SEO vs. SEM: Which One Should You Use? - Astute Communications

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two essential marketing strategies for building brand awareness, driving website traffic, and growing your business. However, search optimization can be challenging if you don’t understand the difference between SEO and SEM. They have some similar tactics but are two different approaches to search optimization. 

Understanding both will help you develop a clear and effective strategy to improve your visibility in search. Here are the differences between SEO and SEM and some helpful tips on which one you should use to help meet your marketing goals

What Is SEO?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the practice of continually optimizing a website to rank on the organic search engine results page (SERP). Because Google uses over 200 ranking signals in its algorithm, SEO can be broken down into four subcategories: on-page, off-page, technical, and user interaction signals. 

On-Page SEO

On-page SEO involves optimizing your website around target keywords your customers search for. Some best practices for on-page SEO include using your primary keyword in titles, meta descriptions, and URLs when publishing content. 

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is about gaining trust and authority from other websites by building backlinks to your site. Google and other search engines can also use Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness (E-A-T), and social sharing to determine your site’s authority. 

Technical SEO

Technical SEO ensures that search engines can crawl and index the pages on your site. A site audit will show various errors, issues, and warnings that harm your site’s ability to rank. The SEO health score is a metric used to determine the degree to which a website is optimized for search engines. Keeping up with technical SEO fixes can improve your site’s health score, ensuring that your site’s architecture is set up correctly and that pages load quickly.

User Interaction Signals

Google determines whether your site is a good match for someone’s search by how users interact with your site. A high bounce rate indicates that your site might not have the answer to someone’s query, and Google can lessen your search ranking if they determine that your site is a bad fit for a specific keyword. 

What Is SEM?

Everything outlined for SEO also applies to search engine marketing (SEM). The significant difference is that SEM also includes pay-per-click (PPC). PPC involves bidding on specific keywords to drive your website’s organic search traffic. When someone searches for that keyword, your ad shows up on Google. 

The order in that ads show up depends on how much you’re bidding on that keyword. The more you bid, the higher your ad will show. You pay the amount you bid every time someone clicks on your ad, otherwise known as cost-per-click. 

Quality score is a Google Ads metric that determines whether your ad is a good match for what users are searching for. Google calculates this metric by click-through rate (CTR), the quality of your landing page, and your Google Ads account overall quality score. Additionally, you’ll pay less if you have a higher quality score. 

Writing compelling ad copy plays an integral role in PPC. Compelling copy increases CTR, which improves your quality score. In turn, you’ll pay less per click. 

SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?

The primary difference between SEO and SEM is that SEO takes time, especially if your website is new and doesn’t have any authority yet. SEO can take six months to a year to see results, with an average of two years to rank on the first page of Google. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll take that long. Therefore, you should consistently target long-tail keywords and implement best SEO practices.

When you focus your SEM efforts on PPC, you can start seeing results instantly. However, just because you might start seeing results quickly doesn’t mean that you’ll see an immediate ROI. Typically, it can take months of testing and refining to get a positive ROI. 

Which Should I Use?

If you’re a small or new business with a limited budget, focusing on SEO is best. Even though it will take significantly longer to see results, it makes more sense than burning your entire marketing budget on PPC ads. Additionally, SEO is an excellent route if you think your business can rank for informational keywords. For example, SEO is recommended if you can write high-quality content for ‘what is x’ and ‘how to x’ search queries. Lastly, SEO is also the best option if you can wait to see results. 

On the other hand, SEM is the best route if you have a consistent ad budget, you can manage an Adwords account, or you can launch and test landing pages. PPC allows you to set a monthly budget so you don’t run over it. However, it’s easy to burn through your budget if you’re not equipped with what you’re doing. Therefore, it’s essential to set a monthly budget based on keyword targeting, ad copy, landing pages, and bids that work best for your business. 

Managing a Google Ads account requires a unique skill set. You should understand keyword targeting, ads, quality score, ROI, conversion rates, and how to use that data to get the most out of your ads. PPC uses targeted landing pages for each ad or ad group. If you’re using SEM, you need a way to quickly launch a series of different landing pages to A/B test which one performs best. 

The Takeaway

Sometimes, there’s no simple answer to which marketing strategy to use when comparing the differences between SEO and SEM. Based on your business’s unique needs and marketing goals, there are many factors to consider. Now that you understand the differences, you’re better equipped to decide which marketing strategy is best to help you reach your goals.