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SEO and SEM Marketing: What Is the Difference Between Strategies?

by Patrick D

SEO and SEM are two different marketing strategies businesses can use to reach their target audiences on search engines like Google.
You use SEO for increasing website traffic and visibility. However, Search Engine Marketing (SEM) aims to increase traffic and visibility through organic and Paid Searches.

If you don’t know how to combine SEO with SEM, it can be difficult to grow your website with both.
Although they may appear to be the same thing, they are very different approaches to appearing on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
In this article, you’ll learn the differences between them and the better strategy for your website.

What is search marketing?

Search marketing involves any strategy that boosts a website’s visibility on search engine results pages (SERPs). It includes improving search rankings and visibility to increase traffic to a website or specific web pages.

Search marketing has two major categories:
SEM, or search engine marketing, uses paid strategies to appear in search results. While SEO involves organic efforts that the everyday website owner can afford.

What is SEM?

Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a process of increasing visibility on search engines using paid advertisements. SEM is also known as Pay-Per-Click (PPC) advertising.

In SEM, you start a campaign by searching various keywords and competitors’ insights using PPC advertising toolkits like Google Adwords to create targeted campaigns. Then your ads appear in relevant search engine results pages (SERPs).

Different paid search advertising on SEM

  • Pay-per-click (PPC) and cost-per-click (CPC)
  • Retargeting
  • Geotargeting
  • Search advertising on mobile devices
  • Improved marketing campaigns
  • Bing Ads
  • AdWords
  • Ecommerce/Google Shopping Product Listing Ads (PLAs)
  • Youtube (Video search ads)
  • Amazon Ads

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The benefits of SEM

  • Produces immediate results: It allows you to generate clicks and conversions in a short period.
  • Shows targeted ads: You have complete control over when and who sees your ads, making it ideal for experimenting with new strategies, increasing traffic to a sale, or boosting traffic during slower periods.
  • Cost-effective: Your lead cost depends on many factors, but after organizing your campaign correctly, you’ll realize that your leads are both of high quality and low price.

How does SEM work in Google SERPs?

Proper SEM with the most widely-used search engine: Google, employs a variety of strategies, including:

Account structure: Your account structure helps you organize your ad strategy and optimize your ad spend.

Bids: Your bid establishes the maximum amount your company will pay for a click on your ad. Some platforms, such as Google Ads, have automated bidding options that can help your company achieve its specific goals while staying within its advertising budget.

Quality Score: Your Quality Score, a Google Ads-specific metric, represents the ad’s quality and relevance. A higher Quality Score means a lower cost-per-click (CPC) and better ad placements.

Assets: Your ad assets include everything from your copy to your images and video. When you optimize your ad assets, you increase the likelihood of your company delivering relevant ads that increase click-through rates (CTR).

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Tips for successful SEM

  • Create ad campaigns targeting a specific audience (geographic, industry, etc.).
  • Create ad groups using various target keywords.
  • Define your ad budget.
  • Track metrics such as clicks, impressions, click-through rates, and average CPC.
  • Build your retargeting audiences.
  • Create targeted social media ads using appropriate social media networks, like LinkedIn.

What is SEO?

SEO is a type of search marketing that uses organic methods in improving rankings on search engines. When using SEO, website owners focus on many strategies to appear on SERPs. Search Engine Optimization (SEO) goal is to increase website traffic and revenue by improving its ranking in SERPs.

The four fundamental elements of SEO

  • Technical SEO – focuses on improving a website’s technical structure, including features like site speed, user-friendliness, data structure, and indexing.
  • On-page SEO – Optimizes elements on a web page to help search engines understand the web contents, such as title, H1 and meta tag optimization, and image alt tags.
  • Content – Google’s primary ranking factor is content. However, developing content requires a more solid strategy than just copywriting. Publishing poor content and doesn’t match the searcher intent can cause poor ranking on SERPs.
  • Off-page SEO – builds authority on web pages through link building. This strategy focuses on increasing a website’s trustworthiness and authority on search engines for users by cross-linking to other authoritative and relevant websites.

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SEO Pros

  • Develops your website’s reputation.
  • Increase traffic and sales.
  • Excellent return on investment (ROI).
  • Broad Reach.

SEM vs. SEO: The similarities

  • Improves website ranking – they use keyword targeting and optimization to make your website appear in SERPs.
  • Drives relevant and quality traffic – Both strategies encourage users to visit your website, though one is a paid strategy and the other is organic.
  • They provide sufficient insight into your audience.
  • Require ongoing testings and optimization – Both strategies require constant monitoring and adjustments to get a substantial ROI.

SEM vs. SEO: The differences

Although sometimes you can interchange SEO with SEM, the two strategies are different because SEM refers solely to paid advertising, gaining visibility through paid ads.

SEO is more about analyzing, increasing, and monitoring organic (unpaid) traffic using various patterns.

SEM ads are clearly marked on SERPs

The Ad icon differentiates a paid placement in the SERPs. This feature isn’t present in organic listings. So the appearance of organic and paid results differs.

Paid ads offer extensions that allow you to add site links, phone numbers, and more to improve the standard search (text) result.

You pay for every single click or impression

An advertiser pays every time a user clicks on an ad (CPC – cost-per-click) or for cost-per-thousand-impressions (CPM) in SEM. While in SEO, advertisers don’t pay a dime to anyone when a user clicks through an organic result.

SEM gives instantaneous results

After your SEM (paid) campaign is live, your ads will immediately appear in the search results in just a few clicks (so long as they are approved and your bids are sufficient). They are often the first thing users see on the SERP, which results in a very high click-through rate.

On the other hand, SEO can take time. Following the implementation of an SEO strategy, organic results can take months to appear unless you have no competition, which is rare.

SEO delivers cumulative results

Another important point to remember is that SEO adds value over time, so the return on your investment will be cumulative. Your strategy will mature over time and produce long-term results. When you invest in SEM, your visibility will reduce as soon as you turn off your ads.

SEM is easier to refine than SEO

Paid advertising requires constant testing. You’ll need to revise the ad copy, target new audiences, and probably change the landing page content for your tests to work.

Constant testing can be done immediately with available data, making quick changes and test results arriving in no time. Although testing is still an essential part of a good SEO strategy, it’s not the same as PPC.

SEO or PPC: What to focus on

Choosing between SEO or PPC highly depends on:

  • Your specific objective: SEO may be preferable if you want to drive long-term growth. When you want to generate quick traffic to a sale, ignite a slow month, or test a new offer, SEM should be your first choice.
  • Your current performance: If you already have a lot of organic visibility, SEM could be a great way to boost it.
  • Your margins: In some cases, it’s unimportant to run SEM because of high click costs and low product margins. In situations like this, SEO is likely to generate higher returns. Using the PPC keyword tool, you can estimate the CPC (cost-per-click) you’ll have to pay and the conversion rate you’ll need to make a profit.
  • Consider your customer’s lifetime value: When using SEM, you’ll notice that higher LTV (Customer Lifetime Value) corresponds to higher click costs. However, a lower LTV may indicate that SEO is a more effective strategy.

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When to focus just SEO

SEO performs the primary task of optimizing content that visitors find helpful. SEM fails when doing landing pages and content optimization incorrectly due to poor quality. As a result, gaining visibility on SERPs becomes difficult.

Organic SEO improves search credibility, creating and sharing quality content on social media and other promotion channels must be consistent. In other words, your content should be worth the search.

What steps should I take to develop a search marketing strategy?

  1. Make a plan for how your SEO and SEM strategies will interact.
  2. Conduct keyword research for SEO and SEM.
  3. Get your SEO and SEM campaigns up and running.
  4. Track the results of your search marketing strategy.
  5. Make changes to your search engine marketing strategy.

Buying traffic: A new SEM concept

Buying traffic is a concept similar to SEM. Many publishers believe that buying traffic will help them monetize their site faster. But this is not an easy path: you need to understand that purchased traffic is less loyal to your content and even more so to the ads on your site. You must have valuable content in a general niche to make the most of this tactic in the best scenario. It pays off (especially Tier-1 traffic), but we do not recommend it to beginners.

But first, consider all the pros and cons. Do your profits from affiliate articles or website ads cover the cost of purchasing expensive traffic?

Purchasing social traffic in 2021 has become a monetization trend. It offers high CPMs, but you must work well with such traffic for it to convert. We mean putting in the max effort to convert this traffic by working well, including creating effective landing pages.

Or you can choose offers in partner CPA networks, to which it is profitable to send social traffic. 

Buying traffic will also work if you have a multi-geo site (for example, a news website from all over the world) or a streaming site (sports matches, fights, gaming), and you know the dates when users will be active. If you add quality paid traffic to be organic, you will get more conversions from ads on your site.

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