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SEO vs. SEM: What is the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Although the terms are often confused, SEO and SEM are not the same thing. Understanding the difference can help you use SEO and SEM strategically together, to ultimately lower the cost of PPC campaigns while at the same time increasing the organic traffic to your site.

Oct 9, 2020

10 m read

Anyone familiar with the world of search marketing has seen the terms SEO and SEM used frequently. These are fundamental terms to those entrenched in digital marketing, but, much like many of the terms of marketing, they are often misused and confused. So I thought it might be a good idea to dig into the key differences of these two marketing channels, to make sure we’re all talking about the same things.

What Is SEO?

SEO stands for Search Engine Optimization. The goal of SEO is to increase the quantity (and quality) of traffic to your website, coming from organic search results from a search engine (most commonly Google).

The word organic means that traffic is generated without advertising or other paid media. You may be familiar with the concept of paid, owned, and earned media. Relatedly, organic traffic is traffic (visits to your website) that you don’t have to directly pay for.

So what is there to “optimize” for in SEO? At its most basic level, SEO means following best practices to ensure your website content can be indexed easily by search engines. This could refer to “on-page” elements of your website, like internal link structures and keyword density, or “off-page” elements, such as the number of other websites that are linking to you, sending signals to the search engine that your website might be valuable to visit.

What is SEM?

SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, is the promotion of a website and its rankings on a search engine through paid advertisement.

This is also called PPC (pay-per-click) advertising, where rank on a search engine’s SERP (search engine results page) is purchased via PPC programs such as Google Ads.

When comparing SEM to SEO, one of the biggest differences is in how we measure the effectiveness of the two channels. Since SEM is a paid channel, it’s always straightforward and easy to measure success by way of various metrics such as CTR (click-through rate), impressions, and conversions. It’s easy to see a clear measure of ROI from a paid search campaign, but with SEO campaigns, ROI is sometimes harder to calculate.

Because there are many different elements of an SEO campaign, tracking the exact quantitative value in dollar amounts can sometimes feel like putting a square peg in a round hole. Just like it can sometimes be challenging in other channels of marketing to measure, for instance, brand awareness numerically, SEO can sometimes feel more qualitative than quantitative. A great example of this that comes to mind is from a customer of ours, who told us the ROI of his campaign was evident when he had received “so many more web leads, I’ve had to go back to servicing accounts myself!” But in other cases, ROI can be quite easy to calculate for SEO. For example, that same company spent a set amount on our SEO services and saw an increase of 400% in leads from his website via organic search. This translated to a specific number of sales, these dollars and lead sources were easily tracked, and we were able to easily measure the ROI of our SEO campaign, to report back to him.

Of course, ROI is important when you are trying to determine where to put dollars in your marketing budget. It’s essential to understand SEO SEM marketing, meaning you can implement strategies for both that will ultimately create successful growth for your business.

What’s the Difference Between SEO and SEM?

Getting back to that budget, to fully understand when it’s strategic to use these marketing channels, it’s critical to know the difference of SEO and SEM.

A common perspective is that a balanced approach to SEO and SEM can help you achieve your website goals, and I find that approach healthy. It’s easy to oversimplify and think of it as more of a contest between search engine marketing vs. optimization, but in reality, the two marketing channels have different purposes and when used in tandem, can focus on distinct goals. Good SEO practice can lower the cost of your SEM campaigns, and well-designed, efficient SEM campaigns can target specific users to bring new traffic to your site, where their engagement and sharing of your content will continue to drive organic traffic. A match made in heaven.

While it’s important to know the difference between SEO and SEM, it’s equally important to understand their similarities in order to use them effectively together. In fact, people often mistake SEO as being in the SEM umbrella because of how intrinsically linked they are in terms of overall goals. The SEO vs SEM difference is clear when you look at each in the context of a marketing campaign.

How To Create an Efficient SEM Campaign

So how do you make an efficient SEM campaign that doesn’t waste your money by attracting site visitors that have no intention of engaging with your brand?

An efficient SEM strategy avoids wasted clicks – if you have people clicking on your ads who don’t ever convert, or who visit one page and then bounce very quickly, that means you paid for a click that, essentially, meant nothing.

So you want as many clicks to convert as possible. And in the world of SEM, an effective PPC campaign should pay for itself. In order to do this, your ad campaigns should be focused on clicks that result in sales. Ensure your campaign structures are as clean as possible, have relevant keywords, and engaging ad copy.

Here are some must-haves of a successful PPC campaign:

A Well-Structured Google Ads account

This might sound like a personal preference for tidiness, but having a well-structured Google Ads account can make all the difference. You want the campaign and the ad groups that are inside your campaign to have a logical structure that matches the various landing pages on your website.

So, for example, say you’re running an online shoe store and you have your website broken out into women’s shoes with individual categories and subcategories for pumps, mules, athletic shoes, and boots. You’d want your ad groups to match each of these categories, so your ads can exactly match the products that you’re looking to convert.

Conversion Rate Optimization

A campaign optimized for conversions isn’t just optimized at the ad group level. Conversion Rate Optimization involves looking at ads, looking at landing pages, experimenting, comparing outcomes, and then adjusting ad copy, ad extensions, or spend to optimize conversion rates.

Landing Page Optimization

One of the biggest issues with PPC conversions can be the quality of the landing page, the page where the actual conversion or purchase takes place. If a landing page is hard to use, aesthetically unappealing, or badly constructed, buyers won’t often make a purchase and will bounce quickly. This (lack of) engagement will signal to Google that your page isn’t very high in quality, and you’ll likely begin to see a lower quality score, subsequently increasing the price of the clicks you’re bidding on. So it’s critical to design a landing page that’s easy to use, aesthetically pleasing, and well-made to keep your ad costs lower and increase your conversion rate.

How To Successfully Execute an SEO Campaign

Attracting relevant traffic to your website is what quality SEO strategies are all about. The important word here is relevant. Irrelevant traffic may look great in Google Analytics, but if the traffic does not convert or meet your goals, it’s pretty worthless. With that in mind, let’s talk about SEO basics that can help you gain relevant traffic.


Keywords form the core of your SEO strategy, and that’s why keyword research is at the beginning of any successful, structured SEO campaign. Your keyword focuses should match the intent of what people are entering into Google for their search queries. From there, you can make sure that your website content is using those same keywords that users are searching with. Keywords can be adjusted based on changes in your business (say, for new products) and in user trends, to keep your site evolving over time to continue to align with user intent. If you’re unable to do this yourself, Victorious offers keyword research services.

Relevant Content

Creating relevant content for your website is a vital component of SEO. I would argue that SEO is the entire reason why the field of content marketing took off so quickly, with marketers around the world scrambling to be the first to deploy the best, most relevant website content to increase traffic and conversions. Content marketing in 2020 means that your website must contain content that your customers are interested in that goes above and beyond promotional material. In order for your content to be effective, it should be helpful and useful to the reader. This will build trust, and aid in the creation of a strong SEO footprint. It’s a win-win: good content qualifies leads and increases conversions over the long term.

Backlinks, Backlinks, Backlinks

When you think of backlinks, consider them an endorsement of your website from a third party. Other websites let Google know that your website is trusted by other people who share the same interests and content. This is especially important from review websites and websites that are already highly ranked – it’s like an author being endorsed by Oprah. Some of the best ways are by forming alliances with other webmasters, sharing content and links with colleagues, through practices like guest blogging, or by hiring an SEO company like Victorious to help you build high-quality links to your site (“white hat” link building). Beware of sketchy offers of buying backlinks in bulk. This is a rookie SEO mistake, and Google has long flagged this as spam. Buying backlinks is considered a ”black hat” SEO practice and can get you de-indexed from Google.

Images and Mobile-First Design

It’s often said that the heart of good SEO is user experience (UX). Sites with great UX are easy to navigate, well organized, and have good internal search functions. Websites that are easy to use will have high time-on-page and time on-site metrics. And the longer a user is on your site, the more likely it is that they will convert.

What does this have to do with images? Images should be well-integrated into your page design. Design is beyond the scope of this article, but a well-designed, visually pleasing site should be appealing on both desktop and mobile. It’s not rocket science… sites that are easy to use and have an appealing aesthetic will generate better traffic and engagement, and will convert more.

Finally, always design for mobile first. Google has explicitly shared that mobile-optimized web designs are required in order to rank well, so your site must have an excellent mobile experience.

Social Media

You can round out your SEO campaigns with a well planned and robust social media program. Social media mentions are indexed by search engines and generate backlinks, and social media platforms are indispensable as a means to share your on-site content, including blog articles and gated resources.

Content for SEO versus SEM – What’s the Difference?

The difference between SEO and SEM in the context of content is all about the target audience.

Both SEO and SEM requires that content is relevant for the target audience and driving engagement and conversions, but SEO has an additional target audience, that SEM doesn’t care about, and that is the search engine.

As a result, although both types of content must be relevant for the audience, the format and structure of SEO content can be quite different.

Content for SEO must be keyword optimized. That is, the content for a blog article must contain between 1% to 3% of relevant keywords in the copy. (But don’t use too many! “Keyword stuffing” is an outdated tactic from the early days of the web that’s now a negative SEO ranking factor.)

The best SEO content helps the user learn something or solve a problem. Promotional content is usually not appropriate for SEO content. (Would you enjoy it if every other sentence here reminded you that Victorious is an SEO agency and we can take care of all your SEO needs for you?) I like the classic 70% rule – at least two thirds, and maybe more, of your content should be non-promotional and simply useful to the audience.

Content for SEM, on the other hand, is explicitly promotional. This is usually content that is found on landing pages, in Google ads, and paid social media. Emphasis should be on short phrases and clear language that detail product features and pain points. SEM is mostly sales copy. And don’t forget that quality score. Test your paid media copy often. Have several eyes go over the landing page copy and format, and ask, “would I click here?”

When Do I Use SEO? When Do I Use SEM?

I think of SEO as a more strategic, long-term play, while SEM is more of a spot-fix. I like my colleague Pete’s example of renting a house versus paying your mortgage. It’s very effective to move to a new city and immediately start renting a house. But once you stop paying for it, you’re outta there, just like your PPC ads are gone when you stop bidding. Your mortgage, on the other hand, sets you up for the future. Your monthly mortgage payment is probably a little cheaper than your rent, and you know that every dollar you spend is investing in a valuable asset for the future, but you may have to pay it for a liiiiittle while before you’re seeing the value go up.

For SEO, your site should be easy to find and simple to use. (A good user experience goes hand-in-hand with effective SEO implementation.) SEO should always be considered when creating content. An SEO-centric approach to all content you create helps all content be purposeful, consider search intent, and successfully help your audience. Many people make the mistake of creating content for search engines only, but effective SEO content will appeal to both human readers as well as search bots. Overall, SEO provides a long-term basis for digital marketing success.

SEM, on the other hand, is used to support immediate sales and initiatives. For example, if you own a sports supply website that sells sporting goods online, you may have special sales for seasonal events, offer discounts and special deals on specific items, or want to promote a loyalty reward program. You will want to use SEM to tactically support various products, sales, and initiatives in a way that you can discretely measure. SEM also provides a great way to track ROI (return on investment) and attribute sales to your marketing efforts.

What Are the Benefits of SEM?

SEM is an indispensable tool for anyone engaged in e-commerce or digital marketing. Here are some of the benefits of making SEM part of your marketing plan:

  • Reaching clients immediately
    SEM is instant – if you win the Ad auction, your ad ranks higher on the SERP (search engine results page) and clients are delivered to your landing page. Unlike SEO, which involves a longer-term commitment, SEM can get you results instantly.
  • Direct geographical targeting
    Geo-targeting is available in PPC ads. This means that you can direct your efforts towards geographical areas that you define. If you want to reach people in only a specific town, county, or zip code, you can do it.
  • Pay only when an ad is clicked
    Another great feature of PPC is that you can only pay for an ad when a prospect interacts with it. This means instant attribution of your ad spend. Plus, you only spend money when a prospect interacts with your ad.
  • Fight back against competitors
    With SEM, you can bid on a competitor’s keywords! In fact, popular SEM software platforms include the ability to perform competitor research so that you can offer your product or service to the same people that your competitor is reaching.
  • Measure your effectiveness
    Google Ads and other paid media platforms include extensive analytics. Using both Google Analytics as well as the tools in Google Ads, you can precisely measure your ROI, continuously analyze and assess performance, and quickly pivot your ads accordingly. As a result, you can be sure to get the most out of your advertising dollar.

What Are the Benefits of SEO?

As opposed to all of those specific short-term benefits of SEM, the SEO benefits are long term and strategic. As I explained earlier, one of the disadvantages of SEM is that a click purchased only works once – if you want further SEM benefits, you need to buy more clicks, and this disadvantage expands greatly over time. SEO, on the other hand, keeps paying long after you optimize a page or build a link to your site.

Creating content on your website and social media platforms have a long-term effect on your ranking, creating a trail that leads directly to your site. Quality, evergreen content will continue to generate valuable traffic well after it’s published, and dedicating resources to creating backlinks and keeping your site up to date with SEO best practices will keep it Google-friendly. This value can last for years, where an equivalent spend in SEM will only last for a specific window of time. An effective SEO campaign can take some time and patience to implement, but once the rankings start to roll in, you just keep getting more and more traffic to your site.

Looking for an SEO agency to unleash your search potential? Contact us for a free SEO consultation.

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