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SEO vs SEM: What’s The Difference & How To Use Each One To Grow Your Business

seo vs smm whats the difference

If you’re wondering what the difference between SEO vs SEM is, you’re not alone. These are mostly marketing terms that the majority of business owners aren’t necessarily familiar with. We’ll not only explain what each one is but we’ll also explain what each one’s good for, who should use each, the proper time to use them in your business, and what results you should expect from them. 

But for those in a rush…

What is the difference between SEO & SEM?

SEO: Search Engine Optimization. It’s the process of creating content, building links, and optimizing your site so that you show up when people are searching for products and services that you offer. The benefit of SEO is that it’s considered “organic” traffic. You don’t have to pay for ads and the visitors, leads, and sales keep pouring in. 

SEM: Search Engine Marketing. It’s buying ads on search engines like Google, Yahoo, and Bing. This is where you use Google Ads to essentially buy your way to the top of search engines. The benefit is that it’s quick. If you have the money, you can be number one today. The down sides are that you lose your visitors when you stop spending money, anyone can out-bid you and remove you from the top, it’s expensive, and most people scroll right past the ads. 

Lot’s of people say that SEM is a “paid strategy” and SEO is “organic” which implies that it’s free traffic. But unless you have the time and expertise to perform SEO, it’s not free. You have to pay a company to perform your SEO which costs money. 

We find lot’s of our clients have paid SEO companies that haven’t performed well for them and so they’re reluctant to hire anyone else. However, you’re likely hired a low priced, fly-by-night company that didn’t really have a reputation to protect. 

If you’re in this situation now, spend the extra money to hire a quality SEO and SEM service. You should also brush up on the basics so that you know what the monthly reports they’re giving you actually mean.

Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Overview

We’re partial to search engine optimization. SEO is made up of several parts and it’s constantly evolving with the Google algorithm updates that roll out almost every day. It’s three main parts consist of on-page, off-page, and technical. Below we’ll explain what each of these are. 

On-Page SEO

On-page is the process of optimizing each page on your website. It sounds in-depth, and it is. Especially if you have a large website. With on-page, you look at what terms your page is showing up for (you can find this info in Google Search Console) and then add terms that you’re getting lots of impressions but few clicks for. 

There are quite a few steps to on-page SEO done proper so we’ll bullet point the major ones for you here: 

  • Look at Google search suggestions and add relevant subtopics to your page. 
  • Look at the top 5 competitors that are outranking you for that pages primary keyword. Notice what subtopics they’re covering and add those to your page. 
  • Pay attention to the keyword density on their pages. You can use a free chrome extension like SEO Quake to see what words they’re using and the densities. 
  • Look at the number of headings, images, videos, etc. they’re using and add at least that many of each to your page. 
  • Add alt text to every image on your page. 
  • Adjust your content length so that it’s similar to the top competitors. 
  • Ensure your page matches the search intent of the viewer. 
  • Shorten your URL so that it’s short and includes your keywords. Keep dates and stop words out of your URL. 
  • Make sure you have well written titles and meta descriptions. 

Off-Page SEO

Off-page SEO is the process of doing things off of your site which can effect your rankings in Google. We’ll highlight the big one’s here: 

  • Local citations – these are the mentions of your brands name, address, and phone number around the internet. 
  • Backlinks – these are other websites that link to your website. 
  • Social Signals – this is people sharing your content and talking about it. 

There’s only a few bullet points here but in reality, off-page is by far the most in-depth, difficult and most important. It’s what separates the amateurs from the professionals and without proper backlinks, social, and citations, you will never beat someone who knows what they’re doing. 

Technical SEO

Technical SEO includes all fo the technical aspects of your website. This is like the foundation of your home. You can build an amazing house but without the foundation, your house will fall apart. It’s the same with technical SEO. It’s designed to get your websites foundation in order so that your other SEO efforts can work better and faster. Here are some of the big elements: 

  • Site architecture – ensuring your site’s internal linking is on-point and Google friendly. 
  • Site Speed – ensuring your site loads quickly. 
  • Broken internal and external links – making sure you don’t have any. 
  • Duplicate Content – meaning you have more than one page with the same content.
  • HTTP vs HTTPS – your site could be loading both http and https versions.  
  • 404 pages – pages that should be redirected. 
  • No-index pages – important pages that are marked as “no-index” by Google. 

There are many technical factors with technical SEO but those are some of the big ones. 

Benefits of SEO

Despite the above possibly making SEO sound insanely difficult, it’s a hugely beneficial marketing strategy that you should be using right now in your business. Should it be your only marketing channel? No. You should spend approximately 10-20% of your business income on marketing. A portion of this should be dedicated to SEO and the rest should be dedicated to your other channels including SEM. But the benefits of SEO can’t be undervalued here. SEO is by far our favorite business investment strategy and where we’ve consistently seen the best results. 

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Overview

Search Engine Marketing is the process of buying visibility on search engines through paid ads. Most of the time this is with Google ads but this can be through any search engine including Bing and Yahoo. 

With SEM, you write targeted ads which show up for the keywords you select when people are searching. SEM is an effective form of marketing that can generate leads quickly for your business but you also stop getting leads/sales as soon as you stop paying. This is why SEM is also called “pay-per-click” advertising. 

SEM Terminology

There are a few common terms that you may have heard which are often associated with SEM: 

  • Cost Per Click (CPC) – The amount of money it costs every time someone clicks on your ad.
  • Cost Per Acquisition (CPA) – The total cost of getting a lead or sale. 
  • Conversion Rate – The percentage of people that visit your page as compared to those who become a lead or sale. Ex: 100 visits / 3 sales = 3% conversion rate. 
  • Click Through Rate (CTR) – The number of people who see your ad vs the number who actually click on it and go to your landing page. Ex: 100 impressions and 3 clicks = 3% CTR.
  • Ad Spend – The amount of money you dedicate specifically to ads. This number does not include the cost of paying someone to set up and run your ads. 
  • Landing Page – The page(s) you set up to sell your product/get leads. These are the pages that your ads lead to. 

There are others but those are the one’s you’ll hear most often. 

SEM Strategies

Google Ads are the most common search ads by far. The overarching strategy is simple though, put your ads in front of people who are searching the keywords you want to show up for. These are typically buying intent keywords like “Buy red shoes”, “Best women’s red shoes”, etc. for eCommerce and for local businesses these may be terms like “pest control in ABC town”, “Roofers in [town]”, etc. 

The strategies for SEM include a few considerations: 

  • Launching ad campaigns – Campaigns should have one goal per campaign and be targeted at a specific section of your audience. 
  • Setting up ad groups – Your ad groups contain all of your ads within them. These are geared to a specific product or offer. For example, if you sold clothing and shoes. You would make a shoe campaign, with an ad group for red shoes, and all of the red shoes ads within the ad group.
  • Writing copy for ads – Writing strong headlines that encourage high click through rates. 
  • Ensuring a well optimized landing page – Make sure you have trust badges, images, fast loading time, and everything you can on the page to help people convert. 
  • Setting your budget – Don’t start with a giant budget. Start small and figure out what works. Then put your money behind the ads that are working and kill the ones that aren’t.
  • Monitor important information like CTR, Conversions, CPA, etc. – This shows you whether or not your ads are working and informs your strategy. 

Which is Better? SEO or SEM?

If we had to pick which one’s better, we’re partial to SEO because of the long term benefits. However, both are excellent strategies that you should be leveraging in your business. We get that you may not have the budget to do both at the same time right now though so we’ll show you when to use each below…

When to Use SEO

SEO is a mid to long term strategy. You should invest in SEO as soon as you can and keep investing in it forever. The benefits of SEO increase over time as you build your authority and topical relevance. We’ve seen lots of companies stop doing SEO once they’re ranking well because they assume they’re good forever. However, if there’s any competition in your market, then your competitors are going to continue doing SEO and pass you. 

With that said, SEO should only be a portion of your budget. It’s not the number one way to go if you’re just starting out and only have a thousand dollars a month. Instead, at this point you should invest in ads and get money coming in. Then, when you have more money, split your budget between ads and SEO. 

When to Use SEM

SEM is a great short term strategy for getting leads and sales into your business quickly. The benefit of SEM is that you can control your budget, direct traffic to specific pages, turn traffic on and off quickly, and adjust your strategy with real-time data. 

If you’re just starting your business then you want to start out with SEM so that you can begin making sales as soon as possible. The mistake business owners make as they start making more money though is that they only rely on SEM/PPC. Once you’re making enough to invest in both SEM and SEO, you should invest in both. As you make more, keep your PPC and SEO campaigns but explore other avenues as well. You never want your business to be completely reliant on one channel. That channel can change in the blink of an eye and, if its your only one, you’ll be in trouble. 

Evaluate where you are now and you can determine the best strategy for your business today. Regardless of where you are now, it’s important to understand the differences in SEO vs SEM before spending money. And if you have questions, you can always call us to help guide you.