There’s a lot of confusion about the differences of SEO vs SEM. More often than not; when we first meet with clients regarding their search engine optimization strategy by far the most recurring question is ‘what’s the difference?’
In this guide; we’re going to be breaking down the difference between SEO and SEM.
What is SEO
SEO (or search engine optimization) is the practice of tweaking your website to leverage various search engine ranking factors. The factors change over time – so there’s no ‘set it and forget it’ model. And trying to go around the rules can result in serious penalties to your website (and business overall).
Search engine optimization is commonly executed to drive more organic, targeted traffic to your website. This traffic is from people (ideally your perfect visitor) who are searching for keywords and content related to your business.
This is where the website optimization comes into play.
Optimizing Your Website
Optimizing your website comes in many forms. From modifying title tags and meta descriptions to minimizing website files for faster performance. There’s an ever-growing cache of information that will guide you in the right direction.
The main things you want to focus on are:
- Website performance: ensure your website is fast responding, mobile responsive and is very easy for people (and robots) to navigate.
- Keyword optimization: target your critical website pages to rank for specific keywords relating to your industry.
What is SEM?
Now that we’ve covered search engine optimization (SEO) let’s dive into SEM. We’ll be breaking down what it is, why it matters and the key differences (and applications) that it has compared to SEO.
Search engine marketing (or SEM) is a touch different than search engine optimization as it takes a much more direct approach to attracting visitors to your website through the search engines. Keywords are still the cornerstone of search engine marketing – and you need to pay close attention to a few different metrics from keyword to keyword.
You should conduct extensive research to identify keywords that are relevant to your business. Especially those that prospective customers are already using to find similar businesses.
There are a ton of free tools that can give you hundreds (if not thousands) of keyword suggestions based on your business. From the general topic of your business – the services etc… Ubersuggest is a great tool – as well as WordStream and even the Google Keyword Planner tool works great to uncover relevant keywords to your business.
You really want to dial into the search intent of the keywords you’re identifying. This comes in many forms:
- Buy intent
- Discount intent
- Deal intent
- Coupon intent
- Free Shipping intent
These keywords have high commercial intent. Meaning there is a strong indication that the searcher wants to buy something. (IE: Running Shoe Discount – Haircut Coupon – Yoga Mats Free Shipping)
The Goal of Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
While SEO & SEM differ in many ways – the overall objectives of the two is where the dichotomy is really highlighted. Search Engine Optimization is geared towards positioning your website higher on the search engines for keywords relevant to your business over a prolonged period of time.
For example; for a moderately difficult keyword – you could expect 3-6 months before you start seeing results. Because everything you’re doing is completely organic rather than fueling it with an ad budget.
This is where the ‘organic’ part comes from when people talk about SEO. Organic SEO is simply referring to the result of visitors coming to your website based solely on ever-green implementations. Such as building backlinks, creating high quality, high ranking content etc…
The Goal of Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
SEM or search engine marketing is an intriguing beast. There is a huge upside if you get it right (…but a vast downside if you get it wrong…) That’s why it’s important to go about it with a clear goal as to what you want to achieve with your SEM campaign(s).
Holistically, the goal of search engine marketing is to find high level keywords (with high relevancy and the appropriate search intent) that are both easily targeted and won’t cost an insane amount of money to do so.
Remember, if the average customer is worth an average of $2000 – you don’t want to be spending $2001 to acquire them. Ideally you don’t want to spend anything over 1-2% of your customer value, initially. This is just the initial sale point. If you offer yoga mats, you’re looking at an average initial value of $20-$60 (give or take).
AIV = Average Initial Value; the average made from each new customer during their first buying experience with your business.
SEO vs SEM – Which Should You Be Doing?
While every business is different – no matter how similar they may look on the outside, it’s recommended that you find your healthy mix of the two. There are cases where SEO works for a business and SEM does not. While the reverse may be the case in other situations.
Moreover, the number of factors that come into play when determining which of the two is right for you (without actually implementing them) is next to impossible to predict. That’s why we recommend that you start off with tried and true, search engine optimization to build up a solid foundation and only once you begin to see results on your organic SEO efforts should you then begin to implement search engine marketing (SEM).
This is how we’ve done it – our clients have done it and the results have been fairly consistent across the board.
Rather than going head first into paying for placement ads on high value keywords (that millions of other businesses were already targeting) we began to roll out high value content that dialed in on specific keywords that would eventually push our content to the top spots of the search engines.
Once we achieved a first page ranking (generally within the first 1-5 spots) we began to roll out ad campaigns to bolster our search engine marketing. Allowing us to essentially rank 2x for high value keywords.
Because we were already ranking there organically – once we began to ran low costing ads – leveraging our current SERPs, we were able to double our traffic and (incredibly) TRIPLE our conversions.