Each industry has certain terms and phrases that are used so frequently that they are often replaced with an acronym or abbreviation to make expressing them easier. Anyone working in that industry knows exactly what they mean, but anyone only casually exposed to the industry doesn’t. Or in the case of SEO and SEM, they usually know what the full term is, but because they are closely linked, confuse the two with each other.
After all, they both start with “search engine”.
While it is true that SEO and SEM are somewhat related to each other, they each represent a very different approach to improving your businesses visibility and discoverability online. In this article we will take a finer look at the difference between SEO and SEM, and how they each serve a very valuable purpose for your business.
What is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO)?
Condensed to a single sentence, SEO is a multitude of processes involved in optimising your website, in order to maximise the amount of free (organic) traffic from search engines. The aim of SEO is to get various pages of your website appearing higher in search results for relevant queries, which could be full sentences, or an abridged combination of terms and words.
Because the way users search is constantly evolving, along with algorithmic adjustments made by search engines to constantly improve the relevance of the displayed results, SEO is an ongoing process. There are costs involved in SEO, but none of it relates directly to search engines.
The two primary components of SEO are on-page SEO, and off-page SEO, which each include various processes.
On-page SEO includes:
- The optimisation of various site and page elements – including page titles, meta descriptions, headings, and image tags – to make effective use of relevant keywords.
- The optimisation of the site structure to make it easier for visitors to navigate, and for search engines to crawl.
- The optimisation of site, including code, scripts, images, etc. to improve how fast the site loads on different devices, and how the content is displayed. This is particularly important for mobile devices.
- The use of high-quality content and copy that appeals to users, and is relevant to their query.
Off-page SEO includes:
- A link building strategy, to attract links to your site and content from other sites, including influential sites in your industry. There should be a combination of natural links, and manual links.
- Social media activity, including social mentions and sharing of your content.
- Brand mentions, again both natural and through the use of influencers in your industry.
Search engine optimisation is a long-term strategy, and while it is possible to see positive results fairly quickly, most of the benefits will only be realised after months of careful work. And as mentioned earlier, it is ongoing, so SEO doesn’t suddenly stop once your site ranks on the first page of search engine results for relevant queries.
What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?
In contrast to SEO, SEM is the process of boosting traffic to your website, and increasing your site’s visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs), through paid advertising on search engines. The most common form is Google AdWords, though Bing Ads shouldn’t be ignored in some markets. It is something we have all encountered when performing a search on Google, with up to three text ads appearing above the regular search results, and sometimes below. They look almost like normal search results, but the URL is preceded by a small AD icon.
Terms such as pay-per-click (PPC), search ads, paid search, cost-per-click (CPC) are all used in conjunction with SEM, but like SEO, SEM is a specialised skill. It is not simply about creating an AdWords account and running ads; key activities relating to SEM include:
- Creating ad groups – these are groups of ads, with carefully aligned ad copy, that target specific keywords and keyword variations.
- Creating ad campaigns – targeted campaigns aimed at specific audiences based on demographics and behaviour.
- Writing ad copy – great ad copy doesn’t only include careful use of relevant keywords, it should also clearly convey to users that the linked page contains what they are looking for.
- Optimising ad spend – while you only pay for each displayed ad when someone actually clicks on it, the cost of each click varies based on a number of factors. Great SEM isn’t only about appearing in search results, it’s also about ensuring that each click doesn’t cost too much, and that the returns from each ad campaign outweigh the cost.
- Monitoring all metrics – metrics such as number of impressions and clicks, along with click-through rates (CTR) and average cost-per-click not only indicate the success of each campaign, but also help shape the campaign while it is running, in order to maximise the benefit.
How does SEO relate to SEM?
Because each ad campaign and group targets different keywords and interests, each ad will invariably link to a different page of your website, ideally a page that relates to the ad and is also more likely to relate to a users original search intent. If a user has searched for ‘red ladies dresses’, any ad displayed in the results should link to a page with ladies dresses on it, and better yet, with only red dresses.
Similarly, if you use your website to generate leads by getting visitors to sign up for a newsletter, or hand over their email address in exchange for a free resource, you may want to have a unique landing page that can only be accessed by clicking on an ad. That way you are able to separately measure leads that you paid for – by someone clicking on a search ad – and free or organic leads that resulted from someone clicking on an organic search result for your site.
SEO can be used to identify keywords and keyword groupings, along with ensuring that the linked pages match up to what is “promised” in any ad copy. SEO can also help you better identify your key competitors, so that you can assess their ad campaigns in relation to yours.
Is SEO better than SEM?
Answering this question is becoming increasingly difficult. The way in which search engines index, rank, and display results is very different to how it was 10 to 15 years ago, and while SEO is still a critical part of any online operation, it is also becoming more difficult to stand out in search results. SEM helps you reach the top of search results, and stand out, even if your site isn’t normally on the front page for any query. But achieving this comes at a price that some businesses don’t always provide for.
Ultimately they are practices that support each other, and your business. A strong and consistent SEO strategy will deliver good to great results in the long-term, while generally being less costly than SEM. However, a good SEM strategy can help your business grow, and boost visibility in SERPs, until your SEO strategy starts to deliver positive results.