The Difference Between SEO and SEM

Hand writing on whiteboard listing four parts of search engine marketing SEMInternet marketers often use the terms SEO and SEM when discussing ways to develop web presence.

Both of these strategies can help you achieve your goal of attracting more visitors to your website. Yet, they are in fact different and distinct services.

To maximize your marketing ROI, it’s vital for you to apply both SEO and SEM strategies.

First, it will help to know the difference between SEO and SEM.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimization. SEO is the collective term for the strategies and tactics you use to make sure search engines can access your site. The way you build your website can affect how search engines share your pages with Internet users.

Your goal for SEO is to achieve the highest possible ranking on search engines such as Google, Bing, Yahoo! and others. The higher your ranking is, the greater the number of people who can find your website will be. With SEO, your goal should be to get on the first page, especially to be among the first three links.

Search Engine Watch in October, 2012 reported that 53% of clicks occur on the top result for organic listings. Then it goes way down to 15% for listing second, 9% for listing third, 6% for listing fourth and 4% for listing fifth. The remaining 13% are among the many listings thereafter.

You can divide SEO into two parts: on-website and off-website. On-website SEO involves the things you can do to the content and website pages that affect your search engine rankings. Off-website strategies can include building a network of links to and from other websites. Plus, you can share your content with social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter.

Fresh quality content can help you enhance your rankings on search engines so more Internet users can find you quicker. The types of fresh content search engines favor can include articles, blogs and video. Your rankings can also increase by using keywords, including links to other websites and social media. Other things that you can do on your website to influence your rankings include:

  • Be mobile friendly
  • Optimize your meta tags
  • Reduce your page load time

What Is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. SEM encompasses SEO, but also includes more. SEM also involves research, submission, positioning and visibility of your website within search engine result pages.

SEM includes placements of advertisements on Google, Yahoo! and other search engines. The search engines show your ads to those users who are searching for your type of product or service. This can be a small display ad, image, banner ad or just words. Often, you pay for clicks on your advertisement.

How Are SEO and SEM Different?

SEO helps users find you based on search results. The results often vary by market, yet the competition is stiff. Unless you rank high so that your company is on the first or second page of the results, chances are most users will not always find you. There are usually no fees that you pay to the search engines for SEO.

With SEM, you place your advertisement –that you pay for– in the search engines above or next to the search results. Users placing a search will see your ad. SEM gives you more control over your advertising than SEO. Plus, SEM can send more targeted traffic to your website than just SEO.

Despite the differences, the most effective strategy is to execute both SEO and SEM in your online marketing.

Integrating Your SEO and SEM Strategies

Not too long ago, many companies separated their SEO and SEM activities. The SEO team focused on optimizing websites by creating links to other website pages across the Internet. The SEM team analyzed and managed keywords as a way to drive traffic.

Today, many companies integrate SEO and SEM strategies. That’s because SEO and SEM are complementary programs that, when managed together, can bring bigger results than when done separately. Yet, there are three things that you should do to attain the best results, according to a report that Mashable published in June, 2011:

  • Identify overlap
  • Measure the paid click percentage
  • Refine, review and repeat.

Both SEO and SEM involve keyword searches by the Internet user. The key for you is to find those keywords that can maximize both your SEO and SEM results from both organic and paid searches. This involves performing analytics among the thousands of potential keywords. When you find a keyword that drives traffic through SEO, but not as much through SEM or vice versa, then you may have identified an opportunity to increase usage of that key word in the other strategy. For instance, if you use a keyword that drives traffic for SEO, then you can test using this key word more in your SEM.

Measuring your paid click percentage can help you find the key words or terms that drive traffic to your website. For example, if “keyword A” gets 1,000 searches and 50 clicks and “keyword B” gets 500 searches and 200 clicks, then it might make sense to boost your paid advertising for “keyword B.” That’s because it achieves a 40% click-through rate versus a 5% click-through rate for “keyword A.”

You can also apply the results from these measurements from SEM into your SEO strategy. Based on the results from the above example, you would increase the use of “keyword B” in your website copy to drive increased traffic through SEO.

SEO and SEM are a continuous marketing exercise. You must continue to measure results, research data and make the necessary changes to achieve optimum results.

Remember…the Internet world operates at a very fast and accelerating pace. What you do today in getting SEO and SEM results can become obsolete months from now. On the other hand, if you are able to spot trends then you can position your company to attract a larger number of prospects to your website. If you do that, then you’ll have achieved your goal…at least for this time.

Case Studies

BabyEarth is an example of successful SEO and SEM. BabyEarth is a baby products retailer with both e-commerce and brick-and-mortar outlets. They sought to increase revenues through SEO and SEM with paid advertising on Google. They tested and optimized both their SEO and SEM campaign. As a result they achieved a 129% increase in monthly sales.

Steve Steinberg, Chief Marketing Officer, BabyEarth said:

"As Google made those listings [PLAs] more prevalent — put them on the middle of the [search engine results] page — and then also added PLAs within the normal PPC listings and the text ads…it became more significant to try and capture more of the real estate on the page to make sure that you appear everywhere that you possibly can."

They did four things to maximize SEM that included:

  • Focused on bidding and tested to optimize product images
  • Expanded the product targets
  • Performed keyword research and analyze search queries
  • Continued to optimize the entire process

As a result they also achieved:

  • 193% year-over-year revenue growth
  • 175% increase in year-over-year click through rate
  • 38% increase in year-over-year conversion rate

In summary, BabyEarth switched from free listings to paid product searches on Google. As a result, BabyEarth can gain a competitive advantage with SEM since prospects that search on Google can find their company first before competitors.

Google has an algorithm that enables it to feature sites with detailed content throughout its search results. As an example, Google lists KISSmetrics on page 1 of its page results for the keyword “SEO.” The KISSmetrics blog which contains hundreds of articles – now ranks number one for thousands of new terms that it didn’t rank for in the past.

By listing in Google’s in-depth articles section, KISSmetrics blog achieved a 13% increase in search engine traffic. Prior to that, KISSmetric’s search traffic was flat, even after continual adding of new content. Despite the 13% increase in traffic, the articles that received the most traffic had five things in common:

  • the articles were already popular
  • the articles that had natural backlinks and social shares ranked higher on Google
  • extra traffic came from broad keyword searches, e.g. “SEO,” instead of log tail queries
  • the average length of articles were 2,183 words, indicating that google preferred longer articles with detailed content rather than shorter articles
  • promotion of content through SEM and social media

The key insight to KISSmetrics’ achievement is that long articles with detailed text content trumps shorter articles or infographics for producing search engine traffic in Google’s “in-depth” articles section.

Next Steps
If your company does not apply SEO and SEM, it’s not too late to start. Just a few changes can bring you results. If you already have SEO and/or SEM, then find ways you can improve the results. Consulting a company that specializes in online marketing could help you develop, manage and measure SEO and SEM, and help you improve your marketing results.


Eric Wagner

While Eric now focuses on internet marketing, he also has a background in web development. He loves being among the first to find out about new tech—and better yet, being a part of making that tech succeed. Eric is known to be a good listener, seeking to understand how each individual sees the world. He is a harmonizer in group settings, cultivating unity while constructing the overall goal and strategy. When he’s not busy helping i7 clients dominate the online marketplace, Eric enjoys drone videography (he’s got a UAV pilot’s license), woodworking, community service, and all things outdoors.

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