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SEO vs. SEM: How and When to Use Each One

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Digital content marketing contains technical jargon and acronyms that most people do not know. Getting a straight answer from any source can be frustrating, confusing, and demotivating.

It does not help that there is significant overlap among these terms, with very little to set them apart. Most of the time, it comes down to a handful of technicalities that even experts do not always agree on.

This guide helps you differentiate between search engine optimization (SEO) and search engine marketing (SEM) and presents cases for when to use both. At the end of this article, you get a verdict to help you decide which is best for your website.

There is a lot to discuss, so get ready to take notes. Here we go!

What Is Search Engine Optimization (SEO)?

SEO is the act of fine-tuning details to satisfy search requirements, hence optimization. Since it is a broad and sometimes vague topic, it is best to break it into its three components for discussion.

These components are as follows:

  • On-page SEO includes factors that influence how you create your SEO content strategy. Content type, internal linking, and metadata help search engines determine your website’s quality. Therefore, on-page SEO requires careful planning.
  • Off-page SEO refers to ways to promote your websites, such as backlinks and content marketing. Your website’s ranking is affected by who links to it. If authoritative websites reference your content, it shows expertise and authority, which is good SEO.
  • Technical SEO refers to backend elements that affect user experience (UX). Search engines want to respond to users in the best way possible. This focus on customer service leads them to favor websites with good UX over ones that do not.

How to Apply SEO

Most elements of SEO are easy to apply, even without experience.

Here are three examples of applied SEO:

  • Plan for your content to connect. A solid network of internal links makes your website more crawlable and indexable because it makes your pages visible and searchable. You also prove your expertise and authority on a subject when you reference your content.
  • Write content that gets high-quality backlinks to your website. Then, use Google Search Console to identify website links that negatively impact your domain authority (DA). Finally, plan to remove them by requesting removal from the linking site.
  • A professionally designed website gives a better first impression. Use a content management system (CMS) that provides modern and responsive themes. Search engines and users prefer a fast website because it gives a better UX.

When to Use SEO

“When to use SEO” can be a little misleading due to how deeply ingrained SEO is in every aspect of digital marketing. Using it is technically unavoidable. Instead, a more appropriate way to think about it is when to invest more in SEO.

For example, regularly adding new content to your website is already a form of SEO because search engines always look for it. However, using buzzwords such as “learn,” “how to,” and “best” in your titles can further boost your content’s SEO rating.

Your content can stand without extensive adjustments, but it helps improve overall performance. Therefore, the case for using SEO is always solid and present. It has a low financial cost, and whatever time and effort you spend comes back tenfold in the long term.

What Is Search Engine Marketing (SEM)?

According to Digital Authority Partners, SEM aims to increase and manage brand awareness. It combines organic and paid marketing strategies to improve your position on the SERP.

In this case:

  • Organic marketing refers to actions taken to appear naturally in the customer’s search journey. For example, SEM strategies rely on keyword research to ensure success.
  • Paid marketing means activities such as placing bids for ad spaces on search engine results pages (SERPs) to bypass competitors and improve visibility.

To put it in a real-world context, think of how Doritos runs Superbowl ads while simultaneously offering products in supermarkets to drive sales. In other words, SEM is the online equivalent of advertising on TV while attracting customers naturally by providing products that people want.

How to Apply SEM

Applying SEM happens in two phases due to its distinct parts that you should address separately. You need effective keywords (organic marketing) to optimize your ads (paid marketing) and not the other way around. Do SEM in that order for it to be effective.

Here is a more concrete explanation of how the process flows:

  • Start SEM by identifying the right keywords to use and understanding your target market’s search intent. Use Google Trends to search for the best terms for your content and negative keywords to ensure that your ads reach the right audience. 
  • Register on networks such as Google Ads to create a pay-per-click (PPC) campaign. Every advertising platform has a builder that makes it easy to assemble PPC. Monitor your progress, then repeat the process to refine your SEM strategy further.

When to Use SEM

SEM is a welcome addition to any business’s growth plan. More people will know about your business, products, and services when you use both free and paid marketing. PPC, in particular, is a powerful lead-generation tool and is a fantastic short-term strategy.

However, managing a PPC campaign requires careful and intentional planning and a sizeable budget to function. This is because, with PPC, you pay for clickthroughs to your website, but the price depends on the quality of the keywords you choose.

How well you apply negative keywords can also affect the amount of wasteful spending. Do not underestimate the time and effort needed to run a successful PPC campaign.

Though there are ways to trim SEM costs, such as hiring a PPC agency, it may still be worth more than most companies are willing or able to invest initially. Therefore, even if the use case for SEM is always present, it should be reserved when the budget for it is available.

How Do SEO and SEM Differ?

SEO has three broad aspects that work together to slowly push your website to the top of SERPs. On the other hand, SEM is a unified strategy that attracts visitors to your website through a mix of paid and organic marketing.

In most cases, SEO comes out on top because it permeates all aspects of digital marketing. However, just because it is everywhere does not automatically make it the better choice in every situation. Specific scenarios make SEM the better option.

The major difference is that SEO is a low-hanging method to success. The changes you make to your website add up over time to make you more visible online and move you up in the rankings. This makes it invaluable for long-term growth at little to no financial cost.

On the other hand, SEM is a short- to mid-term path to success that depends heavily on financial resources. The immediate returns in brand awareness and increased revenue justify the cost if you have the resources.

Compared with SEO’s low cost, you see why SEM is not always viable. Either way, the effects are lasting for your website’s growth.

Summing Up

Both SEO and SEM are reliable strategies that deliver lasting benefits to your business, regardless of which one you choose to do. Both offer different uses in a time vs. cost format, perhaps the best way to decide which is best for your business.

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