Choosing between SEO and SEM can be difficult especially if you are still new to search optimization. Although they might sound the same at first, their respective approaches to search optimization are different. Hence, you need to understand how these two strategies work to select the best one for your campaign.

According to Datareportal, 98% of internet users across all age groups use search engines to surf the web. 81% of them use it to search for brands online. This just shows how search engines play a critical role in your business’ growth. Start looking into SEM vs SEO to fully embrace the advantages of search optimization for your brand.

In this article, you’ll find out what is SEO and SEM, and which strategy is the right one for you.

What is SEM?

SEM, or Search Engine Marketing, is a marketing strategy for business that uses both organic and paid advertisements in search engines results. It taps into both SEO for keyword strategy and content and pay-per-click ads to improve your rankings and drive traffic.

SEM marketing basically involves conducting comprehensive research on what keywords to use, which ones are relevant, and which ones frequently come up in your customers’ searches. This helps you to determine which keywords to bid on during ad auctions. From there, you bid for specific keywords that your target audience would use in search engines such as Google, Bing, and Yahoo!. This way, your web pages, landing pages, and blog articles will appear on their searches using those keywords.

One of the benefits of using SEM is how it brings in highly qualified traffic to your page. Since it generates clicks by allowing users to filter relevant keywords, you will get visitors who are potentially interested in your brand, making it easier to convert them into customers in the process.

The downside, however, is the budget. Those with the largest advertising budget have greater leverage during ad auctions—especially for highly competitive keywords. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean it is a requirement to ensure success in SEM.

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What is SEO?

So how is SEO different from SEM?

With Search Engine Optimization or SEO, you focus on optimizing your website to get traffic from purely organic search results. Meaning, you won’t pay a single cent to boost your rankings in search engines.

There are many ways to optimize your website. For one, you need to pay attention to your content. This includes the keywords you use, URLs, page titles, descriptions, and tags. Moreover, the quality of your content also plays a critical role in ensuring higher rankings in search results.

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Each search engine has its own algorithms on how they display results per keywords. This requires you to constantly change your tactics to preserve your SEO rankings. You can attend courses to update your knowledge on SEO or hire experts who can audit your content to ensure they are all optimized.

The greatest benefit of SEO is that it's free. By putting in efforts in researching and understanding search trends and algorithms, you can boost your website’s rankings and visibility without spending a penny. And just like SEM, it delivers a continuous flow of targeted traffic and increases chances of conversion.

SEM & SEO Similarities

Both SEM and SEO are effective tools to advertise your brand online. It optimizes your website so that it will rank higher in search results. This way, you can reach out to more potential customers in the process. And while they use different methods in doing so, they share some similarities in their strategies. After all, SEM uses SEO elements in its strategies.

For one, keywords play a critical role in boosting your website whether you are using SEM or SEO. For SEM, you need to determine which keywords to bid on. Meanwhile, in SEO, you incorporate relevant keywords into your content—from descriptions, tags, and titles—to boost your rankings in search results. Likewise, both require regular testing and proper optimization to ensure that your website stays on top of search results.

Moreover, SEM and SEO require you to know and understand how search engines work and how your target audience behaves. These two factors are ever-changing. By keeping an eye out on such changes, you can make sure that your strategies—whether SEM or SEO—can adapt accordingly. You can also check out these online course platforms for business to give you more insights on the latest trends in the market.

SEM & SEO Differences

The key difference between SEO and SEM is that the former relies on organic searches while the latter uses paid advertisements in the form of pay-per-clicks.

As mentioned earlier, SEO focuses on optimizing your website’s content by incorporating relevant keywords in your titles, URLs, tags, and more. Aside from keywords, it also looks into the links embedded in your web pages and overall user experience to help you rank higher in search results.

SEM also leverages those elements but with the inclusion of paid advertisements. It requires you to pay the search engine for every click on your website during searches. Likewise, you need to enter into ad auctions to secure a spot for your target keyword.

Another difference is that SEM allows you to target a more selected audience compared to SEO. Since SEM uses paid strategies to appear in searches, you have more control on how and when your website would appear in searches.

Which Is For You?

So which one is better—SEO or SEM?

It would be inaccurate to say that one is more effective than the other. Ultimately, either one is effective as long as you use the right tools and strategies. Moreover, every business has its own needs and demands. It just follows that what works for one might not necessarily work on the other.

To know which one is right for you, you must first evaluate your brand’s needs and determine how much resources you are willing to spend to achieve your goals. For example, small businesses might find themselves at a disadvantage during ad auctions because of their tighter budget. Because of that, using SEM might prove ineffective in their case compared to those larger corporations.

And if you are also looking to improve your sales on top of your brand visibility, you should consider going for SEM instead of SEO. This is because SEM allows you to target specific audiences, increasing the chances of conversion in the process. But if you are only looking to boost your brand awareness, then SEO might be enough for you. Studies show that it has higher click-through rates compared to SEM.

The SEM & SEO dilemma

According to the State of SEO 2020, 74% of business leaders believe that search engines like Google have the power to make or break businesses. Hence, you need the right tools and strategies to make sure that your brand can make it. But first, you must get through the SEM vs SEO dilemma. Choosing between the two is hard especially if you don’t know their differences. Just keep in mind that you should choose based on your needs and goals. Remember that when you need to raise brand awareness the right choice will also be launching a branding campaign on a programmatic advertising platform like DSP. It is based on the most affordable CPM pricing where you pay for cost per thousand impressions (which is why it's best for branding campaigns). Plus, you'll be reaching only the right, narrow-niche audience with correctly selected targeting options.

Amplify your brand's voice with branding campaigns on SmartyAds DSP.

Written by
Irina Kovalenko, CMO of SmartyAds
June 2021