SEO vs. SEM - What's the difference?

03/03/2014 by David Caffey

What exactly is the difference between SEO and SEM? Find out when to use search engine optimization and when to use search engine marketing.

As a provider of digital strategy solutions included search engine optimization, search engine marketing, and web analytics, we're often asked: Do I need SEO, SEM or both? 

If you're completely lost in the shuffle of three-letter acronyms like SEO, SEM, PPC, and KPI, here's the breakdown of the differences between search engine optimization and search engine marketing:

What is Search Engine Optimization?

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is the practice of structuring and optimizing website to improve performance in search engines like Google and Bing. SEO focus on two areas: Attracting qualified traffic to your site and improving the user experience on the site through tracking and testing.

When do you need SEO?

1. Your business or organization has a website.

It's true -- any website can benefit from SEO. That's because search engine optimization is more than just improving your keyword rankings and traffic from Google and Bing. At the core, SEO focuses on improving the user experience to encourage visitor engagement and tracking visitor activity to make improvements and report on progress.

2. You aren't looking for immediate results.

SEO is typically a long-term effort that focuses on creating a sustainable traffic source for your website. More often than not, the benefits of SEO won’t take effect for the first several months of a campaign. If you only are looking for short-term results, skip down to the section on SEM.

3. You have a content-rich website and/or you're willing to invest in content over time.

In 2014 and beyond, the biggest driver for success in search engines will be content. Websites will need rich, informative content in order to compete for attention in Google and Bing. Think of it this way -- when a user enters a query into a search engine, they are essentially asking a question. Sites that offer the best content, with the best answer to that question will win out every time.

What is Search Engine Marketing?

There are two types of results that a search engine delivers: organic and paid advertising. While SEO focuses on the organic results, search engine marketing encompasses the research, copy writing, and placement of pay-per-click advertising campaigns.

When do you need SEM?

1. You're looking for immediate results.

If you want to get noticed quickly, purchasing pay-per-click advertising on Google AdWords or Bing Ads is an effective solution.

2. You've added a new page, group of pages, or other piece of content that you want to promote immediately.

New content or new pages on your site usually won’t have an immediate impact in organic search. Paid ads are one of the best options for getting fresh content in front of an audience.

3. You are targeting users searching for a competitive keyword.

At the end of the day, Google really only has ten organic results on the front page. In cases where there are a significant amount of websites vying for your goal keyword(s), it may be a better strategy to place advertising for that keyword.

Keep in mind, a highly-targeted SEO campaign will support this effort, but it may be a lengthy and costly endeavor to get your site visible on the first page of Google for a competitive keyword. 

When do you need both SEO and SEM

SEO and SEM can be used as individual tactics, but more often than not, they will be part of your larger, overall web marketing strategy. Here are a few examples of when the two methods work together.

1. You are launching a new website or re-design of your current website.

Before a major launch of a website, it's crucial to have a plan in place to acquire traffic, track  user experience, and report on progress. During the design and development phase of your new site, you should generate a digital strategy framework that includes SEO, SEM, or a combination of two. 

2. You want to grow your online presence.

When companies utilize both SEO and SEM, they are making an investment with the intention of growing they're online presence. SEO and SEM paired with tactics like PR, Social Media, and Email Marketing help support and grow websites.

David Caffey
SEO/SEM Analyst