What is the difference between SEM and SEO?


SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, and SEO, or Search Engine Optimization, both come under the umbrella of Search Marketing (SM) and can be combined to improve your SM effectiveness. The largest distinction between the two branches is that SEM is a paid strategy, while SEO is not. SEO uses organic methods to promote your site and ensure it rises higher in the Search Engine Result Pages (SERPS).

SEM involves paid ads that are placed on the list depending on certain criteria, and designated an ad. The purpose of all SM is to place your ad or website higher up the list, and to ensure it appears more often in the relevant searches, to gain attention for your brand, more foot traffic and increase your click-through rate. We will further describe SEM, SEO and their differences below, and you can better decide which, or what combination of strategies are right for your brand.


Again, the point of Search Marketing is to gain brand attention by appearing on SERPS. SEM achieves this using paid strategies to place ads on these pages, based on relevancy to the topic searched and the amount you are willing to pay per click, amongst other things. Once you have set up your account, it is important to correctly target your ad using keywords.

Ad Keywords in SEM

The way you target your ad through keywords can be split best into four types:

Broad Match Keywords, which target any word or phrase which is generally related to the initial inquiry, including synonyms, misspelling, and anything similar.
Phrase Match Keywords, which target an exact phrase, but includes extra words added in front of or after the words, such as the best.
Exact Match Keywords, which target the user’s intent, accepting misspellings, shortened versions and reordered words to gain results that match the exact search chosen.
Negative Keywords, which encompass all of the types shown above, but that show what you do not want.


How your Placement Works

Within your ad platform, the search engine through which you are displaying your ad, such as Bing or Google, a process then takes place to determine where your ad will be shown. This is known as an ‘Ad Auction’, which takes into account several factors to decide how high up you rank. The formula for this is:

Max CPC bid x Quality score = ad rank
This means that the more you are willing to pay per click, or the higher your quality score, the more likely you are to appear and gain attention.
Another important feature is that when your ad appears on the platform, it is given an ad designation. This differs from SEO, which does not use paid ads and the designation can decrease your number of clicks. We go into this, and the specifics of SEM, in greater detail in our blog, ‘What is SEM?’


Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is an organic way of improving your position on SERPS. Importantly, you don’t pay for placements, but use a variety of strategies to become more visible. There are three main categories of these so called white hat SEO techniques which we will go into, but the best kind of marketing strategy involves a mixture to ensure it is right for your brand.


On-page SEO

Utilizing keyword research and ad keyword strategies, on-page optimization ensures that the content of the page is instantly understandable. This gains a higher rank within the search as the search engine is able to know what the content is and therefore place it correctly.


Technical SEO

Technical SEO is about optimizing the non-content aspects of your website. Checking security, ensuring it is well-structured and making it mobile friendly are all examples of this, and an improved user experience equals a higher SERPS ranking.


Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO utilizes links from reputable websites to build an impression of the quality of your own brand. By acquiring more and more of these backlinks, you show your own site to have a good reputation of being safe and reliable.

As stated above, one benefit of SEO is the lack of ad designation. Because you have naturally built up your site over time to appear in a better position, you are more likely to get clicks. However, the process can take time.


The most important difference between SEM and SEO is that Search Engine Marketing is PAID, while Search Engine Optimization is ORGANIC, and therefore you do not have to pay. Both strategies mean your brand will appear in search results, drive more traffic to your website and require that you have properly targeted them. Keyword optimization is essential in both strategies, and they both require upkeep; continuous testing, updating and tweaking. They do have differences certainly. SEM is quicker, once you pay you can start receiving clicks right away, while SEO takes longer to organically build up your brand. SEO therefore appears normally in the SERPS, while SEM is given an ad designation to show that you have paid to place it there, and which does lead to fewer clicks. While SEO takes longer, it does have greater value over time and again, has not costs like an SEM that pays per click. SEM, however, is great for testing as it is easy to turn ads on and off, and see the impact it is having.
All in all, there are many similarities and differences between SEM and SEO, and they are not mutually exclusive strategies. One good method is to use SEM for an instant boost while building your SEO. For help in deciding, which is the right strategy for your brand, contact us today.
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