Think Before You Search: SEO or SEM?

seo or sem which one are you searching for

If you are involved in the business side of the internet, chances are you’ve heard these two terms before. SEO and SEM are the keys to effective marketing online, right? Without at least one of these, nobody can find your business! But wait. Which one is which?

Don’t worry; you’re not alone. During my time in the business, I’ve heard these two terms used almost interchangeably. Apart from SEO and SEM analysts, no one seems to know the difference between the two enough to hold a casual conversation. They just know that they need them.

Google and Bing are making them even harder to distinguish by seamlessly transitioning between ads and organic results on their Search Engine Results Page (SERP).

So let’s demystify all of it, shall we? I’ll start with the bread and butter.

SEO: Search Engine Optimization

The good news is, SEO is free.

(Well, apart from paying your analyst to make sure it actually works, it is free.)

So… you should be working on it constantly. End of story.

Now, what is it and how does it work?

There was a time when the search engines (Google, Bing, etc.) operated purely on what we call “organic traffic.” Organic traffic consists of consumers who type a keyword into the search engine and are displayed with a list of (hopefully) relevant links.

The search engines made a name for themselves by competing to provide the most relevant links. For instance, Google:

Think Before You Search: SEO or SEM?

So how do the search engines know which pages are most relevant to the keyword you typed in? Well, they get YOU to do that work for them.

That is the essence of SEO—a set of best practices set up to make sure that your blog post or product will show up high in the SERP for relevant consumer searches.

Without getting into all of the math, the basics of SEO boil down to three things:

  1. Keywords! Keywords! Keywords!
  2. Outgoing links to other relevant pages from your site
  3. Incoming links from other relevant pages to your site

Again, this list is by no means exhaustive. These are just the basics of what your SEO analyst would handle.

To add extra difficulty, each search engine has its own proprietary algorithm which weights each element differently. So showing up at the top of Google will take slightly different measures than showing at the top of Bing.

That’s why jokes like these float around the SEO community from time to time:

Think Before You Search: SEO or SEM?

A good SEO analyst will capitalize on each search engine’s proprietary algorithm to get you the best of all worlds.

The basics may sound easy, but the more fine-tuned aspects of SEO can get really complicated.

If you would like more information, try SearchEngineLand. (See there? Relevant outgoing link!)

SEM: Search Engine Marketing

Obviously every company needs to turn a profit in order to stay in business. Search engines are no different. That’s why they began offering advertisers special spots in their SERP for a small fee.

Suddenly, being the very first organic result on the SERP was no longer synonymous with the first link consumers see.

To illustrate, here is an image I’m sure you’re all familiar with—the Google SERP:

Think Before You Search: SEO or SEM?

See those couple of links right below the search bar, and the small boxes of text down the right hand side? That, folks, is SEM.

Did you know that Google made 97% of its 2012 revenue from online ads like these? It’s a huge business for Google, but only because advertisers have found that it works!

The boon of SEM from an advertiser’s perspective is that it’s charged on a cost-per-click (CPC) basis, which means you only pay when someone clicks on your ad.

This is the search engines’ version of only charging court fees if you win the lawsuit. It’s great, because you only pay when someone has come to the meat of your advertising: your site!

Balancing Your Online Marketing Strategy

Now, I know what you must be thinking: “If SEO is free, why would I ever pay for SEM?”

I’ll give you six reasons:

1) Placement Timeline

One drawback of SEO is that it can take months or even years to build your way up to the front page on all of your relevant keywords. With SEM, as soon as you tell search engines that you will pay to be at the top of the front page, they will trip over themselves to make it happen.

2) Filling in the Gaps

SEO requires that your page actually be relevant to the consumer’s keyword. If there are any fringe keywords that you think relate to your business but aren’t likely to show up organically, you can pay to be represented.

In fact, anyone can bid on any keyword as long as they pay high enough. Stay tuned for another blog post on how search engines calculate your CPC and ad rank.

3) Targeting

Search engines often allow you to filter what types of users your ads will show up for, unlike when using SEO. How about just females aged 45–55 in North Carolina? Done.

4) Display Network

Many search engines have partnered with websites to place advertisements on their page. A combination of SEM and Display Marketing is used to place your ads someplace other than just the SERP.

5) Remarketing

If you set it up right, search engines can remember who visited your website using “cookies” or some variation. They can then deliver a well-timed ad to said person’s Gmail page later on!

6) The Bells and Whistles

Search engines love PPC. So they are constantly designing new features to use in your ads. For instance, “sitelinks” allow you to have five different clickable links in just one ad!

SEM is a critical aspect to your online marketing presence, and at the rate that the industry is innovating, only folks who devote their careers to SEM can keep up. The big brand name companies will often hire whole teams of SEM analysts to manage their online presence!

I suppose I should note a nice bonus. SEM analysts are often trained to run ad placements in YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, etc. and even in mobile phone applications! Stay tuned for blog posts on why paid advertising in social media is critical as well.

So to recap. SEO is the domain of normal search engine results. It handles the bulk of what you might think of when you use a search engine. SEM deals with the frosting on the cake that costs extra. All of the paid advertising on the SERP and social media sites falls within the domain of SEM.

Both are very specialized fields in online marketing. They complement one another rather than overlap. In fact, not all SEO analysts could manage basic SEM accounts and vice versa.

When you are considering creating an online presence for your company, SEO and SEM analysts are indispensable. They can be the difference between a stutter-start and a running start. Just know what you are searching for!

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