SEO vs. SEMEnhance your marketing strategy by knowing the differences between SEO and SEM and how to successfully implement both strategies in your online campaign.


What’s the Difference Between SEO & SEM?

SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing) are often used interchangeably. While SEO can be categorized as an element of SEM, not all SEM campaigns utilize SEO.

SEO – A marketing approach that uses organic strategies to gain visibility in search results.
SEM – A form of marketing that encompasses both organic and paid methods to appear in search results.

While SEM may technically include organic and paid strategies, most marketers associate SEM with paid advertisements and SEO with organic optimizations.


Elements of SEO

When researching SEO strategies, you will come across phrases such as keyword research, on- and off- page SEO, content strategies and technical SEO.

Keyword research – It’s important for marketers to do their research and find out what terms potential customers are using to search for the services their business provides. This keyword research informs the on-page optimization so content can be written to support the chosen terms.

Content strategies – While incorporating the terms discovered through keyword research, site content must be unique, informative, and regularly updated to remain relevant in the industry. Stale content can become the downfall of an SEO campaign if not strategically managed.

Technical SEO – Technical SEO strategies help ensure search engines can find, crawl and index the site. This can include incorporating different types of schema, clearly structuring the site code, utilizing h-tags, making sure the site is mobile friendly, and more.

Off-page optimizations – This element primarily focuses on building brand authority. Some tactics include link building, review monitoring, managing local listings, PR and other similar techniques to prove trustworthiness and authority.

A combination of these on- and off-page optimizations are required for a successful SEO campaign.


Elements of SEM

SEM campaigns typically focus on paid advertisements and will refer to elements such as PPC (pay-per-click), ad creation and audience targeting.

Ad budgeting – Since the primary directive of SEM campaigns is to drive traffic to websites by paying for advertisements on search engines, companies must budget for this expense.

Ad creation – Beyond simply designing the look of the ads and how they function with users, for a successful campaign creators must also consider the keyword research and the target audience.

PPC – Or “pay-per-click” advertising creates targeted campaigns across a variety of digital formats to help get business’s products/services in front of their targeted audience.

Audience targeting – To make sure ads are being seen by potential customers, marketers must first determine who is the intended audience for the ads for maximum conversions.

These ads are typically placed at the top of the SERP (search engine results page) to increase visibility, but, as the name PPC alludes, the business pays for every time a user clicks on their ad.


How long does SEO take?

If we want to persuade Google to show our website organically in SERPs, we must prove our authority in the industry and in our community. This requires time.

Not only is SEO trying to convince search engines to recommend their website to users, it’s also an on-going process. If a company begins to neglect their SEO, they will notice a correlating impact on their rankings and site traffic.

This is one reason why it is important to hire an SEO professional to manage the lifetime of your campaign.

The primary benefit of SEO is that it continuously builds on itself, meaning that the results will be cumulative and leave lasting results. While it may take several months, depending on the local competition, an SEO campaign can lead to conversions and sustained site traffic without the added expense of paid advertising.


How long goes SEM take?

An SEM campaign utilizing paid digital advertisements can start driving traffic almost instantly.

By paying for ad space, you can guarantee that your ad will get in front of your target audience if the proper research and planning has been done.

The catch? As soon as you stop paying for ad space your visibility disappears.

Since this method can be hard to sustain on a budget, it is recommended to focus your paid advertising efforts on keywords that are harder to rank for or keywords that show a high number of ads in the SERP.


Which Should You Choose – SEO or SEM?

Both SEO and SEM campaigns aim to increase the visibility of your website by understanding the target audience and the terms they are using to search for your services.

By utilizing SEO in your marketing strategy, you are building a strong, long-lasting foundation to establish your website’s online presence.

If you need immediate exposure and have the budgeting room, an SEM campaign can guarantee instant visibility near the top of SERPs.


How Can SEO and SEM Work Together?

Since an SEO campaign requires time to establish a website’s position in search results, an SEM campaign can boost your organic SEO and get your website immediate exposure.

Working both strategies can help you to occupy multiple positions in SERPs while supporting your organic SEO. The traffic from the ad space will help to prove the authority and trustworthiness of your site.

By utilizing SEO in addition to your SEM, you can work to ensure that your site does not loose its visibility once you stop running ads.

Whether you want to promote a sale or increase traffic for a specific service, utilizing both methods of SEO and SEM is a recipe for success.


Start Boosting Your Online Presence Today

The team at Townsquare Interactive can provide the knowledge and experience you need to build the perfect digital strategy for your business. Our expert SEO analysts can optimize your website and start the process of moving it to page one of Google, where local customers are most likely to see it. Fill out the form below to learn more about how we can help your business thrive.

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Jaycee Jacobs


About the Author | Mary Kathryn (MK) Ware

MK is a Team Lead and Sr. SEO Analyst at Townsquare Interactive. Having started in 2018 as a Quality Assurance Specialist she has brought the same attention to detail to the SEO team since 2020. In her free time, MK likes to paint, read mystery novels, write screenplays and work on local film sets.