SEO vs SEM

SEO vs SEM: What’s the difference?

You may have heard the terms SEO and SEM thrown around and become confused about the difference between them. You are not alone. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably. However, it’s important to remember that although they are related, they are not the same. To fully understand the difference between SEO and SEM, we need to understand Google’s Search Results Page (also known as SERPs). The search results page is split into two sections – the paid ads and the organic results. Paid ads (PPC) are found at the top of the page and can sometimes also be found at the bottom. You can tell if a result is a paid ad as it will have an ‘Ad’ label next to it. The organic results are then found in between.

SEMRush Google Ad

What’s the difference between SEO and SEM?

In order to get your page ranking in the organic results, you need to start with SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). This is not a quick task and can take many months or even years depending on how competitive the keywords you want to rank for and how established your brand is. We have written a number of blogs around SEO and what you need to do in order to start ranking. SEO campaigns focus entirely around ranking in the organic results.

If you are going to add PPC campaigns alongside your SEO, you will then be undertaking SEM (Search Engine Marketing). Search Engine Marketing focuses on ranking in both the organic results as well as the paid results. If someone suggests SEM, they are suggesting you use paid ads as well as carrying out SEO to rank organically. The main difference between SEO and SEM is SEO is just organic campaigns and SEM includes both organic and paid campaigns.

Can SEO and SEM work together?

As mentioned above, SEM only works if you are also undertaking SEO. You need to be running SEO campaigns alongside paid ads for a SEM campaign, otherwise you are only running a PPC (Pay-Per-Click) campaign.

Should you use SEM or stick with either SEO or PPC?

Just because with SEO you can rank at the top of the rankings for free, it doesn’t mean you should forget about SEM. Even though you haven’t paid for a keyword, this doesn’t mean SEO is free. To reach the top of the SERPs, you need to be consistently creating great content, researching keywords, and optimising the backend of the website to name a few.

Competitive Keywords

For highly competitive keywords, you could be having to optimise your site for many months before you have any chance of appearing anywhere near page one. However, with PPC, it may not be too expensive to bid for related keywords that will see you above the organic results. By running a SEM campaign, you can continue to optimise your site for organic results, and whilst your site is moving up the results pages, you could be running a PPC campaign that will see your site at the top of page one. Once, your page is ranking organically for your targeted keyword, you can then turn off your PPC campaign and let your SEO campaign get you traffic to your website.

A new, unoptimised website

As with competitive keywords, if you have a new website that hasn’t been optimised and has little to no web presence or even if your current website hasn’t been optimised, Search Engine Marketing could benefit you. Search Engine Optimisation doesn’t happen overnight and if your website hasn’t been optimised at all, it will take some time to start seeing it appear in the rankings depending on the competitiveness of the keywords you are targeting. Auditing your website, conducting competitor analysis and keyword research and optimising the backend of your website takes time. If your industry isn’t very competitive, it may not take too long to start ranking for certain keywords. In this case, it might be worth holding off running PPC ads and just focus on SEO. However, if you are looking to achieve results straight away, an SEM campaign is more suited as the ads can start getting you conversions whilst your website is being optimised.

Long-term keywords

If you are looking to rank for long-term keywords such as ‘How to…’ or ‘What is…’, then SEO is the strategy to go with. These types of keywords generally have lower competitiveness and therefore are easier to rank organically for. You will still need to ensure your website is optimised. This can take some time depending on how much SEO has been carried out. However, if your budget is low and you can’t afford to run an SEM campaign, looking to long-term keywords should see you ranking slightly quicker.

There is no one size fits all when it comes to SEM and SEO. Some companies might decide to focus just on SEO, whereas others might choose to focus on SEM. Knowing when to use SEO or PPC or when to use SEM depends on your industry and your company goals. By getting it right, you should start seeing your website at the top of the search results pages, leading to more traffic to your website and conversions.

Written by: Thomas Coughlan
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