Many people think that SEO and SEM are one and the same. Or, at least similar enough that the terminology can be used interchangeably. When these terms originated (20+ years ago!), SEM was generally considered an umbrella term referencing any tactics a business used to generate traffic via search engines, which included SEO. However, over the years, these tactics, and their definitions, have evolved.

Both SEO and SEM do work to generate traffic via search engines however, they differ in their methodology. Generally speaking, SEO uses organic or free methods, where search results are not directly influenced by advertising dollars, while SEM is based on paid advertising.

SEO – the Basics

To understand SEM, you have to first understand the basics of SEO. SEO optimizes a site so that users will be able to find it organically when they are conducting an online search.

Jason Barnard from SEMrush defines SEO as “…the art and science of persuading search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo, to recommend your content to their users as the best solution to their problem.”

When a user searches, search engines scour the web to find relevant content to satisfy the query. So, to be successful in SEO, search engines have to be able to find your site, your content must appear to be credible and it must also be deliverable.

There are 3 core components of SEO: on-page, off-page and technical. Technical SEO involves using backend tactics to improve things like site speed, crawlability and indexing. On-page SEO refers to the use of various tags to help search engines better understand the site’s content and ensure that it meets the intent of the searcher. Finally, off-page tactics help build the trustworthiness of a site and its domain authority through backlinks, social sharing, bookmarking, etc.

Ok, makes sense. So what is SEM then?

SEM, also known as PPC or pay-per-click, uses paid tactics to get your site and/or content to appear in search results. Ad platforms like Google Ads place your ads in front of your target audience when they are searching for your products and services.

SEM begins with thorough keyword research. This research will tell you the words and/or phrases customers are searching for that bring them to your site. Are these the words/phrases you want to be associated with your site? If so, great! You can then run ads based on these words/phrases to deliver even more relevant traffic to your site.  If not, take a good hard look at your content and develop a content strategy that will address the words, phrases and topics that you do want.

Ever wonder how all of those ads appear above your search results? It’s successful SEM. SEM ads can appear as search ads, shopping ads, display ads, Gmail ads and YouTube ads.

Search (text) ads:

Shopping ads:

When a user conducts a search, the search engine algorithms get to work looking for relevant sites and ads that fulfill the query. Related ads appear in the search result, and when the ad is clicked, the business pays for that click (hence the name pay-per-click!).

We always say that digital marketing is a marathon not a sprint. That is very true for SEO but not so much for SEM. It takes time for your site to build a reputation and domain authority with search engines. However, SEM can start delivering results in a relatively short amount of time. You are actively marketing to users when they need you most – when they are searching for your product or service.

While SEO and SEM are not the same, they do work hand-in-hand. In order to have a successful SEM campaign, you need a solid SEO strategy. SEO can get complicated and unless you are particularly savvy, your SEO strategy can really benefit from the support of specialists and/or developers.

If you want to learn more about 535, SEO, SEM, or any of the other services we offer, reach out! We would love to get to know you and discover ways that we can help your business grow.