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SEM vs SEO: What Difference Does One Letter Make?

SEO vs. SEMSEO. PPC. CTA. CTR. ROI.
All these acronyms can be overwhelming for anyone tackling internet marketing for the first time. For that matter, they can get pretty tricky for those of us in the industry as well. To help you out, here’s a brief primer of the similarities and differences between two of the most often confused terms: Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing.

The Breakdown:

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, means optimizing a website so that it shows up higher in search engine rankings via natural, or “organic” search results. In this case, organic doesn’t mean your search engine rankings came from a grass-fed search engine farm in Wyoming; instead, it means that these results are showing up naturally, rather than being advertisements.

Search Engine Marketing (SEM), on the other hand, doesn’t care where your search engine results come from. SEM strategies promote websites in the search engines by using both optimization and advertising. Unlike SEO, this includes pay per click listings and ads.

Tell Me More, Please

Sure, since you asked so nicely. SEO can be further broken down into on-site and off-site activities. On-site, as you might have guessed, refers to SEO activities taking place on the webpage that you’re trying to promote. These on-site optimizations involve making sure the back end of the website (site structure, title tags, meta descriptions, page URLs, quick site loading times, and social sharing integration) is as pretty and helpful as the front end of your website (where you have all of your high quality content and important keywords presented in a neat layout and design). Off-site SEO activities are what happens- you guessed it- away from your site. The main pillars of off-site SEO are link building (when other sites link to your awesome content) and social sharing (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc).

SEM is typically used in tandem with yet another acronym- PSA, or Paid Search Advertising. This is where you pay a company to put your content up higher in the search engine rankings. The most popular type of PSA? A little company you might have heard of called Google, which runs Google AdWords. With AdWords, your ads appear in search engine results, and you only pay for each click your ad gets- which leads us to another fun acronym, PPC (or Pay Per Click).

Make It Simpler, Please

Sure. SEM is a broader term than SEO because it involves both organic optimization and paid search advertising. Parts of SEM, namely, the paid advertisements, are not SEO practices. So, all SEO is SEM, but not all SEM is SEO.

Just Tell Me What To Do, Please

I’m sorry. I’m trying here. But choosing between SEO and SEM isn’t that easy. SEM is great for when you want results, like, yesterday. You get the instant gratification and revenue from your company showing up higher in the search engine rankings right away. For example, choosing an SEM tactic like PPC would be beneficial for a new company that wants immediate visibility while they build up their reputation more organically in real life.

BUT (you knew that was coming, right?), SEM tactics can get expensive. The more organic SEO route is great for a long-term, consistent strategy to help your company maintain high rankings in search engines. Many internet marketing firms suggest starting with SEO and supplementing with PSA, providing you have the budget.

In a nutshell? A comprehensive internet marketing plan will include both search engine optimization and marketing. Evaluating your company’s needs and short/long-term goals will help you determine a specific strategy. And if you still can’t remember the difference between SEO and SEM? Try keeping an explanatory Post-it note on your desk. It’s worked wonders for me so far.

Interested in working with an SEM agency? Download Choose the Right SEO Agency: Ask These 7 Questions to make sure the agency you partner with aligns with best practices and your business goals.


Kristen Geil is a Content Writer/Blogger at Digital Third Coast, a search engine marketing agency in Chicago with content marketing services. Connect with Kristen on LinkedIn and Google+. Connect with Digital Third Coast on Google+.

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