SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference?


There’s a lot of jargon and acronyms to sift through when it comes to digital marketing.

SEO and SEM are perfect examples of this. They sound similar; they’re both related to digital marketing and search engines, but what are they actually?

Even trained marketers are confused about what these acronyms mean and how they relate to one another.

In this article, we’ll outline the key differences between SEO and SEM. We’ll show you what they include, why they’re important, and how to use them to drive traffic and sales.

But before we get to that, let’s be clear about what the acronyms stand for.

SEO is an acronym for search engine optimization, whereas SEM stands for search engine marketing. We’ll start by diving into SEO in more detail.

What is SEO, and why is it important?

Search engine optimization (SEO) is the process of optimizing your site to improve your organic search results.

Organic search results refer to unpaid results on search engines. Unlike paid ads (which we’ll talk about later), they’re the results Google thinks are the most relevant to a specific search term.

When you use a search engine, you type in a phrase that includes “keywords.” Businesses with the best SEO for a specific keyword appear at the top of the search page. Here’s an example:

Google displaying the top ranking pages for the keyword 'handbag'(Image Source)

When we search for the term ‘handbag,’ Google comes back with pages about handbags from brands and retailers — no surprise there. But just creating a page about handbags won’t land you in the top Google results.

These brands achieved their rankings by optimizing their site’s user experience, creating relevant, high-quality content, and building (or naturally attracting) links from other websites. These factors (and more) show the search engine they’re the most relevant site to the search query.

If you master SEO, your site will get more visibility and traffic. And with more visitors, you’ll boost your leads and sales — especially since targeted search traffic features high conversion rates.

It also helps you better understand your customers and provide them with a better online experience. For example, if you know what your audience is searching for, you can make sure your website is tailored to their needs.

Since the pandemic, online consumers have higher expectations when it comes to the digital buying experience, so understanding what they want is crucial.

You can optimize your site for various search engines, including Bing and DuckDuckGo, but Google is undoubtedly the most popular. It takes up 86% of the market, with an impressive 1.17 billion people using Google search.

Statcounter’s global search engine market share graph

So naturally, Google is the focus of most SEO campaigns.

But how does SEO work? 

The short version is that search engines crawl your pages to collect information about your website. All of the pages on your website are then indexed separately.

The index is a large database that hosts all the web pages on the search engine. When people search for something online, the search engine looks through all the information in the index to find what best suits their search.

You can take steps to make your web pages look more desirable to search engine crawlers. That’s the basic definition of SEO. For the extended version, check out this article about how SEO works.

What components does SEO include?

Let’s take a look at some of the key elements of SEO, including on-page, off-page, and local SEO.

On-page SEO

On-page SEO is pretty much what it sounds like — optimizing your web pages for SEO. It can include anything from rewriting title tags and meta descriptions on your landing pages to updating copy and adding internal links to blog posts.

For instance, we have internal links in this blog post. Whenever we touch on an SEO concept we’ve covered before more in-depth, we refer our readers to it. By doing this, we’re helping Google understand the structure of our site and highlighting important content.

This is just one example of how to optimize your website with on-page SEO. For more hands-on information, take a look at these on-page SEO best practices.

Off-Page SEO

Unlike on-page SEO, off-page SEO involves optimizing external factors, like getting links from other sites, brand mentions, or other social signals.

Link building is a process that focuses on getting backlinks from other websites. It’s the foundation of your off-page SEO efforts. Relevant, high-quality links show Google (and potential consumers) that your site is trustworthy and provides high-quality content.

For example, let’s say you published an industry report on your website. It includes unique findings and statistics that display new trends and future predictions about your industry.

Other companies might refer to your findings in their own website content. As a result, they’ll link to your website, building your backlinks and showing Google that your content is worth ranking.

It’s probably worth noting that not all backlinks are good for SEO.

You can have high-quality backlinks, which come from high-quality and relevant sites. You can also have low-quality backlinks, which come from sites with low domain authority and no relevance to the page they’re linking to on your website.

Simply put, the quantity and quality of backlinks can impact SEO. Use our backlink checker tool to explore your website’s existing backlinks for the best opportunities.

Screenshot of The HOTH's free backlink checker tool

Technical SEO

Technical SEO ensures that your website meets certain technical requirements. The most common elements include indexing, rendering, crawling, website structure, and site speed.

Because this involves making edits and changes to elements on your website, technical SEO falls under on-page SEO.

Technical SEO often involves making changes and improvements on the back-end of your site. You might not see the areas that need improvement, but you must address them.

If you don’t, Google might have a hard time understanding the structure of your site and what your website is about. And if this happens, your rankings can take a hit.

If you’re new to technical SEO, our website audit tool is a good place to start. But if this sounds like too much work, don’t worry. You can always use an SEO expert to manage the technical aspects for you.

Local SEO

Local SEO is the way to go if you want to be found by people searching in your local area. It involves optimizing your site based on location, allowing you to reach customers within a certain proximity. This is ideal for brick-and-mortar businesses.

For example, if a customer lives in Vancouver and searches for used cars, their search results will show car dealerships near their location.

A Google search for used cars shows car dealerships based on the searchers location(Image Source)

By optimizing your site for local SEO, you’ll appear in these search results.

Find out more about what’s involved with this ultimate guide to local SEO. You can use our local SEO audit tool to see how well your site is doing right now.

If you want professional help, you can sign up for one of our local SEO packages through HOTH X.

What is SEM, and why do you need it?

Search engine marketing (SEM) uses organic and paid search activities to increase visibility and reach consumers searching for relevant phrases. It involves creating a marketing campaign to increase your rankings on search engine results pages.

A search marketing strategy helps you use your digital marketing resources in the best possible way. You can analyze how your digital marketing budget is being spent and ensure that it contributes to company goals.

It also helps you better understand your customers. You can monitor the type of content and ads they respond to and tailor your marketing activities accordingly.

With 4.88 billion internet users around the world — and 2.14 billion people expected to shop online by the end of 2021 — it’s pretty important to show consumers the right ads at the right time, or you risk losing business to your competitors.

What components does SEM include?

SEM contains many of the same elements as SEO, with the addition of paid activity. So let’s look at paid search in more detail.

Paid search is when you pay search engines to display ads that help you promote your product or service to potential customers. When used as part of a larger SEM strategy, it can help nurture customers through the sales funnel, providing them with a tailored customer journey.

Here are some of the different types of paid search:

Pay-per-click ads

This is one of the most common types of paid advertising. PPC ads are a form of advertising where users bid for their ads to appear at the top of search results. Whenever a visitor clicks the ad copy, the user is charged a fee. Here’s an example from Google Ads (previously Google AdWords):

Screenshot of a Google search for furniture with a red box around the paid ads(Image Source)

When PPC campaigns are used correctly, the fee you pay for the ad is minimal when compared with the profit you make from getting the right consumers on your site at the right time.

Display ads

Also known as retargeting ads, display ads crop up on third-party sites after a consumer has visited your site. They use images, text, and video to promote your product or service.

Here’s an example of a display ad from EyeBuyDirect:

Image of a retargeting banner display ad from EyeBuyDirect(Image Source)

This banner ad appears on third-party sites after the consumer has already visited the EyeBuyDirect website.

The use of display ad campaigns can be a little controversial. There has been some research that suggests consumers don’t want to see too many retargeting ads. In fact, 53% say they’re happy with seeing one retargeting ad per week. Only 5% are happy with six or more.

Graph from Marketing Charts Showing how often consumers are happy to see remarketing ads.

But negative public sentiment doesn’t mean that remarketing doesn’t work. Instead, it means you have to use them the right way, with varying creatives and the right targeting rules. You can talk to an expert about when and how to use them effectively.

Paid ads jargon: What does it mean?

Let’s clarify some of the terms you might come across while using paid search:

  • Cost-per-click (CPC): You pay for the ad with every click you receive. The more clicks you get, the higher the cost.
  • Cost-per-action (CPA): This is the average cost for a conversion “action,” for example, filling out an online form. Most PPC platforms like Google Ads offer conversion tracking and even call tracking for calls.
  • Click-through-rate (CTR): This refers to the number of people who click on your ad after seeing it. It applies to all ad types, including PPC and display ads.

If you’re not familiar with paid advertising, it’s best to get some advice or use an expert. If you don’t, you could risk losing money by paying for ads or bidding on phrases that aren’t quite right.

If you’re brand new to this and worried about wasting your advertising budget, our experts at HOTH PPC can help.

What are the main differences between SEO and SEM?

It’s no surprise that businesses often find it hard to differentiate SEO and SEM. There’s a lot of conflicting information about what each activity involves. To clear up any misconceptions, let’s be clear about what the differences are.

SEO focuses solely on organic optimization. SEM is a more rounded and holistic approach. It incorporates both organic activities (including SEO) with paid activity to increase traffic and visibility.

Table outlining the difference between SEO and SEM

Some sources say that SEM focuses solely on paid activity, which simply isn’t true. It does include paid activity, but it also incorporates SEO activity. It’s a combination of practices and activities, whereas SEO just focuses on organic optimization.

Which is better, SEM or SEO?

Simply put, neither is better than the other. They both focus on increasing traffic to your website and improving your SERP. But with SEM, you’re willing to invest in paid ads to complement your organic efforts. The better option ultimately depends on what you’re trying to achieve and your timeframe for reaching those goals.

SEO is your best bet if you have a small budget and your main focus is to improve website rankings and traffic.

But if you’re looking to move faster and start testing and driving results from day one, SEM is the way to go.

Table showing when to use SEO and when to use SEM

Plus, a comprehensive SEM approach will only complement your SEO campaigns. With PPC included, you can quickly test and find out which keywords drive the most value. That way, you can focus your SEO campaigns only on proven keywords that drive sales and leads.

Unlike social media, search channels make it easy to reach potential customers at the bottom of the funnel. People often search directly for products or stores. If you don’t want to miss any sales opportunities while you’re trying to rank with SEO, an SEM approach is the way to go.

SEO best practices

How best to use SEO varies from business to business, so there are a lot of moving parts to consider when creating an SEO strategy. That said, there are some SEO best practices you can follow no matter what. Let’s take a look at what these are.

Identify your main keywords

Before optimizing your site, you need to do keyword research. This will help you efficiently optimize your site and yield the best results.

So, how do you identify your keywords and phrases?

Here’s what we’d suggest:

  • Identify important topics: Start by listing the most important topics you want to rank for. These topics don’t need to be detailed; think of it more as a top-level overview. We’ll narrow it down more in the next step.
  • Find keywords for each of these topics: Now you know what topics you want to focus on, it’s time to do some digging. You need to find the keywords and phrases that sit within these topics. Take a look at the HOTH’s free Google keyword planner to help with this.

Screenshot of The HOTH's free Google keyword planner tool

  • Understand search intent behind the keywords: Once you’ve finalized the phrases and words you want to target, you need to understand the search intent behind them. This will show you what searchers are looking for, allowing you to create pages that match their search queries. A quick way to do this is to search for the phrases on Google and see what types of pages appear.

Finding the right keywords is the first step of any SEO or content marketing campaign. It’s how you’ll drive more website traffic and connect with your target audience.

If it all seems a bit complicated, get in touch with us. We can take a weight off your shoulders and help you find the right keywords to target.

Set your metrics for success

It can take months to boost your SEO rankings in a meaningful way. So you need goals in place to help you continually track and monitor progress.

Whether that’s measuring an increase in traffic or asking customers for their feedback about the usability of your site, you need some measures in place to track how things are going.

When it comes to creating goals, we’d suggest using the SMART framework.

Visual depicting the SMART goal framework

With this framework in mind, you can quickly set realistic and achievable goals.

These goals will also help you identify areas of improvement. If things aren’t going according to plan, you can easily see what’s wrong and put things right.

Understand what Google wants

As the most popular search engine, it’s important that you’re familiar with what Google wants.

No one truly knows the ins and outs of Google’s algorithms. If they did, the entire ranking system would go out the window. But familiarizing yourself with Google’s SEO best practices gives your website the best chance of ranking well.

For example, Google has said that your site’s dwell time can impact rankings. If your website visitors spend a long time on your site, that means they probably thought your page was relevant to their search. So if you want to reach the first page of Google, you need to optimize for dwell time.

Keep yourself up to date with Google’s algorithms (you can find most of the information on Google’s website) and follow their announcements for any changes or updates.

And if you’re struggling to keep on top of the latest news, take a look at our Google update and algorithm history.

SEM best practices

Now that we’ve covered some of the SEO best practices, let’s look at what we can do to give our SEM the best chance of success.

Create a strategy

SEM covers a variety of marketing activities. From all the SEO action to the myriad of paid marketing, there’s a lot of ground to cover.

To maximize the use of these elements, you’ll need a strategy in place. This will give your search engine marketing direction and help align your activity with the company’s overall goals.

So what should you include in your strategy?

Let’s take a look.

The purpose of the strategy

First, let’s be clear about why you’re creating this strategy in the first place. Do you want to raise brand awareness? Reach a new audience? Improve the user experience?

Before you create your strategy, be frank about why you’re creating one in the first place. This will ensure that the strategy doesn’t stray from its original purpose.

Your budget

It’s important to keep your budget in mind while creating your strategy. It’ll help you keep your activities in check and ensure you don’t overspend. You can use our PPC ads calculator to help you figure out costs for ads and make sure you get the paid results you need.

Image of The HOTH'S free PPC calculator

The activities

Now you’ve got your budget in place, you can start to flesh out the strategy with the specific activities you plan to use in achieving your objectives. From PPC to SEO and everything in between, be as detailed as possible.

Goals and success measures

Finally, you need to set your goals and metrics for success. This will help you track the progress of your strategy and make sure things are running smoothly.

Understand paid advertising

To make the most out of paid ads, you need to understand how it works, which avenues you should use, and where to spend your money.

But it can be a pretty tricky and time-consuming process to understand the different avenues of paid advertising. PPC alone is a pretty complex system (if you want to do it right).

So set some time aside to understand the core principles of search ads. There are a lot of online resources out there that will support your learning, and you can sign up for training courses.

Get started with SEO and SEM today

SEO and SEM work hand-in-hand, but they’re not the same thing. While SEO focuses on organic traffic and optimization, SEM creates a broader strategy to increase traffic and sales — incorporating paid search and display ads.

No matter which you choose, make sure you fully understand the best practices and pitfalls of each approach. That will help you maximize your time and resources (and avoid wasting money in the process).

If you’re looking for a hand, schedule a call with the HOTH today. Our team would be more than happy to help you navigate the difficult landscape of SEO and SEM.

Published by PPCRAO

PPCRAO, a veteran Digital Marketing Trainer. PPCRAO has trained more thant 700+ students , 75+ batches. Most of the Students of PPCRAO got placements and working MNC's like Google, Accenture, Cognizant etc. PPCRAO has more than 16+ Years of Real-Time Industry experience.

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