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SEO vs. SEM: Complete Comparison Guide for Marketers

The main difference between SEO and SEM is the methods they use to drive traffic to your website. These are two different aspects of marketing. However, they use similar activities, which often confuses people. In this article, we’re going to break down SEO and SEM in detail to understand their differences.

Here’s what we’re going to cover:

  • The definition of SEO and its types
  • The definition of SEM and its types
  • The main differences between SEO and SEM
  • Similarities between SEO and SEM

So without further ado, let’s get started!

What is SEO?

SEO (search engine optimization) is a set of website optimization practices to improve the positions of websites in organic search results. Search engine optimization helps you drive more organic traffic to your website through search engines like Google, Bing, Yahoo, etc. 

Based on Statista, Google has been the most popular search engine for desktop devices since 2010. So, most SEO activities target Google and its search results:

Statista worldwide market share of search engines
Credit: Statista

Both SEO and SEM strive to increase website traffic and get high ranks on Google or other search engines by using different approaches. 

Another Statista research shows that the top 3 SEO factors for search rankings worldwide are as follows:

  • On-page elements
  • Organic user behavior
  • Depth and accuracy of the content

You can see the rest of the factors in the chart below.

Top SEO factors for search engines
Credit: Statista

There are three types of SEO responsible for different strategies: on-page, off-page and technical. 

Now, let’s analyze SEO types in more detail. 

Type #1: On-page SEO

On-page SEO, aka on-site SEO, is the process of optimizing specific website elements to increase traffic organically and improve user experience. On-page SEO includes not only the website content but the HTML code of the page as well. By optimizing both, your website will get a higher ranking and drive more traffic. This SEO type targets elements such as blogs and other relevant content, meta description, HTML code, alt texts, titles, and internal links.

What’s so important about on-page SEO?

Google is constantly updating its algorithm to make sure your content corresponds to user intent and provides a relevant user experience. Content optimization helps Google understand the relevance of your webpage to the query and where it should be ranked.

For on-site SEO optimization, you can use various tools that will provide you with all the necessary keywords and content requirements. Also, you can get significant help from website audits and Google Analytics.

Here are some basic tips to make your on-page SEO efforts bring positive results:

  • Display target keywords in the first paragraph 
  • Use H1 and H2 title tags
  • Optimize URLs with important keywords
  • Optimize meta descriptions 
  • Publish unique and keyword-optimized content 
  • Optimize images with descriptive alt tags
  • Use featured snippets to increase traffic

The quality of content is another important factor here. If you want to learn more on how to update your content strategy, check out our article on 11 content marketing tips.

Now moving on to the next SEO type.

Type #2: Off-page SEO

While on-page SEO refers to optimizing everything on your website, off-page is the complete opposite. Off-page SEO aims to increase website authority through link building, social media marketing, guest posting, and other methods. 

With the help of off-page SEO, you can increase the website authority. For instance, getting backlinks from other websites with high domain authority can help increase your website’s rank.

Off-page SEO helps your website outrank your rivals and increase traffic. Search engines tend to rank websites with better authority higher since they are considered more trustworthy and credible.

You can use the following off-page SEO techniques to increase website quality score and boost traffic:

  • Link building
  • Brand building
  • Content syndication
  • Social media
  • Forums and reviews
  • Influencer marketing
  • Events
  • Guest posting
  • Podcasts

Finally, let’s see what the last type of SEO has to offer.

Type #3: Technical SEO

The main goal of technical SEO is to check whether your website corresponds to the technical requirements of a given search engine. The main elements of technical SEO are website architecture, crawling, indexing, and rendering.

With the help of technical SEO, you enable search engine crawlers to check your website and index the content, which then leads to deciding where to rank it. Technical SEO also makes sure the website loads quickly and has no errors.

For effective technical SEO optimization, you need to pay attention to the following:

  • Javascript
  • XML sitemaps
  • Site architecture
  • URL structure
  • Structured data
  • Thin content
  • Duplicate content
  • Hreflang
  • Canonical tags
  • 404 pages
  • 301 redirects
  • Site speed
  • Mobile-friendliness

This part of SEO is responsible for the technical side of your website to ensure smooth and fast performance. 

Now let’s move on to SEM, shall we?

What is SEM?

SEM (search engine marketing) is a branch of digital marketing, also known as PPC, that uses paid advertising to increase website traffic and visibility on SERP. Recently, SEM has become an integral part of inbound marketing, especially if you’re doing it for the long haul.

PPC is an online advertising method to increase website ranks and bring in more traffic. When searchers click on ads, the advertiser pays a certain amount of money to the owner of those ads. You can often see PPC ads on top of SERPs, just like in the example below. The most popular platform for PPC campaigns is Google Ads.

Google Ads example
Screenshot from Google Search (as of 27 April 2022)

Statistics show that SEM and PPC provide more quality leads and higher conversion rates than SEO with organic traffic since PPC leads to 50% more conversions. The same source claims that CPC metrics of paid ads show that they provide 200% ROI by having a $2 return for each $1 spent.

SEM offers various types of marketing campaigns to help you target your audience. The most popular types of SEM campaigns are search, display, and email ads. Let’s take a closer look at them one by one.

Type #1: Search ads

Search ads are the most common type of paid promotions you can see on almost every search engine results page. For each click on the link, the advertisers pay a fixed amount of money. What’s great about search advertising is that your links are always displayed on the top positions of the SERP, which helps increase web traffic. Google Ads and Bing Ads are among the most popular platforms for search ads.

Also, search marketing provides a wide selection of ad types. You can use the one that best suits your requirements and your audience’s needs.

Here’s the full list of search ad opportunities you can employ:

  • Responsive ads
  • Text ads
  • Dynamic ads
  • Shopping ads
  • Call-only ads
  • Image and video ads
  • Ad extensions

This selection enables advertisers to promote all types of quality content, be it text, image, or video. They can also help you reach different marketing goals. For instance, shopping ads are perfect for eCommerce websites to put their products on display and entice their potential clients. And, call-only ads help clients easily get in touch with your company.

Now, let’s see what display ads have to offer.

 Type #2: Display ads

Display ads are one of the most popular and effective digital marketing methods. They use banners with images, audio, video, and written content to place your campaign in front of your target audience. 

These paid advertising banners appear on various platforms where a user clicks on the promotional display that takes them to the landing page. Display ads provide the versatility of choice regarding the design. There are also quite a few options you can choose from, namely:

  • Static banner ads
  • Interactive ads
  • Animated ads
  • Pop up banner ads
  • Video ads

Depending on where your ads will be promoted, you can choose the type of ad that best matches that platform and market.

Below is a great example of a banner ad distributed through Google Ads. This is another advertising opportunity you can use to reach effective results.

Display ad example from LinkedIn
Display ad example from LinkedIn (screenshot as of 27 April 2022)

Since display ads provide attractive visual content with CTAs, they increase engagement and urge the searcher to click on them. They also provide brand awareness throughout various platforms.

So, if you’re looking for an effective medium to attract your target audience and make them take action, then display ads are exactly what you need.

Now let’s see what the next type offers.

Type #3: Email ads

Email ads are among the most effective ways to increase engagement, spread brand awareness, and boost conversion rates. This ad type can be used to reel in cold traffic as well as return existing clients.

Email ads provide you with freedom of creativity where you can endlessly test which type of email content works best for your target audience. For better results, you can use email segmentation by grouping your clients based on various factors. This offers more precise targeting and results in a better outcome.

Here are some types of emails you can get started with:

  • Emails with promo codes
  • Welcome emails
  • Newsletters
  • Review request emails
  • New product announcements
  • Paid Email Ads

The below image is a great example of email ads via Google Ads. This is the ideal medium for reaching your potential clients:

Email ad example on Gmail
Email ad example (screenshot as of 27 April 2022)

Email newsletters help drive traffic to your website by spreading the word about your business for free. This is a perfect choice for small businesses that are low on marketing budget. Also, you can use subscription forms so users can decide whether they want to receive emails from your company or not. This method provides a more relevant database of clients. You can check out great examples of successful newsletters in our previous article.

Now let’s see what’s the difference between search engine optimization and search engine marketing.

SEO vs. SEM: What Are The Differences?

SEO and SEM are equally important aspects of a successful digital marketing strategy. Both can be used separately and simultaneously to increase website traffic and conversion rates. 

Yet, despite having the same goal, both approaches are different from one another. To help you out, we’ve selected the three main factors that differentiate SEO from SEM.

Difference #1: Organic vs Paid

One of the main differences between SEO and SEM is the method they use to increase website traffic. SEO increases traffic organically, while SEM uses paid ads to bring traffic to your website. 

For immediate results, marketers use paid advertising which will disappear after you stop paying for them. While with SEO, you can pay once and reap the rewards for years to come. 

The method is not the only difference between the two; they have different levels of reachability as well.

Difference #2: Inclusive vs Exclusive

The next difference lies in the reach. SEO is inclusive, while SEM is exclusive. It means that anyone can interact with SEO content, while SEM content is only visible to the targeted audience.

This characteristic feature of SEO and SEM makes it hard to understand which of them is better because, with SEO, you don’t limit who can see your content. But on the other hand, SEM can bring more quality traffic than SEO, despite the fact that paid ads are visible to a smaller group of people.

Let’s take a look at one more difference between these two digital marketing strategies.

Difference #3: Long-term vs Short-term

Basically, the results that SEO and SEM deliver have different durability. If you’re aiming for long-term results, SEO is the way to go. However, if you need instant results, SEM is a better option. Each channel can be useful for companies in different lifecycle stages.

However, this difference doesn’t mean you can’t use both methods simultaneously, moreover, they complement each other perfectly.

SEO vs. SEM: What Are The Similarities?

Despite all the differences, SEO and SEM share a number of similarities as well. Let’s draw parallels between the two to understand these commonalities.

Similarity #1: They aim for high rankings

One of the main similarities between SEO and SEM is that they both follow one goal to rank high on SERPs. Although they do it with different approaches, SEO organically and SEM through paid ads, they do it to get to the top rankings on Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other search engines.

Similarity #2: They generate targeted traffic

Another similar aspect between SEO and SEM is that they generate targeted traffic. Of course, SEM lets you reach this objective faster and more effectively. However, if implemented correctly, SEO results can generate quality leads as well. Marketers need to implement SEO-optimized content to target a narrow audience and reel in more quality leads.

Now off to the next point.

Similarity #3: They rely on keyword research

Both SEO and SEM are almost useless without proper keyword research. Thorough keyword research is required to understand the needs of your potential customers. Besides, when it comes to SEM, every click of paid search results costs you money. So if you target the wrong keywords, you will not only lose traffic but a lot of money on the ad budget as well.

So, great keyword research is the foundation of effective SEO and SEM.

Now Over to You

It’s time for a wrap-up.

To put it simply, SEO and SEM are two methods for increasing website traffic and boosting authority, but through different approaches. Both channels can be useful for companies in different lifecycle stages.

It’s vital for every marketing specialist to understand the importance of these tactics and learn how to correctly implement them in their marketing strategy to drive leads and get an edge over competitors.

Interested in more similar content? Check out our blog to learn more about SEO and digital marketing.

Lilit is a passionate copywriter with a linguistic background. In addition to her love of content marketing, she enjoys learning new languages, strumming the guitar and reading science fiction. With her keen curiosity in marketing, she’s enthusiastic about sharing her knowledge through her articles.

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