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SEO vs SEM: What Are the Key Differences?

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As you build up your business, you may be looking for ways to grab more customers. Of course, in this day and age, everything is done digitally.

As you come across terms like SEO and SEM, it may be confusing to decipher everything and decide what’s the best strategy for your business.

So for your convenience, when it comes to SEO vs SEM, we’ve put together some definitions and key differences so you know which is right for your business.

What Is SEO?

The acronym “SEO” stands for “search engine optimization.” Within SEO, there are three types: on-site, off-site, and technical.  SEO helps your site capture organic search traffic from search engines like Google.

On-Site SEO

On-site SEO is where you tweak your website (or blog) to include commonly searched for keywords. You’d sprinkle them through your meta titles, meta descriptions, headers, URLs, alt image tags, and body text. When you do this, it’ll make your website pop up higher on Google when people search for something like “design company.”

However, more isn’t always better. When SEO used to be simple, people would fill their website copy with keywords in a practice called keyword stuffing. While this used to reward businesses by pushing them higher up on search results, this is no longer the case.

Nowadays, if you use keywords too often, you’ll actually be punished regarding SERPs. Since the magic number for keywords is tricky, many businesses now work with SEO specialists to ensure they use enough keywords so that they’re on the top of SERPs, but not too many as to risk penalization.

Off-Site SEO

Off-site SEO is more complicated. It involves building up your reputation through other websites through methods like link building (having authoritative websites put backlinks to your website in their articles).

Typically, companies will work together for linking building to have a mutually beneficial relationship. As expected, each one is their own niche industries so they don’t compete with one another.

Technical SEO

As the name suggests, this is optimization done on the technical side, not content. The backend is optimized so the website has the best speed, mobile friendliness, structured data, and more.

With improved user and search crawler experience, this also promotes a company’s website on search engine results.

What Is SEM?

“SEM” stands for “search engine marketing.” This technique involves paid searches, also known as pay per click (PPC).

Usually, a strategist researches top ranking keywords and create campaigns on platforms such as Google Ads. As a result, when people search for those particular keywords you’ve “bought”, an ad for your company will pop up on the top of the page.


Now you have a basic understanding of what SEO and SEM are. Next, we can compare the two to see their similarities and differences, which should hopefully help you decide which one’s right for your brand.

The Similarities

As you can see, SEO and SEM have search engines in common and drive traffic to your website by helping you rank better on SERPs. Both strategies require expert knowledge on keywords since building campaigns around the right ones can make a significant difference in gaining new prospects and customers.

Both also require that you know your audience. As you research and understand your target audience, you test and tweak both SEO and SEM so you can get better results.

The Differences

SEO is a type of SEM, but here’s the key difference: SEO involves organic traffic while SEM involves paid traffic. So when you use SEO, you’re free to experiment with different keywords without any financial consequences. This is why many businesses are leaning more towards SEO than SEM; the ROI is significantly higher for SEO.

Also, you’ll see immediate results with SEM while results with SEO are gradual. Your paid ads with SEM will be placed in front of your target audience immediately. On the other hand, you have to slowly climb the ranks with SEO before you see tangible results.

Testing Your Marketing Strategies

It’s always a good idea to branch out and try as many marketing strategies possible to see what works best for your brand. But even with the help of a specialist, no strategy is perfect right off the bat. The most important thing to do is to test, learn, and tweak.

If you want to test marketing strategies, SEM is great for that since you can turn the ads on and off. So you can turn it on to gather some results, then turn it off to analyze and tweak your strategies. By doing so, you’ll get optimal results and make PPC worth your budget spend.

Now You Know the Key Differences

Now you know the key differences when it comes to SEO vs SEM, the main one being SEO is free and SEM is paid. But just because SEM costs money doesn’t mean it’s worse than using SEO.

In fact, utilizing a marketing strategy that involves both SEM and SEO (all three types) can significantly boost the chances of your company finding your target audience. But you may need to work with an agency to figure out what the right combination is for your brand.

The world of marketing is constantly in flux, and it can be difficult trying to figure it out on your own; as soon as you, your theoretical strategy may already be outdated. Agencies stay on top of marketing news and strategies, which means they can give you an effective plan that’ll produce results quickly.

Want to grow your business with SEM? Then get in touch with us today!

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