months) but can pay long-term dividends.

SEM, including PPC, is the use of paid search platforms to drive targeted traffic to your website. It requires a budget but can drive results very quickly.

Too many people either see these as the same thing or as completely separate initiatives and miss out on the benefits of using them together.

To get the best results, both should be a part of your digital marketing strategy.

They each have different strengths and weaknesses, but when properly united, can give you a real competitive advantage.

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