SEO vs. SEM. What’s the Difference?

In the world of Internet marketing, SEO and SEM are thrown around quite a bit and can be confusing concepts to grasp. The fact that they’re commonly used interchangeably doesn’t help. Search engine optimization and search engine marketing are two different services.

Most business owners are familiar with the premise of search engine optimization – optimizing your website to bring in more organic, or free, traffic. Search engine marketing is a much broader effort and includes SEO work, Pay Per Click, site submission to engines and other search-engine related work.


So what is search engine optimization?

In its simplest sense, SEO encompasses all the tactics used to increase organic rankings with search engines. These listings can’t be purchased from search engines like paid ads but are influenced by optimizing page code and content in a way that lets search engine crawlers know exactly what products and services you offer and what specific page content is all about.

Google currently has more than 300 ranking factors in its algorithm when analyzing page content to determine search term relevancy. The better it can determine relevancy for particular search terms the higher your site will rank for these searches.

As competitors enter the market, fighting for position on similar keywords, you may find your first page rankings begin to slip. Search engines also tweak their ranking formulas regularly and can have major impact on site rankings. Search engine optimization is an ongoing effort; strategies that may yield first page rankings today might not have the same results in the coming weeks or months.


What does SEO include?

There are many, many elements that go into proper SEO. Here’s a rundown of the short list of on-page and off-page tactics:

On-Page SEO:

  • Including selective keywords and phrases naturally within the content of the page as well as title tags, heading tags and alt texts.
  • Regular, optimized blog posts that target desired keywords
  • Page URLs
  • Page load speed (faster is better)
  • Social sharing

Off-Page SEO:

  • High quality, one-way backlinks to your site
  • Social Bookmarking


And what about search engine marketing?

SEM includes all the things that can be done to leverage search engines to promote a website. Wikipedia gives us this definition, “Search engine marketing is a form of Internet marketing which involves the promotion of websites by increasing their visibility in search engine results pages (SERPS) through optimization and advertising.”

SEM includes SEO, PPC and other search marketing strategies.


What do I gain from SEO and SEM?

Simply put, both efforts are intended to attract more customers. SEO is designed to bring your site in alignment with what search engines are looking for by optimizing content based on users’ search queries. The focus of search engines today is to deliver the most relevant content to the user. The better you can improve your site’s benefits to these searches the more likely you are to be featured higher in organic rankings.

SEM, while also geared towards attracting customers to your site, includes paid search advertising to quickly bring traffic to your site through the use of paid ads and bidding on specific keywords.

Done correctly, companies that utilize SEO and SEM campaigns will benefit from an increase in qualified traffic, higher click-thru rates, more conversion rates and ultimately more revenue.


How do I track SEO and SEM?

There are a number of website tracking packages available to track site stats. Google Analytics is by far the most widely used tool for this. Analytics allows site owners to record information on traffic sources and even visitor behavior once they click through to the website. Some of the metrics that are trackable through Analytics include:

  • Impressions
  • Referral Sources
  • Clicks
  • Pages Per Visit
  • Conversions
  • Top Content
  • Traffic Flow
  • Exit Pages
  • Return on Investment (ROI)


SEO, SEM – Which one do I need?

SEO vs. SEM is not a apples to apples comparison, rather SEO is a component of SEM. So in short, businesses and organizations that want to succeed online need both. A complete Internet marketing campaign will include all the strategies we’ve discussed here and more, including email marketing, affiliate marketing, conversion optimization, A/B split testing and other tactics to drive high-quality traffic to your site and convert those visitors into customers.


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