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What Are The Differences Between SEO & SEM?

SEO and SEM are two marketing terms that are often used interchangeably. After all, they both involve search engines, so how different can they be? Well, you would be surprised! In fact, it’s due to generally muddled thinking about what are two incredibly varied approaches that marketing attempts can often end up confused and communicating bad brand messaging overall. None of which is going to ensure that your search-based efforts come back to you the way that you might like.

Hence, getting search marketing right means understanding the differences and technicalities of both SEO and SEM in their own spaces. Luckily, we have first-hand experience of just how confusing these terms and technicalities can be. Hence why we’re gong to impart just a snippet of our knowledge by considering once and for all – what are the differences between SEO and SEM?

What is SEO?

First let’s take a little time to understand what each term means, starting with the buzzword that is SEO. Short for search engine optimisation, SEO is utilised across the board thanks to high returns and trust-based results. Effectively, SEO involves the optimisation of all online content (e.g. website, social pages, content,) to get search engines like Google onside. Techniques like keywords, backlinks, and even guest blogs are all central to ensuring the overall SEO-based goal of organic traffic, which is thought to account for around 53% of all online traffic. Done right, SEO campaigns should predominantly centre around four core pillars, which are –

  1. Technical SEO: Focusing on technical aspects of optimisation such as site speed, mobile-friendliness, security, etc.
  2. On-page SEO: Optimising any on-page content with the use of H1/H2/H3 tags, images, lists, etc.
  3. Content: Thought to be one of the main ranking factors on google, content strategies that include informative blog posts, newsletters, and even video can significantly help page authority and search-engine backing.
  4. Off-page SEO: Off-page efforts also help to build on authority and trustworthiness, including relevant link building, mentions from reliable brands, and social media marketing.

By inhabiting a combination of all four pillars across online efforts, companies can far better ensure that they’re appearing in the top spots of all relevant searches, the first of which receives more than 25% of search engine traffic overall.

What is SEM?

By comparison, SEM is short for search engine marketing, which is often more commonly referred to as PPC (pay-per-click) and uses paid marketing strategies to gain almost immediate high-ranking SERP mentions. Implemented through the use of platforms like Google Ads, SEM particularly implements granular targeting strategies like age, location, and preferences alongside keywords to ensure appearance in all potential relevant searches.

Unlike free SEO, SEM campaigns require companies to pay per click, and the best positions are bid for using keywords and overall ad quality scores. Thought to be one of the top three generators of on-page conversions, even brands who continually pay £10,000+ to maintain SEM stand to see returns, especially in industries with high lifetime value such as healthcare. Winning SEM strategies should incorporate crucial focuses that include –

  • Target branded keywords
  • Negative keywords
  • Demographic targeting
  • Etc.

So, what are the differences between SEO & SEM?

From looking at the above breakdowns of both SEO and SEM, it should be plain to see a few basic differences that are, fundamentally, the most important things to remember when clumsily trying to group these focuses into one outlet. For one thing, SEO is free while SEM involves payment per click. What’s more, perhaps, the most fundamental of differences between these two approaches on the ground is the simple fact that –

  • SEO is focused on optimising to gain traffic from organic search results
  • SEM is concerned with gaining traffic from targeted search results

But, even individuals who understand this much may struggle to truly get the best out of both approaches if they don’t also take a yet deeper dive into SEO and SEM overall by considering differences such as –

  • Speed: SEO is a typically long-term strategy that requires historical online success to reap lasting results, while SEM is an immediate strategy for short-term returns.
  • Conversions: Generally speaking, organic traffic ranked by SEO tends to provide higher return rates than SEM, which has a significant bounce rate. That said, only SEO-driven sites that appear within Google’s top three rankings can expect to see significant returns, while the automatically high appearance of SEM efforts can help to increase interest straight away.
  • Reliability: It’s also worth noting the crucial fact that SEM placings always incorporate ‘AD’ designations, making this perhaps a less authoritative way to gain viable traffic than highly-ranking SEO sites that have genuinely worked to create a reputation that search engines are willing to back.

Are there similarities between SEO & SEM?

So far we’ve focused only on the differences, but there are certain similarities also worth taking note of between SEO and SEM campaigns, particularly with regards to how we approach these variable techniques. Most fundamentally, it’s worth remembering that both SEO and SEM aim to boost business by –

  • Improving visibility
  • Driving relevant traffic
  • Enhancing audience understanding
  • Optimising in the long-term
  • Etc.

While these similarities are certainly no reason to ruin both focuses with an interchangeable approach, they are testament to the fact that, when taken together, SEO and SEM can both significantly enhance online standing, consumer bases, and the positive flow of traffic.

Expansive search engine strategies implemented by individuals with an understanding of what both sides of the search divide has to offer can especially help companies at every stage to boost their online success. Here at Mass Appeal, we’re proud to offer precisely that thanks to an expert team that are currently at the forefront of the fastest growing digital marketing agency in the UK today. So, if you still can’t get your head around SEO and SEM, or if you want help making sure that you feel the full benefits of both, then don’t hesitate to contact us to discuss your needs and growth potential today.