SEO and SEM: Breaking Down the Differences

    Aug 12, 2014 Jessica Jones

    We discuss SEO frequently on this blog - unsurprisingly, since it’s a topic that most of our clients are interested in. About a year ago I wrote a post defining SEO, as a starting point for future topics and suggestions. Since then we’ve covered various aspects of SEO and ways to optimize it, both on your own and with the help of a professional. If you follow this blog, chances are you’ve got a pretty good handle on what SEO is and why it’s so important.

    But what about SEM? You may have heard this term as well - sometimes, in fact, it is used in such a way that it seems almost interchangeable with SEO. While SEO and SEM are linked, they are distinctly different fields with different tactics, strategies and goals. For a more visual overview, I recommend looking over this infographic about the differences between SEO and SEM - it’s geared towards the hotel industry but the majority of the information presented is applicable to websites in any business.

    (I feel the need to mention briefly that the term “SEM” used to be used as an umbrella term to refer to all search engine placement work, both organic and paid. If you read an article written by someone who has been in the SEO industry since the beginning, they are likely to use the term this way, and some may be disgruntled that “SEM” has come to commonly refer to the paid side alone. With respect to the oldheads, for the purposes of this article I’m going with the more common current usage.)

    The core difference is that SEO (search engine optimization) practices are geared towards improving your organic search engine results and SEM (search engine marketing) is the practice of optimizing paid search engine listings. Both can be important parts of your online visibility, and they can work together very well to make sure your listing is in front of as many people as possible. So what exactly does each do, and what are the individual benefits of each? Let’s break it down a little further.

    SEO for Organic Results

    When you search Google, the results that Google returns to you based on its algorithms are known as organic results. These results are based on the staggering amount of factors that Google takes into account when it ranks pages, and there is no way to pay Google for better rankings. You can, of course, pay to have SEO work done that can improve your site’s rankings, but you can’t write a check to Google and bump up your placement in the organic search results.

    Gaining strong SEO and making your way to the top of the organic search results takes time and effort and focus, whether you’re putting in that work yourself or hiring a professional to handle it for you. Unless your business fits an extremely small niche, it’s unlikely that you’ll make it to the first page just by virtue of having a website. When you put resources into SEO work, what you’re gaining is a gradual - but extremely valuable - buildup of your site’s rankings with Google and other search engines.

    SEM for Ad Placement

    SEO can take more time than you’d like to build up. If you’re just beginning your SEO efforts and you’re looking for some quicker results, it might be time to look into investing some money into SEM. SEM can get your listing in front of users searching for your focus keywords without the buildup time it takes to rise in the organic results.

    SEM utilizes tools such as Google AdWords (or Bing Ads, if you’re branching out) to bid for prominent placement for your chosen keywords. These ads are kept separate from the organic results and marked as ads, but they are displayed clearly on the page - frequently on the right-hand side of the organic results, as in the example below.


    So why not just put your money into SEM and forget about SEO? While it may be tempting to put all of your resources into the option that gives you quicker results, neglecting SEO is definitely not a strategy we’d recommend. I’ve seen other blogs compare SEM and SEO to the difference between renting a house versus buying one, and that seems like a solid analogy. Owning a house can be more work and more responsibility, but once the time and money have been invested, you have something solid that you own. Like a house, your site’s SEO will always need to be maintained in order to stay strong, but a site with strong SEO is an incredible value. There’s a reason why everyone wants to be on the first page of Google, and getting there organically is generally considered to be more valuable than getting there through paid placement.

    Paid placements with search engines are like any other advertising spots - if you stop paying for them regularly, your ad will stop appearing. While there’s nothing wrong with this - it’s simply the way advertising works - you also want to build up your site’s inherent value through SEO work. High organic rankings will give your site a level of credibility that can’t be gained through paid ad placements, and won’t require a monthly payment to Google.

    But what’s the difference between paying an SEO expert and paying Google directly? Obviously your costs will vary depending on the services you need and who you hire, but running a successful SEM campaign also isn’t as simple as writing a check to Google. You’ll want to have someone managing your account, and you’ll want to make sure that that person is an expert. Google AdWords is a complex system with a great deal of factors and options (this should surprise no one - it is Google, after all) and it would be far too easy to let your advertising budget fall far short of its potential if the person managing it isn’t well informed. Google offers AdWords Certification programs, and I wouldn’t recommend trusting your advertising money to someone who hasn’t completed the certification process.

    Balance, Balance, Balance.

    Of course your business’s needs are going to be unique and individual, so there is no easy advice or formula for the distribution of your budget. If you’re a new business, paid placement may be important for you to build visibility while your site is still too new to have built up much SEO value. If you’ve been around for a while and your SEO is strong and healthy, you may choose to forego paid placement, instead concentrating on making certain that your organic rankings are maintained.

    Wherever your business is in its SEO journey, make sure that you’re aware of your options and that you’re putting thought and research into the balance that’s going to get you the most results for your budget! And of course, feel free to give us a shout to find out more about the ever increasing SEO and SEM services we offer here at Slamdot!

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