Are you curious about these acronyms? SEM and SEO tend to be used interchangeably in the online marketing world even though they are not the same thing. Stay tuned to understand the distinction between SEM and SEO and how you can best fit both into your digital marketing strategy.
SEM and SEO: What are they?
Search Engine Marketing (SEM)
Search engine marketing (SEM) is one of many online marketing strategies. SEM involves promoting a website through search engines with the goal of bringing a web page higher up on search engine results pages (SERPs). Search engine marketing is a broad discipline that employs a variety of tools to increase website visibility.
SEM Paid Search Advertising
Paid search advertising is when businesses pay search engine companies to list their ads at the top of search engine results pages. The aim is for the paid ad to come to people’s attention first when they search for something related to the ad’s main keywords.
Keywords are words or phrases related to companies’ products or services. For example, a video editing software company’s main keyword might be “best video editing software,” because that’s what their target customer is likely to type into Google.
In Paid Search Advertising, there are three key terms to know.
- Quality Score
PPC consists of placing advertisements on a search engine so that they appear at the top of search engine results pages. These are labeled “Ad.” Every time someone clicks on a sponsored ad, the advertiser pays a small fee to the search engine.
Although paid advertising is costly, a successful campaign can produce a hefty return on investment. Significantly, the more traffic a website attracts, the more negligible the pay becomes. A good PPC campaign requires extensive keyword research and a valuable landing page. That’s where search engine optimization (SEO), which we discuss below, comes into play.
One aspect of a PPC campaign is the cost-per-click (CPC). The two may sound interchangeable, but PPC is the name of the ad process, while CPC is a calculation of how much advertisers must pay based on their ad’s performance.
Two factors that influence CPC include competitors’ ad rankings and the ad’s quality score. Typically, an advertiser has a maximum bid for a search engine’s ad auction, which determines which ad out of a circle of competitors will appear first at any given time.
If an advertiser feels they are not getting as much traffic as expected, he or she can optimize results by tweaking the PPC campaign—by playing around with different keyword variations or by changing the image background of the ad.
The quality score lets advertisers know how their ad campaign is performing. Google, for example, determines the quality score based on its keyword relevance (the rate at which people click on the ad) and the maximum bid. The quality score also factors into calculating the cost-per-click.
A discussion of SEM strategies can be complex, so we’ll stick to basics here. Generally, the basis of SEM is keyword research. Keyword research is critical when you’re trying to attract a relevant target audience. Keywords can be “positive” or “negative”. Positive keywords are essentially terms that directly relate to an advertiser’s service or product. On the other hand, negative keywords prevent wasting valuable ad clicks on people unlikely to be interested in the product or website. Using a variety of keywords to target a specific group of people optimizes an SEM campaign.
Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
Search engine optimization (SEO) is an essential subcategory of SEM. The goal of SEO, as with SEM, is to increase visibility. SEO focuses on website content.
There are two components of SEO. These include:
- On-page SEO
- Off-page SEO
On-page SEO focuses on optimizing the content and technical aspects of a website. Optimal content includes blog posts, e-books, videos, case studies, well-researched articles, reviews, and more. On-page SEO content includes anything created for the purpose of informing and engaging people.
Under the umbrella of on-page SEO is technical SEO, which includes the non-content elements of a webpage that web crawlers read. A web crawler is a search engine program that indexes websites.
On-page SEO: Technical Aspects
Technical SEO increases the visibility of websites to indexing crawlers. It has nothing to do with web page content but instead deals with the backend processes of search engine algorithms. Optimizing for technical SEO means making decisions about a website’s domain, canonical URL, pagination, website speed, and other web page elements.
The following are examples of things you can do to optimize on-page technical SEO:
- Ensure that your page’s URL slug is clear and concise.
- Integrate main keywords into title tags.
- Ensure that your page’s meta description is accurate.
- Make your content headings relevant.
- Include photos to break up text.
- Include keywords in image alt-text.
Technical optimization makes your website easy for search engine crawlers to find. As a result, the search engines rank your page higher, leading to increased organic traffic.
Search engines also index mobile pages using many of the same metrics. Consider using tools like Google AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to optimize the speed of your mobile site pages.
As its name suggests, off-page SEO focuses on the optimization of external elements of the website, like backlinks. A backlink, also known as an inbound link, is a link to your website from another site—preferably a trusted and authoritative site. Usually that site is relevant to your own niche, so a backlink is a way of receiving referrals from a website with a similar target audience.
Off-page SEO also looks at social media sharing options and social bookmarking tools. This includes ways to easily share a webpage on social media—for example, by including a button to share the page on Twitter and, even better, by encoding a prewritten Twitter message. Social media exposes your site to a wider audience, and helps you drive traffic with likes, shares, tagging, and links.
What is the main difference between SEO vs SEM?
SEO should be part of your larger SEM strategy. To break it down to the bare-bones purposes of each, SEM aims to manipulate web traffic by paying for ads on search engines, while SEO strives to fine-tune content to drive web traffic as naturally as possible.
Now, SEM can utilize SEO along with paid searches. SEO focuses on displaying quality, valuable content. SEM can definitely attract people to your website initially, and providing good content should help you keep them around. Over time, producing meaningful content and using relevant keywords can build trust with your audience and establish your website as an authority. This can result in more conversions and even returning customers and readers.
SEM may also involve social media marketing (SMM). SMM is similar to marketing through ad placement on search engines but instead does so on social media platforms.
SEM or SEO: When to Use Each
SEM is especially important for new websites. Getting organic placement on search engine results pages can be difficult if no one has ever heard about you. Placing ads can help establish your first online trace (and help gain momentum) by generating early traffic.
SEO is for maintaining web traffic, preserving leads, and optimizing your website for more conversions. In other words, an SEM campaign with paid advertising won’t give you the best return on investment unless consumers enjoy the landing page content. Clever optimization helps make the landing page an exceptional experience for users. The Google algorithm, for example, prefers websites with engaging content and information. Paid ads may result in some web traffic, but producing high-quality content is a great strategy for long-term results.
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SEM and SEO Are Both Necessary
To conclude, SEM is an umbrella category of marketing that involves both paid advertising methods and SEO tools to attract visitors to your website. In the long run, reliance on paid advertising can be costly—which is why generating organic traffic with effective SEO is important. When combined, these strategies can eventually help your pages rank (and drive traffic) without paid advertisements.
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