Written by Maite Beltrán
Table of contents
I frequently realise that whenever I speak to people who don’t really belong to the so-called “marketing scene”, but have heard about SEO and SEM at some point in their lives, they still don’t know the difference between these two disciplines.
For the purpose of this post I am going to try to explain in a simple manner the difference between SEO and SEM. Let’s begin with a definition of each.
What is SEO and what is SEM
– SEM means Search Engine Marketing, which basically means marketing in search engines like Yahoo!, Google, Bing, etc.
SEM are paid search results that appear at the top of the page when we enter a query and hit enter. When users click on these results, the advertiser is charged a fee for each click. Depending on what you’re bidding on, you will either appear at the top or at the bottom of the search results page.
There are many times that when we talk about SEM, we refer to it as “paid web positioning“. Why? Well, because you have to pay the tool through which you are managing your ads. Once you’ve created your campaigns and the ads for them, each time they appear in the results for relevant searches and a user clicks on your ad, you are going to be charged a certain amount of money for the user who arrives at your website and for the possibility that someone might buy your products or services.
As I’ve mentioned a little earlier, there are various search engines through which we can create and manage our ads, but undoubtedly, the most renowned and the one that is used the most is the advertising platform belonging to the almighty Google: AdWords. Thanks to AdWords you can create campaigns and ads, which will allow you to appear on Google’s search results immediately. There is one thing though, don’t think that once you create your campaigns and ads, and you select your keywords for them, your work is done. Campaigns require knowing the tool and a continuous monitoring to be able to make the most of them. Same thing goes for other search engines and their PPC tools.
– SEO: Search Engine Optimisation. So, basically, optimisation of websites for search engines.
SEO comprehends all kind of optimisation tasks carried out on a website and its content, so that search engines can find it and detect whether it’s relevant enough to be displayed to a user. The primary goal is, of course, to appear in top positions for most search queries users can make in connection with your products, services, and/or content.
By doing this you become more visible, which translates into more visits from people who are looking for exactly what you are offering. Good rankings in search engines are usually accompanied by traffic of better quality and visitors who are more likely to make a purchase or to hire your services.
Just as with SEM, it is best to leave this in the hands of professionals if we aren’t extensively knowledgeable on these disciplines.
Main differences between SEO and SEM
1. Time frame
One of the main differences between SEO and SEM is the time frame within which each strategy operates. SEM is always more immediate, because we can create campaigns today, and start appearing in the results almost instantly. But it’s important to also keep in mind that once you stop investing in SEM, you stop appearing and being visible.
With SEO, however, you start getting results in the mid to long term, but it’s easier to maintain your rankings if you follow a good strategy.
Similarly, there’s the question of visibility that each strategy provides. With SEM, you can rank in top positions pretty much overnight, whilst with SEO no one can guarantee you when you will appear in the top results.
It can take months, and even more than a year, depending on a great number of factors. Nevertheless, as I said, if you follow a well-planned strategy it is not impossible, and once you’re there, you may maintain your rankings for a long time.
3. Degree of control over the strategy
When it comes to SEM, it’s much easier to be in constant control over everything that’s happening. We can set the amount of money we want to invest and abide by it, we can activate and pause campaigns whenever we want, we can create new ones, we can add and remove keywords, create new ads, generate specific landing pages fully directed to achieving our goal, etc.
In SEO, however, you have control over the strategy, but not over the results. It’s important to closely monitor its evolution and to keep an eye on “what’s going on”, how changes we implement are affecting our results, and whether we’re following the right path. Our control is much more limited.
Now, as a warning, I’d like to point out that many factors come into play in both strategies, and it’s impossible to have 100% control over everything. If we do a good job, then the results should be good, too.
4. Measurement of the results
We can talk about measurement in relation to the previous point.
Result measurement is more difficult in SEO, but it’s also rather precise. It’s true that in terms of sales it’s harder to evaluate (although not impossible), and when the direct profit isn’t linked to sales, it’s just as hard to measure both SEO and SEM results.
In spite of everything, with SEM we can obtain tons of information. Thanks to the AdWords platform and other additional tools we can find out which search queries users input, how they look for us, what are they more interested in, what sells best and what doesn’t, what is working just fine, and what we need to improve in our campaigns, etc.
As I’ve mentioned, in SEM you have to pay the search engine’s advertising platform to create you campaigns, whilst in SEO results are based on the search engines’ impartial algorithm, and don’t involve investing money into the search engine itself.
This doesn’t mean that SEO is free, as many people think or say. If we want to carry out a good SEO strategy, we must hire the services of an agency or a professional consultant, so, no, SEO is not “free”.
In SEO, the number of keywords we can rank for, especially at the beginning of the strategy is limited, because it depends on our goals, the website’s content, the number of pages our site has, etc. On the contrary, SEM allows us to choose as many keywords as we want.
7. Changes and optimisation
Another difference between these strategies concerns making changes. SEO is less flexible to change, as days and weeks may pass before a new implementation gives some kind of results. This is because once we’ve implemented some modification, it needs to be crawled and updated on the servers, so we can’t make changes every day, as we go.
You need to keep adjusting your strategy, and if it’s done correctly, it’ll be more durable in the long run.
In SEM, again, any change made on the campaigns provides more immediate results. You can change your ads’ text, match your keywords, include new terms and pause those that aren’t working, change your bids…
You need to follow a strategy and keep trying new things, because not everything you put into practice is going to work, but once we find our strongest suit, it can give us a lot of valuable information to continue growing.
Usually, content created for SEM purposes have to be based on a very well-defined goal, be in tune with the campaign structure, its keywords, and have a much more commercial approach, with a clear focus on sales to attract prospective customers. An SEM landing page must be focussed on sales, without too many distractions to avoid losing our users and to get them to perform the action we want, such as: to fill up a form, to make a call, to request a quote, to sign up, etc.
In the case of SEO, content has to be highly relevant. This doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t focus on selling, but our content needs to be more lengthy, of higher quality, capable of really contributing with something new and interesting to our reader/customer.
Which is better, SEO or SEM?
There is no better or worse, these strategies are very different and complementary to each other.
What really is the best thing to do is to begin with both SEO and SEM at the same time. This way, if your business is new, or you never promoted it, SEM will help you yo become visible really fast, whilst SEO will slowly help you to rank better, and at some point there will come a time when you appear with several results on the same page, some of which will be thanks to SEO, and others will be through paid advertising.
Why is this a positive thing? Because most users don’t go beyond the first page of search results, and if we have two or more results on the first page, it will be much easier to get users to click on our website and the possibility of conversion will be greater.
What about you? Are you going to give SEO a chance? Or SEM? Maybe both?