Last updated on October 18th, 2022 at 05:41 am

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Alt: A woman holding a tablet with Google Search, symbolizing SEO vs. SEM online marketing approaches.

Trying to tackle the colossal beast that is online visibility and marketing is not the easiest thing to do. While there are many different strategies you can apply, they can all be split into two different approaches: SEO and SEM. If you are not familiar with the terminology, SEO represents search engine optimization, and SEM is search engine marketing. These two approaches may seem like similar things. However, they are not. In reality, these are two completely different concepts. To compare SEO vs. SEM and understand which is better for your business, it is crucial to first know what each of these approaches offers.

What is SEO?

Today, everyone needs a digital marketing strategy. One of the first approaches people use is SEO. However, not everyone understands what it means and what it includes. In simple words, search engine optimization is a way to make search engines recommend your content as the search result. It is a free, organic way to optimize your website to comply with the rules of search engines.

It consists of four general sections:

  • Technical SEO: this includes the technical side of your website. Technical SEO helps improve the loading speed, optimization for mobile platforms, security, indexing, the structure of data, and so on.
  • Content: as the most important piece of SEO, content is what Google values the most. The content represents the value your website has for customers.
  • On-page optimization: on-page SEO includes all the little details found on your website that improve the optimization. For example, H1 tags, image attributes, keywords, meta tags, etc.
  • Off-page SEO: strategies like link building, PR, social media advertising, and anything not directly located on your website is a form of off-page SEO.

The central premise here is that SEO is a free tool you use to make your website user-friendly and compliant with Google’s algorithm. The result is a high ranking and organic traffic that drives visitors to your website.

What is SEM?

As opposed to SEO, search engine marketing encompasses all forms of paid advertising that drive the traffic to your web pages. It is also known as Pay-Per-Click advertising. Using Google Ads for online marketing is an excellent example of PPC advertising.

With the help of search engine marketing, you create various paid campaigns that boost your visibility and online sales. Different types of campaigns include:

  • Shopping ads: this form of advertising includes offering rich product information to potential customers. It usually has a product and merchant name, product image, price, and so on.
  • Search ads: Search ads are a good way to show your website information at the top of Google’s search results. Whenever someone does a search that relates to your business, they will get their free results and also see ads of companies that paid to Google to display their website’s link.
  • Display ads: If you ever saw a banner or an image or a video on a website that advertises a different company, that is a display ad. You can pay other websites to display your ads and help drive traffic to your company’s website.
  • YouTube ads: YouTube advertising is done through Google, and it is a good way to advertise your business. You can pay to have your promotional content being displayed before a video the user selects.

The advantages and disadvantages of SEO

We already mentioned at the beginning that SEO is free. Well, you will need to pay someone to do it for you unless you want to do the optimization yourself. However, if you don’t want to spend money and drive organic traffic, SEO is the way to go.

SEO dramatically increases the visibility of your website. It also drives high amounts of quality traffic and helps you truly understand who your audience is.

Another huge benefit of SEO is that it brings cumulative results. It adds value to your business over time, and it creates a snowball effect. A good example is building backlinks and creating backlink profiles. There are various methods to achieve this, but once you develop your network of backlinks, it is there to stay. It can only get bigger and stronger.

However, we also need to cover the downsides. Doing SEO is not easy. It requires constant updates because Google’s algorithm changes every year. SEO is also very difficult for testing. You need to consider multiple factors when trying to understand if something drives results or not. Finally, doing SEO properly takes time. It is an organic process that does not happen overnight.

The pros and cons of SEM

SEM works completely differently from SEO. While SEM also drives traffic and increases the visibility of your website, one of the best benefits is that the change happens instantaneously as soon as you activate the ads. This is a huge time saver when it comes to building website traffic. SEM is also easier to test and tweak. You can always pay for more ads to increase the traffic to the desired number.

However, there are also a few cons you should consider. First, you need to pay for every click. Every time a customer clicks on your ad costs. This can quickly get out of hand if you are not careful. Furthermore, with SEM, you cannot really target only the right people. Everyone will see the ads. While this can be good, it does not help with understanding your audience. You are taking an approach of advertising for everyone.

SEO vs. SEM: which one to pick?

When it comes to comparing SEO vs. SEM and deciding which one to pick, it all comes down to a couple of factors. First, know your goal. If you wish to take your time and build organic traffic with no time pressure, you should go with SEO. However, if you have a budget and you want quick results, go with SEM. The best advice is to do a combination of both. Build SEO over time, but also use SEM to quickly boost your productivity. This mix is the golden combination, and once you find the balance, your visibility will explode!

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