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SEO vs SEM: Understanding the Difference

SEO vs SEM: Understanding the Difference

If you want your product/service to reach out to a large set of audience, you can’t ignore search optimization anymore.

It includes strategies that build the visibility of your website on search engines, thereby helping you get audience attention.

Search marketing includes two main strategies — paid and organic. 

Organic results are related to SEO, whereas SEM is an overarching field comprising both paid and organic strategies pursued in tandem.

Many people confuse SEO & SEM to be the same, but that’s not true. 

Let’s dive in to understand the difference, and how you should build your search strategy.

A. What is SEM?

To begin with, SEM, or search engine marketing, is a digital marketing process that aims to increase the visibility of your website within the search results.

In other words, SEM is an umbrella term that focuses on the search as a whole. It includes components of both organic (SEO) and paid ads (PPC) as part of the strategy. 

To clear any confusion,

SEM = SEO + PPC + Strategy

It means SEM is a strategic play where you leverage both SEO & PPC together to drive business results. But remember that SEM > SEO + PPC combined.

While executing SEM strategy, you maximize your outcome by understanding and differentiating the impact that SEO & PPC may return individually.

Let’s first understand PPC and SEO in detail before we define how to build your SEM strategy.

B. What is PPC?

PPC is a form of advertising that allows you to increase the visibility of your website without ranking organically for the top positions. 

What’s even better is that you pay the search engine only when someone clicks on your ad (that’s why the nomenclature pay-per-click).

Your ads are shown on top of search results, but marked as “Ad”. All major search engines (like Google, Yahoo and Bing) show PPC ads to their users.

Brands create an advertising campaign, showing their ads for specific set of keywords. 

When a user searches for those specific keywords, your brand gets shown on the top of the SERPs near to the organic listings.

PPC paid listings 

C. What is SEO?

SEO, or search engine optimization, is the process of increasing your brand visibility and bringing more traffic to your website using organic tactics. 

SEO includes activities that help your website rank on the search engine result page, basis what the search engine algorithm thinks to be the best.

There are a variety of factors that prompt search engines to show your content right at the top. 

SEO Organic Listings

In general, SEO consists of three components: on-page SEO, technical seo (also called as on-site SEO), and off-page SEO. 

1. On-Page SEO

On-page SEO is about optimizing the content and other aspects of an individual page of a website by targeting a specific topic (and a set of keywords). 

On-page strategies include keyword research, content development, and keyword optimization. Proper onpage SEO helps search engine understand a page and index/rank it better.

2. Technical SEO

Unlike on-page SEO, technical SEO optimizes the non-content elements of the site. 

It aims to improve the backend structure and foundation, which includes site loading speed, responsiveness, indexing, security, mobile-friendliness, site architecture etc.

By refining the experience, technical SEO helps easy discoverability and consumption of your website content (by both the user and the crawler).

3. Off-page SEO

Off-page SEO refers to those set of SEO activities that happen outside of your domain. These activities pass authority and relevance signals to the search engine with respect to your website & content. 

Some of these activities include link building, social media marketing, guest blogging, press releases etc.

The central idea is to generate trust signals so that Google can pick them up and increase your SEO value.

D. Difference between PPC and SEO

When you compare PPC and SEO, you will find many ways in which they overlap.

For instance, both PPC and SEO aims to help a brand appear in prominent positions on SERPs for a targeted keyword. The tactics are designed to increase click-through-rates (CTR) so that they drive traffic to a website.

But there are certain factors where they clearly differ. Let’s look at them closely.

1. Pay per click

The first and foremost is that you have to pay each time a user clicks on a PPC result. 

Unlike SEO, PPC results are paid placements, which are targeted towards an audience making specific searches. Every time a user clicks on the result, your business is charged. 

But SEO is all about organic listings, and you have to pay nothing when a user clicks on the organic result. 

That’s why it’s essential to set a budget aside if you want to keep showing your ads for lead generation.

2. Targeted audience

Another main difference is that using PPC methods, you can target specific audience sets. When creating your campaign, you can filter your audience based on age, income, habits, location, and more. 

Whereas, in the case of SEO, you can plan your strategy towards a select audience but can’t specifically choose who will see your search results.

3. Time-to-results

When it comes to PPC, the result is immediate. Whereas SEO traffic is something you acquire over time. 

PPC allows you to launch a campaign in just a few clicks. By completing a few simple steps, your ads are visible in SERPs for the targeted keywords.

These ads increase your visibility in search engine results and that helps drive traffic to your website. However, once you stop the paid campaign, the traffic disappears. 

In contrast, it takes months (if not years) before your website appears on the first page of search results. You need to deploy a perfect combination of on-page, off-page, and technical SEO strategy. 

4. Testing

PPC is convenient when it comes to testing. 

For starters, you can immediately turn the ads off if you find the ad ineffective. In other words, if the ad is not driving you results, you can easily revise your copy and target a new audience. 

But such is not the case with SEO. It needs time to generate results when you make a change in your strategy. 

5. Designation

Lastly, the most important of all, you can easily differentiate between PPC and SEO by looking at the search result placement. 

Results that appear through PPC tactics will always include an ‘Ad’ designation, whereas SEO doesn’t. Instead, SEO results are found in the organic listings. 

E. Which is better for you — PPC or SEO?

Both PPC and SEO can be valuable for their own purposes. Here’s how:

1. When is PPC useful?

  • If you have just launched your website and are trying to create an initial online footprint for your products or services, then PPC would be a great choice. If you don’t know your ideal customer profile, you can use PPC ads to discover that.
  • If you want immediate visibility for your business, PPC can help you generate it till you build up your organic credibility. 
  • Another thing to consider is the cost-per-click for your targeted keywords. If it is low, PPC can prove to be effective. But if the price is too high for driving traffic to your website, you should better focus on SEO.

2. When is SEO useful?

  • When you understand your customers well and know what they exactly want, creating a long-term SEO strategy can be quite useful. It will provide value to your audience over time. 
  • When the investments in SEO are spread over time, it becomes less costly as compared to PPC. Even though it requires a consistent effort to create quality content, it helps establish credibility and authority in your niche. 
  • SEO helps lay the groundwork for SEM. In other words, without proper landing pages, blog content, and web pages in place, all your SEM effort will go waste. SEO can help optimize content and pages that prospects and customers might find useful. 

F. The overall SEM strategy

You need to understand that SEM isn’t about choosing between PPC and SEO. It’s knowing when and where to deploy each tactic to get the maximum results. 

For instance, when you have just started a business, you can use PPC to quickly test your ideas and check what’s working for you and what’s not. 

Based on your results, you can continue to build up your SEO strategy for creating long-term traffic channel, at the same time run PPC campaigns to build immediate traction and revenue. 

Your SEO strategy can be for keywords which have high CPC and informational/transactional intent, whereas PPC can focus on keywords that have low CPC but commercial intent.

Thus, to effectively design your SEM strategy, you need to learn the nuts and bolts of SEO & PPC and how each of them can contribute and drive you towards success.

G. Conclusion

If your main aim is to increase visibility for your website within search results, you can achieve that through both SEO or PPC or a combination of both.

And that’s where you need to understand the importance of SEM.

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