SEO and SEM: What’s the difference?

According to data from Search Engine Journal, 93% of online experiences start with a search engine. With Google, in particular, which holds about 90% of the search engine market. Even if you’re not a marketer, this data makes perfect sense. Whether we want to buy a new pair of shoes, check for the reviews of a local restaurant, or clear up a heated debate, the answer is always on Google.

It therefore comes as no surprise that ranking high in search engines is one of the top priorities of online business owners. After all, the first five organic results account for nearly 70% of clicks, so if you’re not on the first page, then your business isn’t exactly thriving. Both SEO and SEM can help you boost your online visibility and rank higher in search results, but what exactly is the difference between them and how do you know which practice is better for your business? 

Let’s find out.

 

SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is the process of optimizing your website through various practices, so that it ranks higher in organic (unpaid) search results. Google takes into account about 200 factors when deciding how to rank a website and no one knows for sure what all of the factors are, since Google is intentionally mysterious about it so that people don’t abuse or manipulate rankings. Google’s algorithms are also updated regularly, so practices that work well today might not be recommended in a few years. 

Despite the many mysteries and grey areas of Google, we have an idea of the practices it loves, and they can be split into three big SEO areas: 

 

Technical SEO

Before getting into link building, content optimization, and other SEO practices you may have heard about, it’s important to have the technical basics covered. More specifically, you have to make sure your website doesn’t have technical errors that could affect user experience or prevent search engines from crawling it. Here are the most important things to check: 

  • Page speed: Google considers page loading time when ranking websites, so make sure you optimize your site’s speed to avoid being pushed down in search results. Remember that a one-second delay can decrease conversion rates by 70%
  • Robots.txt: this is a text file you can use to tell search engines which pages to crawl and which to ignore.  
  • Dead links: too many dead links affect user experience and drag down your website in SERPs, so use tools to solve 404 errors and redirect users from these pages. 
  • Duplicate content: if you have the same content on multiple pages, Google may decide to rank these pages lower. Try to have original content on all pages or use the canonical link element to tell Google what the original page is. 
  • HTTPS: getting an SSL certificate and making your site secure is appreciated by both users and search engines 
  • A good internal linking structure that helps search engines understand what’s on your site
  • Hreflang: if your website is available in several languages, the hreflang tag helps search engines correlate pages with their target audience. 

 

On-page SEO

Once your developer checked all the technical aspects of SEO, it’s time to look at your on-page SEO performance. If you want to rank higher in search results, your website needs to be optimized through practices such as: 

  • Writing high-quality, relevant META tags containing your most important keywords and LSIs. 
  • Optimizing your URLs. When possible, include the exact target keyword to help your pages get found. 
  • Writing high-quality, user-friendly product/services pages that match the user’s search intent and, again, include your most important keywords, scattered throughout the text in a natural, non-spammy way 
  • Incorporating keywords into your headings (the main title should be H1, subheadings should be H2, and so on) and in the first 100 words 
  • Writing high-quality, engaging content on your blog, answering important industry questions. Visuals such as infographics, screenshots, and reader-friendly formatting are also a must. 
  • Adding external links to authority sites to show Google that your information is reliable and well-researched.

 

Off-site SEO 

In 2016, Google announced that high-quality content and link building are the top two most important signals, and this is still true today. 

And if you can get high-quality content by hiring the best writers, link building can be done through off-page SEO. Unlike on-page SEO, which refers strictly to the work done on your website to improve rankings, off-site SEO refers to the work done outside of it. 

But compared to a few years ago, when most webmasters focused on quantity (getting as many links from as many websites as possible), today’s SEO standards dictate a more natural, high-quality link profile. In other words, you shouldn’t just strive to build thousands of random links. Instead, you should only look for links from high-quality websites that are relevant to your business and earn brand mentions from trustworthy sources such as niche websites or influencers. Low-quality self-created links such as forum comments, online directory entries, or spammy press releases are frowned upon, so you might want to exclude them from your strategy. 

Positive reviews and your Google My Business listing are also important for off-site page optimization, especially in terms of local business SEO. 

 

SEM (Search Engine Marketing)

People often confuse SEO and SEM and use them interchangeably, but even though their end goal is somewhat similar, there is one major difference between them. 

SEM (Search Engine Marketing) is a broader strategy that includes SEO, plus paid service engine tactics. So, if SEO means optimizing your website so it shows up higher in organic search results, SEM also includes PPC advertising (pay-per-click advertising). 

PPC ads refer to those paid search results that appear before organic search results and that allow businesses to boost their exposure by up to 80%.  

When creating a PPC campaign, you have to implement some of the practices recommended in SEO, such as using relevant keywords, writing compelling calls-to-action, and drafting high-quality landing pages that address the user’s search intent. 

The beauty of PPC advertising is that it’s very affordable, it allows you to create customized campaigns based on your goals and budget, and keep up with larger competitors. A recent report revealed that about half of small businesses have included PPC in their search marketing strategy, so you don’t want to neglect this opportunity. 

 

Which one is best for your business, SEO or SEM?

Knowing that you can simply pay for search engines to show your website at the top, why should you invest in long-term SEO efforts?

It all comes down to this: SEM, and consequently PPC, are great for short-term exposure. However, as soon as you stop the campaign, traffic could stop too, so you have to make sure your website has what it takes to attract visitors naturally. And that’s where SEO comes in. 

According to Databox, 70% of marketers believe that SEO is more effective than PPC and that, in the long run, it brought them more leads than sales. However, keep in mind that every business is different and it takes time until you figure out what strategy works best for you. 

No matter what industry you work in, start by checking your technical and on-page SEO, then build a few good links. Later on, as you develop your online marketing strategy, use a combination of off-site link building and PPC alternatively, and don’t forget to check your analytics to see where you get the best results. 

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