Marketing, Search Engine Marketing, Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Small Business Marketing

The Difference between SEM and SEO

In marketing, there are a lot of acronyms to remember and understand but two of the biggest ones that most people have heard of are SEM and SEO.  What’s the difference between SEM and SEO and which one do you want to use for your small business?  How do you integrate it into your day-to-day marketing activities?

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What is SEO? What is SEM?

SEO – Search Engine Optimization

SEO means optimizing your website or any digital marketing properties so that it is found by search engines (like Google, Yahoo, and Bing) but also having your website/digital properties appear high up in the organic search results.

In the example below, when searching for “ice cream stores North Vancouver”, a series of results show up.  The ones below the Google My Business listings are the organic search results.  The order these websites appear is dependent on how Google indexes your website and whether Google deems the information is relevant and useful to the people who search for ice cream stores in North Vancouver.

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SEO is important to invest in because people are more likely to trust organic search listings compared to paid (pay per click ads).

SEM – Search Engine Marketing

SEM refers to the paid ads that appear on search engines.  For example, pay per click ads is a type of SEM.  Search engine marketing depends on a business using the right keywords so that their ads appear when someone searches for specific search terms, such as “baby store North Vancouver” (example below).  However, unlike organic search results, SEM is not free.  The business “bids” on the keywords and the ad only appears depending on how well the ad matches up with the keywords and the amount the business is bidding on the keyword.  (Note: this is a huge oversimplification of what Google does to rank their ads but that’s a topic for another blog post.)  Pay per click ads will have the word “ad” beside it and the business is only charged if someone actually clicks on the ad.

In the example below, you see that the pay per click ad for a baby store is at the top of the screen followed by Google My Business listings, and then organic search results.  In this case, there is only one ad that’s been displayed but quite often, for competitive search terms, you will see multiple ads displayed at the top and bottom of the organic search engine results.

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SEM can also be an important investment for your business depending on your marketing goals.

SEO or SEM for My Small Business?

Small business owners often wonder what is better for their small business, SEM or SEO?  Should they be investing in SEO, SEM, or both?  In reality, the answer is, you should invest in both SEO and SEM!  The reason is that SEM and SEO work differently to help you achieve your marketing goals.  Below is a comparison of SEM and SEO to help you better understand what the differences are.

Placement on SERP Organic search results Pay per click ads
Timeframe for Results Long term Short term
How it Reaches Potential Customers Targets people in the early, research stages of the purchase journey, for example, researching a topic or finding out more about a business Targets people who are in the latter stages of the purchase journey, likely just about to purchase a product or service
Why Invest? Trust factor Top of mind
Primary Success Factors Content driven, inbound links Keyword selection and $ driven
Cost Minimal to high Minimal to high

As you can see from the table, there are different reasons why you want to choose SEO or SEM.  From our experience, SEO is the first thing we recommend a business invests resources into because your business needs excellent and relevant content to engage visitors.  When paid ads drive visitors to your website, people will be more likely to purchase your product or service if you have great content complimenting the great ad.  With both SEO and SEM, you need to pick the best keywords to make your website appear in the search results, ideally, in the top 3 positions.  Remember, how much you pay for your pay per click ads is very dependent on the quality of the keywords you use and the content that the ad leads you to.  A great SEM strategy will make a difference in how much money you end up having to pay per click.

Still confused about whether SEM or SEO would work better for you?  Or maybe you need some help setting up your SEM or SEO campaigns?  Comment below or contact us directly with your question.  We are here to help!