Two terms in the digital marketing business that are often used interchangeably without a clear understanding of how they're related or how they differ are SEO and SEM. Marketing has evolved, we're all tossing around a jargon and acronyms that often leave our clients (and sometimes us) confused. We as marketers are probably confused on what certain terms mean half the time as well.

They do have a symbiotic relationship and, can both be leveraged to their full potential, and get you great marketing results.

The Key Difference Between SEO and SEM

SEO, Search Engine Optimization, has traditionally been thought of as a component of Search Engine Marketing, SEM, combining both paid and organic tactics.

However, SEM refers to paid search exclusively. Search Engine Marketing is the process of gaining website traffic by purchasing ads on search engines, while Search Engine Optimization is defined as the process of getting traffic through free, organic, editorial or natural search results. By definition, SEM is a paid search strategy. SEO is an organic search strategy.

Two separate strategies, both should be a part of any company’s online search marketing arsenal.

Search Engine Optimization SEO Overview

SEO controls need to continually evolve to keep up with Google's ever-changing algorithm. But one thing is constant: SEO is made up of on-page and off-page activities as its two main pillars.

Elements of On-page SEO

  • Optimized metadata; the page title tag, meta description, heading tags, and image ALT tag, which incorporate target keywords.
  • Well-written and optimized page copy using strategic keyword research
  • Well-formatted and simple page URLs with selective keywords
  • Optimized page speed
  • Social sharing integration within your content

Elements of Off-page SEO

  • Build links to attract and obtain quality backlinks, these will help in make up the majority of off-page SEO.
  • Social signals; increasing traffic to a website from social media sharing.
  • Getting attention from social bookmarking sites like Reddit, Digg and Stumble upon

Publish valuable, high-quality content that your target audience will find useful; blog articles and web page copy. This will establish your authority over time, and results in increased organic traffic, more opportunities for backlinks and, most importantly, more conversions.

Take good care of these on-page and off-page tactics to ensure your landing pages, web copy and blog articles are well optimized for search.

Search Engine Marketing SEM Overview

SEM, Search Engine Marketing, involves earning search visibility only through paid advertisements on search engines like Google. These advertisements are referred to as pay-per-click (PPC) ads, or any of the other terms including cost-per-click (CPC) ads, paid search ads and paid search advertising.

PPC advertising allows you to target potential customers through relevant ad copy and keywords that match their search queries. PPC ads are located up in search engine results pages (SERPs) next to organic listings. It gives your business the opportunity to increase the visibility of its web pages, landing pages, blog articles and more.

Examples of SEM Strategies

Google AdWords is by far the most popular search engine platform for hosting ads. Use other opportunities too, like Bing ads or Yahoo search ads. Wherever you choose to spend your internet marketing budget, there are some key strategies for successful SEM:

  • Launch campaigns with a specific audience in mind (geographic, industry, etc.)
  • Create ad groups that consist of target keyword in different variations
  • Write a relevant ad copy consisting those selective keywords
  • Set a budget
  • Monitor variables like clicks, impressions, click through rates and average cost-per-click

There are other considerations when launching and monitoring an effective paid search ad campaign, but the above five are especially important for any advertiser. If you want to boost your SEM efforts to complement an organic search engine optimization, check out Google AdWords.

So, which is Better? What should you use?

Advertisers on either side could argue one is more effective than the other. We would like to view high-quality SEO as the foundation for high-quality SEM. Both are extremely valuable, and should be part of any B2B inbound marketing strategy.

When to Focus on SEO

SEO is the bedrock for SEM through well-optimized content that prospects and customers would find helpful. Without landing pages, web pages and blog content optimized for search, your SEM efforts will fall short due to poor quality. Achieving visibility in SERPs will end up being extremely difficult as a result.

Organic SEO is cost less on the long term, and helps to establish search credibility. But it’s crucial to maintain it with the consistent publication of quality content and social media engagement. In other words, you must have something worth searching for.

When should you Focus on SEM?

Did you just launch your first website, and create your initial online presence to promote your product or service? Then you need immediate visibility in search. With a strategic PPC campaign, you'll be able to achieve it. Do not rely strictly on PPC over the long-term while ignoring organic SEO. You must create great content that visitors will want to engage with, as they get to your website.

Evaluate what works best for your specific needs, just make sure you fully understand the differences between SEM and SEO and how you'll maintain your efforts.