What are SEO and SEM?

Published on - January 22, 2021 by hesk-digital

Ah yes, the good old, age old question – What are SEO and SEM? What’s the difference? Which one is better? Which is better for my brand and business? Unless you’re a SEO specialist or professional these questions are what marketing departments face on a daily basis. This article is written with the intention of setting the record straight, so that you can go away and be able to impress your boss, colleagues or even lover if SEO and SEM are topics that spice up your date (I’m not judging, we all have our thing).

Although sound similar both tactics are extremely different. When completing a strategy, it is important to know when to use each term as using them interchangeably will cause a lot of confusion and stunt your otherwise effective digital marketing plan.


infographic explaining what is SEO and SEM


What is Search Marketing?

Talk about starting right back from the beginning. Search Marketing is a term used to describe any tactic or strategy that assists a brand or business in appearing on search engine page results. This is a very underestimated part of marketing as the higher your brand ranks, the more visible it is, allowing more people to find you easier, increasing traffic to your website or specific website pages. There are two ways in which you can increase your ranking on search engines. Through SEM or SEO. Although I will go deeper into each one, the main difference between SEO and SEM is that SEM is a paid strategy or activity. Do you know when you go on Google and you search a particular product and a related ad appears in the search results? That’s SEM. SEO is an organic strategy whereby businesses use related keywords in order to climb the ranks and reach number one space. This is a longer and much more vigorous marketing strategy. As each marketer has a different definition of what SEM and SEO are, it’d be a great idea to clarify the terminology before working with marketing agencies and or search partners.


What is SEM?

As touched upon above, SEM or Search Engine Marketing is a marketing strategy that uses paid tactics to gain visibility and thus, website traffic in the search engine results page. When using SEM you are able to set up and optimize ads as well as creating and setting a budget. You’ll often find this strategy is also called PPC (Pay Per Click) Marketing. When putting together a PPC campaign or incorporating PPC into your digital marketing campaign, Google Ads (which used to be known as Google Adwords) is the most commonly used. Throughout SEM, digital marketing professionals (like moi) will conduct keyword research and create campaigns based around the best keywords for their chosen industry, products and or services. After this tactic is used, whenever a consumer inserts those keywords on Google, your ad will pop up.


What is SEO?

Unlike its marketing counterpart, SEO or Search Engine Optimisation uses organic tactics. And no Clementine I’m not referring to your kale and pear salad, I mean that you don’t have to pay for your brand to rank at the top. Then how  do we do this? Well instead of using keywords in Google Ads, you now use them throughout your website in content such as copywriting and blogs. Google then picks up on these keywords and lists you higher the more you use them. You are also able to back link. What is back linking? Well, do you know when you’re reading a blog and a word is hyperlinked and when clicked leads you to another website? That’s backlinking. There are many other ways to increase your ranking using SEO. These tactics are grouped into 3 categories or groups. They include:


On Page SEO

This when you optimize every individual page of your website in order to target specific keywords. You are able to optimize these websites by using strategies like keyword


Technical SEO

This type of optimization refers to site speed, mobile friendliness, indexing, crawlability, site architecture, structured data, and security. So it is important to get this in check as great content won’t amount to much if Google deems your website to be insecure or a design disaster. research, content creation and keyword optimisation.


Off-Page SEO

You are able to build authority to your website by getting higher domain ranking sights to mention you and backlink your site. This shows the search engine that you too are a reputable, trustworthy and reliable sign, increasing your search engine ranking.

When creating a good SEO plan, it is important to integrate all three strategies rather than just focussing on one.


SEO VS SEM: Similarities and Differences

Both SEM and SEO have their own individual strengths and weaknesses. Deciding on which one to use is dependent on your business and brand objectives. However, it is my job as your fellow digital marketing professional to give you an objective non biased answer, to help you decide as to whether which route is the best one to take.


Ability SEM SEO
Help brand appear in search results
Designed to drive more traffic to a website.
Require knowing your audience
Use keyword research to uncover popular search terms
Target specific keywords
Require testing and continual optimization.
Placements include an “Ad” designation
Have ad extensions
Pay each time a user clicks on a  result
Show to a select target audience
Immediate results
Better for testing
Adds value over time
Higher CTR


So which one is better, SEO OR SEM?

As noted, the type of digital marketing strategy which is better is the type that aligns and coheres with your brand. It is also important to consider the following factors:


Consider your competition

Although focussing on improving your business and its tactics and marketing strategy, having a look at your competitors has never gone astray. It is important to consider your competitors before putting together your marketing strategy. Have a look at how they are performing in their search marketing such as what terms that rank for organically. Look at what paid keyword they use to drive traffic to their website. You can also look for gaps in their organic and paid strategy. Create a plan that smashes their search engine ranking placements.


Consider how well you know your industry

If your business has been around for a while you may already know the needs and wants of your customers and thus are able to start a long term SEO strategy. However, if your business is a start-up or still very new, consider a SEM campaign to test keywords, ideas, products and services.


Consider the length of your typical buying cycle

Now what do we mean when we say buying cycle? I mean the length of time takes between searching for what they want, finding what they want and buying it. You may find your target audience, search for what they want and buys it. This is the complete opposite of a longer buying cycle where customers research for weeks on end, comparing quality of products and prices. If you find that your customer base has a longer buying cycle, then SEM may not be the best route to go as they may not purchase straight away.


Consider the average cost per click in your industry

Before deciding as to whether SEM is right for your brand or business it is important to research how much it will cost to get you shown in paid search results. Every keyword has a different cost per click prices. This is based on competition. You can usually tell if a SEM plan is worth it by its price. The cheaper the keyword is, the more likely your SEM will be successful. If your keyword is expensive, SEO may prove to be a better option.


Consider the age of your business

If your business is new, SEM may be a good route to take whilst you are building up your SEO. SEM is an effective way of driving traffic to your website.


Consider the current status of your website

When creating a marketing strategy it is important to make the most out of opportunities that are the easiest to attain yet are the most effective with the biggest  impact. Before starting a marketing campaign, research your business and where you can grow an SEO strategy already in place before spending your hard earned moola on an SEM campaign… you’ll thank me later.


Need more info on SEM and SEO?

Now that you’ve read this fabulous article (if I do say so myself), you know the difference between SEO and SEM. You now also know the pros and cons of both and know where and when to apply each one. If you need further guidance or help or even if you just can’t be bothered, feel free to check out our SEO and PPC Services pages for more information. You can shoot us an email on info@hesk.com.au or give us a quick call on 1300 088 544.


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