Search engine optimization vs search engine marketing


What's The Difference Between Search engine optimization and Search engine marketing?

What is search marketing?

Search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) are two of the main digital marketing strategies out there. It is important to understand the difference between SEM and SEO as well as understand other basics such as keyword research, pay per click (PPC) and Google Ads (Google Adwords). It is important to realize that Google’s search results are split into two groups: the paid search results and the organic search results. The goal of SEO is to rank your website in the organic search results. The paid search results are a result of pay per click (PPC) marketing. SEM refers to using both SEO and PPC in order to gain traffic from search engines. SEO actually falls under the umbrella of SEM. We will now explain the main difference between SEO and SEM as well as touch on a few strategies.

What is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

SEO is the practice of continually optimizing a website in order to rank in the organic, non-paid search engine results pages (SERPs) and drive traffic to the landing page.

But what exactly is organic search traffic? 

Any unpaid traffic from the search engine results pages (SERPS). In other words, users who click on the natural search results on Google, not paid ads, are organic search traffic. 

Google’s search results are divided into two main categories: paid search results and organic search results. The top result is a paid ad, while the two below are organic results. SEO is where you focus only on ranking in the organic results. Organic results is good for attracting people who are interested in your products and services and are likely to become customers but not for generating website traffic.

That’s why the quality of traffic is an essential element of the SEO definition.

As for increasing the quantity of traffic, that’s when SEO comes in.  You want to have high-quality traffic on your landing page so that you can increase the chance of conversions, this all begins with an SEO audit

What tactics does SEO include?

What does SEO include?

That said, SEO can be divided into four main subcategories: on-page SEO, off-page SEO, technical SEO and User Interaction Signals.

  • On-Page SEO This is when you optimize your website around keywords that your target audience searches for in Google, Bing and other search engines. It optimizes each web page to target a keyword and appeal to search engines and users. Strategies include keyword research, content, image optimization, meta tags and more.
  • Technical SEO optimizes elements of a website that are not content-related – think the backend structure and architecture of the site. Strategies set out to improve site speed, mobile friendliness, crawlability, indexing, architecture, user experience, structured data, and security. 
  • Off-page SEO builds your site’s authority and reputation through other high-quality websites. Techniques include link buildinglocal listings, directory profiles, and forums. Search engines like Google may also use other off-page methods to size up your site’s authority, like E-A-T and social media sharing.

Ultimately, all of these techniques should aim to show search engines how your site ticks three important boxes: 

  • Relevancy: Google looks for pages most closely related to your keyword.
  • Authority: This is how Google determines if the content is accurate and trustworthy.
  • Usefulness: Content must be deemed useful to rank at the top of the search results.

REMEMBER that Google’s ultimate goal is to provide the best user experience.

That’s why you’ll notice that Google ranks tons of content-rich, fast and high authority sites at the top of SERPs because these are the pages that users want to see.

Why Does SEO Matter?

Think about the sheer amount of searches on Google every day (~66 000 searches per second), now think about how SEO affects buying experience.

Did you that 93% of online experiences start with a search engine, and that 92% of all clicks take place on the first page of Google search results? How about the fact that 40% of online revenue comes from organic search traffic? Getting onto the first page of search results and generating high quality traffic is vital to your business’ success.

We're Excited To Meet You

Rank by focus is an experienced and passionate team of professionals that live and breathe web design and search engine optimization (SEO). All our services are offered in-house and are integrated to exceed your business requirements.  We service to clients all around the world, focused in TorontoMiamiNew YorkMalaysia and Singapore.

What is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

Since SEM, search engine marketing is an umbrella for both SEO and PPC, everything that was previously mentioned applies to SEM as well. SEM however is a paid search rather than an organic search. Because it consists of paid ads, the criteria for it is slightly different between SEO and SEM. For example, bidding is something that isn’t seen in SEO, but quality score is something that should be considered for both SEO and SEM. Below, some features of SEM will be briefly outlined.

SEM, search engine marketing includes many of the PAID strategies to appear in search, such as PPC and paid ads on Google-specific platforms (Google My Business, Google Shopping, etc.)

While SEO focuses 100% on ranking in the organic results, SEM, search engine marketing uses PPC and paid ads in order to get traffic from search engines and gain visibility in the SERPs. The main difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO is an unpaid strategy, whereas SEM is a paid strategy. 

Why Does SEM Work?

SEM. search engine marketing, includes the use of paid search, such as PPC advertisements and SMM (social media marketing). Most of the time, SEM strictly refers to paid campaigns and strategies, but if you use a combination of SEO and paid search, that falls under SEM efforts. PCC is when you bid for your ads to be displayed on the search advertising platform. Google Ads (formerly Google AdWords) is the most popular internet advertising platform. Keyword research is also carried out (as with SEO) before creating ad campaigns that target the most profitable keywords for your target audience. Then, when users search for those keywords, they see your ads at the top or bottom of results pages. Every time a user clicks on the ad, you pay the bid amount, known as a cost per click (CPC). 

Why Does SEM matter?

SEM, search engine marketing makes sure you are visible at the exact moment your target audience is searching for what you offer. Whether it’s paid or organic search results, on local search or Google Shopping – you’re there!

With paid search platforms like Google Ads, you are paying to be at the top of the search engine, and on top of that 64.6% of searchers actually click on Google Ads specifically when they’re looking to buy online. Also, the top 3 paid advertising spots get 46% of the clicks on the first page of search results!

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SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference?

SEO and SEM are unique elements of search marketing. But beside being organic vs paid strategies, what are some of the major differences between them?


1. The results from SEM is immediate, whereas SEO takes time

SEM ads allow you to put your results in front of audiences with just a few clicks. On the other hand, SEO is something that takes time. It can take years of implementing an SEO strategy before a website begins to rank on search engines, let alone the first page of results.

2. SEM is better for testing

Since you can turn paid ads on and off, it’s great for testing. You can change your ad copy, target new audiences, and change landing page content to test and see differences in your strategies immediately. You cannot test to this extent with SEO.

3. SEO adds value over time, whereas SEM does not

SEM is only active for as long as you pay for the results to show, whereas SEO evolves over time and will leave lasting results.

4. SEM clicks are paid, whereas clicks generated from SEO are not 

SEM results are paid placements, whereas SEO results are unpaid. You pay each time a user clicks on a SEM result. Conversely, you pay nothing when a user clicks on an organic (SEO) result. 

5. SEM results target a select audience, whereas SEO results do not

While all search marketing strategies aim to connect with a target audience, you can specify an audience through SEM. Through SEO, on the other hand, you cannot choose who will see your search results.

SEO vs SEM: What are the similarities?

Both SEO and SEM do the following:

  • Help your brand appear in the search results for your target audience and search terms
  • Both SEO and SEM aim to help a brand appear in top positions on SERPs for terms related to the brand’s niche, industry, business, or offerings.
  • Drive more targeted traffic to your website and content
  • Both SEO and SEM are used to gain visibility on SERPs and drive traffic to a website. 
  • Use keyword research to find popular search queries amongst your audience
  • The first step for both SEO and SEM is conducting keyword research to identify the best keywords to target. This includes determining top keywords that your ideal audience searches for, while also looking at keyword competition to see the terms other brands are targeting (and ranking for).
seo vs sem

Paid Search or not? SEO and SEM?

Another consideration to keep in mind between SEM and SEO is speed. SEM uses PPC and this generates website traffic fairly quickly compared to SEO. Organic search results are a much slower way to go about search engine optimization especially if your website is relatively new and lacks backlinks. On the other hand, you’ll be able to see results nearly instantly with SEM, however it is important to understand that as soon as you stop paying your user clicks will instantly drop.

Most people are drawn to SEO because it’s “free website traffic” but in reality it’s not. The time and effort needed to get there involve utilizing your ad budget successfully, designing and implementing a marketing strategy and on top of that there is the consideration of content, maintenance of the website as well as graphics. At the end of the day, you have to decide which strategy is better and easier for your company to maintain over time.


How to use SEO and SEM together

Learning how to use SEO and SEM together will improve the exposure and SERP results of your website. When done correctly, the two complement each other extremely well.

Here’s a few ways that you can use SEO and SEM together. 

1. Get rapid results AND long-term ROI

One major reason to use SEM and SEO at the same time is because they work on different time scales. 

SEM, search engine marketing is excellent for generating rapid results. You can literally have a paid search ad up on search engines and showing to your target audience within hours.

SEO, search engine optimization on the other hand, takes a lot longer. But SEO provides long-term sustainable results for revenue growth. As a rule of thumb, a targeted SEO strategy will start to produce uplifts of traffic and conversions within 6 months, however, you’ll need at least 8 to 12 months to produce high-ROI results. 

One SEO/SEM strategy is to use SEM to drive traffic to your website fast, while building your SEO foundations for long term success. It’s important to have a mix of paid and organic traffic.

2. Use SEM as keyword research for SEO

Since SEM can churn out results very quickly, it is an incredible tool for testing out keywords. 

You can tap into data from your SEM campaigns to find strong performing paid keywords and long tail keywords. Then, optimize the keywords for organic traffic. 

3. Use paid search as a testing ground for web content and pages

Use PPC ads as a testing ground for site content, then apply learnings to your website. 

For example, before you update headlines and meta descriptions across your site, see which text drives the best engagement rates.

Create and test different ad copy variations in your PPC campaigns and see which get the best click-through rates (CTR).

Do the same for your landing pages. Creating high converting landing pages is a hefty investment in terms of time and budget. Make sure it’s not in vain by testing your major elements first – such as headlines, calls to action, messages and more to get traffic.

4. Reduce paid search keyword bids when organic search ranks well

Every dollar counts in your search marketing strategy. You want to ensure your budget is utilized effectively to get traffic but at the same time stay within your marketing budget. That’s when deciding between SEO or SEM can help, and deciding if you want to focus on SEO strategy or maybe a combination of SEO/SEM. 

SEM can show you keywords with a high cost per click, high conversion rate and a low Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). At the same time, organic search will tell you which keywords your site ranks well for organically.

By examining insights across the two channels, you can pull back on spend in areas where SEM search drives a low ROAS, but the website ranks well for organically. Additionally, you can increase focus on organic search optimization for high-value keywords that are too expensive to compete for in SEM, and instead leave those for SEO search.

How to do it:

Check the ‘Paid & Organic’ report in Google Ads.

First you need to link Google Ads to Google Search Console – the platform for monitoring organic rankings and performance. 

Once the two platforms are linked, your Paid & Organic report is ready to go. 

This will help you better understand how paid ads and organic search results work together to help you reach your target audience.

Go to Google Ads > Reports > Predefined Reports > Basic > Paid & Organic

Then use the search result type and performance metrics to answer the following:

  • Are any organic keywords generating traffic that could be supported by PPC ads? Look for queries where you only appear in organic search with no text ads.
  • Are any keywords performing well on Google Ads that I don’t rank for in organic search results?
  • Is it profitable to bid or not bid for certain search terms?
  • How does investing in SEM strategies impact my results high-value queries for organic results?

SEO vs SEM: Which is better for your business?

It depends on what you’re looking for. Remember with SEM, the main difference is that you’re paying for it. SEM strategies are all about getting traffic via paid ads, and SEO is more about acquiring, monitoring and optimizing for organic (unpaid) search traffic. It is also important that you consider your marketing budget before you make any decisions when looking at search engine marketing.

You could always just choose one, and adapt or change as you see fit. Some businesses opt for SEM to start out, then switch to SEO down the track. Other brands only use SEO and others invest solely in SEM. Whether or not you want organic AND paid results is completely up to you!

Here is a basic overview on when you should focus 100% of your digital marketing efforts on SEO. Or if should you combine SEO and PPC and launch a full-on search marketing campaign.

When to Focus Just on SEO

You Have a Very Limited Budget: If you’re a startup or small business with a tiny marketing budget, you probably want to focus on organic (SEO) targeting. You may not see an ROI on your SEO budget for months or years. But it makes more sense for your marketing campaign to begin generating long-term customers rather than burning through your marketing budget on PPC ads that may only run for a week.

You Can Rank For Informational Keywords: Informational keywords are terms like “What is X” or “How to X”. Although these types of search queries don’t convert well, they get a lot of search volume. So if you feel like you can write really great content on topics that customers search for in Google, SEO is probably your best bet.

You Can Wait: SEO and content marketing takes time to kick in. So if you can afford to play the long game and wait 6-12 months to see high-quality traffic start to roll in from Google search, go with SEO.

You’re Good at Link-Building: Creating high-quality content is a key part of ranking in Google. But it’s not enough if that’s your only strategy. If you’re serious about ranking, you’ll need to also use a few different link building strategies to get other sites to convert to you.

When to Focus on PPC

You Have a Consistent Ad Budget: One of the nice things about PPC ads is that you can set a strict budget. That way, it’s impossible to spend more than you planned.

However, keep in mind that it’s easy to burn through that budget quickly if you don’t know what you’re doing. This means that you’ll need a regular monthly budget that you can play with to figure out what combination of keyword targeting, ad copy, landing pages and bids work best for you.

You Can Manage A Google Ads Account: But keep in mind that managing a Google Ads account is not as easy as it appears. You need to take into keyword-targeting, ads, Quality Score, ROI, conversion rates… and process all of this data to make decisions on how to get the most out of your ads.

You Have the Ability to Launch and Test Landing Pages: One of the first things you’ll learn about PPC is that you need targeted landing pages for each ad. Or at least each ad group. In order to get the most out of PPC, you need a way to quickly launch a variety of different web pages and on top of that have time to run tests to figure out which one is performing best.

When To Do Both

When should you tackle SEO and PPC at the same time?

After ensuring that you know the differences between SEM, SEO and PPC as well as defining and thoroughly planning out your digital marketing strategy you need to consider if you have the staff.

SEO requires a lot of content writing and optimization (SEO), as well as examining keywords and other factors. Additionally, managing a Google Ads account requires a lot of time too, so it would be impossible to have only one person manage both. If you lack the amount of manpower to effectively tackle both, one of your strategies will suffer, or even possibly both.

Make sure that your team is properly equipped to handle both before you consider doing them in conjunction with each other.

We're Excited To Meet You

Rank by focus is an experienced and passionate team of professionals that live and breathe web design and search engine optimization (SEO). All our services are offered in-house and are integrated to exceed your business requirements.  We service to clients all around the world, focused in TorontoMiamiNew YorkMalaysia and Singapore.