Ian Middleton

Writer - Photographer - Teacher

Content creator - web Design - SEO - SEM

SEO vs SEM – Understanding the Difference

By Ian Middleton

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links which, if you click and buy something I will receive a small amount of money in commission at no extra expense to you. In fact, where possible I have ensured you get a discount as part of my affiliation with these companies.

The main difference between SEO vs SEM

The primary difference between SEO vs SEM is that SEO is a way to get your web pages showing up higher is the search results organically (free) and SEM utilizes paid advertising to show your pages at the top of the SERPS (Search Engine Results Pages). SEO stands for (Search Engine Optimization) and SEM for (Search Engine Marketing).

SEO revolves around optimizing the frontend parts of your web pages, and the backend (technical) elements to improve their organic ranking on SERPs. It focuses more on long-term organic traffic growth and search engine ranking.

Conversely, SEM involves paid advertising strategies such as PPC (pay-per-click) campaigns, where advertisers bid on keywords to display their ads prominently on SERPs, resulting in immediate visibility and traffic generation.

Pay-per-click advertising is a much more effective way to advertise, because you will only pay when someone actually clicks your advert and goes through to the web page. On Google, for example, you also set a daily budget as low as £1 per day, so it’s a very affordable way to advertise for many smaller businesses. Additionally, you can target your ads to a specific location or locations, and also to a particular demographic such as age group, income levels etc.

While SEO requires consistent effort and patience to yield results, SEM offers instant visibility but demands ongoing investment to maintain traffic levels. Both strategies are important aspects of digital marketing, and understanding their differences can help you choose the approach that effectively reaches your target audience. The work you put into SEO will continue to yield results, whereas SEM will only work as long as you are paying and running the ads.

When to use SEO only:

Use SEO only when you are trying to rank for a keyword or phrase which doesn’t have a lot of big websites also competing for the same topic, and hence you have a much better chance of appearing high up in the search results. In this case, SEO alone should yield relatively fast results.

When to use SEM:

SEM should be used in addition to SEO, and not alone. However, you should also use SEM for keywords or phrases that are highly competitive, and dominated by bigger names and websites. In these situations the chances that you will rank highly for it, or even get to page 1, are very low. Here, using SEM will increase your visibility. Additionally, it can be used for time sensitive products, services or information. Also to promote last minute, or short term deals and discounts.

Methods of SEO:

Keyword research:

The first step in SEO is to do keyword research to determine which keywords and keyphrases are being used to search for topics relevant to your page. You can then see which keywords have a higher search rate than others, and find the most relevant and highly searched. It’s important to understand here though, that the one with the highest amount of searches may not actually be relevant to your page or could be more competitive than others. Look for keyphrases that you have a higher chance of ranking for, or the search intent behind them more closely matches your content.

The most important thing is that your page satisfies the query behind the search and gives the person what they are actually looking for. If it doesn’t, the searcher will click straight back to the search results and this will send a bad signal to the search engine that the searcher was not satisfied with the result. Your page will then be downgraded.

Conversely, if your page is relevant and the searcher then spends time reading through your page, and even better, starts looking at more pages on your website, then this will send a positive signal to the search engine that will boost your ranking.

On-Page Optimization:

This involves optimizing individual web pages to improve their relevance to those specific keyword searches and topics. On-page elements such as meta tags, headings, content, and internal links should ideally include those specific keyphrases that the searcher is using. Once again, these must be relevant the page’s content. As an example, this article is optimised for the search term “SEO vs SEM”  That term is included in my meta title, description, the url, H1 page title, the first paragraph of this article and as much as possible throughout. I have also included the individual words “SEO” and “SEM” as much as possible throughout. As a rule of thumb, the keyword to content density should be between 0.5 – 2.5%.

You can use Google’s Keyword tool to get information on monthly keyword search numbers.

Also, Diib has a great keyword explorer tool.

It’s important to note though, that these words and phrases are and must be part of the natural flow of the article and on-page content. However much you optimize a page for keywords, the text must always be readable and natural, otherwise the reader will be put off, and leave your site; another negative signal to the search engine. It is better to use those words or phrases less times in a more natural way, than more times in an unnatural way. The latter is known as keyword stuffing; an old blackhat method of SEO which is understandably frowned up by modern search engines and will end up getting your site downgraded or worse, banned.

Off-Page Optimization:

Off-page optimization primarily revolves around acquiring backlinks from relevant and authoritative websites. The quantity and quality of inbound links signal to search engines the credibility and relevance of a website, thereby influencing its ranking. Additionally, internal linking from within your own website helps to tell a search engine how important a page is; the more internal links pointing to a page, the higher the importance of that page.

Internal linking is easy, as you have control. Although, just like with the keywording strategy, make sure you link from relevant pages within your site and when setting deeplinks from words within an article, make sure it’s relevant and clear to the reader to what and where the link will lead.

External backlinks are much more difficult, as it’s not up to you but the owner of the website linking to you. Ideally you want to get relevant backlinks from websites or businesses similar to yours, or where linking to you would be beneficial to that website’s visitors. Additionally, you want to get backlinks from websites with a high DA (Domain Authority). You can check a website’s DA by using this great free tool at Moz.

The best way to get other sites to link to you is to create good content that people want to share with their visitors. Another is to write guest articles or blogs for other relevant websites where they will allow you to place a link back to your website or article.

Technical Optimization:

Technical SEO ensures that a website is easily accessible to search engine crawlers and is structured in a way that enhances user experience. Elements such as sitemaps, good site speed, mobile-friendliness, and schema markup fall under this category.

Methods of SEM:

Keyword Research:

SEM also begins with identifying relevant keywords that potential customers are likely to use when searching for products or services. These keywords are then bid upon in auctions conducted by search engines like Google Ads. Again, it’s important to note that the keywords you bid for must be relevant to your page. Winning the bid is not only about how high you bid, but also how relevant your page is. If one advertiser bids higher than you, but your page is more relevant, then you will win the bid and your ad will be shown. It’s important that your on-page SEO aligns here with the ad keywords you are bidding for, as this is how ad relevance is determined.

Ad Creation:

Like with any adverts, you will need to create compelling ad copy that entices users to click on the ad. Advertisers can customize various elements of their ads, including headlines, descriptions, and extensions, to maximize their effectiveness.

Bid Management:

SEM requires ongoing monitoring and optimization of bids to ensure that advertisers are getting the most value from their budget. Adjustments may be made based on factors such as keyword performance, competition, and ad placement. It offers instant visibility and can generate immediate traffic to a website. However, it requires a continuous investment of resources, as traffic stops once advertising budgets are exhausted.

When to use SEO or SEM

In essence, both are two distinct yet complementary strategies for enhancing search engine visibility and driving traffic to websites. While SEO focuses on organic methods to improve rankings over time, SEM leverages paid advertising to achieve immediate results. Both approaches have their merits and can be integrated into a comprehensive digital marketing strategy to maximize effectiveness and reach the desired audience.

In fact, I would recommend using SEM in the early stages of publishing an important page or trying to sell a product or service to start building traffic to your website. Additionally, if your page contains content that is highly competitive and will be hard to rank for organically, for example selling products and competing against the likes of Amazon, then using SEM alongside SEO would be much more beneficial. If your content is not highly competitive and very niche, you might find that your organic ranking will be high very quickly.

Blogging for SEO

Blogging is a great marketing tool, so if you are blogging about a specific topic then try to search out keywords that are not so competitive and yield fewer results, especially from the higher ranking sites out there. Try to find what questions people are asking, or what problems they are trying to solve where there are little to no blogs or videos offering this solution.

As an example, I was searching for ages to find a way to remove wind noise in videos using Davinci Resolve. When I figured it out, I made a YouTube video showing people how I did it, and turned it into a blog. My video comes up top in Google for this search and the article 6th place for the search term “how to remove wind noise in davinci resolve”

This video is among the most viewed on my YouTube channel.

how to remove wind noise in davinci resolve - Google Search

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