The difference between SEO and SEM is simply that Search Engine Optimization is part of Search Engine Marketing or Search Marketing as it is widely known. Both processes aim in increasing visibility in search engines.
SEO is about optimizing your website to get higher rankings in the organic search results while SEM goes beyond SEO. It involves other methods that can get you search engine traffic like PPC advertising.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
For the purpose of doing a comparison between SEO and SEM, it is important to start with the definition of SEO, so that it is clear for everyone what the difference between the two is.
What is SEO?
SEO is the process of optimizing your website for the purpose of getting free traffic from search engines.
SEO is important because an optimized web site is easily understood by search engine crawlers and this increases the chances of ranking higher in SERPS (search engine results pages).
What are the main components of SEO?
There are 3 main pillars of SEO: technical SEO, on-site SEO, and off-site SEO.
Technical SEO refers to the process of optimizing your website for the crawling and indexing phase. With technical SEO you ensure that search engines can crawl and index your website without any problems.
On-Site SEO are rules you can apply on individual pages and content so that they optimized for specific keywords.
Off-site SEO refers to the process of getting references (backlinks) from other websites for the purpose of increasing your web site’s trust in the eyes of search engines.
For beginners, this may be confusing but try to think about it like a ranking system where the website that has the most references, ranks higher.
References, in this case, are links coming from other web sites to your site. That is also the reason why off-site SEO is referred to as link building.
To avoid any misunderstandings, it’s not only a matter of how many links you have pointed to your website but also from where these links are coming (and a number of other factors).
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Search Engine Marketing is over and above SEO but it’s only a subset of your overall Digital Marketing Strategy.
The diagram below shows the relationship between Digital Marketing, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) and SEO.
What is SEM?
SEM is a digital marketing process with the goal of increasing visibility in search engines either by getting organic traffic through SEO or paid traffic through PPC advertising.
Through paid search advertising you essentially buy advertising space in the search engine results. So, instead of trying to rank in one of the top positions organically through SEO and get free traffic, you pay to appear in front of the search results.
The most well-known advertising agency for PSA is Google Ads (formally Google Adwords). Through Google Ads, you can get your ads to appear in the Google search results and you pay only for the clicks on your ads.
This is also the reason why the whole process is called Pay-per-click or PPC. Bing and Yahoo have a similar system but it not so successful and widely known as Google Ads.
Which is better, SEO or SEM?
Despite the fact that SEO is one of the two components of search engine marketing, many marketers when they refer to SEM they mean PPC advertising.
Basically they consider Paid Search Advertising as being the only component of SEM. In this case, you can do a comparison between the two.
SEO VS SEM
Organic SEO is generally the best marketing tactic for long-lasting results. Websites that rank high in the organic results for their target keywords, can get free traffic 24/7, industry recognition and enjoy all the benefits of SEO.
Websites that use PPC can still get targeted traffic from search engines but they have to pay for it. Once they stop the paid campaigns, the traffic disappears.
Another major difference between SEO and SEM is that it takes a lot of time for SEO to work and generate results while PPC is almost instant.
So, which is better depends on your overall digital marketing goals. If you want to get traffic fast then you can start with SEM (paid search advertising) and in parallel work on your SEO. If you want to create a long-lasting online business without relying on paid traffic, then SEO is your answer.
Does SEM help SEO?
Despite what many people think, SEM does not help SEO. If you use PPC to target specific keywords and get search engine traffic, that does not positively or negatively affect your SEO efforts.
SEO rankings are decided after taking into account hundreds of factors and SEM or PPC campaigns are NOT one of them.
Importance of SEM Traffic
Search Engine Marketing traffic (either through organic SEO or Paid Search Advertising) is considered the most important source of Internet traffic because it is targeted. It is widely accepted that people use search engines to find a solution to a problem, an answer to a question or to learn how to do something.
So, when searchers click on a website from the search results or click on an ad, they are more likely to convert. The relevancy of the displayed web sites and ads makes SEM traffic more valuable than any other source of traffic.
Facebook and Twitter are trying to optimize their advertising platforms to utilize targeted traffic but still, traffic coming directly from search engines has a better ROI.
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