SEO vs. SEM: What’s the Difference?

By Oh, Hello Branding Group on August, 23 2021
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    Oh, Hello Branding Group

    We’ve brought up SEO in a lot of our content, but have you ever heard of SEM? They are both part of what’s called search marketing, which is an essential part of your digital marketing strategy.

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    Search Marketing

    Search marketing is considered to be anything your business does to appear on search engine results pages. This includes all efforts to get higher rankings and increase search visibility so you can drive more traffic to your website or any specific landing pages. The two major categories within search marketing are SEO and SEM. The main difference between the two is that SEO is organic and SEM is paid.



    SEO stands for search engine optimization and is an organic strategy to rank higher on search engine results pages. Instead of paying for a spot on the first page of Google results, you use a variety of tactics that, over time, will push your website to the top of the page because the search engine recognizes the authority of your website. SEO strategies can be broken into three main categories.

    1. On-page SEO: This strategy is all about utilizing keywords. You’ll have to do keyword research to figure out which words are important to incorporate on your website pages, blog posts, and content. You’ll then have to create those pieces of content to ensure you’re optimizing and including those keywords without keyword stuffing. By including these important keywords, search engines understand your content and will rank it higher.
    2. Technical SEO: Another important aspect of SEO is making sure all of the non-content elements of your website are running smoothly. You want your customers to enjoy a user-friendly experience, which search engines also use as a way of ranking your site higher. Factors like speed, architecture, mobile-friendliness, security, indexing, and crawlability are all important.
    3. Off-page SEO: To show search engines that your site has authority and can be trusted, it’s important that it’s connected to other high-quality websites. Backlinking is an essential part of your SEO strategy, which is when other websites link to your website. Additionally, getting good reviews and optimizing your Google My Business page are other important components.

    It takes time to see the benefits of your SEO strategy. It’s not something that just happens overnight. Although it is considered organic, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s “free”. It’s important to invest time and resources to improving your SEO strategy by creating high-level content, updating your website, doing keyword research, posting consistently, etc.



    SEM stands for search engine marketing and is used as a broad term for any paid tactics. It’s also referred to as paid search or pay per click (PPC) marketing. Unlike SEO, where it takes time to see the benefits, SEM is immediately effective because you’re paying to be at the very top of search engine results pages relative to specific words and phrases.


    Google Ads is the most commonly used platform to conduct this strategy. When users search for specific keywords, your ad will appear at the top and bottom of the page and you are charged every time a user clicks on your ad. So you do still experience some free exposure from viewers who see your ad but don’t click on it.


    SEM results are measurable and trackable. You can tweak your ads based on the results and improve them to reach your audience better and improve your click-through rate.


    Which One is Better?

    To optimize your digital strategy, it’s important to be doing both. But we recommend focusing on SEO first since it does take longer to work. You should always be working on your SEO strategy by posting weekly blogs, ensuring your website is functioning, getting new backlinks, and gathering more reviews. It’s not just something you do once and then you’re done. It is a constant cycle of continuously working on it. Once you have an established SEO strategy, you can start to experiment with SEM.


    Do you need help navigating your search marketing? Send us a message!


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