The difference between search engine marketing (SEM) and search engine optimisation (SEO) is that the former focuses on gaining traffic from both organic and paid search whereas the latter emphasises solely generating traffic from organic search.
Both SEO and PPC are strategies to market your business in search engines. Both are hence types of search engine marketing (SEM).
What is SEO?
Search engine optimisation (SEO) is the very process of attempting to rank in a search engine’s organic results. It encompasses for primary steps:
- Keyword research—Find out what people are searching for
- On-page SEO—Craft useful content for searchers
- Off-page SEO—Build trust and authority from other websites
- Technical SEO—Ensure search engines can locate, crawl and index your content
Performing keyword research involves understanding the words and phrases your customers type into search engines (search terms). You can make use of keyword research tools such as Ahrefs’ and Google Keyword Planner.
On-page SEO deals with creating content that is practical and helpful to searchers. How you do this depends on the keywords you are targeting.
For example, people who search for “sem vs seo” want to learn. They seek an article explaining the key differences.
People who search for “baby clothes” are here to shop. They are looking for e-commerce results and listings.
Providing searchers with what they want allows your content to align with search intent.
However, search intent isn’t the only thing that is important for on-page SEO. Other factors include:
- Strategically and naturally placing keywords
- Crafting a compelling title
- Using descriptive URLs
- Optimising images
Off-page SEO is where you do things beyond your site to prove to Google that your pages deserve to rank.
Building high-quality backlinks is the most crucial part of off-page SEO as it is one of Google’s top three ranking factors. They function as a vote of confidence from other websites.
Say an article gets backlinks from other reputable websites. This shows Google that others in the industry are vouching for that particular article, which may indicate that it deserves to rank.
Links aside, reviews may also play a role in your off-page SEO.
Technical SEO is all about ensuring that search engines can find, crawl and index your content. Chances for you to rank are low unless search engines can do all three of those. First of all, if search engines can’t find and locate your content, you can’t rank. Next, should search engines not be able to crawl and index your content, you’re unlikely to rank.
What is PPC?
PPC (pay-per-click) is a type of advertising whereby you pay for website clicks from mainstream, popular platforms. In the case of SEM, you’re looking at search engines like Google.
PPC advertising in Google involves:
- Keyword research—Find what your customers are searching for
- Bid setting—Decode how much you want to pay for a single click
- Ad creation—Produce a compelling and relevant ad copy
- Audience targeting—Choose who should see your ad
Other than finding out what customers are searching for, it’s also important to understand how much ads are likely to cost, which often varies by keyword.
Bid setting is where you decide how much you’re willing to pay Google for a single ad click. Should competitors outbid you and have equally or more relevant ads, Google won’t be showing your ad much and you won’t be getting many clicks.
Ad creation deals with what your ad will say and where it will send people. Google gives your ad a Quality Score, which tells you how relevant and useful your ad is. All in all, ads with higher Quality Scores are bound to be seen by more people, and pay for less clicks.
Audience targeting is where you decide who should see your ad. You can target people based on their demographics, interests, geographic location, and many more.
What is SEM?
Search engine marketing (SEM) deals with driving traffic to your site from search engines, either through organic or paid results, or both. You utilise SEO to generate traffic from organic results and pay-per-click (PPC) to get traffic from paid results.
To put it simply:
Both SEO and PPC are types of SEM.
How Long Does SEM Take to Work?
SEM can either be fast or slow depending on whether you’re using SEO or PPC.
If you’re all about instantaneous results, opt for PPC. Google will start displaying your ad to searchers right away, so you can start generating traffic in minutes.
SEO on the other hand, is much slower.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t rank any faster. Targeting a less competitive keyword will have your website rank better.
Which Type of SEM is Better for Your Business?
Here are three rules of thumb:
- SEO works best for informational keywords.
- PPC is best for “hard to rank for” or highly competitive keywords.
- Both PPC and SEO work great with ad-heavy keywords.
When to Focus Just SEO
a) You are tight on budget: If you’re a startup or small business with a tiny marketing budget, you probably want to invest in SEO. You may not see an ROI on your SEO budget for months or years. Nevertheless, it still makes more sense than splurging your budget on PPC ads which may only run for a week.
b) You can rank for informational keywords: Informational keywords are terms such as “What is A” or “How to B”. Though these search queries don’t convert fairly well, they’ll earn you a lot of search volume. Suppose you have the ability to write amazing, high-quality, relevant content on topics that your customers search for in Google, look no further than SEO.
c) You’re patient: SEO and content marketing requires time to deliver results. So if you’re down to play the waiting game for around 6-12 months to see legit traffic rolling in from Google search, SEO is probably your best bet.
d) You’re good at building high-quality links: Creating good content is a key part of ranking in Google. But it doesn’t suffice. If you really wish to rank, you’ll need to make use of other strategies to get other sites to link to you; email outreach being one of them.
When to Focus on PPC
a) You have a consistent ad budget: One of the best things about PPC ads is that you can stay within a budget. With that in mind, it’s impossible to overspend. Having said that, it’s easy to burn through that budget quickly should you not know what you’re doing.
It’s important to have a regular monthly budget to stick to in order to figure out what keywords, ad copies, landing pages and bids work best for your case.
b) You are able to manage an Adwords account: PPC may sound simple: bidding on keywords and driving traffic. Putting it into practice however, managing a Google Ads account isn’t a joke. You need to take into account keyword-targeting, ads, Quality Score, ROI, conversion rates, etc, and process all of this data to decide how to get the most out of your ads.
c) You know how to launch and test landing pages: One of the first things you’ll learn about PPC is that you need targeted landing pages for each ad. Or at least, each ad group. In order to maximise the results, you need a way to quickly launch a bunch of web pages. Then, run A/B tests to find out which one is performing better.
When to Do Both (SEM)
SEO is the fundamental of good SEO and when you have each set up properly, you have a better chance of generating high-quality traffic and improving your conversion rate. Once you have an SEO-friendly website and sponsored ads that are correctly targeted using the right keywords, you stand an opportunity to show up at the top of paid searches. However, you have to have your SEO in place for Google to perceive you as a credible website.
If your website is new, we recommend prioritising your PPC campaign first as it can take a while for SEO rankings to become steady and established, but don’t let your SEO slide during this process.